Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Kidnapped Santa Claus - L. Frank Baum

Author: L. Frank Baum
Date: 1904
Setting: Laughing Valley, where Santa Claus lives
Availability: Read A Kidnapped Santa Claus on line, free

Story: Santa Claus, along with ryls, knooks, pixies and fairies, lives in Laughing Valley, but in the mountains beside the valley are caves where five demons reside. Their caves are connected in a linear fashion. First is Selfishness, then Envy, Hatred, and finally Malice. However, from each of those caves is a narrow passage leading to the cave of the Demon of Repentance. There is no way out of the mountain tunnels except by his cave where there is a little door into the sunshine, which he will open if you come his way.

The demons did not like Santa because he made children happy, and then they did not come to visit the demons’ caves. So on Christmas Eve, the demons capture Santa and take him into the mountains. They try to tempt him to be selfish or envious, and they are sure that the children will receive no toys for Christmas. However, their plot doesn’t work out quite the way they intended

Commentary: Although this is a children’s Christmas story, there is plenty in it to make an adult think. The obvious point of interest is the concept that Repentance is a Demon. Santa has a conversation with this one, where Repentance points out that he is not needed unless one has first made friends with one of his evil friends.

There is an underlying question that is never addressed as to whether toys brought on Christmas can really make a person happy. The story begins with some philosophy, “To laugh one needs to be happy; to be happy one needs to be content.” It seems to me that this contradicts the whole premise of making children happy with gifts, since material things will never bring contentment. The internal message of the story seems confused to me.

Another concept presented is that there will always be evil in the world, but we can make choices about what to do about it. This theme is much more consistently developed.

This story isn’t on the current list of best-loved Christmas classics, probably partly for the dark theme. Although, one could point out the “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is similar and has become standard holiday fare. Although the author is well-known and respected for his children’s stories, I think this one leaves something to be desired. It has been called one of his “most beautiful stories” by a biographer, but I don’t really see that.

Nevertheless, I would be willing to read it with older children and ask them to talk about it.

Author info: Lyman Frank Baum, 1856-1919, was born in Chittenango, New York, and early in life developed a love of writing and the theatre. In fact, his love for theatre kept him poor throughout his life as he continued to write, back, and produce plays that couldn’t succeed financially. He is best known for his children’s fantasy, especially the Oz series, of which he wrote 16. Many of his plays were destroyed in a fire. Not many children's stories remain classics for over 100 years, but Baum’s Wizard of Oz has stood the test of time.

Unusual Words:
knooks and ryls- magical good characters invented by Baum in the book The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, they are carried over in to this story.

Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Digital Rights - Brent Knowles

Author: Brent Knowles
Date: 2011
Setting: A space station colony, 2180
Availability: Buy Digital Rights at Smashwords

Story: Humans have colonized space so long that there is a real disconnect between those who live in space and those on Earth. There are even third-generation colonists who have never been to earth. People have android Assistants who carry out many tasks, and the androids are programmed by pulling information from people's actual brains. This technique has been used so long it is standard procedure, but there is always the possibility for abuse.

One of the supervisors, Rutgers, may have been taking personal information from people. Isabel (Izzy), an engineer, suspects this, but thinks it's both none of her business and fairly harmless. She thinks he is just creating a virtual game as a diversion. She has enough problems of her own, as she keeps receiving messages from a "ghost," a section of one of her past Assistants that should have been long dead. She eventually has to confront both Rutgers and the ghost.

Commentary: Digital Rights is science fiction, and won first place in the L Ron Hubbard "Writers of the Future" contest in Q3 2009, for fantasy and science fiction. This award has been running since 1983. That should tell you something about the quality of the story before you ever begin.

I don't mind science fiction, but I'm not a huge fan, unless the writing is really good. Digital Rights kept me interested. I was hooked right away, and I didn't stop reading until I finished, despite its being fairly long for a short story at 12K words. There are a number of really good things about the story.

In the first place, Knowles plunges you right into the scene. There is no setup, and you have to figure out where they are and how society has changed by the descriptions of what is being done and how it's being accomplished. And he gives you the information to do this, so you feel that you are right there. Eventually he gives out the fact that it's the year 2180.

The mix of familiar technology with speculative processes and machines is well done. As any culture evolves some things change completely, while other archaic forms and items persist. All of the invented machines and techniques seem plausible while e-mail and wearing green on St. Patrick's Day are still around.

This may be personal preference, but I like a sci-fi story to have some twist that makes me think about the nature of reality, or what makes us human, or what sort of "creatures" might actually populate the universe. I'm not very interested in stories that are just space wars, or romances, or B-westerns in airtight suits. Digital Rights does a good job of making me think.

Digital Rights is the best sci-fi story I've read in a while. You can take that at whatever value you want since I don't read lots, but I do read some.

