Ellen Gilchrist: In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (1981)

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams

In the Land of Dreamy Dreams, Ellen Gilchrist’s acclaimed 1981 debut collection of short stories, introduced readers to a remarkable Southern voice which has sustained its power and influence through her more than 20 subsequent books. Gilchrist has a distinctive ear for language, and a deep understanding of her flawed, sometimes tragic characters. These fourteen stories, divided into three sections — There’s a Garden of Eden, Things Like the Truth, and Perils of the Nile — are about mostly young, upper-class Southern women who are bored with the Junior League and having babies, and chafe against the restrictions of their sheltered lives. Talented and bright, but living in the shadow of men — their husbands and fathers — they resort to outrageous actions in pursuit of freer lives and uncompromised love, despite the consequences. This collection first introduced readers to some of Gilchrist’s most beloved characters, such as Rhoda Manning and Nora Jane Whittington

I came across Ellen Gilchrist by chance. I was looking for books set in New Orleans and saw one of her short stories Rich in an anthology. I wasn’t familiar with her and looked her up and finally ordered a used copy of her first collection In the Land of Dreamy Dreams. It’s very rare that I read a whole short story collection in a few days, but I did in this case. There was a unity of setting, mood and atmosphere, and even one returning character that it read almost like a novel in stories.

Most of the stories are set in New Orleans, only a few take place in other places. The first or third person narrators are all women. Some are still small girls, many are teenagers, a few are grownups and some are elderly. About 50% of the stories are set in the 40s, the others in the 70s.

Hope and failure, perversion and innocence are some of the themes. The descriptions are rich and lush, the tone ranges from lyrical and  dreamy to bitter and sarcastic. Some of the stories have the atmosphere of a humid, stuffed boudoir, others exude an air of rich elegance.

In a few sentences Gilchrist can capture a whole life, including its tragedy and beauty. I liked the beautiful, hopeful stories, in which the protagonists were heading for a life full of intense and sensuous moments best. But I can’t deny that the more cruel stories like “Rich” – in which people get richer and richer and finally end in tragedy – or the stories Suicides and Indignities were powerful and even made me gasp.

To give you a taste – this is the beginning of Indignities

Last night my mother took off her clothes in front of twenty-six invited guests in the King’s Room at Antoine’s. She took off her Calvin Klein evening jacket and her beige silk wrap-around blouse and her custom-made  brassiere and walked around the table letting everyone look at the place where her breasts used to be.

She had them removed without saying a word to anyone. I’m surprised she told my father. I’m surprised she invited him to the party. He ever would have noticed. He hasn’t touched her in years except to hand her a cheque or a paper to sign.

My favourite stories were There’s a Garden of Eden in which a fortysomething woman and her young lover take a boat and navigate the flooded streets of New Orleans to get to her mother, 1944 in which a young girl meets a glamorous war widow who shows her to make the most of live. I also loved Traveler in which a plain girl travels to her beautiful cousin in the South. The cousin has just lost her mother who’s left her wardrobes and wardrobes full of expensive clothes, underwear, perfumes and make-up. The plain girl reinvents herself on this vacation and doesn’t want to return home. Summer, an Elegy is a story with a languorous mood, but it made me feel uncomfortable as it describes the love affair of two eight year-olds. It contains one of my favourite passages.

The afternoon went on for a log time, and the small bed was surrounded by yellow light and the room filled with the smell of mussels.

Long afterward, as she lay in a cool bed in Acapulco, waiting for her third husband to claim her as his bride, Matille would remember that light and how, later that afternoon, the wind picked up and could be heard for miles away, moving toward Issaquena County with its lines of distant thunder, and how the cottonwood leaves outside the window had beat upon the house all night with their exotic crackling.

I haven’t read anyone quite like Ellen Gilchrist but she still reminded me of a few authors. Tennesse Williams came to mind – A Streetcar Named Desire as much as The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone – because of the setting and some of the older characters. But she also reminded me of Julie Orringer whose intricately woven sentences and lush descriptions are similar and there’s some of Yoko Ogawa’s cruelty in this collection as well. Funny enough Ogawa’s last short story collection has the English title Revenge. One of Gilchrist’s best stories is called Revenge as well. Coincidence? Who knows.

If you like rish, complex short stories, full of allusions and sensual descriptions, sometimes mean, sometimes dreamy – then do yourself a favour and get a copy of this wonderful book.

