Category Archives: 16-20 Pages

“Hall of Mirrors” by Kurt Vonnegut #47

Look at the Birdie: Short Fiction

Detectives Carney and Foltz have run into a lot of eccentric people in their line of work. Today they will be interviewing a hypnotist by the name of Mr. K. Hollomon Weems in a case they are working on. He lives in a monstrous twenty-room house, complete with a ballroom at the top of a tower. They had been on his trail for a while now, hopefully they can finally solve the case of all the unexplained disappearances. They all seem to point back to this one man.

The main thought that came to mind as I read this story is the idea of creepiness. It is not done in a a gruesome or disgusting way, but rather psychologically. I am not really sure how to explain it in a better way than that, but that is what came to mind. I thought this was a good read, but I could see how people could become bored with it halfway through as well. I think this is especially the case if you have read a lot of stories concerning hypnotists. You can find this story in Look at the Birdie: Short Fiction.

Content Advisory: Blood and Gore, Violence

“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway #34

Harry is laying on a cot next to his wife Helen, waiting to die. Helen doesn’t want to hear any of it, but it is undeniable. The vultures are circling nearby, waiting for his demise. Nearby, he can see the snowcapped peak of Kilimanjaro. As he lay there, Harry reflects on his life, all the women he had been with in Paris, and all the stories he hadn’t had the opportunity to write. He was only waiting to learn more about life so he could write those pieces more competently, but now, he cannot. Helen, the voice of reassurance, keeps reminding him that the plane will be here soon to take him to the hospital. 

I had first been introduced to this story by watching Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Harry in the 1952 movie. So when I started this story, I knew Harry was one messed up guy. Despite his train wreck of a life, I did find the narrative intriguing with its multiple flashbacks to Harry’s past. I found it interesting to see how his past choices led him to where he is now. I can’t help but wonder how his character would have changed if he was a more moral person. It can’t be helped now though. Despite my interest in this work, I can’t give it a full recommendation because, what can I say, Harry is a disaster. You can read this story in various Hemingway collections, including The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigia Edition.

Content Advisory: Blood and Gore, Drunkenness, Foul Language, Sexual Situations, Violence

“Crazy Sunday” by F. Scott Fitzgerald #29

Those in Hollywood seem to always be able to put up a certain persona for the public. It can be seen in their regular workday, but sometimes the cover comes off behind closed doors, or at parties on the weekends. Joey Coles is a new 28 year-old writer, not yet broken by Hollywood, and fighting to stay sober. He has been progressing so well recently that he is privileged to be able to work on an Eugene O’Neill play, and has been invited to attend a party at the home of the director, Miles Calman. At the party he sees an old friend, Stella Walker, now Calman’s wife. Perhaps encouraged by Stella’s friendly conversation, and a few drinks, Joey decides to perform for all the stars around. His performance would be of "Building it up," which had worked wonders for events such as this before. He proceeds to get on stage, and successfully makes an unmitigated failure of himself in front of everyone. 

Though the scene above is the first major one in the story about, I really don’t think of it much when I reflect on this story. The thing that sticks with me is the idea that people can behave a certain way five days a week, such as Miles Calman, and then on the weekend behave like someone else Saturday and Sunday. That is part of what I took from this work. The other is seeing a piece of 1930′s Hollywood, coming on the heels of the roaring twenties. In these regards, I think this piece is a success, and it was quality read for the majority of its pages. Of course, if you are not fond of Hollywood now, you won’t necessarily be fond of it in here as well. This story can be found in The Best American Short Stories of the Century.

Content Advisories: Drunkenness, Sexual Situations, Tobacco Use

Links of Interest:

Eugene O’Neill Biography at Imagi-Nation.com

“Nine Points of the Law” by E. W. Hornung #22

While Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on one side of the law, A. J. Raffles and his dimwitted sidekick Bunny are definitely on the other. Their client is Sir Bernard Debenham, said to have the finest collection of art in the south of England. When the son of Sir Debenham accidentally sells the priceless Infanta Maria Teresa of Velasquez for a mere five-thousand pounds, these two "adventurers" must steal it back. The only problem is that the current owner is a legislator for the Australian colony of Queensland, and before too long he will be leaving London to return home. 

