Short Story Collections Read Recently
This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September. (See also my 2016, 2017 and 2018 performances.) Short story collections are often hit and miss for me, and based on a few recent experiences I seem to be prone to DNFing them after two stories – when I’ve had my fill of the style and content. I generally have better luck with linked stories like Olive Kitteridge and its sequel, because they rely on a more limited set of characters and settings, and you often get intriguingly different perspectives on the same situations.
So far this year, I’ve read just five story collections – though that rises to 13 if I count books of linked short stories that are often classed as novels (Barnacle Love, Bottled Goods, Jesus’ Son, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again, That Time I Loved You and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards). Twelve is my minimum goal for short story collections in a year – the equivalent of one per month – so I’m pleased to have surpassed that, and will continue to pick up the occasional short story collection as the year goes on.
The first two books I review here were hits with me, while the third disappointed me a bit.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (2014)
Four of these 10 stories first appeared in the London Review of Books, and another four in the Guardian. Most interestingly, the opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” about a bored housewife trying to write a novel while in Saudi Arabia with her husband in 1983–4, was published in the LRB with the subtitle “A Memoir.” That it’s one of the best few ‘stories’ here doesn’t negate Mantel’s fictional abilities so much as prove her talent for working in the short form.
My other few favorites were the very short ones, about a fatal discovery of adultery, an appalling accident on a holiday in Greece, and a sighting of a dead father on a train. I also enjoyed “How Shall I Know You?” in which an author is invited to give a talk to a literary society. I especially liked the jokey pep talks to self involving references to other authors: “come now, what would Anita Brookner do?” and “for sure A.S. Byatt would have managed it better.” Other topics include children’s horror at disability, colleague secrets at a Harley Street clinic, and a sister’s struggle with anorexia. The title story offers an alternative history in which Thatcher is assassinated by the IRA upon leaving an eye hospital after surgery.
In her stories Mantel reminds me most of Tessa Hadley. It’s high time I read another Mantel novel; most likely that will be the third Thomas Cromwell book, due out next year.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson (2005)
I liked this even more than Simpson’s first book, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which I reviewed last year. The themes include motherhood (starting, in a couple of cases, in one’s early 40s), death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. There’s gentle humor and magic to these stories that tempers some of the sadness. I especially liked “The Door,” about a grieving woman looking to restore her sense of security after a home break-in, “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff (one of two Christmas-themed stories here) in which a woman is shown how her negative thoughts and obsession with the past are damaging her, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour circular walk during her lunch break and documenting her thoughts about everything from pregnancy to a nonagenarian friend’s funeral. [The UK title of the collection is Constitutional.]
In two stories, “Every Third Thought” and “If I’m Spared,” a brush with death causes a complete change of outlook – but will it last? “The Year’s Midnight” creates a brief connection between frazzled mums at the swimming pool in the run-up to the holidays. “Up at a Villa” and the title story capture risky moments that blend fear and elation. In “The Tree,” which is funny and cringeworthy all at the same time, a man decides to take revenge on the company that ripped off his forgetful old mother. Prize for the best title goes to “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life,” though it’s the least interesting story of the 11.
(Found in a Little Free Library at the supermarket near my parents’ old house.)
Some favorite lines:
“the inevitable difficulty involved in discovering ourselves to others; the clichés and blindness and inadvertent misrepresentations”
“Always a recipe for depression, Christmas, when complex adults demanded simple joy without effort, a miraculous feast of stingless memory.”
“You shouldn’t be too interested in the past. You yourself now are the embodiment of what you have lived. What’s done is done.”
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal (2019)
I had sky-high hopes for Stradal’s follow-up after Kitchens of the Great Midwest (it was on my Most Anticipated list for the second half of the year). Theoretically, a novel about three pie-baking, beer-making female members of a Minnesota family should have been terrific. Like Kitchens, this is female-centered, on a foodie theme, set in the Midwest and structured as linked short stories. Here the chapters are all titled after amounts of money; they skip around in time between the 1950s and the present day and between the perspectives of Edith Magnusson, her estranged younger sister Helen Blotz, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana Winter.
Edith and Helen have a rivalry as old as the Bible, based around an inheritance that Helen stole to reopen her husband’s family brewery, instead of sharing it with Edith. Ever since, Edith has had to work minimum-wage jobs at nursing homes and fast food restaurants to make ends meet. When Diana comes to live with her as a teenager, she, too, works hard to contribute to the family, but then gets caught up in a dodgy money-making scheme. It’s in penance for this error that she starts working at a local brewery, but beer soon becomes as much of an obsession for Diana as it once was for her great-aunt Helen.
I had a few problems with the book’s setup: Helen is portrayed as a villain, and never fully sheds that stereotypical designation; meanwhile, Edith is passive and boring, just a bit “wet” (in British slang). Edith and Diana suffer more losses than seems likely or fair, and there are too many coincidences involved in Diana’s transformation into a master brewer. I also found it far-fetched that a brewery would hire her as a 19-year-old and let her practice making many, many batches of lager, all while she’s still underage. None of the characters fully came alive for me, though Diana was the closest. The ending wasn’t as saccharine as I expected, but still left me indifferent. I did like reading about the process of beer-making and flavor development, though, even though I’m not a beer drinker.
