Dan Sandman

Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

51: Heart of Darkness & Other Stories by Joseph Conrad

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 16/12/2016 at 12:00 pm

heart-of-darkness-other-stories-by-joseph-conradWhen I was as an English undergraduate, Joseph Conrad was hurled at me — poor young thing. Apparently, Conrad was the grandfather of something called modernism, and, therefore, he was a very important man. Sadly, as fate would have it, I opted for an essay about James Joyce’s Ulysses. It wasn’t until a decade later, at an interview, that Conrad and I would get to know each other better.

I had turned up on time, despite having miss-navigated. The first thing I was ordered to do was sit in a room and write an essay about a Derek Walcott poem — something to do with slavery. Then I was called into a room, where I was to present a lesson plan, one-to-one, to a kind and intelligent man. Afterwards, he asked me questions about what my father did. I said my father had been an academic, but that he was now retired. In return, he said that his son was learning to play the guitar. It was a nice meeting, which inevitably led to a discussion about books, but, more unexpectedly, ended with a short tutorial on English grammar and the novels of Joseph Conrad. He seemed to pity me for failing, time and time again, to get onto a course.

As it turned out, he had only been allocated a small number of places, all of which he had already offered to previous candidates. I thought about the long and arduous journey that had led me to this room. I saw myself, stupidly dressed in an M & S suit, of which, in future, would only be used at weddings and funerals.  Lastly, I gave him my observational report, which he gracefully accepted, as our meeting — and my failed venture towards a conventional career — came to a long awaited close.

There was nothing left but Conrad.

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36: The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

In Adventure, Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 02/09/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Jungle Book by Rudyard KiplingMowgli (meaning little frog) is found as a baby and saved by Mother Wolf & Father Wolf from the sinister clutches of Sheer Khan the tiger. He is then taken in by the Pack and taught the Law of the Jungle by the friendly bear Baloo. After Mowgli is captured by the Bander-log (monkeys), the black panther Bagheera sets out on an heroic rescue mission, calling on the help of the giant snake Kaa. Following his rescue, Mowgli enters the village and learns from man-folk how to use the human tongue. The myth ends when Mowgli defeats his sworn enemy Sheer Khan and returns to the jungle.

The Jungle Book is a compilation of animal stories written by Kipling to appeal to children. Three of these short pieces, those beginning the book, are written about Mowgli; the others are based on other animal adventures. My edition, borrowed from Primrose Hill Community Library (the library below my house) also contains The Second Jungle Book. I haven’t got round to reading this yet.

Having read Kipling’s poetry and his literary novel Kim, I am now curious to find out how Kipling’s prose works in his fiction for children. What I am discovering is very pleasing to the imagination, and demonstrates Kipling’s master storytelling. The narrator never questions the fact that a boy can talk to an animal, so neither does the reader.

Timeless classic.

24: The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas Llosa

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 10/06/2016 at 12:00 pm

The Cubs and Other Stories by Mario Vargas LlosaThese early short stories from the Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa mature as they go along. The first story, giving its title to the collection, proves — by refusing to employ quotation marks — that the basic rules for writing dialogue have evolved for a very good reason. But once the collection reaches the half-way mark; we are given several illuminating examples of well balanced, neatly presented, concise fiction of a very high standard.

Lad culture circa Peru in the 50s is at the centre of this book. The first few stories, when taken as a whole, can be seen as a sequenced study of male relationships: from childhood (The Cubs) running through to adolescence (The Leaders) and into old age (The Grandfather). Woman appear as objects of desire; whilst the family, and other focal points for a balanced education, are to be rebelled against. It can certainly be said that whilst the camaraderie of machismo culture is celebrated here, the violence that underpins a world without femininity is inevitably drawn towards tragic outcomes. This becomes particularly clear when the book’s subject matter turns towards the genre of the western (A Visitor / The Younger Brother); focuses on a swimming competition between two rival lovers (On Sunday); and brilliantly depicts a duel between two members of rival gangs (The Challenge).

The overall impression is of a writer learning the ropes, developing his craft by exploring semi-autobiographical material. By the time we reach the end of the collection, a mature voice begins to resound above the deconstructions of the earliest writings. What we begin to unveil is a Peru at the cusp of a new sort of rebellion, one inspired by American culture and led by the appearance of two new social groups, distinct yet similar: the faux-masculine teenager and the idealistic student, both looking to meet girls whilst talking about football over a few beers.

Still seen in pubs and bars around the world.

41: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 09/10/2015 at 12:00 pm

Nine Stories by J.D SalingerFrom 1948 to 1953, J.D Salinger (1919-2010) published nine short stories. In the middle of this creative burst, he also wrote The Catcher in the Rye (1951). His bibliography is interesting because he barely publishes anything else. By 1965, the creative well seems to have dried up. Perhaps he was tired of the attention that surrounded fame and success. Maybe he just wanted to live his private life in private. I guess the royalties from one stupendously successful book can allow a writer to do just that.

So what does Nine Stories (1953) add to the ongoing conversation surrounding that famous American novel? Well, the answer is quite a lot. In particular, there is no Holden Caulfield to control the narrative. Instead, the narrator puts you in the room, sitting back and allowing characters to speak for themselves. The overall effect is a less opinionated narrative than in Salinger’s novel. In addition, readers are left to speculate, much like in the stories of Raymond Carver. We are given clues to what’s going, but we are encouraged to read the stories again.