Author info: Brent Knowles is a writer, programmer, and game designer. He has been living in Edmonton, Alberta for the last ten years, and is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s computer science program. He worked at the role-playing game studio BioWare for ten years (Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Dragon Age), during most of which he was a Lead Designer/Creative Director. Now he writes full time. He has been published in a variety of magazines including Neo-Opsis, On Spec, and Tales of the Talisman. See Brent Knowles blog

Language skills 7
Depth of meaning 7


Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Night the Ghost Got In - James Thurber

Author: James Thurber
Date: 1933
Setting: 1915- the author's childhood home
Availability: Read The Night the Ghost Got In on line, free

Story: Told in the first person, a boy hears someone walking around the dining room table. He is upstairs, just getting out of the bath. Realizing that no one should be downstairs, he wakes his brother, who refuses to go down with him to check it out. The boys accidentally wake their mother, who of course, assumes that the walker is a burglar, not a ghost.

What ensues is a hilarious comedy of errors. But "none of us ever heard the ghost again."

Commentary: Thurber is one of my all time favorite authors. Most of his short stories are humorous, and they range from tongue-in-cheek to tales that will make you laugh out loud. "The Night the Ghost Got In" is very short, but it succeeds in its goal of being funny.

The point of this story is, of course, not whether there really was a ghost, but the crazy reactions that occurred as a result of hearing sounds that could not be accounted for. In fact, Thurber tells us in the second sentence exactly what is going to happen. He says "Its advent caused my mother to throw a shoe through a window of the house next door, and ended up with my grandfather shooting a patrolman." The beauty of the story is that, even though he's just told you the entire plot, you have to keep reading to find out how a ghost could have caused those bizarre events.

The stories Thurber tells of his childhood are at least partially fictionalized, but this story is based on definite facts. Thurber did hear this "ghost" walking around the table in the dining room, the year he was a junior in college (1912). He researched the house, and discovered that other owners had also heard the same sounds (choosing to move rather than live with it), and that there had been a man, 45 years previous, who had paced around the table in nervous frustration before running up the stairs to shoot himself.

If anyone wants to write humor, they would do well to study James Thurber's writing. He is a master of timing and of tweaking a story so as to make it funny rather than just exposition.

His stories are self-illustrated. Thurber's cartoon style is sketchy but unique, and anyone who is familiar with it will instantly recognize a Thurber cartoon.

Author info: James Thurber, 1894-1861, grew up in Columbus, Ohio. His father was often out of work, and his mother was a great practical joker. It is believed that many of his story ideas came from observing his parents. Playing William Tell with his brothers, as a child, James lost one eye. This forced him into more mental pursuits, rather than sports, and he turned to writing as a creative outlet. His collections of short stories are still well-read. Thurber is one of the classic American humorists.

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 7


Monday, September 19, 2011

Summer Heat - M. Lori Motley

Author: M. Lori Motley
Author web: M. Lori Motley
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: Wayne lives a life of squalor and of supporting himself by aiding with crimes. Although he is probably not bright enough to be the mastermind, he helps his friend, Frank, strip cars for hot parts. He bums money off his sister, Debbie, who keeps a filthy dog kennel. Debbie doesn't have many scruples about who buys her puppies.

Nothing disrupts this system until the night Frank brings in a Cadillac Escalade that belongs to a local bad boy known as Mad Dog, who is clearly higher up the food chain than either Frank or Wayne. Wayne is fearful and insists that Frank get rid of the car without demolishing it.

Although Frank is apparently successful, Wayne is sure that Mad Dog Hatcher knows they are connected with the temporary disappearance of the vehicle.

Commentary: "Summer Heat" successfully places us squarely in the middle of a hot summer in one of the backwaters of life. When she describes the crisp, dust-covered leaves around the junkyard, we can picture the scene. The people, their speech and actions fit smoothly into this setting.

The story explores the themes of guilt and personal responsibility. Although Wayne manages to stay one step removed from actually participating in the most serious crimes or bad decisions, he's right there in the center of the story. Is his attempt to escape it all effective? Is it even a valid means of escape?

Although I thought the ending was a little weak, "Summer Heat" certainly would lend itself to a discussion of appropriate behavior with teens. A lot of young people on the edges of making bad choices would probably identify with these characters.

Author info: M. Lori Motley's most prolific writing genres are sword & sorcery, contemporary and urban fantasy, horror, dark fantasy, comedic fantasy, and paranormal & fantasy romance.

Learn more about Lori at M. Lori Motley.


Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 6


Monday, August 29, 2011

Bartleby the Scrivener - Herman Melville

Author: Herman Melville
Date: 1850
Setting: a lawyer’s office on Wall Street in the 1850s
Availability: Read Bartleby the Scrivener on line, free

Story: Bartleby is hired as a copyist, a scrivener, for a lawyer. The lawyer (today he would be called a corporate lawyer) tells the story. He describes the curious natures of the two scriveners already in his employ and how one, Turkey, is useful in the mornings, but becomes unorganized and useless in the afternoons. The other, Nippers, is angry and sullen in the mornings, but a reliable worker after lunch. The only other employee is an errand boy, known as Ginger Nut. The lawyer is hoping that a third person might balance out the office chaos and provide a steadying influence.

At first, Bartleby seems to do just this. He works hard, and asks for no favors. His workspace is behind a screen in the owner’s private office. After just three days, the lawyer asks Bartleby to come help compare copies of a document, as this was a necessary, but tiresome task when legal documents had to be copied by hand. Bartleby emerges from his cubicle, but makes the surprising declaration that he “would prefer not to.”

