I get offered daily e-book bargains—freebies, or super-cheap prices—by BookBub, and sometimes I take them. I have learned, however, to first look up each one on Goodreads to see its average star rating and read some reviews; sometimes they are a bargain simply because they will never make it any other way. Also, BookBub has a habit of offering #3 in a series, with the hope, no doubt, that you will acquire it, realize there are two books before it, and buy them at full price. Nope. That’s what the library is for.
Anyway, some recent freebies were short stories by prominent authors and, while in general I dislike the very idea of short stories, being offered something for free by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Alice Hoffman definitely made me pause…and then say yes! So I acquired and read The Bookstore Sisters, by Alice Hoffman, and My Evil Mother, by Margaret Atwood.
I read these stories solely because of who wrote them. I have never understood the motivation behind writing short stories: Why go to all the trouble of selecting a venue and creating complex characters, only to write 34 pages about them and stop? I would think it would be as unsatisfying for the writer as for the reader!
I checked some reviews after finishing The Bookstore Sisters, and had to agree with someone else on Goodreads who summarized it as “Good, if a little twee.” Although I gave it four stars for the writing and characters, I was disappointed in this effort by Hoffman, because it is essentially a shorthand version of every “relationship” book written by lesser writers in the past five years: Two sisters, estranged—one remains at the “homestead” while the other goes off to, of course, NYC, and “forgets” her past. The homebody runs into crisis, the stray returns home to help, a breakthrough is made, the family income is saved, a love is rekindled, and…scene. Meh.
I had more initial hope that My Evil Mother, by Margaret Atwood, would rise to the level of the few short stories I ever really appreciated, chief among them those by that mistress of the unsettling tale, Daphne du Maurier. (I do love her compilation called Don’t Look Now.) While told in the voice of the daughter, the story showcases Mom, who is giving a perfect performance as a 1950s housewife, attired in pin-striped shirtwaist dresses protected by flowered aprons, delivering the occasional tuna casserole to a sick neighbor, while hiding her true self. The reality is that the daughter never knows whether, when Mom takes out her mortar and pestle to grind something up, it will be the garlic and parsley she needs to mix into her meat loaf, or something concocted from the plants in her off-limits herb garden in the back yard and sold to a weeping woman who visits their kitchen after dark. (Coincidence: Shades of Alice Hoffman here, with the aunts providing contraband love spells for the ungrateful townsfolk in Practical Magic.)
There are funny bits, as the mother tries to convince the daughter that her gym teacher is an ancient nemesis who may work a spell with the daughter’s hair if she isn’t assiduous about collecting it from her hairbrush and burning it. Or that the mother has turned the girl’s absent father into the oversize garden gnome who stands on their front step. But ultimately, there’s not much of a story here, only “stories,” anecdotes about a girl growing up with a peculiar, eccentric mother and coming to certain realizations, once grown, that help her deal with her own surly teenage daughter.
Ultimately, My Evil Mother had a certain novelty and a lot of imagination (I loved the mother’s voice), but it wasn’t a satisfactory experience. All you get with a story like this is a skim off the surface of these people’s lives, when you want their full depth and presence—the entire bowl of pudding. I think I won’t spend time on them again, even if they are written by authors I love and admire.
Internat’l Cat Day
I woke up this morning and checked the calendar to discover that it’s International Cat Day! I must commemorate that, or Gidget and the spirits of all my house cats who have gone before will haunt me. Here, therefore is an eclectic and by no means complete list of some books that feature felines as protagonists and companions. The array of adult books seem to fall into one of two camps: The cats who solve mysteries with their human counterparts, and the cats of science fiction, who are sentient to various degrees. The children’s books celebrate cats in all ways possible from the realistic to the bizarre. These are in no particular order, except possibly by the age of the humans to which they may appeal. If you wish to find hundreds more books about cats, look here, under “lists” in Goodreads.
The Cat Who… mysteries, by Lilian Jackson Braun, in which a reporter and his cat solve mysteries. First book: The Cat Who Could Read Backwards.
The Mrs. Murphy mysteries, by Rita Mae Brown & Sneaky Pie Brown, in which Mrs. Murphy and her human companion solve mysteries. First book: Wish You Were Here.
The Joe Grey mysteries, by Shirley Rousseau Murphy, in which there are talking cats and also a human who discovers an ability to morph into a cat. First book: Cat on the Edge.
Catfantastic: Nine Lives and Fifteen Tales, by Andre Norton, editor, in which sci fi and fantasy writers tell tall tales about furry felines. (Short stories.)
The Dalai Lama’s Cat, by David Michie, in which the Tibetan Buddhist leader’s cat offers insights on happiness and meaning.
The Chanur novels, by C. J. Cherryh, in which a leonine species—the Chanur—take in a human refugee and by so doing threaten the interspecies Compact. First book: The Pride of Chanur.