In a short story, a writer only has so many words. This limitation encourages a precise and fastidious method. To be wholly satisfying, a short story needs to deliver on character and plot, without wastage. One method that Salinger applies is to have us eavesdrop on private phone conversations. This technique allows us to intone the relationship between two characters. Furthermore, it gives the characters themselves a chance to move the plot forward. These days, it would be interesting to apply this technique to instant messaging. And instead of being given access to personal letters, we could be granted permission to read characters’ email inbox’s.

Times change, techniques adapt.

05: Four Stories by Alan Bennett

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 30/01/2015 at 12:00 pm

Four Stories by Allen BennettFor the past week or so, my mother and I have been watching an Alan Bennett  DVD box set, and I have been reading this signed book. Mr. Bennett (1934 – ), our neighbourhood dramatist and actor and short story writer, lives only a stone’s-throw away from our house, and is celebrated in my country as a national treasure. He is a well known public figure, with strong connections to the National Theatre, the BBC and the British film industry. To my mother and I, he is a friendly neighbour who says hello, and a local hero who helped save our library.

This edition of Four Stories was published to celebrate Allen Bennett’s eightieth birthday. It puts these four funny and strange short stories into one readable place. The first story is a about a celebrity masseur; the second about a married couple; the third about a school teacher; and the last – the most well known – about a lady who lived in a van. Each story accurately captures everyday speech, and includes a good joke – or a heartbreaking line – on almost every page.

I can remember reading The Lady in the Van (1989) in Rose Bank shopping centre, Johannesburg. The book I had taken with me was Untold Stories (2005) – a large volume containing all sorts. Sat by myself in a foreign cafe, drinking English breakfast tea, I traveled back to Camden Town in my mind. Somehow, the warm Yorkshire accent of Alan Bennett comforted me, and got me thinking about my mother. I felt like an old friend was sitting opposite me at the table, telling me his best anecdote, and the song – called JHB Homesick Blues (2012) – I had just written melted into album track obscurity.

Where the story takes us is where we are.

22: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please by Raymond Carver

In Books, Fiction, Short Stories on 31/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I found this, well-thumbed book, at my local library’s book-sale for 50p. It was previously owned by, well known play-write and storyteller, Alan Bennett. It was a first, 1978 edition and inside, carefully placed, were included several clippings: an obituary, from The Daily Telegraph, published on August the 4th; several pages of Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver from The New Yorker, where it would have been first published, dated March 15, 1982; and an advert, taken from the same magazine, selling an “Audi Coupe $12,370 suggested retail price “[…] clearly, the quintessential Gran Turismo Sports Coupe.” Clearly.

The obituary opens with the sentence, “RAYMOND CARVER, who has died aged 50, was the master craftsman of the modern American short story.” It then goes on to give a detailed biography of Carver’s life: his marginal upbringing; his battles with alcoholism; and, eventually, his successful literary career. Today, Raymond Carver’s concise storytelling is appreciated by readers from around the world. Through his precisely written prose, Carver gave literary voice to the struggles of ordinary people. Nothing is glamorised, not much happens; what is left unsaid between people and implied by action is important: the meaning between the lines.

It had been two days since Evan Hamilton had stopped smoking, and it seemed to him everything he’d said and thought for the two days somehow suggested cigarets. He looked at his hands under the kitchen light. He sniffed his knuckles and his fingers.

The above extract, the opening lines of Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets, is a good example of direct story-writing. Instantly, the reader is introduced to the character and his current relationship with addiction. The scene is placed in “the kitchen light”, drawing the reader into an intimate, ordinarily domestic space with the character Evan Hamilton. The inclusion of “sniffed” implies an investigative action. The superfluous is edited: only what is needed remains.

I think that Raymond Carver is best read out loud. His forceful stories are enhanced, by sound and interpretation, when spoken between people. Reading these short stories out loud, preferably with good company, is also a good way of concentrating the mind; and, because every line written is important, these compact works of art require concentration to follow. Through reading this outstanding collection of short stories, spanning ten years of publication, I have been rewarded with many hours of reading pleasure.

I will always treasure this book.

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20: Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

In Books, Fiction, Romance, Short Stories on 17/05/2013 at 12:00 pm

I’m a musician who loves to read books. So when I came across, in Swiss Cottage Market, a used book themed around music, by an author I liked, I was happy. Nocturnes is a collection of five short stories, written in 2009, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh book. It’s a romantically tinged portrayal of life, a plotted-out and nostalgic comment on music, and a thoughtfully presented work of art.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

However, I’d have liked Ishiguro to focus more on the interior world of the musician: the revealing close-up portrait; the mundane, daily, unexciting humdrum of struggling to make a living or harking back to glory days. Instead, partly due to limitations of form, Nocturnes presents the reader with, to draw an analogy, five landscape photographs, which, when taken as whole, merely represent an outsider’s perspective. So, although it was a good collection of short stories, I thought it could have been less picturesque and more cogent with its theme.

At times, the book is mostly concentrated on orchestrating character’s actions and ignoring their emotional interiors. And yet, perhaps, I was, as a reader, sometimes prejudiced towards impartiality. I may have became overly concious of the artist’s craft because I write, perform and produce musical art myself. It just goes to show, when you know about a fictional work’s subject, it’s easy to pick up on its flaws.

Part of the beauty of fiction is that it is just that, fiction.