The Classics Club Challenge

Jennifer from holdsuponhappiness introduced me to The Classics Club. The basic idea is you read at least fifty classic books within at the most five years and write a review on your blog for each of them. I need this. I own so many unread classics that after (easily) listing the fifty books I’m going to read, I was still left with some unread novels left over. Plus, I’d love to interact with more book bloggers who are interested in classic literature.

My list is skewed towards British and American classics. I found it a bit tough to decide whether a book I own would be considered an Indonesian “classic” or a Japanese “classic” so I just made up a rule that if it is about 30 years old, I am allowed to consider it a classic.

Without further ado, here is my list:

  1. Akutagawa, Ryunosuke – Rashomon and Other Stories
  2. Austen, Jane – Emma
  3. Austen, Jane – Northanger Abbey
  4. Austen, Jane – Pride and Prejudice
  5. Bronte, Charlo tte – Jane Eyre
  6. Congwen, Shen – Border Town
  7. Cronin, A.J. – The Keys of the Kingdom
  8. du Maurier, Daphne – Jamaica Inn (Review link here)
  9. du Maurier, Daphne – Rebecca
  10. Fitzgerald, F. Scott – Tender is the Night
  11. Fitzgerald, F. Scott – The Great Gatsby
  12. Flaubert, Gustave – Madame Bovary
  13. Hemingway, Ernest – Men Without Women (Review link here)
  14. Hemingway, Ernest – The Snows of Kilimanjaro
  15. Jenkins, Elizabeth – Harriet
  16. Kawabata, Yasunari – Snow Country (Review link here)
  17. Lee, Harper – To Kill a Mockingbird
  18. Lubis, Mochtar – Perempuan
  19. Lubis, Mochtar – Senja di Jakarta (Twilight in Jakarta)
  20. Mangunwijaya, Y.B. – Burung-Burung Manyar (The Weaverbirds)
  21. Mann, Thomas – Doctor Faustus
  22. Mansfield, Katherine – The Garden Party and Other Stories
  23. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia – Collected Stories
  24. Marquez, Gabriel Garcia – One Hundred Years of Solitude
  25. Maugham, W. Somerset – Collected Stories #1
  26. Maugham, W. Somerset – Collected Stories #2
  27. Maugham, W. Somerset – The Painted Veil  (Review link here)
  28. Mihardja, Achdiat K. – Atheis (The Atheist)
  29. Mishima, Yukio – Runaway Horses
  30. Mishima, Yukio – Spring Snow
  31. Multatuli – Max Havelaar
  32. Nabokov, Vladimir – Lolita
  33. Pane, Armijn – Belenggu (Shackles) (Review link here)
  34. Pasternak, Boris – Dr. Zhivago
  35. Shakespeare, William – Hamlet
  36. Shakespeare, William – Much Ado About Nothing
  37. Shakespeare, William – Richard II
  38. Smith, Betty – A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
  39. Smith, Dodie – I Capture the Castle
  40. Smith, Dodie – The New Moon with the Old
  41. Steinbeck, John – East of Eden
  42. Steinbeck, John – Of Mice and Men (Review link here)
  43. Tanizaki, Junichiro – The Makioka Sisters
  44. Tanizaki, Junichiro – Naomi
  45. Toer, Pramoedya Ananta – Anak Semua Bangsa (Child of All Nations)
  46. Toer, Pramoedya Ananta – Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind)
  47. Tohari, Ahmad – Kubah
  48. Tohari, Ahmad – Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer)
  49. Whipple, Dorothy – Someone at a Distance
  50. Woolf, Virginia – Mrs. Dalloway
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The Emoji Book Tag

The wonderful Marwhal tagged me in my very first book tag and I am embarrassingly excited. If you are tagged, you are meant to connect five emojis you use most often with books you have read. I had such fun matching books to emoji and I can’t wait to do more book tags.

The cry/laugh emoji

This is my most-used emoji. I find many things amusing. Some things are just so awful, all you can do is laugh. A prime example: the pay rise of the Indonesian House of Representatives when they make no secret of being utter shit at their job. But I digress.

