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The reasons I am reviewing these two titles together is firstly because I read them on the other last summer, but also because they both have to do with memories.  It was actually a coincidence.  I was reading Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange when I was offered Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls and I started it straight after finishing the first one ( a rare thing; often books tend to gather a bit of dust on my shelves before I start reading them).

In the past, I have read Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris and really loved it.  During one of my visits to my bookstore, I saw a few of her books on the shelves and decided to pick up Five Quarters of the Orange because it seemed to have the same feel to it.  I was not disappointed. 

I usually like books that are written by foreign people in a French setting.  I think it might be because they represent my country of origin with a much more positive point of view than I would have.  I thus get to see what is nice about France, whereas when I talk about it, I tend to describe it negatively.  Five Quarters of the Orange is set in a village near Angers, not very far from where I used to live for the most part of my life and those references to the banks of the Loire are very familiar to me.

The story is that of Framboise who settles back in the village where she grew up after living it a long time ago for a reason unknown to us.  The fact that she does not want the inhabitants to know who she is increases the mystery surrounding her departure years ago.  The narrative, then, alternates between the present and her troubles with her nephew, her memories as a child, particularly of that summer when the Germans were in town, and the recipe scrapbook she inherited from her mother, which also contains diary entries.  There are thus two plots running in parallel, which are more than enough to keep the reader alert and interested.  As Framboise remembers the past, she also manages to decipher her mother’s scrapbook thus discovering secrets hidden from her.

This is how the novel starts:

“When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-litre jar containing a single black Périgord truffle, large as a tennis ball and suspended in sunflower oil, which, when uncorked, still releases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor.  A fairly unequal distribution of riches, but then Mother was a force of nature, bestowing her favours as she pleased, leaving no insight as to the workings of her peculiar logic.

And as Cassis always said, I was the favourite.”

I love Harris’s writing.  I find it warm and generous, if that makes any sense.  I guess this has a lot to do with the fact that she talks much about food and drink, but, although this could get tiring for someone who is not particularly a foodie, it does not.  The food is just a background, something that simply is.  The story itself is gripping and I could not help to stay up until all hours to get to know a little bit more.  Of course, the mystery around Framboise’s childhood and her mother keeps the reader alert, but there is more to it.  It is also about all those memories, some happy, others not, which are recreated for our pleasure and how Harris successfully manages to convey an atmosphere.  It is a dark tale that plunges us in the life of a child with a troubled childhood and ambiguous relationship with her mother, but the narrative is so vivid and colourful that it did not feel depressing.

Christina, at The Blue Bookcase, mentions in her recent review that she was annoyed by the “fruity” characters’ names.  I must admit that it is something that also bothered me, but not sufficiently to shadow my enjoyment of this novel.

I was very surprised (and pleased) when I then started The Rain Before It Falls by Jonathan Coe to discover another story of memories and family secrets.  I did not know anything about this book except that the person who offered it to me loved it.

After her aunt Rosamond’s death, Gill has to look for Imogen, a stranger she has met only once, who is the main inheritor of Rosamond’s wealth, but also of a collection of photos and tapes.  Failure to find Imogen leads Gill and her daughters to listen to the tapes.  On them are recorded the memories a set of twenty photos of Rosamond’s choice evoke to her.  With each photo we get to discover a bit more of Rosamond’s past, but also the story of Imogen and who she was.

The set up is quite simple, but Rosamond’s narrative is a bit more complex, dealing with the tragedy her family has experienced from one generation to the next, her relationship with her cousin Beatrix, her love affair with Ruth and finally the impact the little Imogen had on her life.  Little by little, we discover the family secrets and the past of those two women connected in some strange way.  Rosamond’s story is tragic and touching and, despite the many descriptions, which can become a bit tedious, keeps you going.  The narrative alternates between the frame narrative and Rosamond’s story, which increases our desire to know more.

However, this frame narrative brought me some disappointment.  It did not bother me until the end, when Gill starts making connections between an incident that happened to her and the death of Imogen.  She then goes on about considerations on the meaning behind coincidences.  This is only a short passage, but this is how the book ends.  Why?  This was a nice story, but the ending really annoyed me.  It is as if it came from a desire to tie everything up.  This detail excepted, I enjoyed reading this novel.  It seems that I like discovering family secrets, maybe because each family has its own secrets and we are not always able to unveil the ones of our own family…

Talking about coincidences, how strange is it that a month after I came back from Canada I read two novels in which, unknowingly to me, some of their characters live in Canada?  Coincidence?  Hidden meaning?  It definitely made me smile!

