On Re-Reading Ambrose Bierce

Some classics are part of our childhood reading. There are many different writers that I haven’t re-read since I was quite young. Ambrose Bierce was one of them.

I remember sneaking off with a volume of his short stories and liking them very much when I was little. I knew nothing about the man, only much later when I read a lot of Latin American literature and came across Carlos Fuentes’ Gringo ViejoThe Old Gringo, that was also made into a movie, did I learn something about the man himself. Or rather the mystery of his ending. In 1913, at the age of 71, he rode off to Mexico and was never seen again. Fuentes’ exploration of his vanishing is a great book. I have also seen the movie but can’t remember if I liked it or not. It is believed that Bierce, who also fought in the Civil War, joined the forces of Pancho Villa.

But even without such a mysterious ending, Ambrose Bierce would be an interesting character. He was known for his satirical writings in which he used an acerbic and vitriolic tone. Some of his articles seem to have ruined more than one career of a new writer. He also wrote a lot of short stories and his famous The Devil’s Dictionary.

Since my time is limited these days, I’m much more inclined to read short stories and novellas besides my chunky August Readalong choice (Elsa Morante’s History – one of the great works of Italian literature ! – Yes, you can still join me).

Yesterday I decided to re-read some of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories. I wanted to see how I would like them as a grownup and how the knowledge of his disappearance would influence my reading. I read An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Beyond the Wall, An Adventure at Brownville, The Damned Thing, One of the Missing and The Stranger. Most of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories can be found online here.

I really loved these stories. Bierce is a fantastic writer. Realistic, yet capable of creating an eerily haunting atmosphere. The Civil War, in which he served, is often a backdrop. The stories are either set in San Francisco or rural California, one takes place in an Arizona desert. The city as well as the country provide material for mysterious descriptions.

In my memory, Bierce’s stories had a certain resemblance with Edgar Allan Poe. It is also said that H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by him. Of the 90something short stories written by Bierce far over 50 have a supernatural, macabre or horror theme. What I had not realized when reading them before is the fact that he has a lot in common with Maupassant. The descriptions more than anything bear a strong resemblance with Maupassant’s short stories. Poe’s descriptions are different.

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is one of his most famous stories. It is set during the Civil War and tells the story of a man who has been sentenced to be hanged. The story is, like so many others, quite surprising, it is non-linear and offers an unexpected ending. There isn’t anything supernatural in this one, just a touch of it.

Beyond the Wall is a ghost story set in San Francisco during a cold winter night.

The night of my visit to him was stormy. The Californian winter was on, and the incessant rain plashed in the deserted streets, or, lifted by irregular gusts of wind, was hurled against the houses with incredible fury.

An Adventure at Brownville is an atmospherical exploration of the mind’s faculties. It is a beautiful story with great descriptions.

As I leaned wearily against a branch of the gnarled old trunk the twilight deepened in the somber woods and the faint new moon began casting visible shadows and gliding the leaves of the trees with a tender but ghostly light.

The Damned Thing is the story that reminded me the most of Maupassant. It is a very subtle horror story in which two men go hunting.

One of the Missing is the longest story in the collection. It is a tragic story of the Civil War in which a soldier of General Sherman’s army is sent on a dangerous mission.

The Stranger is a ghost story in form of a Western. A party of men camping in the Arizona desert meets a mysterious stranger who tells them an uncanny tale.

If I think of the story of his life and compare its ending to his tales, I think, it is safe to say that Bierce loved mysteries. Maybe he didn’t want to return, maybe he got lost on the way or something occurred that was similar to what happened to the soldier in One of the Missing. One thing is certain, we will never know.

As I said, I enjoyed reading these stories a great deal and since we have autumn-like weather it was quite fitting. I sat on the balcony floor while reading them, it was raining and quite cool. One of the cats was lying on a table, the other one sitting with me under the woolen blanket I had draped around myself. There were a dozen ravens sitting on the huge maples in the back garden flapping their wet wings and cawing.

Bookish Christmas Memory: Mrs Dalloway

This post is my contribution to the Virtual Advent Tour. A big “Thank you” to Kailana from The Written World and Marg from Adventures of an Intrepid Reader for organising it. It is already day 22 and many interesting, touching and informative posts have been written so far. Mostly family memories, but also a few of another kind.

Christmas has always been a special and a very quiet holiday  for me. When I was very little, we spent the Christmas season in Paris, with my father’s family. My mother’s side is dispersed all over Europe, there was never a possibility or a will for a big gathering. Later, when I grew older, and family politics made it impossible to have one joint meeting, we mostly stayed at home. Due to these circumstances Christmas was always a time of intensified reading and watching of old movies on TV.

