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Showing posts from May, 2010

Short stories 141-145

The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. Wilde had a talent for writing tales that played expertly on the emotions that was perhaps only equalled by Hans Christian Andersen. This story is no exception – it’s a tale of redemption that, while sugary sweet, can still bring a tear to the eye and has deservedly become a classic. Recommended.

Julia Cahill’s Curse” by George Moore. Originally from The Untilled Field. A rather good story about an independent-minded young woman and her revenge against the patriarchy.

That Brute Simmons” by Arthur Morrison. Originally from Tales of Mean Streets. A humorous tale of a husband who finally got enough. Recommended.

Here ends the chapter of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh stories and the short stories of the Germanns begin.

“The Coming of Gandin” by Gottfried von Strassburg. Originally from Tristan and Iseault. A self-contained story from a longer narrative, a clever story of trickery turned against a trickster.

“Bruin the Bear and Reynard the Fox”…

Just finished

A commenter on the Smart Bitches blog mentioned that the plot of a book a reader was looking for the title of sounded like a modern rip-off of Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub and set off a discussion of that book. So naturally I had to read it to see for myself what they were talking about.

I am ashamed to admit that I have several of Georgette Heyer's novels sitting on my TBR shelf, waiting to be read. You see, I love Heyer's writing. She is my favourite writer of historical novels, and yet I have had some of those books for several years and never tried to read them, because I have just never felt like it. In the meantime I have re-read most of my Heyer favourites at least once.

Well, the discussion finally got me into the mood to read more Heyer, and need I say I loved it? I did, although not as much as These Old Shades, in which the Duke of Avon and Léonie, the parents of the hero of this book, found each other. The Marquis of Vidal, their son, is not as attractive a…

Friday night folklore: The bear and the baby

I will probably include one or two tales of selkies and kelpies in this collection later on - folklore that Iceland shares with other northern European countries like the Faeroe Islands, Norway, Ireland and Scotland. However, I haven't come across the following piece of folklore in the folk tales of other countries. If you know of similar folklore about bears in other countries, please leave a comment.

The story goes that bears(*) are really humans under a curse, and that the she-bears give birth to human babies that only turn into bears if the mother is able to pass her paw over them.


The story is told that once upon a time on Grímsey, an island and the northernmost inhabited part of Iceland, that a man noticed a she-bear that looked poorly. He went into the barn and got her some warm cow's milk to drink. Later that same night, when he came back to give the cows their evening feed, the she-bear was in the barn, giving birth. He was able to get one cub from her - a large and he…

Short stories 136-140

As you can see below, I have started linking to online editions of the stories I have been reading. I have also gone back to the previous 365 short stories posts and linked to all the stories I could find online. I will continue to do so as I post more mini-reviews. If anyone wants to discuss the stories with me, you can post a comment under the post for the story in question.

The White Trout” by Samuel Lover. A dramatised folk tale or a short story written to resemble a folk tale, this is a nicely mythical story of how a supernatural event turns a bad man good. (The edition I read begins with the sentence "There was wanst upon a time..." - the online edition is longer)

“The Old Man’s Tale of the Queer Client” by Charles Dickens. From The Pickwick Papers. A dramatic and atmospheric tale of obsessive vengeance. While a modern reader might find it somewhat overwritten and even melodramatic, it is a fine example of the English 19th century short story. Recommended. (I'm li…

The Princeton Murders by Ann Waldron

Here is the seventh book I read for the Bibliophilic Books Challenge, which puts me just past the halfway point of the Bibliomaniac level.

This book fits into the challenge in several ways:
The main sleuth is a journalist, and her writing course is featured and the classes described several times; the other teachers are writing or have written books (one is a world-famous author) - two even have motives for murder related to their books; and the students are writing assignments that are part of what drives a section of the story.

