Tag: Helen Simpson

My Best Backlist Reads of 2019

Like many book bloggers, I’m irresistibly drawn to the shiny new books released each year. However, I consistently find that many of my most memorable reads were published years or even decades ago.

These selections, in alphabetical order by author name, account for the rest of my 5-star ratings of the year, plus a handful of 4.5 and high 4 ones.

 

Fiction

 

Faces in the Water by Janet Frame: The best inside picture of mental illness I’ve read. Istina Mavet, in and out of New Zealand mental hospitals between ages 20 and 28, undergoes regular shock treatments. Occasional use of unpunctuated, stream-of-consciousness prose is an effective way of conveying the protagonist’s terror. Simply stunning writing.

 

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff: Groff wrote this in homage to Cooperstown, New York, where she grew up. We hear from leading lights in the town’s history and Willie’s family tree through a convincing series of first-person narratives, letters and other documents. A charming way to celebrate where you come from with all its magic and mundanity.

 

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver: What an amazing novel about the ways that right and wrong, truth and pain get muddied together. Some characters are able to acknowledge their mistakes and move on, while others never can. Christianity and colonialism have a lot to answer for. A masterpiece.

 

The Grass Is Singing by Doris Lessing: Begins with the words “MURDER MYSTERY”: a newspaper headline announcing that Mary, wife of Rhodesian farmer Dick Turner, has been found murdered by their houseboy. The breakdown of a marriage and the failure of a farm form a dual tragedy that Lessing explores in searing psychological detail.

 

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively: Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world as she’s known it. More impressive than the plot surprises is how Lively packs the whole sweep of a life into just 200 pages, all with such rich, wry commentary on how what we remember constructs our reality.

 

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez: The narrator is a writer and academic who has stepped up to care for her late friend’s aging Great Dane, Apollo. It feels like Nunez has encapsulated everything she’s ever known or thought about, all in just over 200 pages, and alongside a heartwarming little plot. (Animal lovers need not fear.)

 

There There by Tommy Orange: Orange’s dozen main characters are urban Native Americans converging on the annual Oakland Powwow. Their lives have been difficult, to say the least. The novel cycles through most of the characters multiple times, so gradually we work out the links between everyone. Hugely impressive.

 

In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson: The best story collection I read this year. Themes include motherhood, death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. Gentle humor and magic tempers the sadness. I especially liked “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour lunch break walk.

 

East of Eden by John Steinbeck: Look no further for the Great American Novel. Spanning from the Civil War to World War I and crossing the country from New England to California, this is just as wide-ranging in its subject matter, with an overarching theme of good and evil as it plays out in families and in individual souls.

 

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: The saga of conjoined twins born of a union between an Indian nun and an English surgeon in 1954. Ethiopia’s postcolonial history is a colorful background. I thrilled to the accounts of medical procedures. I can’t get enough of sprawling Dickensian stories full of coincidences, minor characters, and humor and tragedy.

 

Extinctions by Josephine Wilson: The curmudgeonly antihero is widower Frederick Lothian, at age 69 a reluctant resident of St Sylvan’s Estate retirement village. It’s the middle of a blistering Australian summer and he has plenty of time to drift back over his life. He’s a retired engineering expert, but he’s been much less successful in his personal life.

 

 

Poetry

 

Windfall by Miriam Darlington: I’d had no idea that Darlington had written poetry before she turned to nature writing. The verse is rooted in the everyday. Multiple poems link food and erotic pleasure; others make nature the source of exaltation. Lots of allusions and delicious alliteration. Pick this up if you’re still mourning Mary Oliver.

 

Girls Are Coming Out of the Woods by Tishani Doshi: The third collection by the Welsh–Gujarati poet and dancer is vibrant and boldly feminist. The tone is simultaneously playful and visionary, toying with readers’ expectations. Several of the most arresting poems respond to the #MeToo movement. She also excels at crafting breath-taking few-word phrases.

 

Where the Road Runs Out by Gaia Holmes: A major thread of the book is caring for her father at home and in the hospital as he was dying on the Orkney Islands – a time of both wonder and horror. Other themes include pre-smartphone life and a marriage falling apart. There are no rhymes, just alliteration and plays on words, with a lot of seaside imagery.