Books that I have read during a certain season, on a holiday, somewhere abroad, a special period of my life, have always seemed to stay more intensely in my mind than others. I have a mental treasure trunk full of cherished book memories of this kind.

The last Christmas I spent with my parents, when still living with them, at age 19, is, in retrospect, one of the most enchanted ones. I already studied at the university but had no worries, lived in great comfort and was looked after. No illness, no precarious financial situation, no major burn-out, nothing of the kind, that all happened later. All I had to do, is come out of my room and join my parents for lunch and dinner. With hindsight, that Christmas seems like frozen in time, like a scenery in a snow globe and when I look at it, I see a young girl, curled up in an old wicker chair, holding a book with a greenish cover and reading it with utter enchantment.

That year, someone had offered me my first Virginia Woolf novel. It was Mrs. Dalloway. I will never forget that novel and especially not my favourite scene in it. This scene comes to my mind the very instant when I think of Christmas. Invariably since that time my mind wanders spontaneously along the following trail: Christmas, Mrs. Dalloway and off into a string of associations that are all tied to one particular episode in the book: Mrs Dalloway buying flowers at a flower shop. My memory of this scene is intense and sensual. I remember Mrs Dalloway entering a cool shop, an intense green scent of freshly cut flowers pervades the air and the odor of some sweet smelling blossoms seems to linger all over the place. I cannot remember what flowers she bought, I remember semi-darkness and this almost sparkling scent.

I often remember one particular scene from the novels I liked best. Everything else slowly sinks into oblivion but that one scene, with all the associations and meanings it represents to me, stays ingrained in my mind. I don’t know if others feel like this about books.

I have never read Mrs Dalloway again, I am afraid of what I might find. Maybe my memory has adorned it over the years with elements entirely my own. I fear disenchantment. I have read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, the novel that is dedicated entirely to Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway, and have seen the movie that is based on it. The novel is wonderful and the movie is one of the best I know, especially because of Philip Glass’ music. It has acoustic qualities that are corresponding to the flower shop scene’s visual ones; they are light, fresh and green.

It may be odd to tie Christmas to one distant reading experience but I love the memory.

I haven’t made many Christmas plans for this year apart from dinner with friends. I was toying with the idea to read Elizabeth Gaskell’ s Cranford or maybe Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys. I have seen the movie during another Christmas season and found it wonderful. I like books and movies about writers and it is the only movie in which I liked Michael Douglas.

Does anyone else have any speacial Christmas reading memories or plans?

Don’t forget to visit the other stops today.

Apples for Jam: A Colorful Cookbook by Tessa Kiros (2007)

A cookbook needs to fulfill much more than just provide us with recipes. Ideally it appeals to us visually as well as content wise. I have come to think of cookbooks as the grown-up’s counterpart of illustrated children’s books. We do not just use them, we enter another world by means of opening them. Enchantment is what we are looking for. And advice. Most cookbooks, unless they are of the „How to“ and „Basic cooking“ kind, are conceptual, either dedicated to the cuisine of a country or region or to a specific food group. Many are written by famous chefs.

Tessa Kiros’ Apples for Jam: A Colorful Cookbook is unique in its kind. It artfully blends memoir and cookbook and takes us on a voyage back to our own childhood. Apples for Jam consists of  a collection of easily followed recipes interwoven with wonderfully colorful photos and prettily designed pages.

The recipes we find stem from the realm of family cooking. Recipes handed down from one generation to the next. Meals and food that is and was meant to nourish, comfort and console. The type of food mama used to cook when we came home from school worn out or downright crying. You will also find a lot of favourite children’s food that seems to have  stayed remarkably the same over the decades. Children’s palates do not crave for the all too sophisticated fancy cuisine of five-star chefs. And maybe we have gotten tired of it as well. We want the simple things again. Homemade meals with only a few ingredients that are all the more flavourful for being recognizable. You will find recipes for salads and main courses like “Chicken cutlets with parsley and capers”, alcohol free drinks such as “Cranberry syrup” and a wide range of deserts among which there are ice creams, cookies and cakes. No fancy hors d’oeuvre or starter courses.

It is a book that will especially appeal to color sensitive types as it is organised by colors, starting with orange, yellow, pink and green, heading on towards, gold, white and brown and ending with color themes “monochrome”, “stripes” and “multicolor”. Recipes and ingredients  echo and play along the lines of those colors.

But what is maybe the nicest about this book is its capacity to enchant. If you do not feel like cooking you can still enjoy the artwork, relish in the photos and read the little stories and Tessa’s childhood memories and let her take you back on a trip to your own cherished past.

Apples for Jam: A colorful cookbook by Tessa Kiros (2007), Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City