What book on my sheFeatured imagelf is so bad, it’s funny? It took me a while until epiphany struck. That singular compliment would go to Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Everyone in this novel is batshit insane. I love it. Where do I begin? I guess it’s best to just quote Heathcliff. I actually have a collection of loosely gathered Heathcliff quotes on my phone for whenever I need a good laugh.

Heathcliff [on the love of his life Cathy and her husband]:

I never would have banished him from her society, as long as she desired his. The moment her regard ceased, I would have torn his heart out, and drank his blood!

Isn’t blood-thirsty obsession sexy?

Heathcliff [on Cathy]:

You suppose she has nearly forgotten me? Oh Nelly! You know she has not! You know as well as I do, that for every thought she spends on Linton, she spends a thousand on me!

Overweening arrogance, also sexy.

My personal favorite. Also from Heathcliff:

I only wish to hear from herself how she is, and why she has been ill; and to ask, if anything that I could do would be of use to her. Last night, I was in the Grange garden six hours, and I’ll return there tonight; and every night I’ll haunt the place, and every day, till I find an opportunity of entering. If Edgar Linton [Cathy’s hubby] meets me, I shall not hesitate to knock him down… If his servants oppose me, I shall threaten them off with these pistols…

A creepy stalker, the man of my dreams. Excuse me while I laugh my guts out.

The horror emoji

This was easy peasy, since I took it to mean ‘a book that scared me.’ I am a horror fiend so I had a lot of books I could connect the emoji to. But I decided to highlight a little novel that I think is really underrated and that would be Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye. Come on now, admit that the title is intriguing!

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I was surprised to find that this novel had a pretty low rating on goodreads. I thought Your House Is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is an excellent novel. It’s not shocking, it’s not gory. The story is told in a cold, dispassionate manner, which makes the horrific things people do here even more chilling. Overall, this is a novel that induces chills and shivers rather than screams and terrors. It’s my favorite type of horror story, where the real horror comes from what people do to one another rather than supernatural events. Characters in this novel think supernatural events are behind their woes, but really, they’re just using it a front to cover up their bankrupt behavior.

Told from multiple viewpoints, the novel charts the coming-of-age of some of the village’s children. The setting is the little German town of Hemmersmoor. People here are quite poor with bleak futures. I read this book a few years ago and I have forgotten many plot threads (which means I need to reread this soon – Hooray!) but I remember the race to marry the heir of the village’s wealthiest family. It’s understandable that girls with no prospects would fight over this boy, but the things girls would do, would sacrifice to get a better social position turned my stomach. Something appalling (and disgusting) happened to the girl with ambitions to become the heir’s second wife. But for her goal’s sake, she keeps quiet about it – and lets it happen again and again. Similar things happen, where boys and girls do things out of boredom, out of petty cruelty, to climb the social ladder. All of this is told so coldly – and that makes the horror so much more compelling.

             —

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The heart eyes emoji

Another easy one. It must mean ‘a book I love.’ There were several candidates for this, but I decided to go with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Not an original passion, I know. But this is the one book that forever made me pay attention to a writer’s style. Thanks to The Great Gatsby, I am forever an easy lay for beautiful prose.

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I won’t bother telling you the plot of The Great Gatsby, I’m sure most of you know it. Even if you don’t, just read it. Despite its status as a major modern classic, you shouldn’t be intimidated. No one taught me what symbols to look for in The Great Gatsby, I never had English lit classes until I majored in the subject in uni. I knew nothing of bootlegging and the Prohibition, we learned nothing of American history throughout elementary to high school. All I knew was one day, I sat down in a dingy cafeteria table, The Great Gatsby in hand, suffered the sultry heat of Jakarta and started reading.

I was transported to another time and place. The blistering humidity was forgotten. I could see, smell, taste, feel everything Fitzgerald described – from Gatsby’s parties to the opulent mansions to Daisy Buchanan’s dresses to the flappers of the era. I wanted to rail at Fitzgerald for writing such a short book. I never wanted it to end yet I couldn’t leave my seat until I finished. Only the most special writers can do that. And in my mind, no one wrote prose as beautiful, as elegant, or as lyrical as Fitzgerald.

