A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas Writings

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“It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humour.”

We may be quite a ways from Christmas by now, but I did originally start this on its very last day. Most of the past five months was spent well away from the book in dread of having to finish The Haunted Man before it finally occurred to me that life is too short to suffer through boring stories – classic or not. So I picked this up again last night and read the rest.

Christmas Festivities: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The perfect amuse-bouche for this eight-course collection, Christmas Festivities captured the quintessential Christmas spirit so evocatively, it is no wonder that when Dickens died in 1870, a “London barrow-girl” exclaimed, “Then will Father Christmas die too?”

The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton: ⭐️⭐️

Not having known what a sexton was, I imagined green mini-Grinches stealing naval navigation instruments* and yes, saxophones. Why are they called sextons anyway? This story was – as the author of the introductory essay observed – an early version of what would become the insurmountable Christmas Carol. And being an early version, the miserable, miserly sexton’s redemption was rather rushed, and the goblins inspired more bewilderment than character-changing fear.

A Christmas Episode from Master Humphrey’s Clock: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

A cheering chapter on lifelong friendship, forged from shared solitude on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah, the belle of Fezziwig’s ball! Need I say more? Just as delightful as it always was, still is, and ever will be. God bless Us, Every One!

The Haunted Man: ⭐️

The one story I could not finish. The Haunted Man represents best the side of Victorian literature I simply cannot slog through. While Dickens’ ability to spin superlatively detailed descriptions of a single man’s appearance into a five-page-long portrait of the entire British Isles is impressive, to say the least, the slow, brooding nature of this novella was too much for me.

A Christmas Tree: ⭐️⭐️

Rather long-winded reminiscences of Dickens’ childhood Christmases. Intensely vivid, but lacking the vivacity of Christmas Festivities.

What Christmas Is, as We Grow Older: ⭐️⭐️

Another quaint – if quickly forgettable – rumination on the bittersweetness of Christmastime. A season of charity and compassion, unquestionably, but also an annual marker of unaccomplished aspirations, or time passed without loved ones now in “the shadow that darkens the whole globe … the shadow of the City of the Dead”. Dickens emboldens us to admit these remembrances “with tender encouragement” instead.

The Seven Poor Travellers: ⭐️

I dithered between one and two stars for this concluding story. On the one hand, I had no problems finishing it (although it is considerably shorter than the never-ending Haunted Man). On the other, despite the narrator’s impromptu generosity and the conviviality of the seven strangers, I finished it feeling hollow. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if the travellers’ stories were actually told. Or perhaps not; I was getting tired of the plot by the second page.


*In case it’s too obtuse, sextants, I’m referring to sextants.

Lance

“What I am thinking of is the man of imagination and science, whose courage is infinite because his curiosity surpasses his courage. Nothing will keep him back.”

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)I admit, genius though he is, this is my first work by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov. After reading these three exquisitely-wrought stories – all from his Dozen and Collected Stories and each depicting obsessions of very different natures – I can only remark how unfair it is that Nabokov can write so expressively in both Russian and English. I, on the other hand, can barely read my ‘mother tongue’.

The Aurelian: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Ah yes, the grim Russian short. I’m not sure I have read a single sunny story by a modern Russian writer. Either way, in The Aurelian, Nabokov (an aurelian himself, by the way) captured perfectly the damp, dark, dusty depths of middle-aged despair, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to the purgatory of unrealised youthful ambitions. A truly uplifting tale.

Signs and Symbols: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Upon first finishing this, I confess I was confused. What even was the point? But as I fruitlessly pondered and pondered again the descriptions of this and that offhandedly mentioned detail, I realised what a dull-witted fool I was. In our visceral desire to analyse and assign meaning, are we not, like the son, caught up in mild “referential mania” ourselves? And so, Nabokov sits back and says, checkmate.

“Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.”

Lance: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sheer, unbridled brilliance: his hallmark wordplay and wit were poured so viscously into this titular short story, it took some effort to slop through. While it did get rather pompous towards the end, this science-fiction satire of science fiction was still a dazzling display of literary dexterity.

“The clichés are, of course, disguised; essentially, they are the same throughout all cheap reading matter, whether it spans the universe or the living room. They are like those ‘assorted’ cookies that differ from one another only in shape and shade.”

My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls
The Distance of the Moon

The Distance of the Moon

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.”

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Four flights of fancy, these selections from Calvino’s Cosmicomics “interweave scientific fact with wordplay and whimsy”. They tell the history of the universe, witnessed through the eyes of Qfwfq, an exuberant, always extant, chameleon-like figure. But the most extraordinary part isn’t the plot, or the prose, but the opening phenomena, which were once thought to have been real, scientific events. 🌑

The Distance of the Moon: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

The first half was filled with delightful, phosphorescent imagery. But the hollow characterisations did little to endear the lovers’ sheer ridiculousness to me. In such a phantasmic setting, the narrator’s final proclamations ought to have been romantic, but instead just encouraged an eye roll.

Without Colours: ⭐️

Almost as bland as the colourless, “uninterrupted horizons”. The abrupt leaps of language were also too convenient to make the ending poignant. Inventive, certainly, but too insubstantial to sustain my interest.

As Long as the Sun Lasts: ⭐️⭐️

Published three years after the original Cosmicomics, there are subtle inconsistencies in Qfwfq’s recollections of his millennia on Earth. The story was still sweet though – a 12-page expansion on the archetypal bickering old married couple.

“Without which the history of the universe would not have for him any name or memory or flavour, that eternal conjugal bickering: if ever it should one day come to an end, what a feeling of desolation, what emptiness!”

Implosion: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Published 44 years after the original Cosmicomics, Implosion is an abrupt departure from the preceding stories’ conversational tone. Here, Qfwfq is philosophical – no longer enchanting children (or children at heart) by the fire. But while Implosion may be less exuberant and experimental, the introspective prose struck a chord in my introverted soul.