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In an attempt to catch up with some classics of the short story, I started A Haunted House and Other Short Stories by Virginia Woolf a while ago.  Although I like Woolf’s novels, I find her short stories more difficult to read, so rather than reading the whole collection, I prefer to read one story every so often.

“The New Dress” is typical of Woolf’s use of the stream-of-consciousness and it seems that this story might have been intended as a chapter of Mrs Dalloway.  Indeed, we find the narrator, Mabel, at a party held by Clarissa Dalloway.  The story focuses mainly on Mabel’s feelings of inadequacy at this party, which are represented by the dress she is wearing.  Although she thought the dress to be fashionably old-fashioned, she realises, once at the party, how different she (and her dress) is from the rest of them, who are “dressed in the height of the fashion”, as she notices. 

Mabel appears as a character who had different ambitions and dreamed, and still does, of adventures.  However, she got married and like the rest them adopted a mundane style of life.  Yet, she does not seem to have the same means as the society to which she belongs and consequently feels inadequate and the subject of mockery.  

“She saw herself like that – she was a fly, but the others were dragonflies, butterflies, beautiful insects, dancing, fluttering, skimming, while she alone dragged herself up out of the saucer.  (Envy and spite, the most detestable of the vices, were her chief faults.)”

The story follows her thoughts about the dress, about the party, about who she is and who she wishes to be.  She tells herself that it is her choice not to be like the rest of them, but she also knows that she is envious of them and her final comment about her lying about enjoying herself at the party: “Lies, lies, lies”, could equally be applied to everything she says to herself about being different on purpose.

I am fond of Virginia Woolf and I enjoyed reading this story.  I like the way it explores the tensions and feelings within the character of Mabel.  Although it is anchored in the society in which Woolf lived, I think its concerns are still relevant nowadays.  I know that I have experienced the same feelings of inadequacy, either because I could not afford to be like them or simply did not want to, which still leads to the same result.

 

We have all heard of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, in one form or another, but how many of us have actually read the original version?  I had not… until this Christmas.  When I went to do my Christmas shopping, I bought some children’s versions of it and thought it would be shameful to offer this story to kids without having read it myself, so I bought a Wordsworth unabridged version for myself.

When you pronounce the name A Christmas Carol, people who have not read the book will immediately think of a very sad story (my mum actually warned me against reading it as she thought it would depress me on Christmas eve).  However, I did not find it really sad, but rather hopeful.  I had an image of Ebenezer Scrooge being a horrible character for most of the book, but he is actually easily reformed.  The first chapter depicts him as a stingy and cruel person, probably a symbol of capitalism, but it does not take much for Scrooge to change his position.  The visit of the ghost of Marley disturbs him and when the Spirit of Christmas Past brings him on a journey through the years gone by, Scrooge soon realises that he must change if he wants to know again such happiness.  The visits of the Spirit of Christmas Present and the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come only help to convince him that his decision is the right one.  Scrooge, then, becomes a generous man and “it was always said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well”.  I thus found this novella to be uplifting rather than depressing.

Its moral speaks to me: money does not make one happy.  In these days and ages, so many things have become so materialistic and Christmas tend to revolve around how much one can spend to buy shiny presents.  In the process, we have lost some important values and have forgotten that money is not what is the most important, even if we need some of it to survive.  The recession is Ireland has hit people quite badly.  After a decade of sudden economic growth, people have found themselves with very little to spend and this is particularly felt at Christmas time.  Some have had to explain their children that Santa cannot bring everything they desire, while others have become indebted to keep the standards of past Christmases.  I am not sure the latter teach their kids the right and important values of life.