The lawyer decides to let this instance of insubordination go, but the situation gets more and more out of control as Bartleby eventually prefers not to do anything.

Commentary: The tale of Bartleby is told in the first person from the perspective of his employer, a lawyer. It is set in the time period in which it was written, and a great deal of it will seem strange to modern readers, but the interactions between the people are as amusing and annoying as in any office in this century.

The meaning of the story has been debated by literary critics for over 150 years. I don’t think I’m going to be able to add much to those theories. Some think it’s symbolic of Melville's own frustrations as an author, while others think that it is an early rant against the world of corporate finance.

Although Melville’s work was largely forgotten until after the absurdist movement, this story is sometimes credited with being a precursor to that phase of literature.

No matter what Melville had in mind, certainly there are several themes. The most obvious one is “what is charity?” The lawyer (the narrator) continually struggles with his own feelings about Bartleby. He has hired the man to do a job, but soon is not getting any work out of him at all. He continually argues with himself that the man is depressed, incredibly poor, and that it would be inhumane to put him out. The end result is an absurd condition where the employer pays Bartleby to leave, and still the scrivener will not, so the lawyer moves out. And even that is not the end of the story.

The mental deterioration of Bartleby is a constant theme. We see the man degenerate from a sad and quiet, but hardworking fellow to depression and withdrawal so severe that it leads to his demise. The progression of Bartleby’s condition seems inevitable, and raises questions about what can be done for people who refuse to respond to human interaction.

The story, although a tragedy in the end, offers a comic look into the work world of the mid-1800's. Turkey and Nipper are polar opposites, and in some ways the narrator and Bartleby are also two sides of a coin. Yet, they all have to show up at the office every day and churn out page after page of government authorized paperwork which seems totally beside the point of anything important in their lives.

     Author info: Herman Melville 1819-1891 is a familiar author for the immense success of Moby Dick. However, he was never known for Moby Dick in his lifetime. His early novels, Typee and Omoo were highly acclaimed, but then his popularity waned. Moby Dick never sold it’s initial printing of 3000 copies. Melville was long dead before he was rediscovered in the early 20th Century.

He was born in New York City, and had several famous ancestors- one a participant in the Boston Tea Party, another a Revolutionary War General. After some adventuring at sea, and a stint as a surveyor, he began to write. Despite his early acclaim, he was never able to make enough as a writer to support himself.

Unusual Words:
divers- many
imprimis- in the first place
orbicular- round
cannel coal- oil shale which produced a lot of light as it burned
the Tombs- Manhattan Detention Complex- a prison
carman- driver
luny- loony, crazy
wight- a human being
Petra- the lost city of Edom, a symbol of a deserted place
Marius- a reference to a Roman General and a classical painting of Caius Marius Amid the Ruins of Carthage
rockaway- a squarish carriage which could be closed up to shield the occupant from view.

Memorable Quote:
I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 10


Saturday, July 30, 2011

I Killed the Man that Wasn't There - Darrell B. Nelson

Author: Darrell B. Nelson
Date: 2011
Setting: the future, on Earth
Availability: Download I Killed the Man that Wasn't There on line, free

Story: A successful businessman, Ken, feels that he has been taken advantage of since high school by a pseudo-friend, Donald. When their research into space-time mechanics results in the building of a Trans-Dimensional Origami Reactor, Ken figures out how to exact revenge for all the wrongs done to him, which includes Donald stealing his wife, a powerful motive indeed. However, there are some repercussions that do not leave Ken unscathed.

Commentary: This is a very short story, and I don’t want to say so much that I give the plot away. All of Nelsons stories are science fiction, but of the four in this collection this is the most scientific. There is a bit of a physics lecture in the middle, which is delivered by Ken to Donald. Although it’s not totally out of place, it really feels as if it’s being given for the benefit of the reader. Nevertheless, it does manage to provide information which makes the story seem more plausible.

Although the setting is futuristic and the means of dealing with the despised person is creative, this is a classic story of revenge.

If you want some entertaining reading with sci-fi settings, Darrell B. Nelson writes creatively. The stories are not formula written with only a change of setting, so there is enough variety to keep you reading.

download free at Smashwords
Author info: Darrell B. Nelson is a former Securities Broker and Insurance Agent who has decided to use the total meltdown of his former industry, and the total destruction of any illusions of personal financial security the meltdown caused, as an opportunity to pursue a writing career. He has several books available at Smashwords. You can learn more at his blog, Project Savior

Language skills 6
Depth of meaning 5

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hitch-Hikers - Eudora Welty

Author: Eudora Welty
Date: 1941
Setting: Mississippi in the 1930s
Availability: in the short story collection A Curtain of Green

Story: Tom Harris, a traveling salesman, picks up two hitch-hikers on a road trip from Victory (Mississippi) to Memphis. One of the men talks a lot and is carrying a yellow guitar. The other man is very silent. Harris talks with the men, and soon realizes that they are hobos who have been traveling together for convenience for a couple of weeks.

