Short story review: “The Oblong Box” by Edgar Allan Poe

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom: Short Story Reviews. And to celebrate Halloween, what’s better than a spooky story by Edgar Allan Poe?

“The Oblong Box”
by
Edgar Allan Poe

Rating: 4 out of 5.

As he boards a ship from South Carolina to New York, Cornelius Wyatt’s busybody friend is obsessed with what might be inside a mysterious oblong box that the artist Wyatt is transporting. He takes careful note of the box and tells the reader, “The box in question was, as I say, oblong. It was about six feet in length by two and a half in breadth.” Knowing Poe, we might have a pretty good idea what’s inside, but Wyatt’s friend guesses that the box contains “nothing in the world but a copy of Leonardo’s ‘Last Supper.’” He congratulates himself on the deduction, telling us, “I chuckled excessively when I thought of my acumen.”

The friend is consumed with Wyatt’s traveling party, the artist, his new wife and his two sisters. Wyatt had spoken about his bride’s loveliness and grace, but the friend is shocked when he meets her. Her beauty and character are clearly below the standards he had expected. And Wyatt is acting strangely, like a man gone mad, laughing hysterically when his friend mentions the box. Now there are two mysteries. As they sail, the friend is determined to confirm what’s in the box and understand the story behind Wyatt and his new wife.

A hurricane threatens to wreck the ship and the crew and passengers must board a lifeboat. Wyatt, however, is beside himself and insists they return for the box. He shouts to the captain, “By the mother who bore you – for the love of Heaven – by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!”

When characters reach this point in a suspenseful story, they act, or they don’t, and the finish is determined by this moment. Within minutes, Wyatt’s desperate decision seals his fate. A month later, the friend finally learns the mystery of the box. He admits to us his foolish mistake, but also confides he is haunted by a hysterical laugh forever ringing in his ears.

What a great story, and it gets better the more you think about it! I did not know about The Oblong Box until I read about it on Jeff’s blog, Stuff Jeff Reads. In his post, he talks about what the story means: “For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea.” Jeff goes on to praise Poe’s writing, “I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted.” Want more analysis? Click here to read Jeff’s full post on The Oblong Box.  Thanks, Jeff, for recommending this story!

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Short story reviews

Hi Everyone,

I spent some time organizing my short story reviews and converting the old ones to the new block format (whew!). From now on, I’ll add them to the page that I also created, which you can find at the top of my site. I have read some excellent short stories and recommend all them all. I found them in these collections and anthologies. I’ve been carrying around a couple of these books since college!

These short story collections are also excellent:

Do you like reading short stories? What do you recommend?

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Short story review from The Best American Short Stories 2006: “The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from the 2006 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Ann Patchett.

“The Casual Car Pool”
by

Katherine Bell

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When a parachute jumper snags his chute on the ropes of the Bay Bridge that leads to San Francisco, readers get a look inside the lives of three strangers in a car pool. The driver, Ian, has picked up his passengers in Oakland and they are stalled just near the end of the Yerba Buena tunnel. A woman named Hannah sits in the front seat and Julia, fifteen, sits in the back. In the beginning, they follow ridesharing’s unspoken rules. No conversation except maybe the traffic and weather.

Ian, Hannah and Julia may not say much, but their actions and their thoughts tell their back stories. Ian is married, but just that morning backed out of their driveway and thought, “If I wanted to, I could leave today and never go back.” Hannah holds in her lap a thick manilla envelope with sperm donor candidates. Annoyed that morning at her lover, Kate, she grabbed it before showing it to her. Julia has skipped school and is headed to meet a Mormon runaway named Isaac, where they will panhandle for money that she will hand over to him at the end of the day.

Meanwhile the jumper hangs and realized that “somehow, by jumping, he had stopped the morning.”

I’ve always liked how short stories reveal just a segment of people’s lives. Here, I like the details the author decided to include. By including only a few details, Bell shows how her characters act in that moment and with only a hint of what will happen after the story ends. Bell’s story touches on relationships and parenthood, privilege and need and the impact strangers can have on your thoughts.

About the Author (taken from the back of this 2006 edition and from Ploughshares):

“Katherine Bell grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and New Jersey. “The Casual Car Pool” was her second story published in Ploughshares. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently works as online managing editor at Cook’s Illustrated, teaches writing at Harvard Extension School and Lesley University, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She is also working on her first novel and a book about quilting.