 

Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice: MacNeice wrote this long verse narrative between August 1938 and the turn of the following year. Everyday life for the common worker muffles political rumblings that suggest all is not right in the world. He reflects on his disconnection from Ireland; on fear, apathy and the longing for purpose. Still utterly relevant.

 

Sky Burials by Ben Smith: I discovered Smith through the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference. He was part of a panel discussion on the role poetry might play in environmental activism. This collection shares that environmentalist focus. Many of the poems are about birds. There’s a sense of history but also of the future.

 

 

Nonfiction

 

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness by Lyanda Lynn Haupt: During a bout of depression, Haupt decided to start paying more attention to the natural world right outside her suburban Seattle window. Crows were a natural place to start. A charming record of bird behavior and one woman’s reawakening, but also a bold statement of human responsibility to the environment.

 

All Things Consoled: A Daughter’s Memoir by Elizabeth Hay: Hay’s parents, Gordon and Jean, stumbled into their early nineties in an Ottawa retirement home. There are many harsh moments in this memoir, but almost as many wry ones, with Hay picking just the right anecdotes to illustrate her parents’ behavior and the shifting family dynamic.

 

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay: Jackie Kay was born out of the brief relationship between a Nigerian student and a Scottish nurse in Aberdeen in the early 1960s. This memoir of her search for her birth parents is a sensitive treatment of belonging and (racial) identity. Kay writes with warmth and a quiet wit. The nonlinear structure is like a family photo album.

 

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp: An excellent addiction memoir that stands out for its smooth and candid writing. For nearly 20 years, Knapp was a high-functioning alcoholic who maintained jobs in Boston-area journalism. The rehab part is often least exciting, but I appreciated how Knapp characterized it as the tortured end of a love affair.

 

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in Death, Decay and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein: I guarantee you’ve never read a biography quite like this one. It’s part journalistic exposé and part “love letter”; it’s part true crime and part ordinary life story. It considers gender, mental health, addiction, trauma and death. Simply a terrific read.

 

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood: A memoir of growing up in a highly conservative religious setting, but not Evangelical Christianity as you or I have known it. Her father, a married Catholic priest, is an unforgettable character. This is a poet’s mind sparking at high voltage and taking an ironically innocent delight in dirty and iconoclastic talk.

 

The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen: For two months in 1973, Matthiessen joined a zoologist on a journey from the Nepalese Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau in hopes of spotting the elusive snow leopard. Recently widowed, Matthiessen put his Buddhist training to work as he pondered impermanence and acceptance. The writing is remarkable.

 

This Sunrise of Wonder: Letters for the Journey by Michael Mayne: Mayne’s thesis is that experiencing wonder is what makes us human. He believes poets, musicians and painters, in particular, reawaken us to awe by encouraging us to pay close attention. Especially with the frequent quotations and epigraphs, this is like a rich compendium of wisdom from the ages.

 

Body of Work: Meditations on Mortality from the Human Anatomy Lab by Christine Montross: When she was training to become a doctor, Montross was assigned an older female cadaver, Eve, who taught her everything she knows about the human body. Montross is also a poet, as evident in this lyrical, compassionate exploration of working with the dead.

 

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell: An excellent first-hand account of the working and living conditions of the poor in two world cities. Orwell works as a dishwasher and waiter in Paris hotel restaurants for up to 80 hours a week. The matter-of-fact words about poverty and hunger are incisive, while the pen portraits are glistening.

 

A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter: In 1934, Ritter, an Austrian painter, joined her husband Hermann for a year in Spitsbergen. I was fascinated by the details of Ritter’s daily tasks, but also by how her perspective on the landscape changed. No longer a bleak wilderness, it became a tableau of grandeur. A travel classic worth rediscovering.

 

Autumn Across America by Edwin Way Teale: In the late 1940s Teale and his wife set out on a 20,000-mile road trip from Cape Cod on the Atlantic coast to Point Reyes on the Pacific to track the autumn. Teale was an early conservationist. His descriptions of nature are gorgeous, and the scientific explanations are at just the right level for the average reader.

 

The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch: This blew me away. Reading this nonlinear memoir of trauma and addiction, you’re amazed the author is still alive, let alone a thriving writer. The writing is truly dazzling, veering between lyrical stream-of-consciousness and in-your-face informality. The watery metaphors are only part of what make it unforgettable.