Genre: Mystery
Year of publication: 2003
No. in series: 1
Series detective: McLeod Dulane
Type of mystery: Murder, cosy
Type of investigator:A, journalist and lecturer in non-fiction writing at Princeton University
Setting & time: Princeton University campus, New Jersey, USA

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist McLeod Dulane is thrilled to be given a chance to teach journalistic writing at Princeton University, but her enthusiasm wanes somewhat when two of her coll…

Short stories 131-135

“Roberto’s Tale” by Robert Greene. Originally from Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit Bought with a Million of Repentance. Ugh! (The edition i read seems to have been heavily edited from the original, so no link).

True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal” by Daniel Defoe. A rather dull ghost story that reads more like a newspaper article than a deliberate work of fiction.

The Story of an Heir” by Joseph Addison. Originally published in The Spcetator. A short romantic moral tale.

“The Disabled Soldier” by Oliver Goldsmith. Originally from The Citizen of the World. Another short moral tale, but not quite so sickly sweet as the previous one.

"The Bridal of Janet Dalrymple" by Sir Walter Scott. Although I can’t find a publication date for this story to confirm it, this seems to be an early version of the story Scott would later expand into novel form in The Bride of Lammermoor. The tightly written dramatic narrative of the tragic story of thwarted love is ruined by an unnece…

Now reading

The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters, being the 6th chronicle of Brother Cadfael.

Here Brother Cadfael is thinking about fate and accidents of birth:

Well, they happen, the lightning-strokes of God, the gifted or misfortunates who are born into a world where they nowhere belong, the saints and scholars who come to manhood unrecognised, guarding the swine in the forest pastures among the beech-mast, the warrior-princes villein-born and youngest in a starving clan, set to scare crows away from the furrow. Just as hollow slave-rearlings are cradled in the palaces of kings, and come to rule, however ineptly, over men a thousand times their worth.

Short stories 121-125

“The sailor and the pearl merchant”. A Persian fairy tale. A splendid example of classical storytelling that would not have felt out of place in The Thousand Nights and One Night. Recommended.

“Khaled and Djaida” by Al-Asma'i. Originally from The Romance of Antar. An entertaining Arabian tale of pride, love and heroism, with a surprisingly feminist heroine.

“Esyllt and Sabrina” by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Originally from The Chronice of Geoffrey of Monmouth. A sad legend that seems mostly to have been composed to give an etymology to some English place names.

Here begins the part of the book that contains stories by English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh authors.

“The Humbling of Jovinian” by Anonymous. Originally from the Gesta Romanorum. A particularly loathful Christian parable clearly meant to be inserted into sermons. Definitely not recommended.

“Lludd and Llevelys” by Anonymous. Originally from The Mabinogion. A Welsh folktale with magical elements. Made me want to read the rest of The …

Friday night folk tale: Axlar-Björn

In Snæfellsnes in western Iceland there lived, in the 16th century, a man who to this day remains the country’s most notorious serial killer (as a matter of fact, I can't even think of another one). His name was Björn, and he was nick-named after the farm he lived on and called Axlar-Björn. While he was a real person, he has become the subject of several folk tales. His wife, Þórdís, was his accomplice. In the version of the story I am retelling here she is however called Steinunn. Here is his story – one folk tale version:

When Björn’s mother was pregnant with him, she was overcome with a longing to drink human blood. She hid it for a long time, but finally her husband was able to drag it out of her. He loved her very much and so he humoured her and gave her some of his own blood to drink. After this she had some bad nightmares and became filled with a fear that the child she was carrying would be a monster of some kind.

When he was 5 years old, Björn was sent to live as the foster…

Short stories 126-130

“The Dream” by Apuleius. Originally from The Golden Ass. A satisfyingly spooky tale with a horrible twist. Recommended.

“The Dove and the Crow” by Anonymous. Originally from the Panchatantra. An interesting Indian fable about the weak coming together to defend themselves from the strong. Rather strangely titled, as the dove is only briefly mentioned in the beginning passages.

“The Story of Devadatta” by Somadeva. Originally from Katha-Sarit-Sagara. An anecdote about the dangers of marrying out of one’s class.

