Short Stories in September, Part III: Butler, Costello, MacLaverty, Washington

Today I have a third set of terrific and varied short story collections. Between this, my Part I and Part II posts, and a bonus review I have coming up on Friday, I’ve gotten through 12 volumes of stories this month. This feels like a great showing for me because I don’t naturally gravitate to short stories and have to force myself to make a special effort to read them every September; otherwise, they tend to languish unread on my shelves and TBR.

From science fiction and horror tales set in alternate worlds to gritty slices of real life in Texas via two sets of quiet Irish relationship studies, this quartet of books showcases a range of tones and genres but fairly straightforward story structures and points of view. This was such a strong batch, I had to wonder why I never call myself a short story fan. All:

 

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (2005)

My first R.I.P. selection and one I can heartily recommend – even if you’re normally wary of dystopias, horror and science fiction. Butler makes these genres accessible by peopling her plots with relatable protagonists and carefully accounting for their bizarre predicaments without wasting time on extraneous world-building. The way in which she explores very human issues alongside the existence of alien beings reminds me of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, another of my rare forays into sci fi.

Along with the original five stories Butler published in 1970s and 1980s magazines and anthologies, this second edition contains two essays on her writing process and two new stories that date to 2003. In “Bloodchild,” a small band of humans live on another planet ruled by the Tlic, which sound like giant spiders or scorpions. Gan learns he is expected to play his part by being a surrogate for T’Gatoi’s eggs, but is haunted by what he’s heard this process involves. In a brief afterword (one is included with each piece here), Butler explains that the story arose from her terror of botflies, which she knew she might encounter in the Peruvian Amazon, and that she has always faced what scares her through her writing.

My other favorite story was “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” about a subclass of people afflicted with Duryea-Gode disease. A cruel side effect of a parent’s cancer treatment, the illness compels sufferers to self-harm and they are often confined to asylums. Lynn and Alan visit his mother in one such institution and see what their future might hold. “Speech Sounds” and “Amnesty” reminded me most of the Parable novels, with the latter’s Noah a leader figure similar to Lauren. After an apocalyptic event, people must adapt and cooperate to survive. I appreciated how the two essays value persistence – more so than talent or inspiration – as the key to success as a writer. This was my fourth book by Butler and I don’t see why I shouldn’t keep going and read her whole oeuvre. (University library)

 

The China Factory by Mary Costello (2012)

Academy Street is a near-perfect novella and I also enjoyed The River Capture, so I wanted to complete the set by reading Costello’s first book. Its dozen understated stories are about Irish men and women the course of whose lives are altered by chance meetings, surprise liaisons, or not-quite-affairs that needle them ever after with the could-have-been. The mood of gentle melancholy would suit a chilly moonlight drive along the coast road to Howth. In the opening title story, a teenage girl rides to her work sponging clay cups with an oddball named Gus. Others can’t get past things like his body odour, but when there’s a crisis at the factory she sees his calm authority save the day. Elsewhere, a gardener rushes his employer to the hospital, a woman attends her ex-husband’s funeral, and a school inspector becomes obsessed with one of the young teachers he observes.

Three favourites: In “And Who Will Pay Charon?” a man learns that, after he rejected Suzanne, she was hideously attacked in London. When she returns to the town as an old woman, he wonders what he might have done differently. “The Astral Plane” concerns a woman who strikes up a long-distance e-mail correspondence with a man from New York who picked up a book she left behind in a library. How will their intellectual affair translate into the corporeal world? The final story, “The Sewing Room,” reminded me most of Academy Street and could be a novel all of its own, as a schoolteacher and amateur fashion designer prepares for her retirement party and remembers the child she gave up for adoption. (Secondhand, gifted)

 

Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty (2021)

I knew from The Great Profundo that I liked MacLaverty’s stories, and I also enjoyed his latest novel, Midwinter Break, so I was delighted to hear news of a new collection. A number of the longer stories are set at turning points in twentieth-century history. In 1940, a mother is desperate to hear word of her soldier son; in 1971 Belfast, officers search a woman’s house. Two of the historical stories appealed to me for their medical elements: “The End of Days,” set in Vienna in 1918, dramatizes Egon Schiele’s fight with Spanish flu, while “Blackthorns” gives a lovely picture of how early antibiotics promoted miraculous recovery. In the title story, a cat is all a writer has left to remind him of his late wife. “Wandering” has a woman out looking for her dementia-addled mother. “The Dust Gatherer” muses on the fate of an old piano. Elderly parents and music recur, establishing filaments of thematic connection.