 

(Books not pictured were read from the library or on Kindle.)

 

And if I really had to limit myself to just two favorites – my very best fiction and nonfiction reads of the year – they would be Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood.

 

What were your best backlist reads this year?

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.

My rating:

 

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.”

My rating:

 

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.

My rating:

 

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.

 

Currently reading:

  • 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.

 

Future prospects:

See also Laura’s excellent post about her favorite individual short stories.

 

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

Vocabulary Words I Learned from Books This Year

These are in chronological order by my reading.

 

  • borborygmi = stomach rumblings caused by the movement of fluid and gas in the intestines
  • crapula = sickness caused by excessive eating and drinking
  • olm = a cave-dwelling aquatic salamander

~The Year of the Hare, Arto Paasilinna

 

  • befurbelowed = ornamented with frills (the use seems to be peculiar to this book, as it is the example in every online dictionary!)

~The Awakening, Kate Chopin

 

  • roding = the sound produced during the mating display of snipe and woodcock, also known as drumming
  • peat hag = eroded ground from which peat has been cut

~Deep Country, Neil Ansell

 

  • rallentando = a gradual decrease in speed

~Sight, Jessie Greengrass

 

  • piceous = resembling pitch

~March, Geraldine Brooks

 

  • soffit = the underside of eaves or an arch, balcony, etc.

~The Only Story, Julian Barnes

 

  • lemniscate = the infinity symbol, here used as a metaphor for the pattern of pipe smoke

~The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer

 

  • purfling = a decorative border
  • lamingtons = sponge cake squares coated in chocolate and desiccated coconut (sounds yummy!)

~The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr

 

  • ocellated = having eye-shaped markings

~Red Clocks, Leni Zumas

 

  • balloonatic (WWI slang) = a ballooning enthusiast
  • skinkling = sparkling
  • preludial = introductory
  • claustral = confining
  • baccalà = salted cod

~The Incendiaries, R. O. Kwon

(There were so many words I didn’t immediately recognize in this novel that I thought Kwon must have made them up; preludial and claustral, especially, are words I didn’t know existed but that one might have extrapolated from their noun forms.)

 

  • bronies = middle-aged male fans of My Little Pony (wow, who knew this was a thing?! I feel like I’ve gone down a rabbit hole just by Googling it.)
  • callipygian = having well-shaped buttocks

~Gross Anatomy, Mara Altman

 

  • syce = someone who looks after horses; a groom (especially in India; though here it was Kenya)
  • riem = a strip of rawhide or leather
  • pastern = a horse’s ankle equivalent

~West with the Night, Beryl Markham

 

  • blintering = flickering, glimmering (Scottish)
  • sillion = shiny soil turned over by a plow

~The Light in the Dark: A Winter Journal, Horatio Clare

 

  • whiffet = a small, young or unimportant person

~Ladder of Years, Anne Tyler

 

  • trilliant = a triangular gemstone cut
  • cabochon = a gemstone that’s polished but not faceted
  • blirt = a gust of wind and rain (but here used as a verb: “Coldness blirted over her”)
  • contumacious = stubbornly disobedient

~Four Bare Legs in a Bed, Helen Simpson

 

  • xeric = very dry (usually describes a habitat, but used here for a person’s manner)

~Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver

 

  • twitten = a narrow passage between two walls or hedges (Sussex dialect – Marshall is based near Brighton)

~The Power of Dog, Andrew Marshall

 

  • swither (Scottish) = to be uncertain as to which course of action to take
  • strathspey = a dance tune, a slow reel

~Stargazing, Peter Hill

 

  • citole = a medieval fiddle
  • naker = a kettledrum
  • amice = a liturgical vestment that resembles a cape

~The Western Wind, Samantha Harvey

 

  • pareidolia = seeing faces in things, an evolutionary adaptation (check out @FacesPics on Twitter!)

~The Overstory, Richard Powers

 

Have you learned any new vocabulary words recently?

How likely am I to use any of these words in the next year?

“Cat Poems” & Other Cats I’ve Encountered in Books Recently

Cat Poems: An enjoyable selection of verse about our feline friends, nicely varied in terms of the time period, original language of composition, and outlook on cats’ contradictory qualities. I was unaware that Angela Carter and Muriel Spark had ever written poetry. There are perhaps too many poems by Stevie Smith – six in total! – though I did enjoy their jokey rhymes.