Antonio Tabucchi Week – Wrap Up

Tabucchi Week is already over and I wanted to thank all of you who joined, read along, wrote reviews, commented and read other’s posts. I’m really happy that it was quite interactive and people visited each other’s blogs. There were quite a few very interesting discussions. I’m also happy that those who joined who didn’t know Tabucchi found an author whose work they want to continue exploring and those who knew him felt like returning to an old friend. I enjoyed the two books I chose a great deal and I’m also glad that I have discovered a few new blogs.

What I also loved was that many of the posts showed how wide Tabucchi’s range is and that everyone can find something else in his books. Quite a few people have read Pereira Maintains but every single post was completely different and highlighted other things, something I’ve rarely noticed when many people read the same novel.

Once more – Thank you so much for participating.

Below are all the participant reviews again (they are also in the intro post). In a few days I’ll set up a page which will allow to find the posts more easily. I’m pretty sure this isn’t the last author week I’ve hosted and knowing that I like a bit of a theme the next week will most probably also be dedicated to an Italian writer. No worries, though, not before next year.

It’s Getting Later All the Time – Brian (Babbling Books)

On Dreams of Dreams – Tom (Wuthering Expectations)

Pereira Declares – Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Pereira Maintains – TBM (50 Year Project)

Pereira Maintains – Vishy (Vishy’s Blog)

Pereira Maintains – Bettina (Liburuak)

Pereira Maintains – Andrew Blackman

Piazza d’Italia – Scott (seraillon)

Requiem – Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Edge of the Horizon – Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico – Stu (Winstons Dad’s Blog)

The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa with Bonus Lobster Recipe – Tom (Wuthering Expectations)

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro – Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos)

Vanishing Point -1streading

Pereira Maintains (Book and Movie) and Requiem – Scribacchina (Parole/Words)

Antonio Tabucchi Week

Antonio Tabucchi Week is finally approaching. It’s starting tomorrow and this is really just a very quick introduction to the week and some info for those who participate. I’m going to post two reviews, one on Tuesday and one either Friday or Saturday and will wrap up on Monday in a week.

I spent the last week reading Tabucchi and was quite captivated by my choices. I wanted to read Pereira Maintains but then I dipped into another two of his books and one of them hooked me right away.

Tabucchi has written quite a few very short books, so if you haven’t started yet, there is still time until Sunday.

If you are participating and have reviewed something, please, leave a link in the comment section of this post.  I’ll add it to this post. Once the week is over you can still access the links either via this post or via the page I will set up.

Participant reviews

It’s Getting Later All the Time – Brian (Babbling Books)

On Dreams of Dreams – Tom (Wuthering Expectations)

Pereira Declares – Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Pereira Maintains – TBM (50 Year Project)

Pereira Maintains – Vishy (Vishy’s Blog)

Pereira Maintains – Bettina (Liburuak)

Pereira Maintains – Andrew Blackman

Piazza d’Italia – Scott (seraillon)

Requiem – Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Edge of the Horizon – Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat)

The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico – Stu (Winstons Dad’s Blog)

The Last Three Days of Fernando Pessoa with Bonus Lobster Recipe – Tom (Wuthering Expectations)

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro – Richard (Caravana de Recuerdos)

Vanishing Point -1streading

Pereira Maintains (Book and Movie) and Requiem – Scribacchina (Parole/Words)

Antonio Tabucchi Week 17 – 23 September 2012 – The Giveaway Winner

Random org has decided who has won

Pereira Maintains

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.

The book goes to Bettina (Liburuak).

I hope you will like it.

Please send me your address via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com.

For those who want to know more about Tabucchi Week and want to join, here are the details.

Antonio Tabucchi Week September 17 – 23 2012 and Giveaway

Ever since Stu’s Henry Green Week I wanted to host something similar for an Italian author and my first choice was always Antonio Tabucchi. He is one of the finest Italian writers and one I admire a lot.

Sadly what should have been a tribute to a living author has now turned into a commemoration as Tabucchi died earlier this year.

Tabucchi was a novelist, short story writer and academic. One striking feature was his love for Portugal, the Portuguese language and Fernando Pessoa. He didn’t only teach Portuguese literature at the university but he lived in Portugal (as a reaction among other things to Italian politics), wrote a novel in Portuguese and translated Pessoa.

He is one of the rare authors not writing in English who has been extensively translated. While I will read him in Italian, all those who would like to join can choose from a variety of other languages. He is available in English, French and German and most probably also in Spanish and Portuguese.