It is somewhat amusing to read stories from the perspective of thieves, or like how they would rather be called, adventurers. The parallels between the two main characters here, and those found in Sherlock Holmes cannot be denied. Mr. Raffles is the brain of the two,  often doing his scheming, while Bunny is the parallel for Dr. Watson, but with much less sense. Bunny’s absurdity is amusing, but sadly not presented in this story as much as I would have hoped. Plus, I thought the writing was a little confusing at times, although that could have been because the story has a different style of writing than what we read today. You can read this in The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime.

Links of Interest:

Infanta Maria Teresa by Diego Velasquez

“Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” by Sylvia Plath #20

Who runs this world? According to this story, it is panic, but not just any panic. It is the source of fears, nightmares,  and other unpleasantness: Johnny Panic. The narrator of this story is obsessed with dreams. She is an assistant to the secretary at a local hospital, and although that is her job, her true desire is the continual development of her magnum opus, Johnny Panic’s Bible of Dreams. She is consumed with the stories we tell ourselves in our sleep, always copying patient notes when nobody is around, and longing for the day when she can take some older hospital records home for the night. If she could do that, then she could stay up all night copying all the patient info into the Bible of Dreams.

Dreams can be a fascinating topic, but not something I have interest in really studying in depth. Maybe that is one reason I could not relate to the main character in this piece. I appreciate her interest, but when it became apparent that it was totally obsessive, my enjoyment of this work dropped a few notches. Another thing worth noting is the twisted scripture references in this story. I would have thought that if this character is taking references like this, and turning them on their head thanks to Johnny Panic, maybe she should have noticed that and put the breaks on her activities? Oh well, you cannot win them all. If you are interested in dreams and seeing characters behaving in a time of turmoil this could be enjoyable. In the end though, I just didn’t "get it" I guess. You can find it in Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories, Prose, and Diary Excerpts (P.S.).

Content Advisory: Blood and Gore, Violence

“The Proprietress” by Yiyun Li #15

Mrs. Jin is the owner of a small general store in Clear Water Town. Even though she sells goods to the poor people of the village, her most important activities have little to do with her store. She has used her home as safe haven for women of all ages. Among whom is Susu, a woman who recently caused an uproar when she asked the courts to allow her to have a child with her husband before he was executed. Her request makes Susu nationally known, so much so that a reporter from Shanghai comes to Mrs. Jin’s shop to ask her a few questions. What follows is basically an overview of women in China when their husbands are no longer a part of their lives.

I know that authors have multiple purposes for the stories they write, not just to tell a story. This is the first one I have read for this blog where I felt that this fact most stood out. It is almost as if it is one part story, one part educational essay. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I definitely put on my "Asian Studies" hat on as I was reading this, so to speak. Otherwise, you can just read this as a story of a good Samaritan taking in various women, reading in admiration as Mrs. Jin does all that she does. I recommend it for both reasons. You can read it in Gold Boy, Emerald Girl: Stories.

Content Advisory: Violence

Links of Interest:

Hukou (Household Registration) System in China by Kam Wing Chan

Population Control Programs in China

“Darkness” by Andrew Sean Greer #12

It is easy to take artificial light in one’s home for granted. When a strong thunderstorm comes near our homes it is an inconvenience, but we take solace knowing that before long our power will return. But what happens when we lose not only all power, but the light of the sun itself? This question is asked in today’s story. One freakish day, what was once light turns to blackness, and the whole earth is covered in darkness. When Krakatoa erupted in 1883, there was darkness for two and a half days. This is unending darkness. Two people facing this tragedy are Helen and Louise, an older homosexual couple living in New York City. The try to come to grips with the situation, but before long they seek to flee from Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel .

As I was perusing this collection the first time, this story caught my eye through its unusual format. Instead of a typical paragraph structure, it is broken up into different questions such as, "When did they decide to leave?" The answer then follows, with another question and answer thereafter. I found this to be a novel means of moving the story along, and I give the author credit in for this experimentation. Further, I found the development of the story intriguing, while simultaneously depressing. This latter comment is not necessarily a mark against the story though. It isn’t easy to see the characters become more heart-broken as the darkness persists. My main gripe with the story though are the characters themselves. I was not particularly impressed with them, and was disappointed in their behavior. Considering some of their conversations and internal thoughts about each other, I had to wonder why these two women were even trying to be together. Second, I found their sexual choice to be deviant, which is something that almost caused me to give up on the story. I had to start over on it a second time to finish it. You can find it in PEN/ O. Henry Prize Stories 2009.

Content Advisory: Foul Language, Sexual Dialog

Links of Interest:

Historic Overview of the Holland Tunnel in NYC

Krakatoa article by Michael Bubb

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