Some favorite lines:

“Cat sentimentality is a human thing. Cats / are indifferent, their minds can’t comprehend / the concept ‘I shall die’, they just go on living.” (from “Sonnet: Cat Logic” by Gavin Ewart)

“For every house is incomplete without him and a blessing is lacking in the spirit.” (from “Jubilate Agno” by Christopher Smart)

“These adorable things. When my life gives out, they’d eat me up in a second.” (from “I’ll Call Those Things My Cats” by Kim Hyesoon)

My rating:


Cat Poems was published in the UK on October 4th. My thanks to Serpent’s Tail for the free copy for review.

 

Even when it’s not a book specifically about cats, cats often turn up in my reading. Maybe it’s simply that I look out for them more since I became a cat owner several years ago. Here are some of the quotes, scenes or whole books featuring cats that I’ve come across this year.

 

Cats real and imaginary

Stranger on a Train by Jenni Diski: “I find myself astonished that a creature of another species, utterly different to me, honours me with its presence and trust by sitting on me and allowing me to stroke it. This mundane domestic moment is as enormous, I feel at such moments, as making contact across a universe with another intelligence. This creature with its own and other consciousness and I with mine can sit in silence and enjoy each other’s presence. … This is a perfectly everyday scene but sometimes it takes my breath away that another living thing has allowed me into its life.”

 

Certain American States by Catherine Lacey: “This cat wants to destroy beauty—I can tell. He is more than animal, he is evil, a plain enemy of the world. I wish him ill. I do. Almost daily I find a mess of feathers in the dirt. Some mornings there are whole bird carcasses left on my porch—eyes shocked open, brilliant blue wings, ripped and bloody. I have thought often of what it would take to kill a cat, quietly and quickly, with my bare hands. I have thought of this often. In fact I am thinking of it right now.” (from the story “Because You Have To”)

 

The Nice and the Good by Iris Murdoch: “Montrose was a large cocoa-coloured tabby animal with golden eyes, a square body, rectangular legs and an obstinate self-absorbed disposition, concerning whose intelligence fierce arguments raged among the children. Tests of Montrose’s sagacity were constantly being devised, but there was some uncertainty about the interpretation of the resultant data since the twins were always ready to return to first principles and discuss whether cooperation with the human race was a sign of intelligence at all. Montrose had one undoubted talent, which was that he could at will make his sleek hair stand up on end, and transform himself from a smooth stripey cube into a fluffy sphere. This was called ‘Montrose’s bird look’.”

 

Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson: “They found it significant that I called my cat Felony. I argued that I had chosen her name for its euphonious qualities. She used to sink her incisors into the hell of my hand and pause a fraction of a millimeter from breaking the skin, staring at me until her eyes were reduced to sadistic yellow semibreves. She murdered without a qualm. She toyed with her victims, smiling broadly at their squeaks and death throes.

‘Why isn’t she a criminal?’ I asked. …

‘The difference is,’ said Mr Pringle, that we must assume your cat commits her crimes without mischievous discretion.’” (from the story “Escape Clauses”)

 

In Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing, Sunday Justice is the name of the courthouse cat. He sits grooming on the courtroom windowsill during the trial and comes in and curls up to sleep in the cell of a particular prisoner we’ve come to care about.

 

 

A recommended picture book

My Cat Looks Like My Dad by Thao Lam: I absolutely loved the papercut collage style of this kids’ book. The narrator explains all the ways in which the nerdy-cool 1970s-styled dad resembles the family cat, who is more like a sibling than a pet. “Family is what you make it.” There’s something of a twist ending, too. (Out on April 15, 2019.)

My rating:


Later today I’m off to America for two weeks, but I’ll be scheduling plenty of posts, including the usual multi-part year-end run-down of my best reads, to go up while I’m away. Forgive me if I’m less responsive than usual to comments and to your own blogs!

Short Story Collections Read Recently

This is the third 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 and 2017 performances. (I actually finished Sarah Hall’s collection in late August, but I’m going to cheat and include it anyway.) That makes for four volumes in total read recently. Surprisingly, I had my best luck with two that were published back in the early 1990s.

