Friday, November 14, 2014

A Week Like Any Other Novellas and Stories by Natalya Baranskaya

Natalya Baranskaya is considered one of the Soviet Union's finest short story writers.  Most of her work was written in the 1960's but were eventually translated into English after the Soviet's fall.

A Week Like Any Other: Novellas and Stories is a collection of short stories. They are mostly about women and their lives in Soviet Russia.  It's important to remember she wrote these stories and they were popular in the Soviet Union during her lifetime.  Therefore don't expect any commentary on the harshness of living under a totalitarian regime.

Nevertheless, she does manage to convey the challenges people had trying to combine the ingredients every human wants for a meaningful life:  work, family, friendships.  Her writing is fluid and funny at times but mostly poignant.  It occurred to me that these stories couldn't really be classified as propaganda pieces because they don't spout tired cliches about how blissfully utopian life is under Communist rule.  I wonder if because, living inside that world, Branskaya thought she was presenting an idealistic life without realizing how hard that life was compared to Western countries.

In the first story, the best one I think, A Week Like Any Other, the narrator, a young woman, describes each day and hour of her week.  The pressures of getting up, getting the kids ready for school, breakfast for everyone, rush to work, rush to lunch, rush home to make a late dinner, get kids to bed, start over.

Inside that framework we see the woman's relationship with her husband --strained-- her children--neglected, although no more than any child who spends most of his childhood in daycare--her co-workers, the pressures to succeed and not miss any work regardless of her health or children sick.  She stays late, perpetually trying to get on top of her work, never quite succeeding.  

The story sounds tedious, but it is really quite interesting.  You are the invisible party to her life.  Sympathizing with her kids as they cry for her, hoping she and her husband stick it out, hoping she gets her work done and not get fired.

The other stories are shorter and perhaps not as interesting other than they show life in the Soviet Union.  One of the stories is much like the first one except it is told from a man's perspective.  A man who is trying to get ahead at work but is having to kow tow to ambitious bosses, watch what he says or how he reacts so there isn't a government investigation, and finally having to hide in exile until different leaders come into power that make it safe for him to return to work. 

  The government inspectors are not presented as people to be feared but rather as father figures who "take care" of everyone to make things right.  Nevertheless, there is an element of fear in knowing that there is an umbrella of authority watching every trite thing you do.  

I'm surprised the author got away with exposing such obvious intrusive tactics at the hands of the government.  Maybe this kind of intrusion was so normal under Soviet policy that it occurred to neither her or government censors there was anything wrong or abnormal about it.

What disturbed me was noticing how not very different life in America has become with all our "accountability" to government regulations.  We're not too far behind totalitarian regimes.

The remaining stories are about young women in love, not always requited, a young girl who wants to live with her father instead of her mother until she realizes he has mistresses, and a girl with a bad reputation in her village and how she copes with it, also how she causes it.

Each story provides a colorful view of Russian/ Soviet culture.  I don't know if I would read anything else by the author but I did enjoy this collection. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories edited by Alan Ryan

As I said in the previous post, even though these book reviews are being published in November, these are the stories I read throughout the month of October.  Autumn is the perfect season for scary stories, although I suppose the dark wintry days and nights in January would also suffice.

The Penguin Book of Vampire Stories is another anthology of stories dating from 1816 (The Fragment of a Novel by Lord Byron) to 1984 (Bite Me Not by Tanith Lee).  If one starts reading at the beginning and works his way to the end, he can see a transformation of the idea of Vampirism and the stories change accordingly.

Lord Byron wrote his fragment as a part of the contest that also included Mary Shelly's Frankenstein.  Whether Byron's story would have ultimately beat Shelly's will never be known because he quickly lost interest in writing it and took off for Europe with his companion, John Polidori.  This friendship deteriorated as well and Polideri and Byron parted ways on such acrimonious terms that Polideri wrote a Vampire story to its completion and to anyone who has read it, it's obvious who the Vampire is.  Hint:  Mysterious aristocrat appears at all the wealthy parties, seduces woman, and destroys their lives.  Not because he's a playboy, but because he's a Vampire(!) and sucks their blood for a living.

This collection also includes Good Lady Ducayne, Carmella, For the Blood is the Life as well as M.R. James An Episode of Cathedral History.  All of which deservedly have their place in the Hall of Greatest Vampire Stories Ever Told and been reviewed in my previous post.  That is the difficulty with anthologies.  One tends to come across the same tight circle of stories by the same authors.