                  The displeased emoji

Not sure what thiFeatured images emoji is truly called but I always use it whenever I am displeased. Another easy choice. White Noise by Don de Lillo. To be fair, I would have never read this book if it wasn’t a course requirement. I knew it wasn’t to my taste. But after reading White Noise, I hadn’t the slightest clue whose taste would align with this novel. Pretentious people? Hipsters forever lamenting anything commercial?

One word: poinFeatured imagetless. It was the very definition of pointless. Maybe it had a point at the end. I wouldn’t know, I never finished it, which would show you how bad it was. Not only did I have to write a paper on it, I never not finish books. The Phantom of the Opera made me want to cry; it was so boring, but I forced myself to persevere because I can’t stand unfinished books. But White Noise defeated me.

Plot? What plot? All I can remember is the family patriarch endlessly swanning about in supermarkets while the children are hollow receptacles for everything the television says. It probably is satire for the way we live, but why, why is it so boring?

The smiley face eFeatured imagemoji

This emoji is interpreted as ‘a book I liked and made me happy but didn’t love.’ Now, Dodie Smith is an author I can always depend on to give me comfort. Her novel I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite novels of all time. I think Dodie Smith is woefully underrated and singularly charming. She’s also really easy to read. I think a lot of YA readers would love her. That said, however, The Town in Bloom isn’t as good as I Capture the Castle. It has its charm (of course, it’s Dodie Smith), but it’s not first-rate.

The Town in Bloom details the exploits of three English girls; Mouse, Molly, and Lillian as they each try to forge a living through show business in London. Molly and Lillian are chorus girls. Mouse, our narrator, wants to be a famous stage actress and The Town in Bloom is her coming of age tale. Her adventures include meeting the wealthFeatured imagey, enigmatic Zelle and romancing Rex, actor-manager of the Crossway Theatre.

The reason The Town in Bloom didn’t work as well as I Capture the Castle had to do with Mouse. She’s no Cassandra Mortmain. I love Cassandra with all my heart; Mouse I found brash, rude, and lacking in self-introspection. But the way Mouse was written appeals to individual tastes. I didn’t like Mouse very much, but a different reader could find her bold, confident, and resourceful.

I am now going to tag some people. Bear with me as it is my first time tagging people. Of course, only do it if you want to. And if I didn’t tag you but you want to do it, please go for it!

I tag:

malireads

booklypurple

abighifari

readingrise

casualbookreader

Introduction to an Author Spotlight Project

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While compiling my immediate TBR list, I realized that the novel Pulang (Home in English translation) by Leila S. Chudori is on next month’s pile. If I finish Pulang, that means I will have read all of Leila S. Chudori’s adult works – since I have also read her two short story collections Malam Terakhir and 9 dari Nadira. So I thought: why don’t I create an author spotlight on Leila rather than just individual book reviews? In an author spotlight, I can talk about the trends that mark Leila’s writing, her overall writing style, her favored themes, and what type of readers would most enjoy her work or find her informative.

If I can do this with Leila, then surely I can do the same for other writers?

Author spotlights are nothing new and I can’t take credit for the idea. Highlights of individual authors and their works have been around for a long time but I never thought I could try and do them myself as they seemed pretty demanding.

An author spotlight is, indeed, a project. My biggest hurdle is prolific authors. How do you spotlight an author like Stephen King whose bibliography number in the hundreds at this point? Compounded to that, I’m not the type of reader who rushes out to buy an author’s entire back catalogue no matter how much I love a particular novel. To keep my sanity, I’m not going to be overly ambitious. I have to read a minimum of three book-length works by each author before I craft an author spotlight. So my spotlights will be rather basic and not entirely comprehensive. All the same, I hope they will be useful to the reader.