My favourite part of Christmas this year was my Santa tour.  On the 23rd, I went around my friends’ houses to leave some presents for them and called in to my local mechanics and petrol station (one of the last where there is always an attendant to fill your tank) to give them a little package of sweetness.  I did not spend much money, but a lot of time and thinking.  Most of my presents were handcrafted and personalised and, instead of buying boxes of chocolates, I baked madeleines (a French type of biscuits).  Some might call it “cheap”, but I believe that in a time when we have too much of everything, we should learn again the value of things.  I believe that A Christmas Carol carries a similar message: learn to share, and share happiness above all, it cannot be bought with money.

If you remember, last week I chose a story from an old-ish collection of modern short stories that most likely belonged to my mother.  This week, I have picked up another collection titled Thirteen Modern English and American Short Stories.  I bought this collection when I was at school and wanted to practice reading in English.  The choice of stories in this collection might seem a bit more modern, but some of the stories are present in both collections.  Although this collection does not have the booklet with notes and exercises, it has some of the vocabulary translated on the opposing page.  A reflection of the development of teaching methods?

I chose a very short story and my review of it will be equally short.  “A Night at a Cottage” (I was drawn by the title) by Richard Hughes would be a perfect Halloween story (I have never got the holiday traditions right!).  I am not a specialist of ghost stories; however, this one seems to fill the requirements.  The first-person narrator tells us about that rainy night he took refuge in an abandoned cottage in a “bedraggled garden” with “pale dead sunflowers and giant weeds stirred in the rain”.  During the night, someone else enters the cottage and explains to our narrator that the cottage is abandoned because it is haunted by its former owner, who drowned several years ago.  The ending is what I expected. 

Although the story is a little bit spooky, and terribly wet, I found myself smiling while reading the ending.  I guess it is a good story because of the atmosphere Hughes manages to create with so few words, but the ending is not surprising enough for my taste.  It would have probably worked better if I were in the right set of mind.  Yet, it remains a short and enjoyable read, which one should appreciate for its use of vocabulary and for its quality of suggestiveness. 

Last night, in view of my Short Story Monday post, I picked up an collection called Twelve Very Short Stories by Modern Authors.  I do not know where I got that book; I guess it used to belong to my mother as it is obviously a little book for students in English, which contains a separate booklet with introduction, notes and exercises, and was published in 1967 by The Rainbow Library in Paris.  The stories are written by authors born from 1835 (R. Garnett) to 1890 (K. Mansfield).  I chose to read “The Luncheon” by W. Somerset Maugham.

I have now discovered that he wrote this story as part of a series of sketches for Cosmopolitan magazine as its editors were looking for stories that would fit on two pages to avoid them to be interrupted by advertisements.

I found this story to be quite funny.  The flashback that constitutes most of the story is prompted by the narrator seeing some old acquaintance at the theatre: “Do you remember the first time I saw you?  You asked me to luncheon”. 

At the time (twenty years earlier), the narrator is a young writer living in Paris, who, despite the publication of his first novel, has very little money to live on.  Yet, because he is gratified by the compliments of a fan (and perhaps the hope to meet a beautiful young woman), he accepts to bring her to an expensive restaurant in Paris.  However, the woman is far removed from his expectations and through the meal she appears as hypocritical and self-indulgent.  As the meal goes along, we see the guest ordering the most expensive dishes on the menu, while the narrator realises his budget for the month is quickly reducing.

It is a simple, but pleasant story.  Its success relies mainly on its irony as the guest keeps repeating “I never eat more than one thing”, while ordering the most succulent (and expensive) dishes from the menu, from starter to dessert.  However, twenty years later, the wheel of fortune seems to have turned as the concluding sentence reveals.

You can read this story here.

Now, I need short story inspiration (and maybe links)!  Here is the reason why:

I have decided to add my own little twist to the Canadian Book challenge.  John explains that the reason why he chose a number of 13 books is because there are 13 provinces in Canada and it thus leaves the opportunity to review a book from each.  I am quite aware I won’t manage to do the challenge that way (you can see my progress for the challenge on the page dedicated to it).  However, I find the idea great and I have decided to follow this principle by reviewing short stories instead.  Thus, in the next six months, I intend to review at least one story from each province.

Now, I need ideas!  I already have some, but not for every province (I am giving myself a bit of flexibility by allowing the stories to be either set there or written by an author born or having lived there).