I highly recommend these collections of Best American Short Stories. I’ve never been disappointed by the stories I’ve read.

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Book Review: The Early Stories of Truman Capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote
Foreword by Hilton Als

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I enjoyed reading this excellent collection of fourteen stories by Truman Capote. Written when he was in his teens and early twenties, these stories show Capote’s impressive ability to create scenes and original characters and evoke compassion at the earliest stage of his writing.

The collection was published in 2015 after a discovery in the archives of the New York Public Library. An equally excellent Foreward by Hilton Als of The New Yorker points out how Capote was already experimenting with different styles and methods. Some of the stories depict the Deep South where Capote was born, and others take place in New York, where he also lived as a boy. In them, he addresses many everyday issues, including family, relationships, small-town dynamics and the more sophisticated urban life in New York. And in his wide range of characters, both young and old, he portrays the more complex elements of poverty, race and fate, as well as selfish and vindictive human behavior. In his Foreward, Al writes about a universal yearning in these stories and I see that clearly.

I haven’t read everything Truman Capote wrote (see my links at the bottom of this post), but I have read the big ones (In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and a couple other short stories. I have always been struck by his descriptive style, which has the unique ability to lift me out of the actual world and right into a lyrical yet raw place. I think this skill is already coming through in these early stories.

There’s a great quote by David Ebershoff of Random House in the book’s Afterward. If you’ve ever watched one of Capote’s talk show appearances (here, here and here) or read about and seen images of his Black and White Ball in 1966 (read about that here), you might have an idea of what Capote was like. But if you put aside his gossipy side, discount his drunken appearances, and you really listen to him when he talks about the writing craft, you’ll see that he was indeed deeply serious about writing. I think this collection gives you a good picture of that intensity before he was sidetracked. Ebershoff writes:

“These early stories offer a counterpoint to that final image: a young writer laboring over his typewriter to maximize his gifts. A Truman Capote not slurring on a television talk show but driven to nail the right word on the page.”

I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick read, but the stories stay with you and give you a good look at an emerging writer who became a legend.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In Cold Blood
“La Côte Basque”
“House of Flowers”

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Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Written in Stone” by Catherine Brady

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“Written in Stone”
by
Catherine Brady

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I found myself immediately immersed in this story about an Iranian husband and his American wife, who separate after twenty years of marriage and try to navigate their new relationship. The narrator, a surgical nurse at a hospital in San Francisco, has told Hassan to leave because she cannot bear the thought of his betrayal. He’s moved in with a younger woman, an aspiring opera singer.

Hassan works as a liaison for a nonprofit that connects government, scientists and business and his overly gregarious nature has gotten him in trouble. He’s not being inappropriate, he tells his wife, he’s simply misunderstood. His behavior has gotten him into trouble before. Early in their marriage, they’d moved to Iran and lived with his family, during the fall of the Shah’s regime and the Ayatollah’s takeover. He’d talked too much, told too many jokes, and was picked up for questioning. They’d had to leave the country illegally.

Now, at Hassan’s insistence or maybe feelings of guilt or longing, he returns to their apartment once a week so they can have dinner together. Lately he tells her about his problems between him and the young singer. Some are because of the age difference, but one of the biggest problems for her is his drinking. The girlfriend doesn’t understand him, he complains to his wife. It’s a new dynamic between the narrator and Hassan, in which they analyze this new relationship. The reader sees them move back towards each other, through the routine of preparing meals together and talking companionably.

I enjoyed this story very much because of the contrast and similarities between Hassan’s marriage and their experiences in Iran. The author provides strong images of freedom, family loyalty, lush gardens with climbing roses, Persian cooking and dangerous political unrest. Hassan’s history and their marriage left me uncertain about their future together because I couldn’t quite decide if they would try or what concessions she would make, or even if they were concessions. I felt that they understood each other very well, but I wondered if that would be good for their marriage. I read this story twice and felt it even more the second time.

I highly recommend “Written in Stone” which the author wrote soon after 9/11.

Catherine Brady is an American short story writer. Her most recent collection, The Mechanics of Falling & Other Stories, was published in 2009. Her second short story collection, Curled in the Bed of Love, was the co-winner of the 2002 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2003 Binghamton John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Brady’s first collection of short stories, The End of the Class War, was a finalist for the 2000 Western States Book Award in Fiction. Her stories have been included in Best American Short Stories 2004 and numerous anthologies and journals.

Brady received an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hollins College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. She was elected to the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in 2005 and served as Vice-President (2006) and President (2007). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.