 M.R. James' in 1919.  After that there is a jump of some years to 1931 and the stories develop into Science Fiction.  No longer is the Vampire simply evil.  He now is a predator, perhaps from another planet or a spiritual predator.  This last type is in perfect keeping with the older ones that were allegories of good vs. evil or the Christian being attacked by Satan.

The best example of the latter is The Mindworm (1950) by C. M. Kornbluth.  His vampire feeds off people's thoughts but is waylaid by a surprisingly old fashioned method. An example of the former would be Shambleau.  It takes place on another planet where a spaceman Spiff type character meets a strange woman creature who turns out to have her roots in the legend of Medusa.

I must confess the last few stories didn't interest me at all.  They were written after 1950 and have a definite modernist viewpoint.  By that I mean that the vampire is no longer a bad person.  Oh, he or she still preys on people, sucks their blood and all that but now it is an expression of their love. Or simply their nature and since right and wrong doesn't exist anymore, who are we to judge? The straw characters who are set up to judge in these stories are very stupid, narrow minded people indeed.  At least that's how they're made to look in these stories.

  I think one of the best stories is Carl Jacobi's Revelations in Black.  A man finds an old book in a bookstore, brings it back to his apartment to read it but finds that by reading it, he has unbound the "people" that were imprisoned by it.  I like the gradual revelations the story produces and the imagery it provides.  The man's escape is very narrow and exciting for the reader.

The editor provides a brief biography of each author and other works they wrote.  As a result I've enlarged my library-especially my Kindle- with more collections by these same writers.  The good news is because of the age of these writers most of their works are in public domain.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories edited by Leslie Shepard

It's that time of the year again when I looooove to read spooky stories.  Even though most of these stories will be posted after Halloween, I read them during the month of October.  Anyway, I think cold wintry months are the perfect time to read scary stories. 

The Dracula Book of Great Vampire Stories does not have a large selection but they were well chosen.  These stories are mostly of the traditional: vampires symbolize evil that attempts to seduce humans to damnation.  Each story is developed along the lines of a predator, the vampire, stalking their prey in order to maintain their own earthly existence while dooming others to the same fate.

The vampire myth provokes a lot of questions.  In the Bible Satan is described as a "raging lion seeking whom he may devour." (1 Peter 5:8)  His own eternal destruction is pending and he rages against it by attempting to turn as many people away from God before that time comes.  The epitome of railing against hopelessness and striving to destroy.

The legends of vampirism, however they originated, came to become metaphors of this spiritual battle.  That's one of the reasons why I enjoy them.  The other is because a well written spooky story is just plain exciting.

Authors include Sheridan Le Fanu.  His Carmella is here.  Carmella is probably one of the best written vampire stories ever.  It is not long but very creepy.  It is told in first person narration by a young, lonely girl who develops a friendship with another girl.  Le Fanu uses the writing strategy called first person narrator, audience omniscience.  This is where the narrator is unreliable but the reader can see what's going on.  You want to dive in the book and save the person from what you can see is about to destroy them.  

This is true for the narrator in Carmella.  She informs the reader of facts that allow them to form conclusions even though she seems unable to form those same conclusions.  I don't want to give the story away.  Just know it is a tale of high suspense.

Good Lady Ducayne is different from the others because it takes place in the 19th century in New England.  Mary Elizabeth Braddon writes using colloquial dialect, giving the story an "Americana" feel. It's hard to believe it is a vampire story.  In fact the word "vampire" is never used.  A woman, Lady Ducayne, lives in a house alone, does absolutely nothing for herself, yet manages to get men to marry her and women of the village to do all her cooking and cleaning.  Every last person who helps her gets sick and dies.  It takes way too many incidents of this type to happen before finally no one in the village will help her. 

Other stories are F. Marion Crawford's For the Blood is the Life.  It takes place in Italy and involves a poor gypsy girl who is murdered but comes back as a vampire.  She waits for a young man who passes by on a certain road each day.  He has just lost all his money and friends and must now work hard all day and return to his lonely house each night.  The young man knows this woman is evil but the temptation is too strong.  I think in this case the temptation is that he has been utterly rejected by everyone else and a person will accept evil love if wholesome love is not available.

A couple of the stories are very Victorian, in that they are more melodramatic than scary, but E.F. Benson's The Room in the Tower is one of my favorites.  The first person narrator, a man, has a recurring dream throughout his life that finally comes to terrifying fruition.

The only one I didn't really care for was Guy de Maupassant's story, The Horla.  The Horla was more in line with the science fiction approach to the supernatural.  Which is to say, they write stories explaining how what we take to be supernatural has a natural explanation: like, say, aliens.  (That was sarcasm, by the way.) The Horla is a superpowerful being that is higher up on the food chain than humans.  Therefore it is not immoral for them to prey on us.  Well, according to Maupassant.  If one believes humans are made in the image of God and therefore precious to him, it's called murder.