Indonesian authors will be the focus of most of these highlights. I’m honestly surprised why I didn’t think of this sooner since the 2015 Frankfurt Book Fair is upon us by 14-18 October. Indonesia is the fair’s Guest of Honor and there is a lot of hope within the Indonesian publishing community that our oft-neglected literature will finally get the attention it deserves. With some luck and hard work, maybe there will be more translations of Indonesian literature in the future. I am under no illusions. This is a teensy blog – but I want to do my part by spreading information on Indonesian authors.

I am hoping to get Leila S. Chudori’s author spotlight around the time of the Frankfurt Book Fair. I need some time as Pulang is a chunker and I want to reread her short story collections to keep the material fresh in my mind. The second spotlight will be either on Ahmad Tohari or Mochtar Lubis.

In no way does this mean I am closing the spotlight project on non-Indonesian authors. I’d love to do some of my favorite international authors. But we’ll see if I have the endurance.

If you are Indonesian or are interested in Indonesian literature, let me know in the comments which authors you think need to be highlighted.

“Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” by Ahmad Tohari

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“Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” which I will roughly translate into “This Boy Wants to Piss on Jakarta?” is Ahmad Tohari’s newest short story. By newest, I do mean new. It was published a mere five days ago in the Sunday edition of Indonesia’s Kompas newspaper. The plot is simple. In fact, you could argue that there is no plot. “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” is a slice-of-life portrait of a poverty-stricken family living near the Jakarta railroads.

It was never my intention to read this straight after work on Friday, leaning upon pillows and sipping tea, but how perfect! I’m ashamed to say this, because of course I know poverty shouldn’t be a source of comfort, but “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” was comforting to me. I assure you, my reaction has more to do with Ahmad Tohari being the short story’s author than sadistic inclinations.

I so love Tohari’s prose. It’s beautifully-written, almost formal in its beauty, but very much approachable. More than any Indonesian writer I’ve read, I find that Tohari is the one who gets the balance between density of theme and accessibility to the reader just right. Which is why whenever people ask me for recommendations of Indonesian literature, my first answer would be Tohari’s most famous work Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer in English translation). I have even given copies of The Dancer as gifts.

“Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” is typical of the Tohari stories I’ve read. The characters lack material things but Tohari never romanticizes such poverty nor does he wallow in their grief. Neither sentimental nor poverty porn. His approach is more “Here are the characters. They lack things and they know it sometimes. But other times they are unaware of it. They don’t dwell on it and just move on with their lives. Just like we all do.” The prose is still formal yet readable. And Tohari’s imagery, which is his greatest strength in my mind, is on full display. Poets would pay to have his skills at creating imagery. In “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” there is a scene of a father making instant noodles inside the packet – sans bowl and other utensils. Through the descriptions, I can see, smell, sense the scenes.

Within the confines of a short story, Tohari added another poetic device – repetition. There were phrases repeated over and over again. The usage of repetition could have been annoying in the wrong hands, but I thought it felt appropriate here and gave “Anak Ini Mau Mengencingi Jakarta?” a poetic touch. I think it’s important to note that Tohari uses poetic devices in his writing rather than poetic style. His prose may not be mellifluous, but his writing still feels like poetry. Mainly because of his strong image and, specifically here, the use of repetition.

Ultimately though, readers hoping for something new may be disappointed. I don’t think Tohari treaded new ground here. He utilized the same themes and characters he had used before. Even the grotesque/innocent image of a five-year-old boy pissing is practically lifted from the opening scene of Ronggeng Dukuh Paruk (The Dancer).

I know it’s the same old, same old. But if it’s an author you love, you let it pass because those are exactly the traits that made you fall in love in the first place. It makes you feel like coming home. And since I did read this coming home from work on the eve of a weekend, the comfort was doubled.

Runaway by Alice Munro

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I took extensive notes whilst reading Runaway as I knew I would find it a difficult collection to describe and review. These short stories are incredibly well-written and I was often left in awe of Munro’s prowess as an author. Yet simultaneously, I was often left cold and detached. I was never emotionally involved in the characters’ travails even though I have wanted to cry and rage and whoop with joy at fiction that weren’t as magnificently-crafted as Runaway. Munro’s prose is clear-eyed and uncomplicated and she writes with a precise, surgical touch. So clear is her prose, that sometimes her writing felt dry and prosaic. Also, perfection is intimidating. Perhaps that’s why the stories felt cold.

