The Open Window, a short story by Saki (It’s so good!)

I find this the best kind of short story: a first rate mind game, which is brief, and startling, and gratifying all at the same time.

Our narrator has gone to visit strangers, people recommended to him by his sister, as he is trying to overcome a nervous disorder. While he waits for the woman he has come to see, her fifteen year old niece entertains him.

“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” she says, and then proceeds to tell him that her aunt has suffered terribly since her husband and two brothers drowned in a bog when they went out hunting three years ago.

“Poor aunt always thinks they will come back someday, they and the little brown Spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at the window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening until it is quite dusk.”

You can imagine his surprise when the aunt comes downstairs, and quite soon in their conversation looks toward the window and says, “Ah, here they come now.”

I cannot spoil the surprise, but I am quite delighted by the unreliable narrator(s)  and thrilled to have read this piece.

It was Jess of Book Ideas who told me about “The Open Window”, a story of only four pages which you can read online here.

Paris For One by JoJo Moyes, a short story to start the year

Jay at Bibliophilopolis has sponsored a short story event called Deal Me In for several years. I have haphazardly dipped in and out of this challenge because I do not normally read many short stories. Yet, their power is not to be underestimated; in fact, it seems a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon: reading something brief but powerful before the work week starts.

I have begun with a short story from JoJo Moyes’ collection, Paris for One. There are nine stories in this book with the following titles:

  1. Paris For One
  2. Between The Tweets
  3. Love in the Afternoon
  4. A Bird in the Hand
  5. Crocodile Shoes
  6. Holdups
  7. Last Year’s Coat
  8. Thirteen Days with John C
  9. The Christmas List

“Paris for One”, the first story, is about Nell, who unexpectedly ends up in Paris alone after her boyfriend has essentially abandoned her. She is a person who likes to be in control of her life, planning each detail to the smallest minutiae, and so this unexpected event could have thrown her into a panic. But, when she finds two tickets to a sold out performance, she decides to go and abruptly changes the course of her weekend and her life.

This was a simple story, but a charming one, written in JoJo’s inimitable, comfortable style. I will enjoy reading the others in this collection for Jay’s challenge.

And you? Do you have any favorite short stories?

“Let him who loves me follow me.” Femme Fatale, a collection of 4 very short stories by Guy de Maupassant

I am still thinking of the first story in this Penguin Little Black Classic which I read last night. It’s title is Cockcrow, and it is deceptively simple.

Consider this line regarding Madame d’Avancelles’ husband:

It was rumoured that they lived separate lives on account of a physical shortcoming of his which Madame could not overlook. He was a fat little man with short arms, short legs, a short neck, short nose, short everything in fact.

Everything? Oh, really. Is that why she entertains the advances of her admirer Baron Joseph de Croissard to which her husband has turned a blind eye? They cavort and tease each other all autumn long, at receptions and finally at a great hunting party.

After the baron has shown himself to be the man she has requested him to be by killing the wild boar himself, it seems that his desires will be fulfilled that night.

He scratches at her door after the chateau has fallen asleep, and upon gaining admittance is told to wait upon her bed. Which he does, until he succumbs to sleep. And in the morning, he wakens to the sound of the cock’s crow, startling him out of his slumber.

Madame d’Avancelles, who has laid awake beside him all night, tells him to, “Go back to sleep, Monsieur, it’s nothing to do with you.”

Is this mockery? For surely this uneventful night had much to do with him. Or, perhaps she is referring to her own self, seeing that she might not be worth waiting up for.

I do not have a clear answer, but I do have persistent thoughts continuously returning to this simple story which is only 6 pages long, yet full of so much intrigue.

There are three more stories within this slight volume. I eagerly begin the next right now.

The Black Cat by Edgar Allen Poe


Who but Edgar could take the lovely feline found in so many cozy homes and turn it into a thing of horror? The narrator of  this story relates how he and his wife had several pets (birds, gold-fish, a fine dog, rabbits, a small monkey) but the most beautiful and sagacious was a cat.

This cat, named Pluto, was our narrator’s favorite pet and play-mate. Yet through great intemperance, he seizes it one night and cuts its eye out of the socket. As you can well imagine, the cat avoids him after this, but is unable to avoid its ultimate demise at the hands of its owner who hangs the cat in a nearby garden.

In the middle of the night he and his wife are awakened by a terrible fire. Their home is burned completely, yet the neighbors are entranced by the one remaining wall, the one on which the bedstead rested, which bears the image of a cat upon its freshly laid plaster.

Although the narrator procures a second cat of black, with a white patch ever more resembling the gallows in his mind, there is no rest from the evil which now seems to be taking over. Even the wife is not spared her husband’s guilty wrath, or the influence of a creature out for revenge, whichever way the reader intends to interpret the story. How easy it would be to place the blame of one’s evil actions on an innocent creature, when they can only be placed squarely on our own imperfect nature.