He takes some pity on them and buys them dinner, and then asks the proprietor of a hotel where he often stays to let them sleep on his porch. While he is inside arranging this, the men apparently try to steal his car. The quiet man hits the man with the guitar over the head with a bottle, seriously injuring him. He is taken to the hospital and the assailant is locked in a room in the hotel, right across the hall from Harris, because the jail is full.

But this is one of Harris’ regular stops, and people in town know him. He’s popular at parties hosted by Ruth, a lady he knows. She introduces him to a girl named Carol, and they spend the evening together. She insists that she knew him from a long time ago, but he can’t remember her at all. There is much speculation at the party as to whether the guitar player will live or die.

Commentary: The Hitch-Hikers is a story with more questions than answers. On the surface it is a guileless portrayal of the Depression-era American South. Salesmen, hobos, forward girls, street children and “colored” children are presented without commentary, allowed to speak for themselves as to who they are and how they fit into society.

It is also the story of a man who is unable to connect with other human beings. Although Harris does show some hospitality toward the strangers, he never really forms even a simple kind of bond with them, and is oddly unmoved by their thievery, or the assault. He seems modestly curious about the prognosis for the injured man, but detached from the whole outcome, as well. He keeps forgetting what town he is in, even what girl he is with. He has no memory of Carol although she insists that she knows him.

When finally alone in his room he does not want to even take off his clothes, to feel any contact with the bed. The quiet becomes unbearable and he turns on the fan which clicks with every revolution and he welcomes the noise to shut out his thoughts.

In the final poignant scene he leaves town the next day, yet leaving more than the town behind him.

Author info: Eudora Welty 1909- 2001. Welty was born in Mississippi and developed an early love of reading. She earned several college degrees in an era when women seldom had any college education. During the Depression she worked for the WPA interviewing people and collecting photos of life in Mississippi. This experience became part of the basis of many of her short stories, which focused on Southern life. Several books of her short stories were published, and she won many prizes, including the Pulitzer.

“He felt a... disturbing possessiveness, which meant nothing... He was free; helpless.”

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 8


Monday, May 30, 2011

Purgatory - Steven Thor Gunnin

Author: Steven Thor Gunnin
Date: 2010
Setting: The present, some U.S. city
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: A man named Blackie tells the story, mostly in the first person. He has had a near-death experience when his car goes off a bridge, and he almost drowns. He is explaining all this to a trio of Mexican brothers at a strip joint. They want to know all about what it was like to come so close to death. Blackie is telling them, but making up a lot of it as he goes along. The three Latinos do figure out that he's teasing them at first, but as Blackie continues they have trouble separating the factual from the imaginary.

He explains that his job is to prepare bodies for autopsies at the morgue. He's been having a lot of strange experiences recently. In particular, he wants to talk about a girl named Jamie who committed suicide. However, it seems that Hector, Vincente, and Guillermo also knew Jamie.

Commentary: The dead and undead are Thor Gunnin's favorite themes, and there is plenty of suspense along those lines. That said, I had some trouble following this story. Sometimes Blackie just speaks in the first person, and sometimes he is referred to in the third person.

This story may not be for everyone. There is a lot of foul language, and a clear statement that admission to heaven is based on a merit system.

Author info: Steven Thor Gunnin is a graphic designer who writes in his spare time, and is a big fan of George Romero (Night of the Living Dead). Gunnin has two stories in this anthology.

Language skills 4
Depth of meaning 2


Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Blue Hotel - Stephen Crane

Author: Stephen Crane
Date: 1899
Setting: Fort Romper, Nebraska, late 1800's
Availability: Read The Blue Hotel on line, free

Story: Three visitors disembark from the train at Romper, Nebraska, and are led to the Palace Hotel, painted a garish blue, by the proprietor, Patrick Scully. The three are an unpretentious Easterner, a very quiet man; a cowboy; and a Swede, who is the central figure in the story. Almost as soon as they arrive, a blizzard develops, so everyone is isolated at the hotel. The men, along with the proprietor’s son, Johnnie (a young adult), begin to play a card game. The Swede begins to make strange, loud pronouncements, beginning with "I suppose there have been a good many men killed in this room." He continues making inappropriate remarks throughout the game, even claiming that he knows he is going to be killed before the day is over. The others try to ignore him.

Patrick Scully, who is a good businessman, tries to placate and befriend the Swede, and to calm him down. He has some moderate success. Johnnie notes that his father is even willing to take some measure of abuse from the Swede just because the "customer is always right."

After dinner, the men begin another game of cards. The Swede is still too loud, speaks too often, and says bizarre things. At one point he accuses Johnnie of cheating. Johnnie takes offense, and the men all go out to the lee side of the hotel, still in a blizzard, to fight it out. Scully agrees that if Johnnie wants to fight for his honor that he will allow it.

When the Swede wins the fight he is still not satisfied and he leaves the hotel and makes his way into downtown, where he insinuates himself on the patrons of the town bar.

Commentary: The Blue Hotel is a story with many possible interpretations. There have been many analysts with more ability than I have who have tried to figure it out, who still can’t agree on what it means.

Almost certainly there is one set of meanings centered on the Swede’s misconception of what the "West" is like. He assumes that there is a lot of renegade actions and gunplay, and what he finds there does not match with his preconceptions.