Short story DNFs this year (in chronological order):
Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – I read the two shortest stories, “Summer Picnic” and “The Proposition.” The former was pleasantly like Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley lite; I got zero out of the latter.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro – I read the first two stories. “Decomposition,” about a woman’s lover magically becoming a physical as well as emotional weight on her and her marriage, has an interesting structure as well as second-person narration, but I fear the collection as a whole will just be a one-note treatment of a woman’s obsession with her affair.
Multitudes: Eleven Stories by Lucy Caldwell – I read the first two stories. I enjoyed the short opener, “The Ally Ally O,” which describes a desultory ride in the car with mother and sisters with second-person narration and no speech marks. I should have given up on “Thirteen,” though, a tired story of a young teen missing her best friend.
The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson – I read “Angels in the Snow” (last Christmas) and “Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada” (the other week). Both were fine but not particularly memorable; a glance at the rest suggests that they’ll all be about baseball and hunting. If I wanted to read about dudes hunting I’d turn to Ernest Hemingway or David Vann. Nevertheless, I’ll keep this around in case I want to try it again after reading Snow Falling on Cedars this winter.
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett – Elegant stories about history, science and human error. Barrett is similar to A.S. Byatt in her style and themes, which are familiar to me from my reading of Archangel. This won a National Book Award in 1996.
- Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Even in this slim volume, there are SO MANY stories, and all so different from each other. Some I love; some are meh. I’m tempted to leave a few unread, though then I can’t count this towards my year total…
- Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman – A bibliotherapy prescription for reading aloud. My husband and I read a few stories to each other, but I’m going it alone for the rest. This is fairly inventive in the vein of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, yet I find it repetitive.
See also Laura’s excellent post about her favorite individual short stories.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
Some of My Recent and Upcoming Bylines
Next month marks five years that I’ve been a freelance reviewer, and I turn 35 later in the year. With these milestones in mind, I’ve been pushing myself a bit more to make contact with new publications and try to get my work out there more widely.
Most recently, I was pleased to have my first article in Literary Hub, an essay about rereading Little Women in its 150th anniversary year in conjunction with the new BBC/PBS miniseries production. (I shared this article intensively on social media, so do forgive me if you’ve already seen it somewhere else!) This is the first time, apart from here on the blog, that I’ve blended book commentary with personal material. I think it’s probably the best “exposure” I’ve had for my writing thus far: last time I looked, Literary Hub’s Facebook post about the article had gotten 123 likes and 33 shares, with 71 likes and 22 retweets on Twitter.
[Note: I now know that the spelling is Katharine Hepburn and have asked twice over e-mail for the editor to correct it, but it’s clearly very low on their list of priorities!]
I continue to review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a regular basis. My latest review was quite a negative one, alas, for Richard Flanagan’s First Person (). Upcoming: Slave Old Man by Patrick Chamoiseau () and A Weekend in New York by Benjamin Markovits.
I still contribute the occasional review to Shiny New Books. My latest two are of From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty () and All the Beautiful Girls by Elizabeth J. Church ().
I reviewed Florida by Lauren Groff (), my fiction book of the year so far, for Stylist magazine. This is the fourth time I’ve volunteered for their “Book Wars” column, but the first time I’ve ‘won’ – I attribute it to the high class of book!
Bylines coming later in the summer:
- A dual review of two nature-themed memoirs in the Times Literary Supplement (June 15th issue). This is my third piece for the TLS, but as it’s a longer one it feels a little more ‘real’.
- An essay on two books about “wasting time” (including Alan Lightman’s) in the Los Angeles Review of Books (June 20th).
- A dual review of a memoir and a poetry volume by African writers in Wasafiri literary magazine (Issue 95).
Upcoming work, with no publication date yet:
- A dual review of two death-themed poetry collections for PN Review.
- Two book lists for OZY, one on the refugee crisis and another on compassion in medicine.
- A review essay on Gross Anatomy by Mara Altman for Glamour Online.
Recommended May Releases
May and June are HUGE months for new releases. I’ve been doing enough early reading via NetGalley and Edelweiss that I’ve found plenty to recommend to you for next month. From a novel voiced by one of Hemingway’s wives to a physicist’s encouragement to waste more time, I hope there will be something here for everyone.