Still, when the leaves turn their edges into golden crispness, and the dusk falls sooner than it did a few weeks ago, it is somehow pleasant to think of black cats…to wonder that if they are wronged, they will somehow cause the truth to prevail.

Deal Me In Challenge. Better Late a Than Never, Right Jay?

Well, here’s an interesting place to be: combining my Japanese Literature Challenge 8 with Jay’s Deal Me In Short Story challenge. You know how I love reading with others, how you broaden my perspective and understanding infinitely more than if I was reading alone (as I did in my pre-blogging days circa 2006). My interest in short stories was already piqued when Jacqui posted a fascinating review of Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, which I immediately bought upon finishing her post.
So, here’s a rather strange list of short stories, combining my penchant for Japanese literature with Jacqui’s mention of a wonderful writer, and a few titles by Annie Proulx to boot. Hey, don’t laugh. They’re from the collections I have laying around as yet unread. And, Haruki Murakami has mentioned
that one of his favorite authors is Raymond Carver, who starts off the list:
A.  Feathers by Raymond Carver
2.  Chef’s House by Raymond Carver
3.  Preservation by Raymond Carver
4.  The Compartment by Raymond Carver
5.  A Small Good Thing by Raymond Carver
6.  Vitamins by Raymond Carver
7.  Careful by Raymond Carver
8.  Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
9.  The Train by Raymond Carver
10.  Fever by Raymond Carver
J. The Bridle by Raymond Carver
Q.  Cathedral by Raymond Carver
K. The Hellhole by Annie Proulx
A. The Indian Wars Refought by Annie Proulx
2. The Trickle Down Effect by Annie Proulx
3. What Kind of Furniture Would Jesus Pick? by Annie Proulx
4. The Old Badger Game by Annie Proulx
5. The Dragon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
6. Kesa and Morito by Ryunosuke Akutagawa 
7. The Martyr by Ryunosuke Akutagawa 
8. Yam Gruel by Ryunosuke Akutagawa 
9. Rashomon by Ryunosuke Akutagawa 
10. In A Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
J. Inbound by Edith Pearlman
Q. Day of Awe by Edith Pearlman
K. Settlers of Edith Pearlman

A. The Noncombatant by Edith Pearlman
2. Vaquita by Edith Pearlman
3. Allog by Edith Pearlman
4. Chance by Edith Pearlman
5. ToyFolk by Edith Pearlman
6. Tess by Edith Pearlman
7. Fidelity by Edith Pearlman
8. If Love Were All by Edith Pearlman
9. The Coat by Edith Pearlman
10. Mates by Edith Pearlman
J. How to Fall by Edith Pearlman
Q. The Story by Edith Pearlman
K. Home Schooling by Edith Pearlman

A. The Third Night by Natsume Soseki
2. Yesterday by Haruki Murakami
3. The Izu Dancer by Kawabata Yasunari
4. Merry Christmas by Dazai Osamu
5. Unzen by Endo Shusaku
6. The Bet by Kobo Abe
7. Omnagata by Mishima Yukio
8. The Duel by Kaiko Takeshi
9. Prize Stock by Oe Kenzaburo
10. The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
J. Dreaming of Kimchee by Banana Yoshimoto
Q. Aguri by Junichiro Tanizaki
K. Carp by Masuji Ibuse

Don’t you want to read short stories with us now?

Yesterday by Haruki Murakami

Erika stared at the candle flame flickering in the breeze from the A.C. “I often have the same dream,” she said. “Aki-kun and I are on a ship. A long journey on a large ship. We’re together in a small cabin, it’s late at night, and through the porthole we can see the full moon. But that moon is made of pure, transparent ice. And the bottom half of it is sunk in the sea. ‘That looks like the moon,” Aki-kun tells me, ‘but it’s really made of ice and is only about eight inches thick. So when the sun comes out in the morning it all melts. You should get a good look at it now, while you have the chance.’ I’ve had this dream so many times. It’s a beautiful dream. Always the same moon. Always eight inches thick. I’m leaning against Aki-kun, it’s just the two of us, the waves lapping gently outside. But every time I wake up I feel unbearable sad.”

“YesterdayIs two days before tomorrow,The day after two days ago.”

When I finish a piece by Haruki Murakami I can envision the setting. I can feel the mood. I feel like I’ve been introduced properly to the characters. His writing makes the smallest detail seem incredibly important. But I can’t always say that I understand what he’s writing about. I look for a theme, or a lesson, or even a significant point, and I feel a bit lost. To me, Yesterday speaks ultimately about the brevity of our lives, the melting of what’s important, and the sadness inherent in every relationship.
What I do understand is how his characters feel. His description of them resonates with me in such a way that it feels as if he’s describing my own heart. My own life: 
“I couldn’t speak. Not being able to find the right words at crucial times is one of my many problems.”
“Brooding over how things had turned out–after everything had already been decided–was another of my chronic problems.”
Thanks to Mookse and The Gripes for the heads up about the appearance of Haruki Murakami’s short story. You can read Yesterday in The New Yorker here.