There is a clear message of the self-fulfilling prophecy. If the Swede hadn’t been so dogmatic about what was going to happen, and so obnoxious to all, he probably wouldn’t have come to the end that he did.

Finally, another whole twist is put on the story by a sort of epilogue where the Easterner confirms that Johnnie was cheating and suggests to the cowboy that they all hold a certain level of responsibility for the fate of the Swede.

A part of me would like the blue hotel building to be symbolic of the world in general, but then the Swede leaves and moves the action to a different location. To carry this analogy along, Patrick Scully would need to be God, and the bar some sort of purgatory where the Swede receives his final judgment. Perhaps that does work!

There is a message that we are all pretty normal inside despite outward appearances. The hotel is painted a garish blue to make it stand out and attract customers, but then it is clearly quite a normal establishment once we see inside. Is this also a message about the true character of the Swede?

Clearly, that things are not what they appear to be is a strong theme. The gambler at the bar is more than a professional gambler, but also a family man and frequent participant in the local group of men who simply pass the time in discussing various topics of interest. Yet, he turns out to be the one who deals with the Swede in an unexpected way.

In any case, The Blue Hotel will give you plenty to think about.

Author info: Stephen Crane 1871-1900. Crane lived a short life, yet is recognized as one of the master American story tellers. Early on, he used themes from the naturalist school (we are victims of our environment), but later shifted to themes where people had more control over their own destiny. He was the son of a Methodist minister, and although he was gifted, never did well in school. He lived in extreme poverty most of his adult life, insisting that he pay his own way through writing. Even though Red Badge of Courage was acclaimed in his lifetime, he was never able to earn enough to raise his standard of living. He traveled through the American West as a syndicated journalist, and also traveled to Europe. He contracted tuberculosis, then malaria. He took such poor care of himself, that he died at age 28.

Unusual Words:
gripsack- a suitcase
sled-stake- a piece of wood which can be inserted in a sled frame to hold side boards- easily removeable, often used as a weapon, and necessarily straight.

Language skills 9
Depth of meaning 9


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Transition (The Crimson Pact) - Justin Swapp

Author: Justin Swapp
Date: 2011
Setting: the present, in Spain
Availability: in the Anthology The Crimson Pact, volume I

Story: Sloan, an American student studying in Spain, is waiting for his tutor and enjoying an espresso at an outdoor café. He is approached by an old man, a man who looks like a warrior, although he is dressed quite normally. After the man asks Sloan his name, and they carry on a short awkward conversation, the man places on the table a small die with strange markings. Sloan will never be the same again.

This is a flash fiction story, so a review will necessarily be short. However, it is part of The Crimson Pact, Volume I. This anthology has created a setting in the opening story, “The Failed Crusade,” by Paul Genesse and Patrick M. Tracy. To understand any of the 25 additional stories in the book some explanation of the opening story is necessary. At some time and place, both unidentified, humans have banded together to fight against demons who are attempting to conquer the world of men. The humans are losing the battle. However, they have all sworn to a pledge, called the Crimson Pact, that they will do whatever it takes to eventually hunt down the demons. At the end of the fateful day of loss, two people call upon the skills of a Spirit Coaxer and manage to cross over into the world of the demons.

The idea of the anthology is that the subsequent stories will build upon that introduction and tell the tales of those who crossed over and their descendants and followers throughout any age or world. Additional volumes are planned, and submissions are ongoing.

Commentary: The Failed Crusade is narrated by General Cruek Ostor, and has the feel of a cross between a medieval manuscript and a video game. The flowery language may make it difficult to immerse yourself into the world and the battle, but it has what I call “internal integrity.” This mean that you never are suddenly jogged into the wrong time or place by words or images that don’t belong. It took me a whole page to get into the story, but once I did, it worked well.

This opening story sets the stage for almost anything to happen with only a few basic ground rules that need to be followed. The remaining stories in the anthology are a complete mixture of styles- from stories that read like video game introductions to romance. “Transition” is set in the modern world, and if it were not for the fact that it’s in this anthology, would not signal any suspected direction for the plot too early.

The Crimson Pact is a classic good vs. evil fantasy. However, the contributions of many authors ensure that there are stories to please everyone, and you’ll never be able to predict where the next story will take you.

Author info: Justin Swapp grew up in a simple world where he played outside; running and hiding, talking openly to people, shooting pot guts, exploring caves, and generally looking for ways to exploit his imagination. The phrase "the pen is mightier than the sword" always fascinated him. Swapp got what it meant, but wanted to be able to wield that pen. And, he says, "that is harder than it looks."

Several other stories by Swapp can be read at his web site Justin Swapp: Fiction for your Reading Addiction

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Passion in the Desert - Honore De Balzac

Author: Honoré De Balzac
Date: 1830
Setting: Egypt, during the Napoleonic campaign of 1798
Availability: Read A Passion in the Desert on line, free

Story: A Passion in the Desert is a story within a story. The narrator is a man who has been to the zoo with his wife (described only as “she”). While they are watching a wild animal tamer she declares that the show is dreadful and she doesn’t believe that anyone can be so certain of the “affection” of a wild beast to trust it for performances.