“Jamshid and Zuhak” by Abul Kasim Mansur Firdawsí. Originally from The Book of the Kings. A story about ancient kings and power struggles that reminds me strangely of the Nordic tales of antiquity (Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda) and even the Nordic myths.

Launcelot’s Tourney” by Sir Thomas Malory. Originally from Le Morte d’Arthur. An interesting tale of chivalry and justice. This reminds me that I have been planning to read the Morte d’Arthur for ages. Maybe I should make it a r…

Short stories 121-125

I am changing the short story challenge. Instead of reading stories from all by short story collections books by turn I am going to read the biggest of the unthemed collections, Great Short Stories of the World, from cover to cover. Since it contains over 200 short stories, I expect it will last me until November. When I finish it, I will either go back to the challenge as I originally planned it, or choose another collection.
Henceforth, since some of the stories in this book are so short that including such micro-stories in a challenge like this feels like cheating, I will only count the ones that are over 2 pages long, although I will be reading them all.

And now for the stories:

“The Marvelous Minstrel”. Folk tale. From The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. One of those supposedly humorous folk tales about pointless cruelty to animals that I just don’t get. Do people really think they are funny?

“Don’t You Know Who I Am?” by Adèle Lang. From Big Night Out . About a typi…

Folk tale: The hidden ones

Continuing from last week, here is another explanation of the origin of elves. The asterisks indicate notes that I have put below the story.

Once upon a time a man was travelling. The story does not state where or when or what his business was, but it was far away and long ago. He got so totally lost that he didn't know where we was or what direction he was heading in. Eventually he came to a farm and knocked on the door. A middle-aged woman came to the door and invited him in, in the true spirit of hospitality that was common back then. The inside of the house was clean and inviting and the woman led him to the baðstofa(*), where there were two beautiful young women. These three women appeared to be the only people living on the farm. They received him well, fed him handsomely and showed him to a bed for the night. He asked to share a bed with one of the girls, and was allowed to do so (**).

During the night the man turned to the girl and wanted to make love to her (or take advanta…

Bibliophilic Book Challenge: Stevenson Under the Palm Trees by Alberto Manguel

Here is another Bibliophilic Book challenge book (my sixth), this one a novel about a famous author. In the story, he is writing his final book, Weir of Hermiston (although it is never mentioned by title).

Year published:2004
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: Samoa, 1894

Possible S-P-O-I-L-E-R-S ahead.

At sunset one day Robert Louis Stevenson meets Mr. Baker, a sinister Scottish missionary, on the beach below his house on Samoa. This meeting is the prelude to a nasty spate of violence that causes a stir in Stevenson’s mind.

The writing is evocative and lovely. The story reworks of some of Stevenson’s own themes, especially those of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, causing the reader some unease because of the suggestion that perhaps Mr. Baker is really Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde, or making them wonder if perhaps the whole story is a figment of Stevenson’s fevered imagination.

I think I have mentioned before that I am not particularly fond of authors taking real people and inserting th…

Bibliophilic book challenge: The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton

This book, the 5th I read for the challenge, fits into the Bibliophilic challenge by virtue of the whole story turning on books, reading and literacy. The camel bookmobile, by the way, is a real phenomenon:





Year published: 2007
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: (mostly) a small village in Kenya, 2003.

An American librarian goes to Kenya to help start up a mobile library, carried on camel-back, to bring books to remote villages out in the bush. One day two books are not returned in a tiny nomadic settlement, Mididima, and knowing that unless they are returned the library will stop going to that particular village, the American goes alone to the village to try to persuade the borrower to return them. The village is in conflict about the library: some value it for the promise of literacy and window on the outside world it has brought to the village, while others fear that it heralds the destruction of the tribe’s culture. All of them, however, want to return the missing books because it affec…

Another book of cartoons I am reading

This one is Icelandic, a compilation of several previously published collections of single-panel cartoons by artist and playwright Hugleikur Dagsson. They are sometimes funny, generally shocking and always crude, both in execution and content.