Irish Short Story Month: The First Confession by Frank O’Connor

I am not Catholic.
I’ve often attended Catholic services and longed for the cathedrals of stained glass, the ancient prayers and liturgy, the solemn dress of the priest.
But, I belong to a Protestant church with my husband in which the sanctuary is now called an auditorium, the time honored chants are replaced with drums and instruments, the stained glass windows are only cement blocks.
I think I would like many of the traditions found in a Catholic church, even though I’ve heard people who were raised in one sound very scornful of rituals such as the Holy Days of Obligation, the first Communion, and Confession. So I come to this story by Frank O’Connor rather unaware of how confession is supposed to work.
I found myself laughing at the poor boy’s trial in learning the process for himself. In five printed pages our narrator takes us through the whole experience, of hearing about hell and being dared to taste it by “holding one finger-only one finger!-in a little candle flame for five minutes.” Not one child in the school would take the old woman’s promise to deliver a half-crown to anyone who would submit to this experience, and “at the end of the lesson she put it back in her purse. It was a great disappointment; a religious woman like that, you wouldn’t think she’d bother about a thing like a half -crown.”
When he makes his first confession, he is completely baffled once he is inside the chapel. “I knew then I was lost, given up to eternal justice. The door with the coloured-glass panels swung shut behind me, the sunlight went out and gave place to deep shadow, and the wind whistled outside so that the silence within seemed to crackle like ice under my feet.”
His confusion and fear become worse when he finds himself within the confessional with his pious sister waiting outside. “With the fear of damnation in my soul I went in, and the confessional door closed of itself behind me. It was pitch-dark and I couldn’t see priest or anything else. Then I really began to be frightened. In the darkness it was a matter between God and me, and He had all the odds. He knew what my intentions were before I even started; I had no chance. All I had ever been told about confession got mixed up in my mind, and I knelt to one wall and said: “Bless me, father, for I have sinned; this is my first confession.” I waited for a few minutes, but nothing happened so I tried it on the other wall. Nothing happened there either. He had me spotted all right.”
What follows in this story, is an account of the whole experience through the eyes of  a young Irish boy who discovers in the process that perhaps he is not as sinful as he first suspected. It is a charming story, for Catholics and Protestants alike, for any one who has been a child and subjected to the tyranny of adults. The refreshment of a compassionate priest must be like the Balm of Gilead.
Thank you, lovely Jillian, who asked me on Saturday if I’d read The First Confession by Frank O’Connor. I had not, and so she sent me a link to the work, which is a perfect choice for March and Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.
“In his 63 years, Frank O’Connor produced an impressive amount of work…but it’s his short stories that guarantee his immortality. They are encapsulated universes. While most modern stories focus on a single moment, Frank O’Connor’s generally sum up the patterns of whole lives ….Each [story] is, in its own way, shattering.” — Anne Tyler, Chicago Sunday Times
“Walter Benjamin says in his essay on Leskov that people think of a storyteller as someone who has come from afar. O’Connor’s best stories put the same thought into our heads; how far, in some imaginative sense, he has to travel to achieve such wisdom and to accomplish it with such Flair.” — Denis Donoghue, New York Times Book Review
“In almost all the stories in this excellently balanced collection O’Connor’s people explode from the page. The nice are here and the nasty: the gentle, the generous, the mean, the absurd, those rich in dignity, those without a shred of it….Without adornment, he simply tells the truth.” — William Trevor, Washington Post Book World
Read the story online here.

Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fizgerald

I cannot even tell you how much I love these stories. Never one to be overwhelmed with The Great Gatsby, I am now truly impressed by Fitzgerald’s skill in these stories. Each one is written so beautifully, and the endings, more often than not, pack a serious punch. This is a fabulous collection of brilliant short stories. I’ll put my favorite quotes from each chapter under the titles below, but you’ll have to read the entire story for the full effect of their power:

The Offshore Pirates

“Does every man you meet tell you he loves you?”

Ardita nodded.

“Why shouldn’t he? All life is just a progression toward, and then a recession from, one phrase—‘I love you.’ “

The Ice Palace

“With a furious, despairing energy she rose again and started blindly down the darkness. She must get out. She might be lost in here for days, freeze to death and lie embedded in the ice like corpses she had read of, kept perfectly preserved until the melting of a glacier, Harry probably thought she had left with the others–he had gone by now; now one would know until late next day. She reached pitifully for the wall. Forty inches thick, they had said–forty inches thick!”