The man takes issue with her and insists that he knows a story, told to him by an old soldier, which will prove that wild animals and humans can communicate. The next day, he tells her the story of “The Frenchman in Egypt.”

An old soldier, with one leg, had given this first person account of his experience in the desert during Napoleon’s campaign to conquer Egypt in 1798. He had been captured by the Arabs, but managed to escape into the desert where he despaired for his life. But he finds a small oasis, which has a spring, a few palm trees (for dates to eat), and a cave. He curls up to sleep in the cave, and in the morning finds that he is sharing the space with a “panther” (which is described in detail, identifying it to modern readers as a leopard).

The leopard has recently had a meal and she shows no interest in eating the soldier. In fact, the soldier and the cat develop an uneasy relationship, and their bond grows stronger and stronger. Man and beast play together; he caresses her gently, and she purrs ferociously in pleasure. But when an eagle appears overhead the soldier’s attention is drawn to it, and the relationship changes with dire consequences.

Commentary: A Passion in the Desert is clearly symbolic of the dangers, and stages of human love. It will take several readings to uncover all of the meanings. The most obvious layer is that the man is captivated by the beauty and power of the female, but that she is the one who is in control. She enjoys the attentions of the man, but never lets him forget that he is alive because she tolerates him.

The device of having an un-named man tell the story to his un-named wife strengthens the illusion of being able to separate oneself from the raw truths learned in the desert. The final line of the story, a quote from the old soldier, cuts through any self-delusion, leaving only naked truth.

In 1998 a short film of the same name was made, directed by Lavinia Currier. The movie is based on Balzac’s story, but adds a great deal to the plot, and changes the meaning significantly.

Author info: Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) was one of the most obsessed writers of all time. His masterpiece, The Human Comedy, was written over the course of 20 years, on which he worked almost 16 hours a day, every day. He died of exhaustion at age fifty. The Human Comedy is a collection of stories covering the scope of the human condition. A Passion in the Desert was one of the first ones written.

Balzac is often remembered for his romantic and sensuous novels which sold quickly and were often banned. For example, his name is brought up in “The Music Man” as a scandalous writer, who should be avoided by proper people.

He is, however, considered one of the pioneers of realistic fiction, with the creation of multi-faceted characters who are neither wholly good or bad, but inherently human

Unusual Words:
Mangrabins- north-African Arabs, probably derived from Maghreb
ma petite maitresse- my little mistress
Mignonne- darling, etc- a term of endearment
simoom- a strong, hot, sand-laden wind of the Sahara and Arabian deserts

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 10


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Flood of Tears - M. Lori Motley

Author: M. Lori Motley
Author web: M. Lori Motley
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: Leesa and her son Ethan are just beginning to learn what life is going to be like for them since Leesa’s husband, Ethan’s father, was sent to prison for rape and murder. At school, Ethan’s former friend calls him names, while his mother confronts Leesa. Only Ethan’s teacher seems to understand, and show a willingness to treat Ethan as before. Ethan had been cast for the lead in the school play, “The Sword in the Stone,” and the boy is truly excited about being discovered to be King Arthur. Other children’s parents are not so sure they think the choice of students is appropriate for the role.

But on the way to opening night, a wild storm threatens to tear away the Carson Street bridge while Leesa and Ethan are crossing it in their unreliable truck.

Commentary: Flood of Tears explores the reactions of people when confronted with a genuine tragedy of life. Those near to a wrong-doer may be treated as if they share a part of the blame, while the accusers revel in their own self-righteousness. There is possibly a sub-theme of Old Testament justice.

Author info: M. Lori Motley's most prolific writing genres are sword & sorcery, contemporary and urban fantasy, horror, dark fantasy, comedic fantasy, and paranormal & fantasy romance.

Learn more about Lori at M. Lori Motley.


Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 6


Thursday, March 24, 2011

M'liss - Bret Harte

Author: Bret Harte
Date: 1873
Setting: the Sierra Nevadas- mid 1800s
Availability: Read M'liss on line, free

Story: Living as an outcast of society in the failed Sierra mining town of Smith’s Pocket, the nine-year-old Melissa Smith survives in a near-animal existence. Her father, former discoverer of the “pocket” of gold, but now the town drunk, pays her no heed. She has been expelled from Sunday School, and lives by her wits and her wiry strength. She is locally known simply as M’liss.

One day, she appears at the schoolhouse after hours, and informs the young school master that she is coming to school. Over the course of the following months, she shows herself to be able to learn, and to act and dress in more socially acceptable ways.

But, when her drunken father commits suicide one night, she realizes that as horrible as he was, he was all she had. The school master becomes, in effect, her guardian. She lives with a large family in town, but spends time with the master whenever possible. They occasionally walk together in the woods, he finds her weaving wreaths of grass and flowers for her father’s grave. Although she is embarrassed, she allows him to share in these moments of her weakness. She likes to weave the poison monkshood flower into these wreaths, and the master warns her of its deadly powers.

Despite her youth, she feels a great affection for the school master. When the pretty, blond, oldest daughter of her foster family, Clytemnestra (all of this family’s children were given ostentatious classical names), develops a crush on the master, the brunette M’liss is outraged and jealous with all the passion of a pre-adolescent girl. She dubs Clytemnestra “that white girl.”