The humour is dark and cutting and there are absolutely no taboos. You might not want your kids to look at or read them, but for exposing society's fears and the sick and sordid things people will say and do to each other they are brilliant. The humour mostly comes from the style, which is child-like and crude, and when combined with the often sickening content it can make you smile or even laugh, in the same way that an old, low-tech splatter movie can - not because it's really funny but because it's so outrageously excessive and over the top that you don't know what else to do. Above all else, they should make you stop and think.

Here is a handful of his cartoons if you want to check them out. He has three books out in English,…

It's funny

... how one book sometimes leads me to the next. The cover artwork of Sarah Caudwell's The Sibyl in Her Grave reminded me of something, but the name of the cover artist (Virginia Norey) wasn't familiar.

A couple of days after I started reading it I had an errand at the National Library, and took some time to browse. The browsing brought me to the aisle of art books, among which I noticed a whimsical spine with the hand-lettered word Amphigorey on it. It turned out to be the Edward Gorey book I mentioned earlier, and once I opened it, I realised that what the cover of The Sibyl in Her Grave reminded me of was Gorey's artwork.

So I took it home to read, and have been enjoying Gorey's inky black humour between chapters of The Sibyl in Her Grave. I also brought home another volume of cartoons which are no less dark, although cruder than Gorey's both in execution and humour (more on that later).

Now reading

The Sibyl in Her Grave, by Sarah Caudwell.

Oxford professor Dr. Hilary Tamar (gender unknown) is the narrator. Here she (or he, as the case may be) comments on the season:

It was, as I have mentioned, the second week of August: that season of the year when the warm days of summer draw luxuriantly towards their fruitful and abundant climax and there is an almost universal impulse to give thanks in some way for the richness and generosity of the earth; that is to say, in the case of an upper-class Englishman, to go out and kill something.

This has to be one of the most entertaining first person narrators I have come across, but I expect he (or she, as the case may be) would be terrifying in a class-room.

Bibliophilic Book challenge: The Hours by Michael Cunningham

This book perfectly fits the Bibliophilic Books challenge. Not only is one of the characters preoccupied with reading a novel, but another character is busy writing the same novel, and the third main character is preparing a party to honour a writer friend who has won a literary award.

Year published: 1998
Genre: Novel
Setting & time: New York, end of the 20th century; London, 1923; Los Angeles, 1949.

The lives of three women, separated from each other by decades, are intertwined and mirrored by each other, as each goes about her business on a single day. Clarissa, nick-named Mrs. Dalloway by the friend she is preparing a party for, goes out to buy flowers; Virginia Woolf, in a London suburb, is living in fear of the return of her migraines, writing Mrs. Dalloway and longing to move back into the city; and Laura Brown, in L.A., is straining against the ordinariness of her life, reading Mrs. Dalloway and trying to be a good wife and mother but wanting something else.

The narrative alte…

Friday night folklore: Eve's hidden children

It is a suitable beginning for this project to start with an origin myth. The Icelandic term that is the linguistic equivalent to the English word "elf" is "álfur", but it is considered somewhat pejorative, which is why we prefer to call them "huldufólk", meaning "the hidden people". There are two stories about their origins in my selection of tales from the Jón Árnason folk tale collection. Here is one:

Once upon a time God came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him joyfully and showed him their house and their possessions, and also their children. God asked Eve if she had any more children than the ones she had shown him, but Eve told him that no, these were all her children. But the truth was that Eve had not had time to give some of the children a wash before God arrived, and so had hidden the unwashed ones out of view. But of course the all-knowing, all-seeing God knew this. So he said to Eve: "That which you have tried to hide from …

Now reading, and listing dilemma (brought on by sleeplessness)

Amphigorey by Edward Gorey. It's going to be a bugger to list, because while it is one volume, it is also a collection of 15 books, previously published separately as standalone works. Do I list it as one book, or as 15?

