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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Ghost Stories of Edith WhartonIf a book could at once be chilling and cosy, that is how I would describe The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. The settings of these tales will be familiar to Wharton’s readers: old New York, rambling country estates, wintry New England, and the Europe of American expats.

Moody and atmospheric, each story quickly drew me in, and I felt that wonderful, familiar pleasure in reading Wharton. But very soon, things begin to go off.

As I read, I grew tense and unsettled. While these are not horror stories, they leave you feeling creeped out and vulnerable. (I had to switch to lighter fare at bedtime.)

Wharton evokes the mysterious and supernatural. As she does to her characters, Wharton keeps the reader guessing about what is actually going on. These stories reminded me very much of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

Ironically, this ambiguity gives the stories a realistic, firsthand quality. You get that same tingle that you would when sitting around a campfire in the woods. Except in Wharton’s version, it’s a dwindling fire in the dark library of a “damp Gothic villa.” Wharton sets one of these villas in Irvington, New York—named for Washington Irving (famed for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”). Wharton was also a great fan of Edgar Allen Poe.

In the book’s introduction, British crime writer David Stuart Davies explains that Wharton was at once terrified of and fascinated by ghost stories.

“I could not sleep in a room with a book containing ghost stories and that I have frequently had to burn books of this kind because it frightened me to know they were downstairs in the library.”—Edith Wharton, A Backward Glance

Perhaps this fascination with the paranormal has carried on into Wharton’s own afterlife? Her home The Mount has been the scene of many ghost sightings. They’ve even posted online gallery of spooky images and offer “ghost tours.”

I highly recommend this book. It offers all the joy of reading Edith Wharton, plus some very spooky moments. Said Wharton of a good ghost story:

“If it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”

She has achieved just that!

This would be perfect pick for a gift for Neil Gaiman’s #AllHallowsRead or as a scary read for the Halloween meme #Mx3 at Jenn’s Bookshelves.

NOTE: There are several collections of Wharton’s ghost stories. I chose the Wordsworth Edition (paperback; published 2009;  ISBN: 9781840221640) as it had the most stories. I also really enjoyed the forward by Davies.

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ImageAs it’s Jane Austen’s birthday, December 16th, and also the season of giving, I wanted to spotlight an absolutely delightful collection of Austen-inspired short stories, Jane Austen Made Me Do It, edited by Laurel Ann Nattress.

I should preface by saying that I am usually very skeptical about all the Jane Austen riffs. I avoid them as they can be painful, excruciating, to read. Mr. Darcy has been reimagined as everything from a hillbilly to a rock star to a (groan) vampire. (Thanks a lot Twilight!) All of this pop-culture running roughshod over Austen is simply “not to be bourne.” (Disclaimer here: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is pure genius, but that’s for another post.)

Part of the problem is that these knock-offs only make me pine for authentic Jane even more. But now, Janeites take note—the drought is over! A wonderful collection of short stories has done the unimaginable, the unthinkable. Austen’s beloved characters have come to life again in an enchanting series of vignettes, many of which are backstories or codas to our favorite novels. Well before Persuasion, Captain Wentworth earns his stripes as a Midshipman in the Royal Navy. We learn how Mr. Bennett landed himself his “very silly wife.” The now married Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy prepare for Georgiana’s ‘Coming Out’ ball. And, things get complicated when Mr. Knightley moves in with Emma and her father. Teensy spoiler alert: this story also offers happy news for poor Miss Bates. I loved getting another glimpse at these characters. It’s almost like the bonus deleted scenes you get with a dvd.

Jane Austen herself makes a few cameos, finishing up her Mansfield Park manuscript, and also acting as a sort of deus ex machina for star-crossed lovers in a very Austenesque Christmas tale. A few of the stories take place in modern times, including a clever ghost-busting romp in Northanger Abbey. The only glitch is that current owner, Mr. Tilney-Tilney, comes off sounding a bit more like Thurston Howell the Third than a British gentleman. Still, it’s a fun little parody, much in the vein of the original and complete with papers appearing and disappearing in the very chest that so vexed Catherine Morland. Indeed, most of the stories have similar sly ‘easter egg’ allusions for Janeites to uncover.

While, no one else can write like Jane Austen, these stories come close and they certainly capture her spirit. The collection reads almost like the literary equivalent to a tribute album.

Janeites will certainly delight in and savor Jane Austen Made Me Do It. A perfect Christmas gift. I usually pass books along, but this one is a keeper.

Jane Austen Made Me Do It–official link

A Joyous Season for Janeites

Jane Austen Unfinished Fragment Sold for $1.6 Million

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I really enjoyed this searing, beautiful, and understated book by Jamil Ahmad. I actually won it for participating in IndieThursday. (That’s when you buy a book at a local independent bookstore and then share the book title/store name via Twitter or on Facebook each Thursday.)