To give a better understanding of Runaway, these are short stories that critics, lit crit professors, and writing professors would hold up as exemplary models of the genre. But for those who have never liked literary fiction, Alice Munro would not be a good gateway drug. My guess is that Runaway would be perceived as pretentious and confusing.

This is actually my second attempt at tackling Runaway (Successful this time – Hooray!). Only two weeks after Alice Munro’s Nobel win in 2013, bookstores were inundated by her back catalogue. Munro was always on my radar even if she was never on the top priority list. Those who know me would know that I am a short story acolyte so I bought Runaway knowing it was regarded as one of Munro’s best collections.

There are eight stories in Runaway and I gave up the first time around because I thought these stories were just a bit aimless, a bit pointless, and then they just ended. There were no climaxes, only an emotional flatline. The first story, which gave the collection its name, didn’t sit well with my feminist sensibilities. A woman lying about domestic abuse to get out trouble? Umm…

I’m not sure why I felt a sudden blazing desire to read Runaway again last week. But I’m glad the inspiration struck. What the heck was I smoking when I read the opener that first time? “Runaway” is a perfectly-constructed short story. For those unfamiliar with Munro’s writing, nearly all of her stories end with a twist, you never really know where the story is going. You think the story is building up to a climax, but then Munro changes directions entirely. I suppose I had thought these stories pointless because they weren’t neat. They were perfectly-constructed, yes, but the stories went in odd directions. The after-scenes don’t match the set-up.

Rather than confusing you with my explaining, I’ll give an example with “Runaway.”

  • Set-up: a husband eggs his unwilling wife to report their late neighbor’s (exaggerated) harassment in exchange for money.
  • What I thought the next scenes would be: their plot would be detailed further, and cracks would start to show in their relationship.
  • What actually happened: the wife crying about marital abuse to their late neighbor’s widow – the extortion plot is never mentioned again.
  • What I thought would happen next: flashbacks of the husband’s abusive nature
  • What actually happened: The wife breaks down and begs to return to her husband within hours.

There are more unexpected turns in this story up until the end. These “twists” aren’t meant to be shockers and smacks. Sometimes the plot turns feels mundane and subtle, but organic and woven to the story.

The ending to “Runaway” was mundane, but it dropped a rock in my gut this time. What I felt was an affront to feminism with the wife exaggerating both her neighbor and her husband’s actions is symbolic of the collection’s theme. Nothing is simple, nothing is clear-cut, nothing is black and white. The wife Carla isn’t a liar, exactly – there are signs that her spouse is a bad husband. And in the end, Carla actions didn’t get a pass. To appease her husband, to get him sweet again, Carla’s white lies has to progressively build and build. Their reconciliation at the end is hinted to be a temporary band-aid. Everything high must come down – everything becomes mundane all over again.

“Chance,” “Soon,” and “Silence” are based around a single main character named Juliet. A short story trilogy, I suppose. Juliet isn’t a likable character. She can be hard and cold. Yet she is strangely relatable – who hasn’t wanted to get out of a chat with a “friendly” (read: intrusive) stranger? In “Silence,” tragedy befalls Juliet late in life. I felt no sadness for Juliet’s sake as, like I said, I am not emotionally invested in these stories. But Munro really gets what life is like following a heartbreaking event. Life goes on, life always goes on – and you have to follow the current of life or else you won’t survive. Pain will dull, will be less fresh but it will always be as if there was

a murderous needle somewhere in [your] lungs, and by breathing carefully, [you] could avoid feeling it. But every once in a while [you] had to take a deep breath, and it was still there.