When I have come across such volumes in the past, I have listed them as separate books, e.g. The Once and Future King as 4 books and The Gormenghast Trilogy as three, but the Gorey books are short works and the whole volume is perhaps 200 pages all in all (it's unpaged, so this is an estimate based on thickness).

It's been ages...

... since a book made me cry, but the passage below brought tears to my eyes. McLean is writing about a grave he found in the cemetery in Ferryland, Newfoundland. The headstone showed that a couple, living in the late 1800s, had lost 6 young children in the space of 4 years.

Maybe when death is all around you, maybe when everyone's children are dying, maybe when the winter blows cold and the nights are dark and your ten-year old daughter gives a little cough and your heart seizes and you look at your husband with frightened eyes and then the priest comes and then she dies, maybe you find a way to make sense of things. But how, after five have gone, could you have a sixth? And how, when your last boy dies, could you plant a crop, go to church, milk a cow, eat a meal, smile, laugh, carry on?

From Welcome Home: Travels in Smalltown Canada, by Stuart McLean.

I'm on the home stretch

...of Welcome Home by Stuart McLean. A rambling, nostalgic journey around the provinces of Canada, nearly 20 years ago. I would quite like to see what things are like now in the small towns McLean visited when he was writing this book.

This book has made me want to visit Canada, although I would probably go on a road trip.

Short stories 116-120

“The King of Sacrifices” by John Maddox Roberts. From The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives . A rather bloody little lesson on ancient Roman history and religion. Liked the narrative voice – must check out the novels starring Decius Caecilius Metellus.

The Mask” by Guy de Maupassant. From Mademoiselle Fifi and other stories . A rather good story about a man who tries to hang on to his youth.

“Orange Horses” by Maeve Kelly. WT From Wildish Things. A rather horrific story about women in an Irish Traveller community.

“The Case of the Distressed Lady” by Agatha Christie. From Parker Pyne Investigates . Clever story about Christie's least famous problem solver.

The Withered Arm” by Thomas Hardy. From The Penguin Book of English Short Stories . A well-constructed and -written if a tad melodramatic story.

Short stories 111-115

“The Girl in the Train” by Agatha Christie. From The Golden Ball . A silly, frothy little mystery.

“One Happy Family” by John S. McFarland. From A Treasury of American Horror Stories. An exploitation of one of those nasty little American hillbilly myths. Rather effectively creepy and a good job of building up a frisson of fearful expectation.

“Drakestail”. Fairy tale. From Best-loved Folktales of the World. A whimsical story about a pint-sized hero with magical helpers. Definite appeal for kids.

“Life” by Bessie Head. From Wayward Girls and Wicked Women . A brilliant but ultimately tragic story about what can happen when two worlds clash. Recommended.

“Lyfsalafúin” (The Pharmacist's Wife) by Anton Tsjekhov. From Á ég að segja þér sögu . Sweet and full of longing and nostalgia.

The results are in

... for the poll. The folk tales will be appearing on this blog. I will be posting one Icelandic folk tale each Friday night, starting next Friday. I also decided that tales of places and landscape features I have photographed really belong on Iceland etc., so every now and then I will be posting such a tale over there.

Reading report for April 2010

I finished only 9 books in April. This is due to lots of overtime work coming my way. I am also in the process of decluttering my apartment, which is taking a lot of time, during which I listen to Rob Inglis' beautiful reading of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. It’s funny, but the more stuff I get rid of, the easier it becomes to throw out even more, and I suddenly found myself able to cull more than 50 books, so the TBR stack has been somewhat reduced. I did put some of the books on a TBR list because I still want to read them, but they are available from the library so there is no reason to have them cluttering up my bookshelves, waiting to be read.

Of the books I read, 1 was a Bibliophilic Challenge Book , 2 were Top Mysteries, 3 were TBR, and 4 were non-challenge books. One of the top mysteries was also TBR.

The books:
John Boyne : The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. YA novel about the horrors of the Holocaust. Angela Carter: Expletives Deleted. Literary essays and criticism. Bi…