Head and Shoulders 

“But when you opened your door at the rap of life you let in many things.” (p. 62) and then…

“About raps. Don’t answer them! Let them alone—have a padded door.” (p. 67)

The Cut-Glass Bowl

“You see, I am fate,” it (the bowl) shouted, “and stronger than your puny plans; and I am how-things-turn-out and I am different from your little dreams, and I am the flight of time and the end of beauty and unfulfilled desire; all the accidents and imperceptions and the little minutes that shape the crucial hours are mine. I am the exception that proves no rules, the limits of your control, the condiment in the dish of life.”

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

“Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.”


“You can’t shock a monk. He’s a professional shock-absorber.”

Dalyrimple Goes Wrong 

“Happiness was what he wanted-a slowly rising scale of gratifications of the normal appetites-and he had a strong conviction that the materials, if not the inspiration of happiness, could be bought with money.”

The Four Fists

“He sailed home on the wings of desperate excitement, quite resolved to fan this spark of romance, no matter how big the blaze or who was burned. At the time he considered that his thoughts were unselfishly of her; in a later perspective he knew that she had meant no more than the white screen in a motion picture; it was just Samuel-blind, desirous.”

Did I do my part to intrigue you? Seriously, these are fantastic stories…

Bernice Bobs Her Hair

I’d like to say that my interest in this story came first from F. Scott Fitgerald’s writing. Or, even from the 1920s themselves. It didn’t. It came from the hair. Because a bob is my very favorite cut, the cut that I’ve worn most frequently for the last twenty years. (Although my curls are not in the formed waves you frequently see on Zelda. Look at the photograph of her above, and tell me she doesn’t look absolutely charming. Schizophrenic or not.)

A few years ago when I came to school after Santo had given me another fabulous cut, our Art teacher said, “Your haircut reminds me of Bernice.”

“Bernice?” I inquired.

“Yes, from that short story by Fitzgerald. You know, Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” she replied.
“No,” I said, “I don’t.”

So, when The Classics Circuit Tour came around, with The Lost Generation for its theme, I knew I had to write about this story which is included in the collection Flappers and Philosophers.

Now that I’ve read the story, I’m not certain that resembling Bernice is a compliment. Although it’s certainly preferable to me than being compared to her cousin, Marjorie. Bernice is visiting her cousin from Eau Claire, where she was perfectly comfortable driving her own car, living her own life. But, in Marjorie’s world a girl lives on her charms. And one of the ways that her charms can be measured is by the number of times she is cut into during a dance.

No matter how beautiful or brilliant a girl maybe, the reputation of not being frequently cut in on makes her position at a dance unfortunate. ‘Perhaps boys prefer her company to that of the butterflies with whom they dance a dozen times an evening, but youth in this jazz-nourished generation is temperamentally restless, and the idea of fox-trotting more than one full fox trot with the same girl is distasteful, not to say odious.

At first, Marjorie implores her many beaux to dance with Bernice. Then, when Bernice overhears Marjorie talking to her mother about Bernice’s lack of charisma, Bernice claims she will go home.

“I guess I’d better go back to Eau Claire–if I’m such a nuisance.” Bernice’s lower lip was trembling violently and she continued on a wavering note: “I’ve tried to be nice, and–and I’ve been first neglected and then insulted. No one ever visited me and got such treatment.”

Marjorie calls Bernice’s bluff, then teaches her how to be more effective socially. Bernice must brush her eyebrows so they’ll grow straight and have her teeth straightened a little; learn to be nice to men who are “sad birds”;  she must neither lean on a dancing partner, nor stand straight up. Bernice learns Marjorie’s skills so effectively, that soon she has not only many dancing partners, but Marjorie’s best beau, Warren.

When Bernice declares that she will bob her hair, Marjorie again calls her bluff, and Bernice finds herself in the barber’s chair much like Marie Antoinette at the guillotine.

Vaguely she wondered why she did not cry out that it was all a mistake. It was all she could do to keep from clutching her hair with both hands to protect it from the suddenly hostile world. Yet she did neither. Even the thought of her mother was no deterrent now. This was the test supreme of her sportsmanship; her right to walk unchallenged in the starry heaven of popular girls.

Courageously, Bernice has her hair bobbed. But, she is not prepared for the reactions she receives from the surrounding crowd, Warren, or even her aunt and uncle. The only thing we could foresee as an eventuality was the little smirk playing around Marjorie’s mouth when Bernice’s tresses were gone.

This is one of those stories with an incredibly ironic ending. Much like O. Henry’s story, The Gift of The Magi, it is not so much about the loss of hair as the reasons behind why it was cut. As well as the things that are learned from doing so.

You can read Bernice Bobs Her Hair online. Really, take the time to read this sensational story which was first published in 1922. Then we can talk about the ending together. It’s one of my favorite pieces by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

(This story was read and reviewed before my Lenten project of reading only the Bible until Easter Sunday.)