Three favourites: In “Glasshouses,” a man temporarily misplaces his grandchildren in the botanical gardens; “The Fairly Good Samaritan” is the fable of a jolly drunk who calls an ambulance for his poorly neighbour – but not before polishing off her brandy; and in the gorgeous “Sounds and Sweet Airs” a young woman’s harp music enthrals the passengers on a ferry.

With thanks to Jonathan Cape for the free copy for review.

 

Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington (2019)

The musical equivalent of Lot might be a mixtape played on a boombox or blasted from an open-top Corvette while touring the streets of Houston, Texas. Most of this Dylan Thomas Prize-winning linked collection follows Nic, a mixed-race Black/Latino boy who works in the family restaurant. As his family situation realigns – his father leaves, his older brother Javi enlists, his sister Jan has a baby – he’s trying to come to terms with his homosexuality and wondering if this gentrifying city suits him anymore. But he knows he’ll take himself wherever he goes, and as the book closes with “Elgin” (the most similar in mood and setup to Washington’s debut novel, Memorial) he’s thinking of taking a chance on love.

Drug dealers, careworn immigrants and prostitutes: Even the toughest guys have tender hearts in these stories. Eleven of 13 stories are in the first person. Where the narration isn’t Nic’s, it’s usually the collective voice of the neighbourhood boys. As far as I can tell, most of the story titles refer to Houston sites: particular addresses or neighbourhoods, or more vague locations. Like in Memorial, there are no speech marks. Washington’s prose is earthy and slang-filled. The matter-of-fact phrasing made me laugh: “He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around”; “He’d been staying there since the Great Thanksgiving Rupture, back when his brother’d found the dick pic in his pillowcase.” With the melting pot of cultures, the restaurant setting, and the sharp humour, this reminded me of Elaine Castillo’s America Is Not the Heart.

Three favourites: In “Shepherd,” the narrator emulates a glamorous cousin from Jamaica; “Bayou” is completely different from the rest, telling the urban legend of a “chupacubra” (a mythical creature like a coyote); “Waugh,” the longest story and one of just two told in the third person, is about a brothel’s worth of male sex workers and their pimp. Its final page is devastating. Despite their bravado, Washington’s characters are as vulnerable as Brandon Taylor’s. I think of these two young gay African American writers as being similar at root even though their style and approach are so very different. (New purchase)

 

A side note: I’m wondering how an author chooses primarily first person or third person POVs for short stories. MacLaverty and Taylor write exclusively in an omniscient third person; Washington and Eley Williams almost always plump for the first person. (Here, Butler was about half and half and Costello only used first person in three stories.) Is the third person seen as more impartial and commanding – a more elevated form of fiction? Is first person more immediate, informal and natural, but also perhaps too easy? I wouldn’t say I prefer one or the other (not in my novels, either); it all depends on the execution. Notably, none of this year’s stories were in the second person or employed experimental structures.

 


Two more collections I’m reading are spilling across into October for R.I.P., but will I keep up the short story habit after that? I still have a shelf full of unread story collections, and I have my eye on My Monticello, which I got from NetGalley…

26 responses

  1. I don’t gravitate towards short stories. But my goodness, I’m enjoying The Decameron Project, as mentioned in my own post today. Every one a winner!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yours is the second positive response I’ve seen to that this week, so I will definitely pick it up next time I’m back at the library.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Good. I don’t think they’ll disappoint.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I was impressed by Monticello although, oddly, the UK edition doesn’t include her short stories. Currently reading and enjoying Huma Qureshi’s Things We Do Not Tell the People We Love.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to hear you enjoyed My Monticello. I think the version I have (from Edelweiss, actually) is the U.S. one, so it should have the stories, too. I read Qureshi’s memoir and was underwhelmed, but I’ll be interested to see what you make of her fiction. I forgot to mention another story collection I’m intending to read this autumn, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer (mother of Meg).

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      1. Oh yes, that’s already on my list.