The Wandering Falcon arrived, a delicate gem of a book, like a small box of sand. Tempting, but I approached it thinking it would be one of those books that I would learn a lot from but did not expect it to be a page turner. What a wonderful surprise to find myself hooked!

From the very first sentences, Ahmad drew me in with his spare but evocative prose:

“Lonely, as all such posts are, this one was particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another.”

The writing conveys a windswept, nomadic energy. Ahmad does not burden the reader with heavy prose or rich descriptions. I was completely taken in by his cadence. It felt as though I were hearing these tales from one of the Afridi elders, as they sat in their tented house passing the hookah and a box of tobacco around the fire. “The box had a mirror on the lid, which caught the light from the lamp and flung it back in mad dashes across the room.”

Usually I am suspicious of the ‘novel in short stories’ concept as just a marketing ploy, but these vignettes are gracefully braided together. There is a narrative arc that binds them chronologically and geographically, as the stories move from the southern desert where Pakistan borders Iran and Afghanistan up to the mountainous northern frontier above Peshawar. The setting is the post-colonial era of the 1950s, after the British had pulled out. Tor Baz, the title character named the ‘black falcon’, meanders through the stories as leitmotif. I really liked that. With each story, it was a fun little game trying to work out which character he was. I’m holding back on specifics about the many plot threads, because they won’t sound as good as the book reads. But, it’s a bit like James Michener‘s approach, in which different players, storylines, and cultures overlap and play out in a region.

After I tweeted how much I liked The Wandering Falcon, they put me on Facebook.

Indeed, I hadn’t realized that there were so many diverse and rival peoples in Pakistan. Ahmad skillfully draws out their differences via memorable characters, like the noble Dawa Khan who steps up to shepherd his tribe at a time of crisis, and the fusty old Ghairat Gul, who played the British against the Germans during  WWII, and the hopeful Shah Zarina, who despite her beauty has few options in life. Ahmad offers a nuanced, but not melodramatic, look at the harsh challenges and wrenching realities of their hardscrabble lives. He does not really delve into the current situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan, except with a final prescient quote from Tor Baz: “Who but God knows what the future holds for me and for this land?”

The Wandering Falcon is small, quiet book, but leaves you satisfied like an epic.

NPR Interview with Jamil Ahmed

The Guardian Review, with Background on the Book and its Author

Penguin Books: The Wandering Falcon

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Today, December 16, is the birthday of Jane Austen. This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility. Though a classic, S & S has somewhat permeated the pop culture, as have all of Austen’s novels. Just like there are Trekkies and fanboys, there is a group of discriminating and elevated bibliophiles (ok pretty much every woman who reads) that are dedicated to all things Austen: the Janeites. Some scholars look askance at Janeitism, which Princeton professor Claudia Johnson derides as “the self-consciously idolatrous enthusiasm for ‘Jane’ and every detail relative to her.” But, as someone who has reread all of Austen’s novels several times (yes, even Mansfield Park), I do understand this fervor and frustration at the finite amount of Jane.

The Janeite phenom has spawned a burgeoning industry of Austenalia—riffs and takeoffs in print and on screen. Many of which, alas, are abysmal. Just as Star Wars fanboys might while away a Friday night watching the Clone Wars on the Cartoon Network, so will Janeites devour all sorts of faux sequels with cringe-worthy titles such as Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife or (if this can possibly be believed) Fitzwilliam Darcy: Rock Star. But this season, Janeites can rejoice in two new delightful derivatives that are above and beyond the usual dross that is fobbed on us. (Christmas-list makers take note!)

 Jane Austen Made Me Do It, ed by by Laurel Ann Nattress is an outstanding collection of short stories by writers who have decided to take the lack of Austen into their own hands. Also, Death Comes to Pemberley, by the inimitable PD James. The mystery maven offers a paean to Austen’s characters and writing style, but still imbues the novel with her trademark atmospheric suspense. I will follow up with blogs about each of these, but both are wonderfully satisfying.

Advent with AustenFinally, must give a shout-out to Advent with Austen, in which a lovely group of Janeites are reading and blogging about Jane all month.  They also have a twitter feed: #AWAusten. If you haven’t read Sense and Sensibility (seriously, you need to) then you can join in their group read.

So happy birthday to Jane and happy holidays to all the Janeites out there!

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Both these stories left me aching and unsettled, marveling at what could be done with so few words. Each is spooky, not in the traditional sense, but visceral and devastating. Perfect reads for this week leading up to Halloween.

The Pines by Alan Heathcock
Beautiful may seem an odd word to use, but this is a beautiful, alluring ghost story that stayed with me.  Alan Heathcock’s short story collection, VOLT, is available now in bookstores.

Daisy Chain by Eugene Cross
This deft mercurial story at once had my heart racing and my emotions twinging. Eugene Cross has a short story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, forthcoming from DZANC Books in March of 2012.

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