In time, the school master feels the need to leave the confines of Smith’s Pocket, but what will become of M’liss?

Commentary: Bret Harte is sometimes credited with inventing the genre of western fiction. His love for, and knowledge of the American West created vivid settings for his stories.

M’liss is sometimes considered a novelette, and was made into a movie several times. Three silent versions were made in 1915, 1918, and again in 1922 as "The Girl Who Ran Wild." The most famous 1918 version starred Mary Pickford. It was again adapted for the screen in 1936, starring Anne Shirley.

The story does not have deep, hidden meanings, but tells a simple story in a way that appeals to anyone who loves a happy ending. Harte’s stories were captivating as much for their backdrops as for the characters themselves. He was a highly popular writer of the 19th Century. Much of the emotional play of the characters is merely hinted at, and left to the reader to develop through imagination.

The sentimental style perhaps does not speak to modern readers as much as it did to those of a past age, but the truths of human relationships cross all times and places.

Author info: Bret Harte (1836-1902) was born Francis Brett Hart in Albany, New York. He moved to California early and edited several newspapers. Writing was always a passion; his first story was published when he was only 11 years old. As the popularity of his stories waned he moved to Europe and continued writing, spending the last 24 years of his life there. He is considered to be one of the uniquely American writers.

Unusual Words:
stuff- a type of durable cloth of wool, or linen and wool
ceanothus- a buckthorn shrub with white blossoms
drugget- felted cheap fabric

Language skills 8
Depth of meaning 6

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Roommate - Lucinda Gunnin

Author: Lucinda Gunnin
Date: 2010
Setting: Southern Illinois, the city of Carbondale, in the present
Availability: in the anthology Consequences

Story: Tina Black has come to hate everything about the man who is staying in her home. Bob was a friend, an Army veteran, who needed a temporary place to stay. Now, more than a year later, he won’t leave. Tina’s husband, Doug, is too polite to ask him to find a place of his own, and she can’t bring herself to do anything about the situation, either. Bob is so selfish and annoying that Tina has begun to contemplate killing Bob.

Their city, Carbondale in southern Illinois, has been fortuitously spared from tornado strikes throughout history. But on this sultry summer day their deaf cat begins to act strangely and seems to be trying to make Tina follow him into the basement. Just in the nick of time, Tina realizes that a funnel cloud is bearing down on the neighborhood. She and the cat huddle under the basement stairs as the house above them is ripped to shreds.

But, Bob was asleep in an upstairs bedroom. What has happened to him?

Commentary: The Roommate takes a look at the literary phenomenon known as a pathetic fallacy, where the weather is a mirror for the mood of the story or protagonist. But, it is more than that, as Tina struggles with the guilt of her many hours spent wishing that Bob were dead. After the storm, although she is injured and in shock, she is constantly plagued by the guilt she feels over not warning Bob to get into the basement. Is his fate somehow her fault?

Author info: Lucinda Gunnin (see has been published in several magazines under her maiden name of Lucinda Morgan, and writes for the Heartland Women Newspaper. She has had stories published in books from Twin Trinity Media, and won the Fall 2008 Writers Weekly 24-hour short story contest.

Consequences is available as a paperback, or in ebook format.

Unusual Words:
misogynistic- the characteristic of hating women

Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 6

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Magic Fishbone - Charles Dickens

Author: Charles Dickens
Date: 1867
Setting: England in the 1860s
Availability: Read The Magic Fishbone on line, free

Story: Alicia, age seven, is the oldest of 19 children. She lives with her father, King Watkins I, and her mother the Queen. Alicia takes care of all the Princes and Princesses, and they all take care of the baby. The King works in a government office where payday is never often enough! One day he stops at the fishmonger’s to buy some salmon and meets the Good Fairy Grandmarina. Grandmarina instructs him to tell Alicia to save the fishbone that is left on her plate after the salmon is eaten and to polish it till it shines like mother-of-pearl.

If she saves that fishbone until just the right moment, and then makes a wish, her wish will be granted. But she must use it at the right time.

Alicia does save and polish the fishbone, and keeps it in her pocket. She then proceeds to solve the many day-to-day problems of a household with so many children. As each difficult situation arises, she considers using the magic fishbone, but always decides that she can “snip and stitch and cut and contrive” to find a solution. Until one day...

Commentary: This was one of my favorite stories as a child, but it is not well-known. Although it is clearly for young readers, it was written when children’s stories were not reduced to vocabularies of 100 words. Any adult will be quick to catch the meaning behind the story: that we can usually solve the problems that face us, and only need to call in special help when we have truly done all we can on our own.

Children find the reprimands of Grandmarina to the “King” delightful- even the King can’t get away with being foolish when confronted with a fairy. To an adult reader it might seem that Alicia doesn’t hold out long enough before using the magic fishbone, but to a child, her ministrations to the household are quite extraordinary. Alicia’s eventual decision to use the magic fishbone is not a selfish one.

The real is whimsically mixed with the pretend in a way that only children accept without question. The illustrations by S. Beatrice Pearse are wonderful- some are line drawings and some in full color. Dickens attributed the story to a seven-year-old, Miss Alice Rainbird, but common belief is that she was a literary device, not a real girl.