The fifth and sixth stories “Passion” and “Trespasses” were the ones I disliked most. They dragged on. It astounded me that a story titled “Passion” could feel so cold. I was so detached that by the time the revelation of “Trespasses” was revealed, I thought ‘Oh, so what?’ I get some of the things Munro was trying to do. I get that the title “Passion” is meant to be ironic. I get that Mr. and Mrs. Travers are meant to parallel their son Maury and his new girlfriend, our protagonist, Grace. I get that in “Trespasses,” the likable Harry is actually hypocritical. I can appreciate the themes of memory and looking back in both “Passion” and “Trespasses.” But those two stories felt pointless and here I began to wonder if my weariness was caused by a Munro deluge. Perhaps I should have spaced out the stories more. But don’t just take my word for it. Alan Hollinghurst thinks “Passion” rates “among the finest things [Munro] has done.”

The final two stories “Tricks” and “Powers” were the most readable stories in Runaway, in my opinion. “Tricks” felt hopeful and romantic. A welcome change. Even if things did not end happily, it still had a sweet note to it. “Powers” is a fabulous closer. Clocking in at 65 pages, the story utilizes Munro’s considerable powers (hahaha, I’m so funny!). The story played around with different structures, from a diary format, to third-person narration, to epistolary form, then back and forth again. Munro really nailed the voice of a young rural girl complete with a country hick and the twists felt so natural.

Ultimately, I think the main theme in Runaway is that there are no easy answers in life. A lot of the turning points in life are just chances. I don’t think we’re meant to figure out everything as our protagonists themselves are trying to figure things out themselves. People try to make sense of their lives and rarely succeed.

My favorite quote from Runaway is this:

What most people suspect is true. Such performances are full of tricks. Full of fakery, full of deception. Sometimes that’s all it is. But what people –most people- hope for is occasionally also true. They hope that it’s not all fake.

There are many references to spirituality and chances in Runaway; things rational people scoff at. Yet their impact on our lives are so much more complex than that. Sometimes Munro crushes such hopes, sometimes she writes that our hopes are true. In “Powers” she does both. Munro does an honorable job of portraying life in all of its grey complexities, in its lack of clarity. While I can’t help but wish these stories had more pep and life, I admire Munro. I get the feeling that, as a person, she is empathetic and understanding of others, since she is so well-versed in the ambiguity of life.

Short Fiction Joys, Pains, Observations, and Recommendations

Here I categorize short novels as being under 200 pages

Short Fiction Joys and Pains

The last four books I read were three short novels (The Sounds of Waves, Tarian Bumi, and Hotel Iris) and one short story collection (The Closed Door and Other Stories). My appetite for shorts has not diminished; I am currently reading another short story collection, Alice Munro’s Runaway. I’m simply loving shorts at the moment. Having gone through a reading slump for most of the year, short novels and short stories are a great cure. They take less time to finish (obviously!) and they need less commitment than novels. They’re like baby steps, really. And hooray to a false sense of productivity.

To plenty of bibliophiles, however, short fiction is a tricky subject. Some love them, some can’t stand them. I fall into the former camp; short stories has got to be my favorite fiction medium. I can easily understand why people don’t like shorter fiction though. To many, shorts aren’t an immersive experience. If you’re going to all that trouble to read, you want to lose yourself in a fictional world. And for much longer. Short fiction can be too abrupt an end. There’s also the medium’s limited scope, lack of subplots and other complex plot strands, and lack of a sprawling cast. On the contemporary front, I hear moans about how recent short stories are nothing more than ostentatious stylistic experiments with little regard to storytelling.

Charles McGrath, former editor of The New York Times, once called short story writers, “people who learn golf by never venturing onto a golf course but instead practicing at a driving range.” Ouch. It’s true that short stories are practice outlets for young writers before they venture towards the more ambitious novel, but McGrath’s statement feels like a sweeping generalization. There’s a master for every market and there are masters of short fiction, whether they write shorts exclusively or occasionally.

Besides, it has been a long time since short fiction is considered sexy. Readers who are much older than me talk of how short stories were all the rage up until the last mid-century. So from a publisher’s perspective, maybe what short fiction needs is a marketing overhaul.