I read Sarah Hall’s book from the library; these three were bargains from my local charity warehouse, the Community Furniture Project.

Like many devoted novel readers, I struggle with short stories because they can feel fragmentary or open-ended, and it takes that much more effort to keep up with multiple settings and groups of characters. Yet I also get frustrated when the narrative voice and themes are too similar across a whole set of tales.

However, when done well short stories can be marvelous, of course. I enjoyed K.J. Orr’s article on short stories in the September 7th issue of the Times Literary Supplement. Among the virtues of the short story, she lists the following:

  • “the capacity to stoke questions of definition and instability, resolution and irresolution … ; to deliver its conundrums to the reader in a state of compression”
  • “The unpredictability involved means that picking up a new short story always feels to me a moment full of possibilities.”
  • “The short story can combine complexity and uncertainty with ebullience and humour. It can take on subjects and situations that risk seeming clichéd and open them to wonder. It can put the familiar and the strange in conversation.”

And yet sometimes the quality of the writing, or at least the intensity of my engagement, can vary wildly within a story collection, which often makes the books difficult to rate and respond to as a whole. That’s what I found with these first two.

 

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall (2017)

Three corkers; two pretty good; four been-there-read-that. My favorites were the first and last stories, “Mrs Fox” and “Evie” (winner of the BBC National Short Story Prize 2013 and shortlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award 2013, respectively). Both concern a fairly average marriage derailed when the wife undergoes a transformation. In the former Sophia literally turns into a fox and her husband scrambles for a way to make the relationship last. In “Evie,” Richard’s wife develops a voracious appetite for sweets and sex, and starts talking gibberish. This one is very explicit, but if you can get past that I found it both painful and powerful. I also especially liked “Case Study 2,” about a psychologist’s encounter with a boy who’s been brought up in a commune. It has faint echoes of T.C. Boyle’s “The Wild Child.”

“Wilderness” focuses on an intense episode of fear of heights during a trip to South Africa. In “Luxury Hour,” a new mother meets up with an old lover near the swimming pool they used to frequent and wonders where and why their lives diverged. This one reminded me of the first chapter of Rachel Cusk’s Transit.

As for the rest? “Goodnight Nobody” was completely forgettable, and the other three are in the vague speculative/post-apocalyptic vein that’s been done to death: “Theatre 6” = Red Clocks; “Later, His Ghost” = The Road et al.; “One in Four” = Station Eleven et al. I admire Hall’s writing in general, but The Wolf Border remains the best thing I’ve read by her.

My rating:

 

The Outlaw Album: Stories by Daniel Woodrell (2011)

Based on the first six stories, I was planning a 5-star rating. (How can you resist this opening line? “Once Boshell finally killed his neighbor he couldn’t seem to quit killing him.”) But the second half of the book ended up being much less memorable; I wouldn’t say it wasn’t worth reading, but I got very little out of four of the stories, and the other two were okay but somewhat insubstantial. By contrast, the first two stories, “The Echo of Neighborly Bones” and “Uncle,” are gritty little masterpieces of violence and revenge.

I also particularly liked “Black Step” and “Night Stand,” about traumatized soldiers back from war (Woodrell himself was a Marine). Each has a creepy segment where the veteran gives sarcastic answers to the unspecified typical questions they always get; we have to infer that these are: How many people did you kill? What’s it like to kill someone? and What do you do with the bodies? There’s a nice balance between first- and third-person voices; lyrical and unlearned prose; and speech marks and none. I will definitely read more by Woodrell.

My rating:

 


I thoroughly loved these next two debut collections. In each case I’d read one or two previous books by the author and not been wild about the writing (White Houses; In-Flight Entertainment and Cockfosters), but these two have convinced me to try more of their work.

 

Come to Me by Amy Bloom (1993)

Bloom was a practicing psychotherapist, so it’s no surprise she has deep insight into her characters’ motivations. This is a wonderful set of stories about people who love who they shouldn’t love. In “Song of Solomon,” a new mother falls for the obstetrician who delivered her baby; in “Sleepwalking,” a woman gives in to the advances of her late husband’s son from a previous marriage; in “Light Breaks Where No Sun Shines,” adolescent Susan develops crushes on any man who takes an interest in her. My favorite was probably “Love Is Not a Pie,” in which a young woman rethinks her impending marriage during her mother’s funeral, all the while remembering the unusual sleeping arrangement her parents had with another couple during their joint summer vacations. The title suggests that love is not a thing to be apportioned out equally until it’s used up, but a more mysterious and fluid entity.

