Short Stories in September, Part II: Adichie, Shanahan & More

Septembers are for making a bit of an effort to read short story collections, which otherwise tend to sit on my shelves unread. I reviewed three collections earlier in the month, and have gotten through another five since then.

Let’s start with the good stuff.

 

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)

My third by Adichie this year, and an ideal follow-up to Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah because it reworks or anticipates themes and settings from both novels. For instance, the former was in my mind while reading “Ghosts,” in which a retired mathematics professor meets an old colleague he assumed had died during the Biafran War. “Cell One” and “A Private Experience” picture a Nigeria rife with violence and rioting. The missing are presumed dead and the imprisoned are in danger of being ‘disappeared’. I was reminded of Americanah while reading “Imitation” and “On Monday of Last Week,” in which Nigerian women in Philadelphia tire of submission to their husbands and make their own life changes.

Characters hope to win the visa lottery to the USA, adjust to an arranged marriage, fret over a plane crash back home, or dare to speak out about mistreatment of women. African-American women’s freedom is attractive by comparison. The final story, “The Headstrong Historian,” has the most expansive sense of time: it opens in what feels like an ancient tribal setting – before the next generation attended Anglican mission school. A third-generation character rescues her family’s story, reclaiming her African heritage while taking advantage of Western education. I was especially charmed by two stories in the second person, including the title story, which refers not to a necklace but to a burden of depression. There’s not a dud among the dozen here. Adichie has won me as a loyal fan. [From free bookshop]

 

Carrying Fire and Water by Deirdre Shanahan (2020)

“Why do people travel? … I suppose to lose part of themselves. Parts which trap us. Or maybe because it is possible, and it helps us believe there is a future.”

These sixteen stories, split fairly evenly between first- and third-person perspectives, focus on women’s lives after. After a breakup, a death, an affair, a miscarriage or sexual abuse, they have to assimilate the trauma and reevaluate life. Most of the characters are based in England or Ireland, but other places are frequent points of reference: a beach holiday in Turkey in “Grievous Bodily Harm,” memories of life in Tokyo in “Araiyakushimae,” and wanderings around the USA in “Lost Children.” This gives the collection a wide scope, while the overall air of melancholy lends tonal consistency.

There are no speech marks, so dialogue flows naturally into exposition. The similarity of the protagonists and the delicate writing threatened to make the stories blend into one in my mind, but one per sitting made a perfect dose. A few standouts: in “Foraged Things,” Lia meets a man searching for mushrooms in the wood; in “Breakfast with Rilke,” hitchhikers look for love and adventure in continental Europe; and in “The Stars Are Light Enough,” a substitute teaching King Lear is alarmed when a problem student goes missing.

My thanks to Splice for the free copy for review.

 


But these next three, alas, were pretty lackluster reads for me. All:

 

Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg (2018)

Who could resist such a title and cover?! Unfortunately, I didn’t warm to Eisenberg’s writing and got little out of these stories, especially “Merge,” the longest and only one of the six that hadn’t previously appeared in print. The title implies collective responsibility and is applied to a story of artists on a retreat in Europe. “The Third Tower” has a mental hospital setting. In “Recalculating,” a character only learns about an estranged uncle after his death. The two I liked most were “Taj Mahal,” about competing views of a filmmaker from the golden days of Hollywood, and “Cross Off and Move On,” about a family’s Holocaust history. But all are very murky in my head. (See Susan’s more positive review.) [Free from a neighbor]

 

Learning to Talk by Hilary Mantel (2003)

Last year I loved reading Mantel’s collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher. In comparison, these six first-person stories felt like autobiographical castoffs. (They were individually published in various periodicals between 1987 and 2002 and then collected as a follow-up to her memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, an excerpt from which closes this book.) We get a child’s perspective on village life in the North of England with a lodger, a stepfather and a mean dog. My two favorites were the title story, about taking elocution lessons, and “Third Floor Rising,” about an 18-year-old’s first job in a department store. [Public library]

 

First Love, Last Rites by Ian McEwan (1975)

There’s a nastiness to these early McEwan stories that reminded me of Never Mind by Edward St. Aubyn. The teenage narrator of “Homemade” tells you right in the first paragraph that his will be a tale of incest. A little girl’s body is found in the canal in “Butterflies.” The voice in “Conversation with a Cupboard Man” is that of someone who has retreated into solitude after being treated cruelly at the workplace (“I hate going outside. I prefer it in my cupboard”). “Last Day of Summer” seems like a lovely story about a lodger being accepted as a member of the family … until the horrific last page. Only “Cocker at the Theatre” was pure comedy, of the raunchy variety (emphasis on “cock”). You get the sense of a talented writer whose mind you really wouldn’t want to spend time in; had this been my first exposure to McEwan, I would probably never have opened up another of his books. [Public library]

 

I’m still much more likely to gravitate towards novels rather than short stories because I find story collections so hit and miss; rarely do I find one that I enjoy all the way through.