Tabucchi’s Indian Nocturne is one of my all-time favourite books. It has been made into a movie. I just read and reviewed Sogni di Sogni – Dreams of Dreams – a collection of imagined dreams attributed to famous writers, musicians and artists. But there are others that I want to re-read or discover for the first time like Tristano muore. Una vita.

If you have never read anything by this author I would suggest you start with one of his more famous novels like Pereira Maintains (Sostiene Pereira) or Indian Nocturne (Notturno Indiano). If you like short stories you may enjoy the beautiful collection of fictitious letters It’s Getting Later All the Time. If you go for quirky and inspiring, Dreams of Dreams may be the thing. But there are more.

Requiem: A Hallucination

Little Misunderstandings of No Importance

The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro

And in Italian (and other translations) only

Tristano muore. Una vita

Il tempo invecchia infretta

Il filo dell’orizzonte

In order to motivate you to join I’m giving away one copy of one of his most famous novels which has also been made into a movie with Marcello Mastroianni.

Pereira Maintains

In the sweltering summer of 1938 in Portugal, a country under the fascist shadow of Spain, a mysterious young man arrives at the doorstep of Dr Pereira. So begins an unlikely alliance that will result in a devastating act of rebellion. This is Pereira’s testimony.

The giveaway is open internationally. If you would like to win this book, just leave a comment. The only condition is that you take part in Tabucchi Week. What you will read is up to you, it doesn’t have to be the book you won.

The winner will be announced on Friday August 17 2012.

Ferdinand von Schirach: Crime – Verbrechen (2009)

Are they true? Are they not? The discussion of Ferdinand von Schirach ‘s stories circled to a large extent around these questions  in Germany  and what the respective answers might mean. For the book. For life. And human nature in general. In English speaking countries there is no emphasis on whether they are based on true cases or not. People admire the crisp, precise, unadorned prose, the philosophical background, the look into human depravity, into guilt, gruesome crime and its possible punishment. They are seen as literature and not as true crime accounts. I find this interesting. In this faz interview von Schirach says that all the cases happened and are true. A lot has been changed to guarantee anonymity of the people involved but other than that, this is what happened. Does it matter? Maybe not.

Von Schirach is a famous German defence lawyer. His grandfather Baldur von Schirach was even more famous. He was one of the Nazi criminals convicted in Nuremberg.

The stories in Crime – Verbrechen are astonishing. Some are shocking, some made me laugh, some are puzzling, others thought-provoking, even very touching at times. Often the person who sets out to commit a crime isn’t the person the lawyer in the story will have to defend. Somewhere along the line, the roles are reversed. The initial victim can become the perpetrator. This happens especially in those cases in which silly small-time-crooks inadvertently attack a “big fish”. Some of those stories are hilarious.

But there are stories in which a lot of pain and cruelty pushes a person over the edge. As von Schirach writes in the introduction, this is what the stories are about; the tipping point. We are all, as he says, walking on thin ice, but not all of us make it to the other side. The moment when the ice crashes, is the moment he is interested in.

Punishment is one of the key themes of all of those stories and surprisingly, for various reasons, not many of the delinquents get sentenced. The book, being written by a defence lawyer, gives a lot of insight into the German criminal system, comparing it to other systems, showing how it has changed over time, how it has become more just but much more complicated as well.

I cannot write all that much about the individual stories as that would spoil the fun of discovering what happened. I’m glad I discovered the review of the book on Lizzy’s blog last year.

Some of the stories are gruesome but the majority is just absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. Many give insight into the German society, it’s problems and challenges; many illustrate that some people are just born unlucky.

Crime was von Schirach’s first book. It was an immense success in Germany and translated into 30 languages. One of the stories of the collection have been made into a movie Glück – Bliss by none other than Dorries Dörrie. It’s in the cinemas in Germany right now.

Another short story collection Guilt – Schuld and a novel Der Fall Collini have followed. Guilt just came out in English.

Der Fall Collini which Die Welt calls a”cristal clear story of disconcerting amorality” will certainly be translated very soon. I want to read both, Schuld and Der Fall Collini. And watch the movie.

Have you read von Schirach or heard about him?

