The last time I wrote a proper short story post was in August. And the very beginning of August at that. I have missed writing about them, and more, I miss reading them with the regularity I used to. If it weren't for the short story exchange Smithereens and I are enjoying, I think all my short story reading might well have lapsed completely thanks to my current reading inertia I seem to be battling at the moment. So, thank you Smithereens for your patience. I am finally going to catch up in writing about the stories she has sent and which I have very much enjoyed.
Just a little note on what we're doing--Smithereens and I are having a postal short story exchange. Last July I threw out the idea (modeled on Stefanie and Cath's postal poetry exchange) of me sending a short story or two through the mail and my postal friend, in this case Smithereens took up my offer, would reciprocate back with a story or two selected for me to read. The choice of stories would be a surprise and then the idea is to chat or write about them after we each had a chance to read the stories. We've had three rounds of story exchanges so far, but I have been a bit slow in writing about them. As we are getting ready for our next mailing, now is the time to catch up. So I am going to work backwards from the most recent stories to the first.
I love Joanne Harris's writing and some of her books count among my favorites. I am not sure I even knew she wrote short stories, as the collection from which the two stories I most recently read has not been published in the US, A Cat, a Hat and a Piece of String. After reading them, however, I might have to look for a good used copy so I can read the rest of the stories. How perfect a story like "Would You Like to Reconnect?" for our digital age. Not just digital age, but living in a world that seems to revolve around social media. Not only is the story timely, but it is a ghost story of sorts, too, so it made for good October reading. I wonder how many parents track their children's online activity? It doesn't have to be in a manner of checking up on a (in this case grown) child, but simply being a part of their life and knowing what they are keeping busy with. In this story a mother's son introduces her to the world of social media, in particular Twitter, and it becomes a lifeline to his world. But what happens when a person is no longer part of this world. When their absence is felt through the lack of tweets. And the only interactions are the automated reminders that a friend has not posted, with the question posed of, 'would you like to reconnect?'. In this story the mother's world broadens and is redefined and then closes and narrows with a most curious and unexpected twist along the way.
"River Song" is a really wonderful story set some time after (am guessing here) WWII in the Congo. Harris wrote the story after her own experiences in the region. Children would earn money or food from the foreign tourists staying in a hotel on the river, by jumping into the rapids where the currents were most dangerous and literally riding them downstream. The children were quite young, as young as the narrator of this story even, ten-year-old Ngok. It's a rarity that a girl would do such a daring thing, perhaps even more rare that she would be better than the gang of boys who made this their 'job'. This is such a perfectly described story. In order to keep her place among those riding the rapids, she dares the head boy to a ride on the most dangerous section. The winner takes the rapids and the loser will go to work for one of the local boat makers. They will see who is the best; they'll let the river decide. Ngok, who was born downriver, finds the challenge exhilarating--"I was not simply in the river; I was the river; I sang its song; and the river sang back to me in its many voices." The river is unpredictable, however, and one false move-and with two swimmers it at once-will send even a strong swimmer spiraling out of their depth. The river really does come alive in this story, you can feel it burst down banks, smash into rocks and push everything out of its way.
Ha Jin is an author I had never read or even knew anything about. He was born in China but emigrated to the US and his work has won a number of awards. Ocean of Words is a collection of stories set on the China-Russian border in the 1970s. This is a case of reading outside my comfort zone, since the stories are essentially about army life. More often than not, trying new authors or stories I tend not to read results in a happy experience and that was the case with these. In "The Fellow Townsmen" Instructor Chen is approached in his barracks by a fellow townsman whose son is ill and asks for help despite bad blood between the two. The reader is privy to not only the discussion between the two men but the feelings of animosity Chen harbors. Jin captures so well that ambiguity that a person might feel--the annoyance and aggravation from a former situation yet that glimmer inside of being a moral person and giving aid to someone in need. Of course the last line of the story shows that sometimes we can't necessarily even explain to ourselves the things we do--in kindness or not.
"Love is in the Air" is a great story of love at first sight, no, at first hearing? I say first hearing as Kang Wandou is a talented and experienced telegraphist. He is fast and accurate though maybe not the most imaginative. Or, maybe it is his imagination actually, that gets him into trouble. Maybe it was the boredom that accompanies such a lonely job, but when the telephone rings he hears the most amazing "tingling female voice" . . . his heart is "kicking and his throat tightening." He never would have imagined a woman would call. She gives him a teasing hard time and of course, he's hooked. And you know how it goes when you find yourself with a crush on someone you don't know, it's impossible to connect with her again on the telegraph no matter when he tries. He is "bewitched" by her, and if he doesn't stop thinking about her, how will he survive!
"His first love was an unknown voice. He was scared, because he could not determine whether it was real love or merely a delusion from mental illness. Did people feel this way when they were in love? He felt sick and beside himself. How long would it take for him to grow used to this thing or get over it"?
And does this story end happily? Is this love reciprocated? Well, I will only say that Kang may need to find a new career for when he leaves the army! Some voices just ruin you for life, it seems.
Hilary Mantel's collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, gave me my first proper taste of her writing. She is one of my 'mean to read' authors. I must say "The Heart Fails Without Warning" was well-done, if slightly disturbing. I'm afraid too much time has passed for me to write about it in detail, but it does still linger in my mind as it is about a young girl with an eating disorder. The story is told from the perspective of two sisters--the younger watching her older sister 'disappear'. Month by month, listening to the sister's squabbles it becomes more obvious just what is going on and how things are going to end up.
And now, drum roll, over to Smithereens who was much more timely about writing about the stories I sent to her. Do go over and see which stories I chose to send across the pond! She has been a most receptive postal friend and a very good sport for joining me in this endeavor. It is always nicer to share stories with friends. I think I know which author I will send her next. So far it has been a mishmash of stories by a variety of writers, but I'm thinking (little teaser) I will send a smattering of stories by one writer in particular since it is also fun to compare how stories might be similar or different when written by the same author. And as Smithereen says, anyone care to join us? (I must say-thinking about and writing about the stories we have exchanged has me totally short story psyched once again . . . I feel like picking up a collection right now . . .but then I do have these to look forward to).
Oh, and I should not be envious, but I AM envious. You would never find something This Cool where I live. I'm not surprised there is one in Paris, however . . .