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  3. I loved ‘Bloodchild’ so I’ll definitely be seeking out the full Butler collection. Glad these worked for you despite being SF!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Bloodchild was definitely one of the highlights, but the rest was worth reading, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I really liked The China Factory when I read it last year and I think Blank Pages is a bit of a masterpiece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hurrah for Irish short stories! MacLaverty seems like an underrated author to me.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve read everything he’s ever published and I agree, very underrated. He doesn’t publish all that often which might have something to do with it.

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      2. This was only my fourth book from him, but I’d gladly read the rest.

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  5. […] major month for new releases. I’ve already reviewed two fiction titles that came out this month: Blank Pages and Other Stories by Bernard MacLaverty and Bewilderment by Richard Powers. I’m still working through the 500+ […]

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  6. 12 volumes is impressive, and singling out a month to focus on short stories is a good way to get some read. I find that after a few weeks of novels, I’m in the mood for short stories. They almost give my mind a little break from having to carry through a longer story over multiple readings. But that probably wouldn’t make a lot of difference for someone who reads multiple books at once. 🙂

    I just finished reading a couple of newly released collections, both of which I liked: Glorious Frazzled Beings (on the Giller longlist this year) and Chemical Valley by David Hubert whose last collection I loved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I enjoyed having lots of story collections on the go so that I could intersperse my nonfiction and novel reading with one-sitting stories. But somehow it’s a habit I just don’t keep up for the rest of the year!

      I love that title, Glorious Frazzled Beings. The longlist is full of such interesting titles and colourful covers this year (just being superficial as I haven’t read any of them!).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree – it’s an especially good year for covers!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Well done for getting so many volumes of short stories read! Are you craving long-form work now? Massive fat novels? Non-fiction (November)? Oh – novellas of course, so maybe working your way back gently!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha ha — Funnily enough, I am now midway through three 450+ pagers! A lot of this season’s big-name new releases (Anthony Doerr, Jonathan Franzen, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Ruth Ozeki, Colm Toibin, Amor Towles) are 500-600 pages. I’ll be alternating those with plenty of novellas and nonfiction as we go through October and November 🙂

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  8. Love Butler, love Washington, and I’m sure the other collections would suit me too. I think the question of POV varies from author to author, often within (or between) collections too when it comes to literary fiction (a slippery term, which I’m using to mean the kind of story in which how it’s told is as important as what’s being told). One factor that I think matters a lot is how much scope you would like the reader to have, how much of what’s happening you would like the reader to have eyes on for themself, what POV will help make what you’re intending to do with the story land with the reader so that that intention is realized. (But I’m not saying it’s always that simple. And not all readers are reading to see what an author is intending, either; some have already decided what kind of story they want, regardless of what the writer is up to. Heheh Just my two cents.)

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    1. I do think you’d enjoy the Irish stories, too — MacLaverty has been compared to Munro and Trevor. It’s interesting to have your perspective as a writer of fiction. It just struck me so powerfully that some of the writers I’d featured in September only wrote in 3rd person, and some wrote overwhelmingly in the 1st person. Perhaps the former is seen as better for conveying plot and exploring different POVs, whereas the latter really builds voice and style?

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      1. Oh, my, okay, yes: I’ve done some looking at MacLaverty and you’re quite right. I must. (*tiptoes to library hold list*) 614 pages….sheesh! LOL

        Another generality is that writers who aren’t necessarily gravitating towards being short story writers, but are beginning to explore creative possibilities and mistakenly believe that a shorter work will be easier to undertake (i.e. beginning writers, emerging writers) often rely more heavily on first-person because it can seem easier to imagine a whole character from the inside. I feel like I’ve read a lot of first collections that are predominantly first-person narratives and I think you’ve mentioned some collections that would fit that pattern. But it can be just as challenging to create a credible character from the inside as from the outside, so I feel like it’s unfair to assume that’s always true, yaknow? A debut collection that’s all third-person narratives, but isn’t fully realized, is just as dissatisfying in the end, eh? Are you thinking of trying your hand at fiction?

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      2. Nope, no current aspirations towards fiction here. Just curious about the choices that shape it 🙂

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  9. I think I need to read Lot – sounds right up my alley.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d love it, Laila. Both of his books are great.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You think she’d love it…a lot? (BaDaDUM)

        Liked by 1 person

  10. […] counting the short stories by Octavia E. Butler and Bradley Sides, I did some great R.I.P. reading this year! I think the book that will stick with […]

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