Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Impulse - Conrad Aiken

Author: Conrad Aiken
Date: 1950
Setting: Boston, 1950
Availability: in various collections, see link below

Story: A young man, Michael Lowes, is perhaps a bit too convinced of his own importance. He doesn't like it that his wife expects him to work hard, pay the bills, and pay attention to her. As is his custom he ignores his wife and goes for an evening of fun with his friends. During their game of cards they discuss why people should bother to control their impulses to do certain things. If you like a pretty girl, why not kiss her? If you want something, why not just take it? After their evening of fun, with a bit too much alcohol in his system, Michael decides to put their theory to the test. He slips a nice shaving kit off the counter of a drugstore into his pocket. His inexperience at thievery quickly lands him at the police station.

He tells them its all a joke, a simple experiment. All they have to do is call his friends or his wife, and they will vouch for him. Will they?

This story has a message for all of us. We've all thought that we work too hard for too little. We've all felt that our families were just too demanding. We've all wondered why we can't just have the things we want. Although we usually realize that to follow our impulses to work less, or take whatever we believe we deserve, will lead to destruction, this story points out how close to the moral edge we may each be.

Author info:Conrad Aiken, 1889-1973, was an American author, perhaps better known for his poetry. The received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1930. From 1950-52 he was the Poetry Consultant of the Library of Congress. His parents were wealthy and prominent New Englanders, but when Conrad was 11 his father shot his mother and then committed suicide. The boy found their bodies. His works were highly influenced by this incident, and were often psychological in nature.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 9


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Fire - Jennifer Walker

Author: Jennifer Walker
Date: 2010
Setting: The present, near Nevada City, CA
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A young woman, Heather, has agreed to care for some of a friend's horses. Her friend, Sharon, is attending a horse show, with part of her stable. It is an oppressively hot and dry summer. When Heather and another friend, Christine, head toward the ranch to do the chores they realize that there is a fire burning in the general direction of the ranch. The closer they get, the more they realize that the fire is really close, and the horses will have to be evacuated.

With information from the local radio station, Heather learns that animals are being taken to the fairgrounds, but it is 10 miles from the ranch, there are four horses to move, and Sharon has the horse trailer with her. She knows that somehow she must lead the animals to safety. Christine tries to find a trailer to come pick up the Heather and the animals, while Heather tries to beat the fire as it comes over the ridge toward the road.

Commentary:Walker knows horses, and this is not a wild ride to safety such as you might see in a B movie. There is real tension as Heather tries to get the group of horses to cooperate and be led together. She is forced to ride one of them bareback, which becomes very uncomfortable for both her and the old horse, Bella. Heather has a real love for Bella, as she learned to ride on her, when they both were younger. Will they beat the fire?

This is a straightforward story of suspense with "man" against nature. There are sub-themes of friendship, loyalty, and honoring of promises.

Author info: Jennifer Walker (see AuthorJennWalker.com) has been published in Modern Arabian Horse, Arabian Horse Times, and Sierra Style. Her first novel for young adults, Bubba Goes National, was published in January 2010. You can read a review of Bubba Goes National at Shared Reviews.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 7


Thursday, April 15, 2010

Barn Burning - William Faulkner

Author: William Faulkner
Date: 1939
Setting: The south, just after the Civil War
Availability: Read Barn Burning on line, free

by Carl Van Vechten, public domain LoC

Story: The 10-year-old Colonel Sartoris Snopes (Sarty) is called to testify before a local Justice as to whether his father had actually burned down their employer's barn. He is saved from testifying by the accuser's realization that a boy should not be asked to testify against his father. There is not enough evidence to convict his father, but once again, they are forced to move.

The boy is both an observer of, and integral part of this poor family. His father and mother, an aunt, stolid older brother, and lazy, bovine twin sisters are loaded into the wagon with all of their belongings. In four days time they have settled into another dilapidated house, working the ground for a rich landlord. The boy's father, perhaps on purpose, tracks horse manure across the owner's French carpet, and the carpet is brought to their poor home to be cleaned. In their ignorance, the carpet is ruined, and the father's resentment of those who have more once again boils to the surface.

Sarty knows he must choose his path for life. He is bound inexplicably by blood to be loyal to this family, yet there is a spark within him that knows right from wrong. He feels powerless to follow that urging.

Faulkner has a way of putting you both inside the head of the main character and maintaining narrative distance at the same time. In this story the perspective is the boy's, but the distance is created by occasionally telling the reader what the boy would think about this situation later, as an adult. And yet, he does not telegraph which decision the boy is going to make until the end of the story.