Linked short stories can be a useful halfway-house for readers who prefer novels and are still unsure about reading stories. Happily, then, the heart of this collection is five pieces that orbit around the same characters. In “Hyacinths” we meet David as a boy in Manitoba and get a glimpse of him as an adult. In the next story we encounter his second wife, Galen, and her lover, Henry. “Silver Water” is about a mental health crisis with David and Galen’s daughter, and the next two stories are about Henry, his wife Marie, and the other bonds they form.

Although I read the book quickly while on holiday and so haven’t marked out any particular quotes, convincing dialogue and insightful observations are on almost every page. I was reminded most of short stories I’ve read by Elizabeth McCracken and Carol Shields.

My rating:

 

Four Bare Legs in a Bed and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1990)

Simpson won the inaugural Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award for this in 1991. Her protagonists are women disillusioned with the norms of marriage and motherhood. They ditch their safe relationships, or carry on brazen affairs; they fear pregnancy, or seek it out on their own terms. The feminist messages are never strident because they are couched in such brisk, tongue-in-cheek narratives. For instance, in “Christmas Jezebels” three sisters in 4th-century Lycia cleverly resist their father’s attempts to press them into prostitution and are saved by the bishop’s financial intervention; in “Escape Clauses” a middle-aged woman faces the death penalty for her supposed crimes of gardening naked and picnicking on private property, while her rapist gets just three months in prison because she was “asking for it.” (Nearly three decades on, it’s still so timely it hurts.)

I loved “The Bed,” a kind of fairy tale about a luxurious bed solving all a woman’s problems; “What Are Neighbours For,” in which each woman cattily plans what she can get out of the others; “Labour,” a brief five-act play set in a hospital delivery room; and “Zoë and the Pedagogues,” about a woman learning to drive who has two very different teachers (perhaps inevitably, this recalled Mirror, Shoulder, Signal by Dorthe Nors). “An Interesting Condition,” which takes place in an antenatal class, is like Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Bad Latch,” while multiple stories reminded me of Shena Mackay, especially “Send One Up for Me,” about a woman tiptoeing around her boarding house and trying not to anger the landlady.

My rating:

 

I enjoyed these two books so much that I plan to keep reading the short story collections I own through the autumn and winter.

Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shadow panel

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been invited to be on the official shadow panel for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award, in association with The University of Warwick (to give it its full and proper title). Here’s a bit of background on the prize, from its website:

The prize “is awarded annually to the best work of published or self-published fiction, non-fiction or poetry by a British or Irish author aged between 18 and 35, and has gained attention and acclaim across the publishing industry and press. £5,000 is given to the overall winner and £500 to each of the three runners-up.

“Since it began in 1991, the award has had a striking impact, boasting a stellar list of alumni that have gone on to become leading lights of contemporary literature.  The 2016 Award was presented to Max Porter for his extraordinary debut, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Following a five-year break, the prestigious award returned with a bang in 2015, awarding debut poet Sarah Howe the top prize for her phenomenal first collection, Loop of Jade.

Past winners include Ross Raisin, Adam Foulds, Naomi Alderman, Robert Macfarlane, William Fiennes, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Francis Spufford, Simon Armitage and Helen Simpson.

This year’s official judging panel is made up of Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times, and writers Lucy Hughes-Hallett and Elif Shafak.

I’m joined on the shadow panel by four other book bloggers, several of whom you will recognize as long-time friends of this blog:

 

Here are some key upcoming dates:

  • Sunday October 29th: shortlist announced in Sunday Times
  • November 18th: book bloggers event with readings from the shortlisted authors (Groucho Club, London)
  • November 27th: deadline for shadow panel winner decision
  • November 29th: shadow panel winner announced on STPFD website
  • December 3rd: shadow panel winner announced in Sunday Times
  • December 7th: prize-giving ceremony and winner announcement (London Library)

 

I’m so looking forward to getting stuck into the shortlisted books and discussing them! I’ll be posting a review of each one in November.