Can you think of any short story authors I might like?

23 responses

  1. McEwan really is an odd duck, as you might say over there across the pond, isn’t he? He’s a writer I admire for his talent (excepting his misses) but I don’t get the feeling I’d like to have him to dinner. I am reading Kirsten Valdez Quade’s collection, Night at the Fiestas, right now (for an online book club through jesuit.org). There are a couple stories that feel weaker than the others, but it’s a solid collection, if tough to read for the subject matter in spots–a lot of broken families, broken people, alcoholism, and sadness. (Actually, I’m listening to the audiobook, which is wonderfully done.) Our club moderator called the author “Lenten,” and that seems right. I look forward to reading more from her–hopefully a novel, next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My impression is that McEwan’s early stuff is very weird and dark (an odd duck for sure!) but he’s mellowed over the years. I find him compelling enough to keep going through the back catalogue. This was my 15th book by him, I think?

      I like the sound of Night at the Fiestas.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fiestas elicited some powerful responses in our book club. One lady admitted she threw her copy across the room. As a writer, I’d consider that a win, if I could conjure that much emotion with my storytelling!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. That’s always good for a book club discussion! Better a controversial read than one so tame there is nothing to talk about.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m relieved you don’t get on with Eisenberg, as I don’t either – I thought it was just me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Did you try this same book? I was disappointed not to get on with it, as I was so delighted to find a copy in a giveaway box outside a neighbour’s house during lockdown.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. No, I think it was Under the 82nd Airborne.

        Like

    2. Ok. Never even heard of that one!

      Like

  3. Thanks for the Eisenberg link but sorry you didn’t enjoy it as much as I did.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries. I wanted people to get a balanced view!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been hearing great things about the Shannan – good to hear you enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Susan enjoyed it as well.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love Adichie, but most of the stories in that collection felt too schematic for me. (I did love ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ which felt like it was wrestling with some of the questions she returns to in Americanah.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I like a tidy ending 😉 Most stories I read just seem to stop without making a point. I found lots of connections with Yellow Sun and Americanah; it was very satisfying.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I always find McEwan too nasty for me, in various ways!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. His recent stuff has been more on the bizarre/comic end rather than nasty. I mostly have his backlist to explore and have a feeling I have some dark stuff ahead of me.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The last line of your McEwan review made me laugh. Oh dear… they do sound a little too much.

    The first two collections sound great. I’m glad not all your attempts have been mediocre.

    Two collections I have just read and loved: The first you already know… How To Pronounce Knife. The other I’m in the middle of right now – Dominoes at the Crossroads by Kaie Kellough.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love both of the titles you’ve been reading! I’d be drawn to them just for that.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Also, Hellgoing by Lynn Coady, if you can find it there. I haven’t read it (yet!) but it won the Giller a few years ago. And Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod. If you can find the Hellgoing, let me know – I’ll read it with you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love getting recommendations of reliable story collections! Thank you.

      The library at the university where my husband works owns one by Coady, but it’s a NF e-book, Who needs books?: reading in the digital age (another great title).

      Like

      1. Oh, I want to read that, too!

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Heheh Your comment about early McEwan made me giggle, but I agree that his early fiction is all about squirming and feeling decidedly uncomfortable about humanity. I’ve enjoyed Adichie’s stories, too, but haven’t read all of those yet. I’ve not tried that Eisenberg collection but her work does seem marmite-ish. I think you mentioned you’re planning some Atwood stories for Margaret Atwood Reading Month this year? I’m hoping to read Dancing Girls…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I have Wilderness Tips lined up. I’d considered doing Stone Mattress this year, but I don’t know if I’d manage two collections. I like the idea of some variety within the challenge. I’ll choose something obscure from the university library, perhaps!

      Liked by 1 person

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