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Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“Intervention”
by
Jill McCorkle

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In his excellent story about marriage and adult children, Marilyn and Sid, now retired, have settled into an alarming routine. Every evening, Marilyn watches Sid drink too much. And she’s let it slip to their daughter that she’s concerned. Sally is a take-charge daughter and quickly sets up an intervention, led by her social worker husband. Sally’s brother books a flight and they prepare to confront Sid.

Marilyn is sorry she ever mentioned it, but there is no stopping her children, who mean well, but cannot understand the complex dynamics between Marilyn and Sid. “You have to deal with Dad’s problem,” Sally tells Marilyn. Marilyn is also insulted that their marriage is under scrutiny. Whose business is it?

When the day arrives, despite their children’s careful planning, only Marilyn understands Sid’s reaction. Readers may look back and determine that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What’s great about this story is how the author explores the touchy topic of children taking charge of their parents’ lives. I enjoyed thinking about these dynamics and the opposing points of view. In addition, McCorkle shows the powerful influence of private understandings between husband and wife, which is both invisible to their children and not meant for them to know.

Jill McCorkle is an American author of eight novels and four collections of short stories. Her most recent novel, Hieroglyphics, was published in 2020. She is currently a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is affiliated with the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

I am never disappointed by the stories in this collection. I’m looking forward to working my way through it all.

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New Review of Encounters: Relationships in Conflict by Fred H Rohn

New Review of Encounters: Relationships in Conflict —

Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “The Walk with Elizanne” by John Updike

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“The Walk with Elizanne”
by
John Updike

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this poignant story about getting older, looking back and making sense of lost moments, David Kern returns with his second wife to Oligner, Pennsylvania for his fiftieth high school reunion. His first stop is the hospital where their class organizer, Mamie Kauffman, is dying of cancer. At the reunion, David meets an old girlfriend, Elizanne, and she triggers long-buried memories of a first kiss on a walk home from a date and the charged moments of adolescence.

David considers his small-town upbringing, of knowing his classmates from Kindergarten through high school, and then leaving to start a life somewhere else. As he recalls the heat of this early teenage encounter, he’s jarred by Elizanne’s coarse comment, “It got me started, I must tell you, on a lot of, whatever. Kissing, let’s say.”

For days after the reunion, David thinks of his walk with Elizanne, and wonders what he might ask her now. But he won’t call her and he knows the importance of this memory will fade. “The questions he was burning to ask would receive banal answers. It was an adolescent flirtation that had come to nothing.”

I enjoyed this story and how Updike contrasts the limitless possibilities of youth with the realities that alter his characters’ paths. Mamie, who had stayed in Olinger, and was always the one with the most class spirit, spins her coming death into something positive, telling David, “That I’ll be all right. That when it comes, I’ll still be there. Here. You know what I’m saying?” Elizanne, who has not returned for reunions until this one, will likely refile her walk with David, giving it little meaning other than a quick reminiscence. All three have no choice but to accept the reality of passing time and narrowing paths.


John Updike (1932-2009) was an award-winning American writer of novels, short stories and poetry. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was known for his stories of middle-class Protestant life in small-town Pennsylvania. In addition to many other awards, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 and 1991.

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Books to Pen – Book Club Mom’s creative writing blog

Hi Everyone,

I just launched a new blog called Books to Pen, dedicated to my creative writing efforts. I posted my first piece of short fiction which you can find here. I hope you will take a look. Feedback is welcome!

https://bookstopen.wordpress.com


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A great reading year for fiction and nonfiction – check out these recommended reads!

Image: Pixabay

It’s been a great reading year and the perfect time to share the books I’ve enjoyed. I’m ready to curl up with a good book, are you?


Fiction

Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

The story of a young woman and her search for happiness. Set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know her in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Highly recommend this terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!


Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Debut collection of 13 coming-of-age stories, set in Houston, and told mainly by one character. An uncensored look at a struggling population with a hopeful finish. One of Barack Obama’s Top Picks of 2019.


Nonfiction

The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the
Story of my Father by Janny Scott

Interesting biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter Janny Scott. A history, spanning four generations of a wealthy family that settled on what’s called the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.


Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Young Adult graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky.


How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in
Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

The more Sy Montgomery studies animals and nature, the more she knows that humans have a lot to learn about the creatures that share our world. In this book, she describes her unique relationships with 13 animals and what they have taught her.


What good books did you read in 2019?

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