The final story is a narration about a supposedly authenticated vampire occurrence.  This I found not too interesting either.  While I enjoy the metaphor of good vs evil, I'm not going to lose sleep over the possibility that vampires exist.  

This is the first of several "spooky" books I am going to review.  I hope I entice you to read some of them.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell

This is the first book I've read by Malcolm Gladwell but I have a couple more in cue.  I hope they are all as interesting as this one.

Malcolm Gladwell is a writer for The New Yorker and is known for seeing common themes from a unique angle.  What the Dog Saw is a collection of essays about a variety of subjects.  Many of them informative about things I never really wondered about before but found interesting all the same.

Part one is about different people who became successful commercially by being the first to think of marketing something no one else considered.  The first essay is about Ron Popeil's development of a commercially available rotisserie machine.   The second is about the Heublein Company developing a variety of mustards when there was originally just the yellow option. Other essays include the lady who made bleaching hair acceptable to the common housewife and fascinating discoveries about birth control, pregnancy and breast cancer rates.  That last one was especially interesting.  Apparently the less periods you have, such as when you're pregnant, the lower risk you have for developing breast cancer.  The last is probably the most interesting.  It is about the "dog whisperer".  A man, Cesar Millan, who is called in to train spoiled, mean dogs.  I learned a lot about my own dog's behavior.  My husband, Josh, now uses the "nip" on my dog Odie, to correct his behavior.

The second part is about law breakers:  Enron, helping the homeless by providing them homes because it's cheaper than putting them in jail, how ineffective mammograms are and just when exactly is something plagiarism and is it always bad?  The most interesting of these essays for me was The Art of Failure, why some people choke and blow it, even when they are experts at their field.  The last chapter is also interesting because Gladwell shows how major mess ups like the Challenger Explosion cannot be traced to any one cause but a number of unrelated incidents that make it impossible to circumvent such accidents.

The last part is about intelligence and how people use it.  One interesting chapter was about so called "experts" who supposedly can predict finding criminals.  How do people hire the right person, how accurate is criminal profiling and "What Pit Bulls Can Teach Us About Crime."  Being a dog person, I especially liked that last one.

In all of these essays, Gladwell provides thought-provoking observations that cause the reader to rethink a variety of attitudes that he or she takes for granted as well as provide information for the origins of other things that I personally had never pondered but enjoyed learning about.

I look forward to reading my other Gladwell books.  He also has some interesting speeches on youtube.

Malcolm Gladwell's speech at Googles Zeitgeist

Monday, October 20, 2014

Log Cabin Deep in the Heart of Texas Honeymoon chapter One

After getting married June 28th Josh and I left Longview for Central Texas.  We drove down to about twenty miles south of Austin, off the beaten tracks onto a ranch where we spent a couple of days in a log cabin.  It was built in 1840.  The owner had found it abandoned on some property out in west Texas and brought it back.  He and his wife renovated it.  He added a iron wrought roof, put electricity and air conditioning in it but hid everything so the look is primitive but with all the comforts of our modern time.

His wife filled the house with period furniture and antiques.  All the lights were original oil lamps that were adapted for electricity.

I must admit that the nights were very dark and a little spooky.  We would sit out in a swing in the lawn and see wild hogs running around the house.  Luckily the cabin was surrounded by an old wooden fence.

It was peaceful sitting on the swing at night listening to the night sounds.

Strictly speaking, our log cabin was a bread and breakfast.  We arrived to see the table and refrigerator stocked with all sorts of treats like muffins, cereal, cookies and milk.  The refrigerator is hidden beneath the curtain dress around the sink, in the upper right hand corner of the above photo.

This is the staircase to the second floor.  The above photo shows the door to the stairwell.  Below you can see the stairs which are little more than a ladder nailed to the wall.

The first night we stayed in the upstairs bedroom but it was too inconvenient having to go up and down through the night (something I am prone to do, plus it was scary- was the ax murderer waiting below?)

The following photos are of the bedroom on the second floor.

Downstairs kitchen and living room.

The animals were used to people.  Once we brought oats for the donkeys but they became too aggressive.  It's not fun being chased down the road by donkeys, even if they were little.

In walking distance from the cabin was a river.

All in all.  The couple of days we stayed there were very peaceful.  Much needed after all the hectic preparations for a wedding.  The rest of our honeymoon was spent in Europe.  I'll show those photos in the future.