The Pisces by Melissa Broder
[Coming from Hogarth Press (USA) on the 1st and Bloomsbury (UK) on the 3rd]
At first I thought this was one of those funny, quirky but somewhat insubstantial novels about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants – something along the lines of Goodbye, Vitamin, The Portable Veblen, or All Grown Up. Then I thought it was just a crass sex comedy. But the further I read the deeper it all seemed to become: tropes from Greek myth and the fluidity of gender roles made me think of You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, another debut novel that surprised me for its profundity. Lucy, a thirty-eight-year-old PhD student, agrees to spend a summer dog-sitting for her yoga entrepreneur sister in Venice Beach, California while she undertakes therapy for the twin problems of low self-esteem and love addiction. If you know one thing about this book, it’s that there’s sex with a merman. Ultimately, though, I’d say it’s about “the prison of the body” and choosing which of the different siren voices calling us to listen to. I found it outrageous but rewarding.
How to Be a Perfect Christian by Adam Ford and Kyle Mann
[Coming from Multnomah (USA) on the 1st]
The Babylon Bee is a Christian version of The Onion, so you know what you’re getting here: a very clever, pitch-perfect satire of evangelical Christianity today. If, like me, you grew up in a nondenominational church and bought into the subculture hook, line and sinker (Awana club, youth group, courtship, dc Talk albums, the whole shebang), you will find that so much of this rings true. The book is set up as a course for achieving superficial perfection through absolute “conformity to the status quo of the modern church.” Sample advice: find an enormous church that meets your needs, has a great coffee bar and puts on a laser-lit worship performance to rival “an amusement park for cats or a Def Leppard concert”; master the language of Christianese (“Keeping it in prayer” pretty much covers your bases); and bring as little as you can to the church potluck (a 25-pack of napkins) but consume as much as is anatomically possible. So, a lot of fun, just a little overlong because you get the joke early on.
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
[Coming from Riverhead (USA) on the 15th]
In May 1994, the members of the Van Ness String Quartet are completing their final graduate recital at a San Francisco conservatory and preparing for the Esterhazy quartet competition in the Canadian Rockies. These four talented musicians – Jana, first violin; Brit, second violin; Henry, viola; and Daniel, cello – have no idea what the next 15 years will hold for them: a cross-country move, romances begun and lost, and career successes and failures. Drawing on her own history as a violinist and cellist, Aja Gabel infuses her debut novel with the simultaneous uncertainty and euphoria of both the artistic life and early adulthood in general. An alternating close third-person perspective gives glimpses into the main characters’ inner lives, and there are evocative descriptions of classical music. I think The Ensemble will mean even more to those readers who are involved in music, but anyone can relate to the slow fade from youth into middle age and the struggle to integrate art with the rest of life.
Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr
[Coming from Harper (USA) on the 8th]
Mary Karr is mostly known as a memoirist, but this is actually her fifth poetry collection. Death is a major theme, with David Foster Wallace’s suicide and 9/11 getting multiple mentions. Karr also writes self-deprecatingly about her Texas childhood. Best of all is the multi-part “The Less Holy Bible”: a sort of Devil’s Dictionary based loosely around the books of the Bible, it bounces between Texas and New York City and twists biblical concepts into commonsense advice. Not one for those who are quick to cry heresy, perhaps, but I enjoyed it very much, especially “VI. Wisdom: The Voice of God”: “Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you could be cured with a hot bath, / says God through the manhole covers, but you want magic, to win / the lottery you never bought a ticket for. … Don’t look for initials in the geese honking / overhead or to see through the glass even darkly. It says the most obvious shit, / i.e. Put down that gun, you need a sandwich.”
In Praise of Wasting Time by Alan Lightman
[Coming from Simon & Schuster / TED (USA and UK) on the 15th]
Lightman, a physicist and MIT professor, argues that only in unstructured time can we rediscover our true identity and recover our carefree childhood creativity. This work-as-play model goes against the modern idea that time is money and every minute must be devoted to a project. “For any unexpected opening of time that appears during the day, I rush to patch it, as if a tear in my trousers. … I feel compelled to find a project, to fill up the hole.” Yet there is another way of approaching time, as he discovered when doing research in a village in Cambodia. He realized that the women he talked to didn’t own watches and thus had no real sense of how long any task took them. This sharp, concise treatise ruminates on the cultural forces that have enslaved us in the West to productivity. (In short, he blames the Internet, but specifically smartphones.) Lightman insists on the spiritual benefits of free time and solitude. “With a little determination, each of us can find a half hour a day to waste time,” he asserts.
Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
[Coming from Ballantine Books (USA) and Fleet (UK) on the 1st]
This is the weakest of the three McLain novels I’ve read, but when we’re talking about a writer of this caliber that isn’t much of a criticism. It’s strange to me that, having written a novel from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, McLain would choose to tell the story of another Hemingway wife – this time Martha Gellhorn, a war reporter and author in her own right. If I set aside this misgiving, though, and just assess the quality of the writing, there are definitely things to praise, such as the vivid scenes set during the Spanish Civil War, the dialogues between Martha and Hem, the way he perhaps fills in for her dead father, her fondness for his sons, and her jealousy over his growing success while her books sink like stones. I especially liked their first meeting in a bar in Key West, and the languid pace of their life in Cuba. I read such books because I’m intrigued about the appeal of a great man, but here I got a little bogged down with the many settings and events.