Catching Up on Prize Winners: Alderman, Grossman & Whitehead

Sometimes I love a prize winner and cheer the judges’ ruling; other times I shake my head and puzzle over how they could possibly think this was the best the year had to offer. I’m late to the party for these three recent prize-winning novels. I’m also a party pooper, I guess, because I didn’t particularly like or dislike a one of them. (Reviews are in the order in which I read the books. My rating for all three = )

 

A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman

(Winner of the Man Booker International Prize)

“Why the long face? Did someone die? It’s only stand-up comedy!” Except that for the comedian himself, Dovaleh Greenstein, this swan song of a show in the Israeli town of Netanya devolves into the story of the most traumatic day of his life. Grossman has made what seems to me an unusual choice of narrator: Avishai Lazar, a widower and Supreme Court justice, and Dov’s acquaintance from adolescence – they were in the same military training camp. Dov has invited him here to bear witness, and by the end we know Avishai will produce a written account of the evening.

Although it could be said that Avishai’s asides about the past, and about the increasingly restive crowd in the club, give us a rest from Dov’s claustrophobic monologue, in doing so they break the spell. This would be more hard-hitting as a play or a short story composed entirely of speech; in one of those formats, Dov’s story might keep you spellbound through a single sitting. Instead, I found that I had to force myself to read even five or 10 pages at a time. There’s no doubt Grossman can weave a clever tale about loss, and there are actually some quite funny jokes in here too, but overall I found this significantly less powerful than the author’s previous work, Falling Out of Time.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

(Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award and Arthur C. Clarke Award; longlisted for the Man Booker Prize)

Following Cora on her fraught journey from her Georgia plantation through the Carolinas and Tennessee to Indiana is enjoyable enough, with the requisite atrocities like lynchings and rapes thrown in to make sure it’s not just a picaresque cat-and-mouse battle between her and Arnold Ridgeway, the villainous slavecatcher. But I’m surprised that such a case has been made for the uniqueness of this novel based on a simple tweak of the historical record: Whitehead imagines the Underground Railroad as an actual subterranean transport system. This makes less of a difference than you might expect; if anything, it renders the danger Cora faces more abstract. The same might be said for the anachronistic combination of enlightened and harsh societies she passes through: by telescoping out to show the range of threats African-Americans faced between the Civil War and the 1930s, the novel loses immediacy.

Ultimately, I felt little attachment to Cora and had to force myself to keep plodding through her story. My favorite parts were little asides giving other characters’ backstories. There’s no doubt Whitehead can shape a plot and dot in apt metaphors (I particularly liked “Ajarry died in the cotton, the bolls bobbing around her like whitecaps on the brute ocean”). However, I kept thinking, Haven’t I read this story before? (Beloved, Ruby, The Diary of Anne Frank; seen on screen in Twelve Years a Slave, Roots and the like.) This is certainly capably written, but doesn’t stand out for me compared to Homegoing, which was altogether more affecting.

 

The Power by Naomi Alderman

(Winner of the [Bailey’s] Women’s Prize)

I read the first ~120 pages and skimmed the rest. Alderman imagines a parallel world in which young women realize they wield electrostatic power that can maim or kill. In an Arab Spring-type movement, they start to take back power from their oppressive societies. You’ll cheer as women caught up in sex trafficking fight back and take over. The movement is led by Allie, an abused child who starts by getting revenge on her foster father and then takes her message worldwide, becoming known as Mother Eve.

Alderman has cleverly set this up as an anthropological treatise-cum-historical novel authored by “Neil Adam Armon” (an anagram of her own name), complete with documents and drawings of artifacts. “The power to hurt is a kind of wealth,” and in this situation of gender reversal women gradually turn despotic. They are soldiers and dictators; they inflict genital mutilation and rape on men.

I enjoyed the passages mimicking the Bible, but felt a lack of connection with the characters and didn’t get a sense of years passing even though this is spread over about a decade. This is most like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy – Alderman’s debt to Atwood is explicit, in the dedication as well as the acknowledgments – so if you really like those books, by all means read this one. My usual response to such speculative fiction, though, even if it describes a believable situation, is: what’s the point? As with “Erewhon,” the best story in Helen Simpson’s collection Cockfosters, the points about gender roles are fairly obvious.

 

I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of these books – or plan to read them – and believe they were worthy prize winners. If so, set me straight!