The Cinder Spires books, by Jim Butcher, in which there are also cat clans and some naval airship action. First book: The Aeronaut’s Windlass.
The Cult of the Cat books, by Zoe Kalo, in which Trinity is left with a dead grandmother and a thousand grieving cats. A sort of Egyptian urban fantasy. First book: Daughter of the Sun.
Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, by T. S. Eliot, in which the author describes cats each by their distinct personality. (Poetry.) Someone should set this to music…
Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gág, in which a lonely old couple acquires companions. This is known as the original picture book for children.
The Cat in the Hat, by Dr. Seuss, in which Sally and her brother receive a visit from a madcap cat.
Socks, by Beverly Cleary, in which the cat has to learn to share his family with their new baby.
The Warriors books, by Erin Hunter, in which a house cat discovers clans of cats living in the wild in the forest…. First book: Into the Wild.
Varjak Paw books, by S. F. Said & Dave McKean (illustrator), in which a cat goes Outside and overcomes challenges.
The Wildings books, by Nilanjana Roy, in which a small band of cats lives in the alleys and ruins of Nizamuddin, an old neighborhood in Delhi, India.
The Feline Wizards series, by Diane Duane, in which feline wizards time travel to avert disasters. First book: The Book of Night with Moon.
The Cat Pack books, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, in which brothers Marco and Polo go adventuring. First book: The Grand Escape.
The Black Cat Chronicles, by Aileen Pettigrew, in which there are cats, zombies, and magic. First book: Soul Thief.
Stray, by A. N. Wilson, in which a cat without a home tells his own rather bleak story.
Tales of the Barque Cats, by Anne McCaffrey, in which cats are essential members of the crews of space vessels…until an epidemic threatens their extinction.
The Incredible Journey, by Sheila Burnford, in which a bull terrier named Bodger, a Labrador retriever called Luath, and Tao, a Siamese cat, travel 300 miles through the Canadian wilderness to reunite with their people.
Fresh look: old books
Perhaps, during this time of forced social inactivity, you are ready to get stuck into an immersive series. And perhaps that series should take you away from this uncertain present and into a past, future, or parallel world compelling enough that you can live there for a few days. Here are some suggestions…
First of all, written for young adults but really just an exciting sci fi series for anyone, is the Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness. The books are The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men.
The series begins in Prentisstown, an outpost on a planet that is not Earth, a village whose population is mostly hick farmers, 100 percent male, and possessed of an interesting anomaly: They can all hear one another’s thoughts.
It’s not like telepathy, though, it’s more like a constant barrage of the unconscious things people think to themselves in their heads. There’s a reason they call it “the Noise.” It’s almost impossible to withstand, although they all work hard to guard their own thoughts and resist those of the others.
A short way into the story we are introduced to the last boy in Prentisstown, who will become a man on his 13th birthday. But everything he has been told by his fathers, his preacher, the mayor, is a lie:
- All the women on the planet caught a virus and died: LIE.
- That same virus is what caused “the Noise” in the men: LIE.
- This is the only settlement on the planet: LIE.
- All of the “aliens” who used to live on this planet are dead: LIE.
Todd Hewitt’s world has fallen apart. After he makes an interesting discovery that exposes one of these lies, his fathers kick him out of the house to save him, and he is on the run, with his talking dog Manchee. A madman preacher and a power-hungry mayor are chasing him for some reason, and he is about to discover that most of what he thinks he knows is just not true. Worst of all, he is pursued by “the Noise.” Imagine how hard it is to hide when you can hear every stray and random thought of everyone within a couple-mile radius—and they can hear yours.
With underlying themes of genocide, slavery, racism, and sexism, this series is an addictive page-turner that starts with a slow burn and increases the heat from chapter to chapter and book to book, ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable peak as Ness lays the foundations for the climax. It’s a fascinating combination of science fiction, coming of age, and social commentary that’s hard to resist.
A story that may resonate with you at this time in history when the One Percent owns more of the world’s wealth than the other 99 put together is contained in the three-book series by Starhawk: The Fifth Sacred Thing, Walking to Mercury, and City of Refuge. These books tell of a utopia and a dystopia that exist side by side within the future state of California. In the northern end of the state, a group of old women start a revolution in the streets of San Francisco that ends in a cooperative state in which sustenance is shared by all, and the motto is, “There is a place for you at our table should you decide to join us.” The water flows freely, the streets have been torn up and turned into gardens, personal freedom is as important as personal responsibility, and the entire “village” not only raises the child but looks out for everyone else as well. Meanwhile, down south, centered on Los Angeles, the contrast couldn’t be greater: It is the ultimate expression of the haves versus the have-nots. The haves live in shuttered mansions with swimming pools and drive armored cars and control the army by putting drugs in their food, while the have-nots quarrel over a tin cup of water or a morsel of bread, and are daily more emaciated as they work harder and harder only to starve and die. What happens when the rulers of the south turn their eyes northward and decide that the bounty they see there should also belong to them?