Short Story Masterpieces (Laurel Edition)Author info: William Faulkner was born and raised in Mississippi, and wrote provocative and emotional stories of life there. Many of his works were set in mythical Yoknapatawpha County (largely based on Lafayette County), and Colonel John Sartoris (for whom Sarty is named) was one of its founding fathers. He was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1949, and two Pulitzers.

Unusual Words:
quiring- like a choir, a chorus of voices
hame and logger-head- parts of a collar and harness for draft animals

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Jasper - Lucinda Gunnin

Author: Lucinda Gunnin
Author web: lucindagunnin.com
Date: 2010
Setting: an un-named city (possibly Detroit) in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A young woman, Carrie, lives alone except for Jasper, a retired police dog. The dog was given to her by her Uncle Chuck, retired from the sheriff's department. Chuck has encouraged Carrie to always be alert to things which happen around her. He has also advised her to never date a cop.

Early one morning she sees a man unloading bags of trash into the dumpster at her apartment complex. Jasper seems unusually agitated at this activity, and the man himself seems suspicious, wearing gloves and a cap on a stifling hot day. Unfortunately, when Jasper barks, the man also sees Carrie. She decides to go take a look after the man leaves, and discovers body parts. Of course, she is dating a young policeman, and she calls him first, instead of calling 911 which leads to her being treated with suspicion.

Commentary:This story is completely believable. Gunnin's portrayal of the dog rings true. I've known several well-trained German Shepherds, and Jasper's actions throughout the story are consistent with everything I know. For anyone who lives in a city, this story is a nightmare come true.

This is not only satisfying, but is refreshing in that the story does not force the idea of the completely independent female who needs no help, or a man who has to be in charge. The dog's participation makes sense; it's not a Rin-Tin-Tin fantasy.

Author info: Lucinda Gunnin (see lucindagunnin.com) has been published in several magazines under her maiden name of Lucinda Morgan, and writes for the Heartland Women Newspaper, but Jasper is her first published fiction. She also won the Fall 2008 Writers Weekly 24-hour short story contest.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6


Thursday, April 8, 2010

To Build a Fire- Jack London

Author: Jack London
Date: 1908 (earlier version for youth published 1902)
Setting: The Yukon in the late 1800s
Availability: Read To Build a Fire on line, free

Story: A lone man and a dog are traveling on foot through the Yukon winter to reach another camp. The story takes place all on one day. He stops for lunch and builds a fire to warm himself as he eats. As he continues on he must avoid stepping through soft spots on the Yukon Trail under which springs still bubble with running water. The man is not as knowledgeable as he should be about the effects of sub-zero weather. He attempts to be careful, but his inexperience becomes a problem. The dog, although a companion, has been tamed by force not kindness, and sees the man only as a source of food and warmth, not as someone to whom he would be faithful.

This is a classic tale of the brutality of the northland, and man's attempt to conquer that environment.

I chose to review this well-known story first, because it is one of my all-time favorites. While most people probably interact with this story as though it were a foreign environment, one to which they have trouble relating, this story really grabbed me. As a person who was always more at home outdoors, easily building fires, and scoffing at the elements, "To Build a Fire" jolted me to my core when I first read it in 9th grade. Here was a grown man, dressed appropriately for the weather, being somewhat careful, and yet making fateful mistakes. Perhaps I wasn't quite as invincible as I thought I was, and I vowed to become an even better outdoorswoman.

London was an acknowledged master at tales of the far north, and his understanding of dogs. His best known novels are Call of the Wild and White Fang. He brought home to readers, seated near their warm fires, compelling tales of prospectors and hunters from the Yukon. With an economy of words he painted pictures of landscapes, weather, and the place of humans and animals within that framework. Many authors become forever linked to certain settings which are foreign to their readers. For the Yukon, those authors are surely Jack London, and Robert Service (poet).

Unusual Words:
chechaquo- a tenderfoot- one who had not yet spent a winter in the Yukon
niggerhead- a tussock of grass that becomes more humped up each year until it becomes like a small island which shows above the snow

Spoiler: click more to read commentary that may spoil your enjoyment of reading the story.

Welcome to My Newest Example of Overcommitment

I've wanted to start a blog of short story reviews for a long time. Receiving a copy of the Twin Trinity Media short story anthology, Elements of the Soul, is what has pushed me over the edge into actually doing it.

The material reviewed will be a mix of classic short stories and newer ones that fewer people have ever heard of. I haven't decided absolutely on a format for the reviews, so we'll see how that evolves.

Stay tuned for more developments, and an actual review.