Those are my own biases speaking, of course. My love for short fiction itself is predicated on purely personal reasons. Limited scope doesn’t bother me. I love quiet, domestic stories, which short fiction tends to favor. I am an on-the-go reader. I read on the commute to work. I read waiting in line. I read while I eat. Basically, I spend my spare minutes reading rather than curling up with a novel before bed. If I get in bed, I just fall asleep. Short fiction is perfect for on-the-go. I find, and this is a personal observation of course, that complex plot strands are not something you can easily dip in and out of. Family dynamics or the entanglements of a romantic pair is much easier to digest when you read five or ten minutes at a time.

Reading shorter fiction exclusively for almost a month has led me to take more scrutiny of them. I have learned that it is not an easy medium, not really. There is no room for fat and every sentence, every word ought to matter. This is made clear to me when reading Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris. Scenes are cut short. The death of our narrator’s father is glossed over. The sentence “The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me” in Hotel Iris was very jarring. There was no further explanation, just an off-hand remark. I went “what?” and silently entreated the author to explain. I think Ogawa had a lot of ideas for Hotel Iris and wanted to fit them all, but because she was writing a short novel, these ideas were better off scrapped. You can, however, fill a fat novel with all your ideas, even with a two-hundred page philosophical discourse. But with something short, everything needs to be airtight.

This may sound blasé, but I also learned that it is a writer’s skills and choices that matter. You would think that with such cramped space, mellifluous descriptions of place have no place in a short story or short novel. Not so. The Sound of Waves and Hotel Iris are practically paeans to setting. The remote island in The Sound of Waves, the crumbling seaside town in Hotel Iris were all lovingly rendered in minutiae. I remember wishing Tarian Bumi had such attention to place since it was set in Bali and there were so much you could do with describing Bali: the sights, the smells.

The claim that short fiction’s plot can’t be dense is countered by Tarian Bumi. Yes, it is, at heart, a domestic story. But to create four generations of women, each with a fully-realized personality, in 180 pages is a pretty neat feat if you ask me. The Sound of Waves and Hotel Iris are more traditional, both beginning and concluding a romance.

Now. The order of how I recommend them. I like goodreads standards. One star for did not like it, two for it was OK, three for I liked it, four for I really liked it, and five for I loved it. I gave The Closed Door and Other Stories four stars and the three short novels each three stars.

If you want a very good comfort read, with warmth and wit, definitely go for The Closed Door and Other Stories. But if you don’t like simple narratives and think Jane Austen is crap, then it’s not for you. If you want something that will make you think, go for Tarian Bumi (Earth Dance in English). But if you can’t stand (slightly too) fiery feminism, stay away. If you want something a little odd and are fine with descriptions of rough sex, pick up Hotel Iris. Bonus, the prose is spare and lovely. I found Hotel Iris’ major flaw to be its ending: rushed and anticlimactic. If you want a pleasurably sweet story with slow, leisurely, and sure description, even if it’s not particularly memorable, pick up The Sound of Waves.

I’m always wondering what people think of short fiction as I love it so. Let me know in the comments if enjoy shorts or if you think a chunky novel is superior and why. What are your favorite short stories? Who are your favorite short story masters? Do you find short novels frustrating and abrupt? Anything about shorts, go ahead and let me know.

The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple

All the wonderful Persephone books I hauled last December were gathering dust on my bookshelf. They were too pretty and too precious to read. I kept saving them because I ask you: what will I do when I run out of Persephones? London is two expensive flights away and I like to have at least one unread Persephone as back-up for when I want to read something really special. So why the sudden madness at picking one up, you ask? Well, I had (whispers) five unloved Persephones looming reproachfully at me. I’m really not all that intrepid.

For those unfamiliar with Persephone Books and what they do: they are a London-based small press that “reprints neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly) women writers.” What I love most about Persephone, other than my personal predilection for lady writers, is that their titles “are neither too literary nor too commercial,” or in the derogatory words of a literary figure I can’t remember (Google isn’t helping either): “the lower end of quality writing.” I happen to love the description “lower end of quality writing.” It promises a bit of juicy trashiness to go with all the highbrow stuff. Of course I love depth and extraordinary writing in my books. But I also cannot abide books that forgo storytelling in favor of esoteric incomprehension. A link to Persephone Books’ website is provided here.