A group of books that is only loosely a series is known as the Hainish Cycle, written by formidable sci-fi talent Ursula K. LeGuin, and spanning decades of her career. There are both major (award-winning) and minor books contained within this grouping, and although I read them as they were published, I have never gone back and put them in the proper order to see the overall evolution of the Ekumen, a star-spanning society that is the League of All Worlds. There is no internal consistency among these books, nor is there an over-arching story line, but the presence of the Ekumen, either behind the scenes or in the thick of the action, makes LeGuin’s works into a philosophical whole. The first three books (Rocannon’s World, Planet of Exile, and City of Illusions) can be had in one volume called Worlds of Exile and Illusion; after those, it’s The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest, The Dispossessed, the short stories of Five Ways to Forgiveness and A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and culminating in The Telling.
Reading all of these sequentially and all at one go would be a tremendous undertaking, and you would have to get a feel from reading the early books whether LeGuin is one of “your” authors or not…but reading them all gives a heightened sense of what’s at stake when an alliance of worlds decides to interact with deeply complex cultures in the attempt to forge further connections. The layers of psychology, sociology, and sheer human orneriness that LeGuin encompasses are fascinating.
These are all ambitious suggestions, and also pretty serious reading. For my next post, I’ll look for series just as engaging and every bit as long, but perhaps a little more lighthearted.
For those of you who are emphatically not schmaltzy and sentimental at Christmas, let us move past the classic Christmas stories to something a bit more tart than sweet.
You may not want to read these around the fire, for fear of offending the more traditional of your number…but then again, you may! There’s everything from the paranormal to the extraterrestrial, also featuring talking pigs, superior valets, and murder most festive.
Wolfsbane and Mistletoe,
edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L. P. Keiner
The promotional copy says it all: “Whether wolfing down a holiday feast (use your imagination) or craving some hair of the dog on New Year’s morning, the werewolves in these frighteningly original stories will surprise, delight, amuse, and scare the pants off readers who love a little wolfsbane with their mistletoe.”
The Christmas Pig: A Fable, by Kinky Friedman
A king decides to hire an artist to paint a nativity scene for Christmas. His assistant suggests a 10-year-old autistic boy, Benjamin, who is a talented painter, and Benjamin retreats to a barn to begin painting the king’s commission. There, he befriends Valerie, a talking pig who brings Benjamin out of his shell. Ben wants to paint his new best friend into the scene, but pigs don’t appear in the biblical story. The description of the book ends with some fateful words: “The ending is the saddest thing since Old Yeller.” I’m kind of afraid to read it. You do it and tell me about it.
A Lot Like Christmas, by Connie Willis
If you know Connie Willis, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction author, you will realize that although this is a book of Christmas stories, they will be the opposite of “twee,” and will put a speculative spin on the holiday.
The rest of these offerings are also to be chalked up to Connie, who, at the end of her first collection of Christmas stories (Miracle), offered a list of a dozen more that she herself appreciates. I have a feeling that many of us will, too. I only included the ones for which I could find a source, since some are both ancient and obscure!
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson
The Herdman kids are the worst—they lie, steal swear, smoke, you name it. Who would have thought they would decide to come to church one Sunday to take over the production of the annual Christmas pageant? None of the Herdmans has ever even heard the Christmas story before! It will definitely be the most unusual pageant in history… (This is a children’s book, still readily obtainable.)
“The Santa Claus Compromise” appears in a short story collection called The Man Who Had No Idea, by Thomas M. Disch. The extension of full civil liberties to children leads to some stunning “revelations” about Jolly Old St. Nick as two intrepid six-year-old reporters expose a shocking scandal. (You can find this book used online from Alibris, AbeBooks, and other used book vendors.)
“The Tree That Didn’t Get Trimmed,” by Christopher Morley.
Only read this story if you want a heaping cup of depression substituted for your eggnog! Written in the spirit of “The Little Match Girl” by Hans Christian Andersen, this is told from the viewpoint of a sapling who was cut too soon, thus not achieving that perfection of tapered shape and even foliage desired by everyone looking for a Christmas tree. And so he leans, day after day, against the wall of the green-grocer’s shop, unchosen, and thinks back to how wonderful it was when he lived in the forest and his roots reached down into the earth. It reminded me of the Friends episode when Phoebe goes to the Christmas tree lot with Joey and discovers the purpose of the chipper. Don’t worry, though—the story is nearly impossible to locate!
“Rumpole and the Spirit of Christmas,” by John Mortimer.
