Short Stories in September, Part I: Nam Le, Deesha Philyaw, Dan Rhodes
Part of my annual project to read as many short story collections as possible in September. Here’s the first three.
The Boat by Nam Le (2008)
Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, won the Dylan Thomas Prize for this collection of seven stories. The opener, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” – the title being William Faulkner’s advice for what authors should write about – knocked my socks off. It’s a crisp slice of autofiction about his father coming to visit him while he is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam (the character) is ambivalent about whether to write about his family’s history of escaping Vietnam by boat, but as a deadline looms he decides to go for it, no matter what his father might think. There’s a coy remark here from one of his friends: “you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. … You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires [not in this collection!] and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
So there you have four of the story plots in a nutshell. “Cartagena” is an interesting enough inside look at a Colombian gang, but Le’s strategy for revealing that these characters would be operating in a foreign language is to repeatedly use the construction “X has Y years” for giving ages, which I found annoying. “Meeting Elise” is the painter-with-hemorrhoids one (though I would have titled it “A Big Deal”) and has Henry nervously awaiting his reunion with his teenage daughter, a cello prodigy. There’s a Philip Roth air to that one. “Hiroshima” is brief and dreamy, and works because of the dramatic irony between what readers know and the narrator does not. “The Boat,” the final story, is the promised Vietnam adventure, but took forever to get to. I skimmed/skipped two stories of 50+ pages, “Halflead Bay,” set among Australian teens, and “Tehran Calling.”
It’s a shame that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the first story. The settings and styles felt too disparate overall, with no linking theme. I know that authors are supposed to be able to write about whatever they want, rather than just sticking to their own heritage – a provincial attitude the above quote is mocking, surely – but I had to wonder why these stories mattered to the author, and thus why they should matter to me. As far as I can tell, this is all Le has published. He won another five awards for it, and landed on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list in 2008. What happened after that?? (Public library)
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020)
I’d heard such good things about this collection after its U.S. release (it was a National Book Award finalist and won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award and more), so was delighted to learn that it was coming to the UK earlier this year. These nine stories, mostly set among Black women in the Southern USA, are bold and sexy. The opening pair is a particularly provocative one-two punch. In “Eula,” two friends with benefits meet up in a hotel on New Year’s Eve 2000, as they do every year; narrator Caroletta is committed to this relationship, while Eula is only killing time until she can marry a man as everyone expects. In “Not-Daniel,” a man and woman have sex in a car parked behind a hospice to try to forget that their mothers are dying inside.
“How to Make Love to a Physicist,” told in the second person, is about an art teacher scared to embark on a relationship with a seemingly perfect man she meets at a conference. “Dear Sister,” in the form of a long, gossipy letter, is about a tangled set of half-siblings. “Jael” alternates a young teen’s diary entries and her great-grandmother’s fretting over what to do with her wild ward. (The biblical title takes on delicious significance later on.) Multiple characters clash with authority figures about church attendance, with the decision to leave the fold coinciding with claiming autonomy or rejecting hypocrisy.
“Peach Cobbler” and “Snowfall” were my two favourites. In the former, reminiscent of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, Olivia’s mother has been having a long-term affair with the pastor, for whom she bakes a special dessert she denies her own daughter (“I’m not going to raise [my child] to go through life expecting it to be sweet, when for her, it ain’t going to be”). The latter has Arletha and Rhonda suffering through a Midwest winter and dreaming of a Southern crab boil, but fearing they can never go home to mothers who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their bond as anything other than friendship (“like a beautiful quilt in summertime, my mother’s love was the suffocating kind”).
The insight into familial and romantic relationships, the frank bisexuality, the allusions to scripture and churchgoing traditions, and the folksy foods and metaphors all made this stand out for me. The collection tails off with two unmemorable stories, but the previous seven are more than compelling enough for me to recommend this to your attention.
With thanks to Pushkin Press (the ONE imprint) for the proof copy for review.
Anthropology: and a Hundred Other Stories by Dan Rhodes (2000)
I should have known, after reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (an obvious satire on Richard Dawkins’s atheism) in 2017, that Dan Rhodes’s humour wasn’t for me. However, I generally love flash fiction so thought I might as well give these 101 stories – all about 100 words, or one paragraph, long – a go when I found a copy in a giveaway box across the street. Each has a one-word title, proceeding alphabetically from A to W, and many begin “My girlfriend…” as an unnamed bloke reflects on a relationship. Most of the setups are absurd; the girlfriends’ names (Foxglove, Miracle, Nightjar) tell you so, if nothing else.
There’s a kind of ‘nothing sacred’ approach here, with death, disability, race and gender the fodder for any number of gags. For example, in the title story the ex-girlfriend “went to Mongolia to study the gays. … It breaks my heart to think of her herding those yaks in the freezing hills, … nothing but a handlebar moustache to keep her top lip warm.” Or “Taxidermy”: “Columbine broke her neck by mistake. I took her to the taxidermist, and they delivered to my house a fortnight later. When I unwrapped the package I found the wrong girl.” I marked out a couple that I liked, “Beauty” and “Eggs,” but 2/101 is a poor return. Flippant, repetitive and ridiculous; best avoided. (Free from a neighbour)
Currently reading: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Hearts & Bones by Niamh Mulvey
Up next: The Quarry by Ben Halls, The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
Easter Reading from Richard Holloway and Richard Yates
I found a lesser-known Yates novel on my last trip to our local charity warehouse and saved it up for the titular holiday. I also remembered about a half-read theology book I’d packed away with the decorative wooden Easter egg and tin with a rabbit on in the holiday stash behind the spare room bed. And speaking of rabbits…
(I also gave suggestions of potential Easter reading, theological or not, in 2015, 2017, and 2018.)