Author info: Charles Dickens 1812-1870, is known for his novels that eloquently called for social reform without being political. He called upon detailed recollections of people and places from his life for many of the settings. Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol and other works are still highly acclaimed and read 150 years later, making him one of the truly classic authors. He is known for Gothic settings, intricate and odd characters, and ironic humor. His works are often satirized, because the characters are so easily turned into "cartoons."

Unusual Words:
quarterday- a quarterly payday

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 7

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Troy Spencer - George Kramer

Author: George Kramer
Author web: George's Blog and More
Date: 2009
Setting: anywhere, in the present day
Availability: In the anthology Elements of the Soul

Story: Troy Spencer is awakened by a phone call from his estranged sister, Joan, with the news that their mother has suffered a heart attack and is in the hospital. Outside a storm is raging, with wind tearing small limbs from trees and the rain pelting down. At first it seems as if the sister is the one who is close to their mother, but we learn that Troy is really the one who was most like the older woman.

Their mother dies, and with her last breath makes Troy promise that he will attempt to reconcile with Joan. Skeptical of any positive outcome, but determined to try for his mother’s sake, after the funeral Troy suggests that Joan meet him at their childhood home to sort through their parent’s belongings.

Troy and Joan find some wine and share a bottle. Will the alcohol open up the siblings' emotions so that they can share their thoughts?

Commentary: The story is told from Troy’s point of view, and we don’t get a glimpse of what is happening inside Joan until late in the story. Many people who have trouble getting along with relatives will probably relate to this story– wondering how the other person can act the way they do– and then coming to see things from a different perspective.

Author info: George Kramer has been writing since fifth grade and has over 150 articles published on line, in addition to writing short stories which he is organizing into two collections. He has recently finished a medical thriller, and is working on the sequel.

Born in Brooklyn, NY, Kramer was raised on Long Island. He currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife and daughter.

He says, “I want to be recognized for quality work that instills thought.” Learn more about George at George's Blog and More.


Language skills 5
Depth of meaning 6


Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Sojourner - Carson McCullers

Author: Carson McCullers
Date: 1950
Setting: primarily New York, in the 1940s
Availability: Read The Sojourner on line, free

Carson McCullers photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1959 July 31. Collection of Library of Congress

Story: John Ferris, the sojourner, has returned from Paris to the United States for his father’s funeral in Georgia. It is revealed in the first sentences of the story that he has been a world traveler, and his half-awake, half-asleep dreams may symbolize his inability to grasp real life.

While waiting in New York, to catch a plane back to Europe, he happens to see his ex-wife, Elizabeth. He follows her for blocks, but can’t quite convince himself to approach her. He returns to his hotel, and impulsively calls Elizabeth. She invites him to dine that evening with her new husband and family; he accepts.

The evening is pleasant, but with moments of strain, politeness, and always that sense of unreality. Elizabeth plays the piano- reminding John of what he has lost, John speaks cautiously with Bill, her current husband. The most distressing moments come when their young son Billy learns that this stranger and his mother used to be married. He cannot accept this as a possible situation, and after being initially friendly with John, turns hostile when his outbursts result in being told that he can’t stay up to have cake for dessert.

John tries to focus on his current love, Jeannine, and her son. He even portrays the relationship to Elizabeth and Bill as stable and that they are on the brink of marriage. The truth is that Jeannine is just one more woman in a sequence of loves since the divorce, and he doesn’t particularly like her son.

The story closes with a poignant scene, back in Paris, between John and Jeannine’s boy, Valentin. John reaches out in an attempt to create an actual relationship.

Commentary: The Sojourner seems to be descriptive of John Ferris both in a physical sense- he never stays in one place for long, and a psychological sense- he is unable to form lasting relationships.

He was close to his father, but "Papa Ferris" is now dead. He has lost Elizabeth who haunts him; her music keeps coming back to him in inverted, minor motifs, always fragmented. He has lost a father, he has no wife, no son, no one to hold him in one place. There is a sense that John always brings too little to a relationship, and that too late. The final sentence Valentin speaks is the essence of the problem: "Monsieur Jean, the guignol is now closed."

Author info: Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith in the state of Georgia, 1917. She is best known for the novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Her stories were always set in the American South, and always dealt with themes of the difficulties of love and human relationships. Her health was fragile. She suffered several strokes at an early age, and died in 1967.

Unusual Words:
The Tuileries- gardens at the Louvre museum in Paris
guignol- refers to a puppet theatre which is sometimes playing at the Tuileries

Language skills 10
Depth of meaning 10


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Elements of Time

Here is the trailer for the newly released anthology of short stories and poetry from Twin Trinity Media, Elements of Time.

Authors include:
Lindsay Maddox
Rissa Watkins
M. Lori Motley
Andi Caldwell
Steven Thor Gunnin
Jo Brielyn
Lucinda Gunnin
Nancy Smith Gibson
Linda St. Cyr
Cathy Graham

Laurie Darroch-Meekis
Felicity Tillack
Jennifer Wright
Lucinda Gunnin
Andi Caldwell