Danielle’s Stories – or, The 1000th

This is apparently my 1000th post to be published. How’s that for an old blog? It makes me feel as if I was actually sitting on a huge pile of dictionaries.

This milestone should probably warrant a very serious recap, but I’m kind of lazy, so I prefer talking to you about my latest reading adventure together with Danielle, that is both delightful and full of surprises.

During summer, Danielle and I started a mail exchange of short stories. We would send each other favorite stories and thus expand our reading experience. The added excitement of receiving actual mail in the letter box with stationery and stamps is delightfully old-school.

It’s been a fun exercise to try and find stories for someone who has read so widely already, not to mention that many short stories collection I own are in my mother tongue.  I am so glad Danielle had this idea, because I sometimes feel stuck in a rut with short story collections (I always return to beloved authors) and when someone picks a story for you in particular, you pay closer attention and it’s been awhile since I haven’t practiced close reading.

The first package I received, just in time before we left for Scotland, contained a short story by Rosamund Lehman and a short story by Ray Bradbury.

The Winter Dream by Rosamund Lehman is an atmospheric scene and a reminder that not all short stories need a big bang and a huge suspense to stand on their own.

Apparently not much happens in this story. A lady is in bed with the flu, her two kids are playing around in the garden, a man has come to destroy the bee nest that is right under the bedroom window. Does that make a story?

Underneath, there is a strong undercurrent of melancholy and doubt. Is it wrong to destroy the bee nest? Yes, the bees has stung guests and kids. But it was an exciting topic of conversation, a hope of a future bounty of honey, the constant humming and buzzing of life. The lady contemplates the destruction with sadness and ambivalence. Is it time to get rid of the bees? The gardener seems to think it too late, or maybe he likes to contest the lady’s order with his male expertise. Yet there’s a closeness without any flirtatious undercurrent, an understanding and respect between the sick woman and the old man, regardless of social status and gender. Also, we get to understand that it’s the war, but the tragedy of war stays in the shadows although all characters are aware that it will change everything forever.

The second story she sent me is The Playground by Ray Bradbury, which is great because I have only ever read Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 at school (a required reading) and I’d never have tried it on my own, being easily turned off by anything Martian. But this one story is set firmly on the ground (please forgive my bad puns), and if it goes anywhere it rather descends into hell than goes up into space.

Mr. Charles Underhill is a widower, he raises his son Jim with the help of his unmarried sister Carol. At 3, Jim has never entered the local playground. As a mother who came to the playground when my boys were just a few weeks old in the pram, i immediately thought “helicopter parenting” and was ready to judge Mr. Underhill harshly. But the playground in this story is not the benign place with safety-regulated slides and swings, soft ground to prevent bruises, a dozen of nannies looking out on the kids and ready to separate strifes before they go too far. No, the playground here is a jungle where evil deeds go unnoticed and unpunished. No adult supervision regulates the kids on the prowl. Mr. Underhill remembers that childhood isn’t an idyllic period, he knows about bullying, violence, and he’s ready for anything to spare this harsh realities to his own son. Carol, instead, insists that Jim should get on with it at an early age, so that he gets used to it and learns to stand his ground.

As a reader, as a mother, as a very rational person, I naturally tend to side with Carol, and rather doubt Mr. Underhill’s sanity. But what if he was right? What if it wasn’t just the sensitivity of a grieving father? And what if there was actually a way to spare his son?

The story is quite creepy. “Without Ray Bradbury there would be no Stephen King”, as the latter said, and I can see the parallel between them in the mix between suburban ordinariness and horror nearing the surface. Also the writing was very good.

In my first package I sent Danielle a story by Hillary Mantel (ahem, I’ve totally forgotten to post about this collection!) But if you want to start your own short story experiment, Danielle pointed out to a special event organized by Penguin Random House, A Season of Stories, from October 11 to December 30, to receive short stories directly by e-mail. No fancy stationery, but you have the added bonus of getting totally exclusive stories! Of course, I signed up immediately. Who is going to join us?

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