Irish Short Stories by James Stephen, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Orflaith Foyle

As you may know, Irish Short Story Week has been extended until the end of the month and maybe beyond. The week 23 – 29 has two parallel themes, Fairy Tales and Emerging Women Writers. I chose to read three stories for this week. A fairy tale, The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran by James Stephens which can be found in his book Irish Fairy Tales. Then, after Mel suggested it, I read  Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s Midwife to the Faeries which I found in The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story (2011), edited by Anne Enright. The last story I read has been reviewed by Mel as well and there is a guest post of the author on his blog today. The story is Somewhere in Minnesota by Orflaith Foyle, found in the New Irish Short Stories (2001), compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

While the three stories I have read this week are quite different in tone and content, they all had something in common. They were highly disturbing. Maybe not so much the fairy tale by James Stephens, although it was certainly unusual as far as fairy tales go.

Stephen’s tale The Enchanted Cave of Cesh Corran contains a few elements typical for Irish fairy tales. There is some sort of other world and fairies but both have nothing in common with what we know from fantasy stories that claim to be influence by Irish folklore. The world in this tale is rather coarse and crude. The army chief Fionn and his men, among them Goll who hates him but serves him nonetheless, are resting near the cave of Conaran, King of the fairies. Conaran hates Fionn more than anything else and has waited for an occasion like this. He lures the men into the cave, casts a spell and calls his extremely ugly daughters to finish them off. His daughters are fairies but with whiskers. They are as fierce as they are cruel, no fair maidens at all. I won’t tell you how the story ends but there is fighting involved. It’s nothing like any other fairy tale I’ve read before, it felt very archaic but was humorous as well. It depicted a world in which hatred and friendship go hand in hand and can change at any moment. It depicts an insecure world in which life isn’t worth much.

This last element was equally present in Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s excellent story Midwife to the Fairies. This is a haunting and mysterious story, a story which reads as if someone had mixed Shirley Valentine with a tale of some archaic, fierce fairies. The story begins as an interior monologue. A woman, a midwife, sits in front of the TV with her husband on a Saturday night. The voice sounds uneducated, working class but very intimate as well. Late at night someone knocks on the door. It’s an emergency and they need a midwife at once. It does seem unusual that these people wouldn’t go to a hospital but the man is forceful and she follows him into the night. What awaits her is a depressing scene. A young woman, a girl really, is about to give birth. There is a crowd in the house but nobody cares about what is going on. The midwife helps her and delivers the tiny, premature baby. What follows is sad and shocking and involves a crime. What was interesting was that the story was broken up. On every page there were bits of a fairy tale in italics. One can read only those parts and the parts together form a whole tale which mirrors the one we read. Unwanted pregnancies are a frequent theme in Irish stories. I’m not even sure, if abortion is not still forbidden in Ireland or most certainly has been much longer than in most other countries. Unwanted pregnancies is the core theme of this disturbing story. What was really disturbing was the way the people handled this. The midwife, the man, the woman giving birth and her relatives, they all pretended it didn’t happen. The fairy tale that was told in parallel had the same theme. It’s not a pretty fairy tale at all. On the contrary it contains a very shocking element as well. Fairy tales like dreams are a to a certain extent a means to express the hidden, the suppressed. Pairing these two tales made this a powerful and uncanny short story.

The third story I read, Orflaith Foyle’s Somewhere in Minnesota, wasn’t less disturbing. A young woman, an artist, sits in a diner, somewhere in Minnesota. She has run off. The woman behind the bar and a man are drawn to her. They say she triggers an urge to protect her. The young woman’s face looks bloody and destroyed, someone must have beaten her up. They assume a man has done this to her and so do we for a while. We find out that the truth is very different. There are allusions to a troubled childhood, abuse, brutality. This in itself has the power to disturb but what is far more disturbing is that the two people who pretend they want to help her, appear to be turned on by the fact that she may have been beaten by a man.

With these three tales I have moved far away from the beauty of the three other stories I have read but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like them. All of the stories I have read were very well written and powerful.

I read the three stories as a contribution to Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel u from The Reading Life.

Reviews and further suggestions can be found here.

If you are interested, you can still participate in Irish Short Story Week which has been extended.

Mel and I are planning on reading Frank Delaney’s Ireland together and post on it either during week 2 or 3 in April. Is anyone interested in joining us? Let us know and we can plan which date would work best for all of us.

IRELAND travels through the centuries by way of story after story, from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and news headlines. Along the way, we meet foolish kings and innocent monks, god-heroes and great works of art, shrewd Norman raiders and envoys from Rome, leaders, poets and lovers. Each illuminates the magic of Ireland, the power of England and the eternal connection to the land.