  1. Newfoundland and Labrador:
  2. Nova Scotia: Alistair MacLeod
  3. Prince Edward Island
  4. New Brunswick
  5. Quebec: Clark Blaise (one of the Montreal Stories) & Mavis Gallant
  6. Ontario: Morley Callaghan & Timothy Findley
  7. Manitoba: Margaret Laurence & Carol Shields
  8. Nunavut
  9. Saskatchewan: Rudy Wiebe & Sinclair Ross
  10. Alberta: Thomas King
  11. Northwest Territories
  12. British Columbia: Audrey Thomas
  13. Yukon Territory

Any suggestion will be appreciated!

Last week, I was commenting on a blog that it is a common occurrence to encounter birds in short stories.  I find that strange.  Why is that so?  My knowledge in bird symbolism in literature is limited and I could not offer an explanation, although I can make assumptions (which I will not do here).

This is the second chapbook published by Nightjar Press and “The Beautiful Room” is as eerie, even more, as Alison Moore’s “When the Door Closed It Was Dark”

This is the story of a couple visiting houses for sale.  We do not learn much about them except that the woman has left her country to follow her partner who is starting a new job and the man is prone to anger.  The narrative is set in one of the houses they visit.  They are in the bedroom admiring the view and start having an argument because the woman wants to buy this house while her partner thinks the house is not practical and would rather live in the city.  Their argument is interrupted by a noise.  It sounds like a bird is trapped in the wall.  This gives rise to another argument as to whether they should free the bird.  The noise intensifies and they figure out that there is more than one bird.  I will not ruin the end of the story, but it is really strange.

I love that feeling when I finish a short story and start scratching my head.  It is a strange, strange story.  The beginning of the story is not deranging but once the couple  starts hearing the noise, it escalates very quickly and becomes claustrophobic.  I cannot really say more without ruining the twist for you, so I’ll just let you find it and read it…

Short Story Monday is hosted by John at The Book Mine Set.

Short St

From now on, every Monday I will join John at The Book Mine Set and others for “Short Story Monday” and will try to post a short-story review or a thought on the short-story genre.

For this first post, I have chosen a story by Alison Moore, “When the Door Closed, It Was Dark”.  But first, let me tell you a few words about this chapbook.  It is published by Nightjar, a small press in Manchester.  Every six months, Nightjar Press publishes two chapbooks.  There are only 200 or 300 copies of each title and all are numbered and signed by the author.  You can order them by contacting Nicholas Royle; a nice way to support a small press dedicated to the short story.

This story is set in a hot stuffy summer, which helps to create the suffocating atmosphere of the story.  It made me feel really uncomfortable, which I guess is a sign of how successful the writing is.  As the story progresses, it gets creepier and at no time do we get any relief.

Tina is a young woman from England.  She has just arrived to some foreign country to work as an au pair for a family in mourning composed of the baby, Father, Uncle and Grandmother, who live in a flat reached by a steep outside staircase.  Her difficulties to integrate the family are worsened by the fact that they have made sure there is no way of escape for her, taking her money and passport away from her.  Tina is thus estranged from the family but also cut away from her own family and country, thus increasing the claustrophobia already present because “when the door closed, it was dark”. 

At some point, Tina muses: “She recalled reading somewhere that if a woman is carrying a cup of tea down the stairs and falls, she won’t drop the cup because she will think it’s a baby”; indeed…

The end of the story brings you back to its beginning.  The story remains open-ended; yet, there are just enough clues through the narrative to allow the reader to come to some interpretation, though not to a closure.  As soon as I finished the story, I wanted to read it again in order to appreciate all the significance present in each carefully-chosen word.  This, I believe, shows how well crafted this story is.

Since I finished my exams, I have been reading a lot; mostlylight books to start the summer easily. I’ve come across Peter Mayle’s book, A Year in Provence, and I really enjoyed it. It is not a major book, but a very entertaining one.

As the title states, the book is about the author’s first year in Provence. It is nicely written and one is easily absorbed by it. At first, I was afraid the book would be all about food, describing meals in details. However, this is not the case, it does mention food, but it is nicely balanced with other aspects of rural life in Provence. What I mostly liked about it was how Peter Mayle managed to create an atmosphere, I could even feel the sun shine! It is full of local colour: the markets, the food, the wine, and people from the region. If you fancy a delightful light read, that’s the book for you!

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