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Dorothy Whipple is Persephone’s star author and by the first few pages of The Closed Door and Other Stories, I thought that this, this was the book I needed. Comfort reading, good storytelling. What more do you need? Well, a cup of milky tea, of course. Although you can see from the photo above that I used green tea as base rather than English breakfast. I know, I know. I blaspheme.

One word came to mind after reading the first paragraph: solid. Whipple’s writing probably didn’t win her any awards for stylistic flourish during her lifetime, but her approach feels dependable and substantial.

There’s wit in Whipple’s writing too, just like another, more famous Dorothy. But the stories in this collection are winks to Parker’s slaps. Dorothy Whipple was once described as the “Jane Austen of the 20th century” and I can see why. Whipple had a skillful touch with characterization. One paragraph is all you need to know about a character’s foibles and eccentricities.

There are ten stories collected in The Closed Door and Other Stories. Two number more than sixty pages and the rest are roughly around ten pages. The first story “The Closed Door” is the longest at seventy-five pages. It’s a simple story of an unwanted daughter living under her dreadful, tyrannical parents. It has shades of a sweet Cinderella story, complete with a knight in shining armor to the rescue. Although in a pleasant subversion, the knight is a lady. But “The Closed Door” is, at its heart, about good parenting vs. bad parenting and the types of children different approaches produce. It is also about how the effects of horrible parenting takes years and years to heal. There’s also a beautiful, enduring friendship between two women at its core – one that my modern eyes cannot help but suspect as something more.

However much I had been adoring The Closed Door and Other Stories, by the fifth story “Family Crisis,” I was beginning to notice a trend. Thematically, these stories were all about good’s comeuppance against the cruel, the snobbish, and the miserly. More Cinderella stories, really. I had been ready to dismiss The Closed Door as the perfect read when you’re having a shit day and need some comfort under blankets. But the stories fold into one another and if you are looking for layers and complexity, you won’t find it here.

The trajectory of my love affair with The Closed Door yo-yoed once again by the time I reached the seventh and eight stories “Wednesday” and “Summer Holiday” respectively. I had been wrong. Whipple’s range wasn’t limited to neat happy endings. She did sad and mournful in “Wednesday.” She worked with the fragility of childhood innocence in “Summer Holiday.” And in the final story “Cover” –a short but punchy and effective yarn, one of my favorites in the collection, she proved that she could do cruel and devastating. I was adoring The Closed Door all over again. I’ve got to question the editor’s choice of lumping all six happy and more comic stories together though. Tonally, I think The Closed Door would work better if the happy tales were interwoven with the sad, darker ones rather than presented as lump sums.

All the stories in The Closed Door are simple, domestic dramas. They deal exclusively with the home and the hearth. Those adrenaline-inclined and those who sneer at “middle-class problems” should best stay away. The “crisis” in “Family Crisis” involves a daughter’s ill-advised elopement ala Lydia Bennet; these are small catastrophes that won’t affect the world at large. Whipple dealt with the familiar. A good home, a happy family, leisure time, and a cup of tea – in these stories, those are the hallmarks of happiness. But it is to Whipple’s credit that homely troubles feel disastrous all the same.

Dorothy Whipple’s stories harken back to a none-too-distant past where a woman’s rash affair or infidelity would ruin her for the rest of her life. There’s was a strong gratefulness I felt when I was reading “Family Crisis” and “Wednesday.” Just thinking how far we’ve come in terms of women’s rights gladdened me, until I wondered if it was all false optimism. Not every corner of the globe is forgiving towards a woman’s faults and mistakes.

The Closed Door and Other Stories was a wonderful read. It can be charming, it can be heartrending and it was lucky for me that I picked it up when I was a bit down so I got dosed by all the joyful endings first. But for a better reading experience, I recommend reading one story from the front then one story from the back and so on. I’m excited that I still have Someone at a Distance, considered Whipple’s best, to read. Although true to my penchant, I think it will be a long while until I pick up another Persephone from my shelf.