Horace Rumpole (quoter of Wordsworth and Shakespeare, smoker of smelly cigars, defender of the innocent, solver of mysteries) isn’t particularly fond of Christmas Day—he finds it has a horrible habit of dragging on as She Who Must Be Obeyed leads him through the usual rituals. But at least the criminal fraternity rarely takes a holiday. (Found in Regina v. Rumpole. There are five more stories to go with it in a separate volume called A Rumpole Christmas: Stories.)
“Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit,” by P. G. Wodehouse.
Please tell me you are familiar with the amiable but dimwitted man-about-town Bertie Wooster and his inimitable valet, Jeeves? (From the short story collection, Very Good, Jeeves.) Also check out “Another Christmas Carol,” in Wodehouse’s The World of Mr. Mulliner.
And finally, a discovery I made while searching for Willis’s favorites:
How Fear Departed the Long Gallery:
A Ghost Story for Christmas,
by E. F. Benson
I would go to great lengths to find a Christmas story conceived of by the brilliantly catty creator of Queen Lucia and Miss Mapp. Turns out all I had to do was spend 99 cents on a Kindle version. This book is part of an extensive series of Christmas ghost stories illustrated by Seth (Canadian artist Greg Gallant), by such famous names as Edith Wharton, Algernon Blackwood, Frank Cowper, Walter de la Mare, and more. They are all now available on Kindle. Search “Christmas ghost stories by Seth” on Amazon for a list.
One more Christmas list still to come, for those who want something novel-length…
I am currently obsessed with the Icelandic Christmas tradition of jólabókaflóð, which roughly translates as “Yule Book Flood.”
Those Icelanders are a literate bunch, and their idea of the best time ever is to gift one another with a new book on Christmas Eve and then (get this), retire to their beds with said book and a cup of hot cocoa to read away the night!
Unfortunately, this tradition wouldn’t go over big with my family. Some of us are readers, and some of us are not, and even those who have the reading bug want to be reading what they want to read and not what someone else prescribes for them. One year, my cousin Kirsten and I tried to introduce a new Christmas Eve tradition of reading aloud one of the Christmas classics, in between dinner and gifts, but we unwisely began with a story both too long and too complex to go over well (A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote), and after reading for 10 minutes or so, there were howls of “let’s get on with it!” from the children and the irreverent, so we never tried that again. (Singing around the piano likewise met with derision.)
This is not to say that I have given up the dream, however. Now that I have a reading blog, how about if I foist that dream onto you? Here is a list of Christmas classics—short stories, novellas, and books—that might adapt well to a read-aloud around your winter fire.
The Cricket on the Hearth, by Charles Dickens
A sentimental story centered around two families (the Peerybingles and the Plummers) and the wealthy toy merchant Mr. Takleton who attempts to thwart them. The story features love, jealousy, suspicion, deceit, and a happy ending couched in domestic happiness. The cricket of the title is the guardian angel of the Peerybingle family, lending a touch of magic to the tale. Currently less well known than Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, this was the more beloved of his Christmas tales at time of publication.
“The Gift of the Magi,”
by O. Henry
A classic short story written in 1905, Magi relates the dilemma of a young couple poor in possessions but rich in love, and the sacrifices each must make to buy the other a gift for Christmas.
by Glendon Swarthout
Written for Doubleday in 1977, this book was turned into a film called A Christmas to Remember, starring Joanne Woodward, the following year. St. Martin’s Press re-released the book in 1992 under the title A Christmas Gift. It is a sweet tale of growing up on a Michigan farm during the Great Depression of the 1930s. A middle-aged man remembers a Christmas Eve miracle of his childhood, involving an antique pump organ (melodeon), a 1928 Rumely OilPull tractor, and a strange cavalryman in a blue uniform.
Once Upon A Christmas, by Pearl S. Buck
Buck wrote stories each year for her family and put them together in this book of Christmas reminiscences. While focused on the many manifestations of the Christmas spirit, some are felt to be too depressing, but all are insights into Buck’s life and times, some with the interesting twist of being set in China or Vietnam.
An Irish Christmas Feast: The Best of John B. Keane,
by John Brendan Keane
An omnibus collection of more than 50 stories that draw on the rich folk culture of County Kerry, Ireland, with as much squabbling, toasting, poaching, and praying as anyone could wish for from country people during the Christmas season.
A Christmas Memory, by Truman Capote
The touching auto-biographical story of seven-year-old Buddy and his cousin, the sixty-something Sook, and their yearly quest, despite their poverty, to gather all the ingredients necessary to bake fruitcake for everyone of their acquaintance.
The Ariel Poems: Illustrated Poems for Christmas, by T. S. Eliot
Six poems Eliot wrote for a Christmas collection of pamphlets featuring multiple authors, published between 1927 and 1931.
From this selection, you are certain to find a story that resonates with you and possibly with others who will appreciate it with you this Christmas.