“To explode or to implode, that is the question: whether ’tis nobler in the mind to expand one’s energies in space without restraint, or to crush them into a dense inner concentration and cherish them.”


My other Penguin Modern reviews:
Three Japanese Short Stories
Four Russian Short Stories
Of Dogs and Walls

Three Japanese Short Stories

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Nothing is better than homemade matcha on a rainy day.

I have been making an effort to read more non-English literature, and these new Penguin Moderns are great bite-sized tasters for new authors and unfamiliar cultures. I’m already halfway through my second one, Four Russian Short Stories!

Heroes have always been monsters who crushed sentimentalism underfoot.

Behind the Prison: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Lethally sharp satire whetted against uncomfortably relatable truths. Behind the Prison is at once uproarious and unapologetically pessimistic.

“No, nothing in this world is as oppressive and debilitating as blood ties.”

“For her I would gladly ferry across the Sumida on the coldest winter day to buy her those sakura-mochi sweets from old Edo that she loved so much. But medicine? Not even on the warmest day would I want to go buy her medicine.”

Closet LLB: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

The most personally terrifying of the three. Like Otsukotsu Sansaku, I had “embraced the unshakeable goal of becoming a novelist” as a child, and I, too, steep myself in literature while I have supposedly settled into (and here is the most obvious difference) medicine. Thankfully, studying medicine was my own choice, and I hope to become something of a Paul Kalanithi or Atul Gawande. But my goodness, may I never be reduced to a Sansaku!

“How much fun are you getting out of life?”

General Kim: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

This last story fits the blurb best: “beguiling, strange, funny and hair-raising”. A delightfully surreal parody of Patriotism with a capital P to round it all off.

“To any nation’s people, their history is glorious. The legend of General Kim is by no means the only one worth a laugh.”

Overall rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Have you read any Penguin Moderns yet? If so, which ones were your favourites?

The Language of Thorns

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Illustrations by Sara Kipin.

“Because we know – even as children – that impossible tasks are an odd way to choose a spouse, that predators come in many guises, that a prince’s whims are often cruel.”

Subversions of classic fairy tales, villainous origin legends, and just damn good short stories, The Language of Thorns is not another funny but forgettable Tales of the Peculiar, or a mellow and melancholic Beedle the Bard (though I do very much love Beedle the Bard!). The depraved and disturbing roam wild in Bardugo’s own signature Small Science: a language truly wrought from thorns.

Each tale is seasoned with the subtle savour of the sprawling, breathing, beating world Bardugo first fashioned in Six of Crows – one with myriad palpable cultures and customs.* The Language of Thorns presents six stories from four nations, and in the names and shifting landscapes, we see reflections of the real countries that Bardugo’s world was built on.

When Water Sang Fire aptly springs from the Scandinavian Hans Christian Andersen’s universally recounted The Little Mermaid. The Witch of Duva is infused with Russian leanings towards Baba Yaga cautionary tales, though its solvent is a purebred German bedtime story: Hansel and Gretel. In true Ketterdam fashion, The Soldier Prince blends The Nutcracker (another German tale retold by a Frenchman and dressed in a Russian ballet) with Velveteen Rabbit, an Anglo-American children’s book. Amaya and the Thorn Wood introduces the spirits and superstitions that frequent African folk tales, and slides down the same spiral streams of Arabic tales within tales. Amaya herself is something of a Scheherazade too.

Love speaks in flowers.
Truth requires thorns.

I only wish these tales were still more strongly steeped in the cultures they supposedly were the vessels of. As they stand, they resemble retellings of traditional European fairy tales more closely than the varied collection I had expected from the author who had so effortlessly written the most diverse fantasy novel I have ever read. I also wish we had something from Shu Han, the only nation influenced by Asian cultures; the only Shu character in Six of Crows had the least screen time and character development.

I adored (an understatement) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, but I have yet to read the Grisha trilogy – it strikes me as a plain-Jane-Mary-Sue. Judging from other reviews, those who have read the trilogy may be delighted to find one or two familiar faces. But The Language of Thorns was darkly delightful even without such prior knowledge.

More favourite quotes: “It was the wounds from the thicket that had proven all the sweet blossoms and starlight had been real.”
“A thousand desperate wishes had been spoken on these shores, and in the end they were all the same: Make me someone new.”

Favourite tales: The Witch of Duva (Ravkan)
When Water Sang Fire (Fjerdan)
The Third Tale, Amaya and the Thorn Wood (Zemeni)

Rating: 5/5 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟


*I do realise the Grisha trilogy came first, but that was set in only Ravka. Six of Crows was a considerably more cosmopolitan adventure.

By Light We Knew Our Names

When I found this collection of magical realism vignettes, I was certain that I would love it like I did Like Water for Chocolate and The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender. Instead, the thirteen short stories left me wanting – though for exactly what, I cannot articulate. Coming of age, parental relationships, death and feeling trapped were recurring themes, and Anne Valente explores them with an abundance of symbolism. But I was often left wondering what it is that she actually wants to evoke with the sometimes bizarre supernatural elements.

We have girls turning into bears in Dear Amelia, and while I appreciated the ideas of indignant hope, of shame and loneliness, of fighting against the inevitable, the final message of burrowing into dens and ignoring it all failed to strike any emotional chord. On the other hand, To a Place Where We Take Flight and Terrible Angels had poignant passages, but were otherwise unremarkable. The plot developments were not particularly original, nor were the perspectives presented by the protagonists. In fact, much of the book was similarly unmemorable, beyond the persistent irritation half the characters seemed to ignite in me. Continue reading “By Light We Knew Our Names”