The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976)
Yates sets out his stall with the first line: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” I’d seen the film of Revolutionary Road, and my impression of Yates’s work was confirmed by this first taste of his fiction: an atmosphere of mid-century (sub)urban ennui, with the twin ills of alcoholism and adultery causing the characters to drift inexorably towards tragedy.
The novel follows Sarah and Emily Grimes from the 1930s to the 1970s. Emily, four years younger, has always known that her sister is the pretty one. Twenty-year-old Sarah is tapped to model traditional Chinese dress during an Easter parade and be photographed by the public relations office of United China Relief, for whom she works in fundraising. Sarah had plans with her fiancé, Tony Wilson, and is unenthusiastic about taking part in the photo shoot, while Emily thinks what she wouldn’t give to appear in the New York Times.
The mild rivalry resurfaces in the years to come, though the sisters take different paths: Sarah marries Tony, has three sons, and moves to the Wilson family home out on Long Island; in New York City, Emily keeps up an unending stream of lovers and English-major jobs: bookstore clerk, librarian, journal editor, and ad agency copywriter. Sarah envies Emily’s ability to live as a free spirit, while Emily wishes she could have Sarah’s loving family home – until she learns that it’s not as idyllic as it appears.
What I found most tragic wasn’t the whiskey-soused poor decisions so much as the fact that both sisters have unrealized ambitions as writers. They long to follow in their headline-writing father’s footsteps: Emily starts composing a personal exposé on abortion, and later a witty travel guide to the Midwest when she accompanies a poet boyfriend to Iowa so he can teach in the Writers’ Workshop; Sarah makes a capable start on a book about the Wilson family history. But both allow their projects to wither, and their promise is unfulfilled.
Yates’s authentic characterization, forthright prose, and incisive observations on the futility of modern life and the ways we choose to numb ourselves kept this from getting too depressing – though I don’t mind bleak books. Much of the novel sticks close to Emily, who can, infuriatingly, be her own worst enemy. Yet the ending offers her the hand of grace in the form of her nephew Peter, a minister. I read the beautiful final paragraphs again and again.
A readalike I’ve reviewed (sisters, one named Sarah!): A Summer Bird-Cage by Margaret Drabble
The Way of the Cross by Richard Holloway (1986)
Each year the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a short book for the Anglican Communion to use as Lenten reading. This study of the crucifixion focuses on seven of the Stations of the Cross, which are depicted in paintings or sculptures in most Anglo-Catholic churches, and emphasizes Jesus’s humble submission and the irony that the expected Son of God came as an executed criminal rather than an exalted king. Holloway weaves scripture passages and literary quotations through each chapter, and via discussion questions encourages readers to apply the themes of power, envy, sin, and the treatment of women to everyday life – not always entirely naturally, and the book does feel dated. Not a stand-out from a prolific author I’ve enjoyed in the past (e.g., Waiting for the Last Bus).
“the yearly remembrance of the life of Christ is a way of actualizing and making that life present now, in the universal mode of sacramental reality.”
“Powerlessness is the message of the cross”
Recently read for book club; I’ll throw it in here for its dubious thematic significance (the protagonist starts off as an innocently blasphemous child and, disappointed with God as she’s encountered him thus far, gives that name to her pet rabbit):
When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (2011)
I’d enjoyed Winman’s 2017 Tin Man so was very disappointed with this one. You can tell it was a debut novel because she really threw the kitchen sink in when it comes to quirkiness and magic realism. Secondary characters manage to be more engaging than the primary ones though they are little more than a thumbnail description: the lesbian actress aunt, the camp old lodger, etc. I also hate the use of 9/11 as a plot device, something I have encountered several times in the last couple of years, and stupid names like Jenny Penny. Really, the second part of this novel just feels like a rehearsal for Tin Man in that it sets up a close relationship between two gay men and a woman.
Two major themes, generally speaking, are intuition and trauma: characters predict things that they couldn’t know by ordinary means, and have had some awful things happen to them. Some bottle it all up, only for it to explode later in life; others decide not to let childhood trauma define them. This is a worthy topic, certainly, but feels at odds with the carefully cultivated lighthearted tone. Winman repeatedly introduces something sweet or hopeful only to undercut it with a tragic turn of events.
The title phrase comes from a moment of pure nostalgia for childhood, and I think the novel may have been better if it had limited itself to that rather than trying to follow all the characters into later life and sprawling over nearly 40 years. Ultimately, I didn’t feel that I knew much about Elly, the narrator, or what makes her tick, and Joe and Jenny Penny almost detract from each other. Pick one or the other, brother or best friend, to be the protagonist’s mainstay; both was unnecessary.
“All to Do with the Moon”: Four Books with Moon in the Title
I happened to read two books with the word moon in their titles within a couple of weeks in September, which prompted me to ransack my shelves and find two more. While these four are in completely different genres – one women’s fiction, one poetry, one memoir and one Booker-winning literary novel – they are all by women (naturally more in touch with the moon?) and all worth reading. In the weeks that I was undertaking this mini reading project, I couldn’t get Krista Detor’s song “All to Do with the Moon” out of my head (on this video, a live recording of the entire “Night Light” suite of three songs, it starts at about 6:15). She’s one of our favorite singer-songwriters, though, so this was no problem.
The Pull of the Moon by Elizabeth Berg (1996)
This is my second contemporary novel from Berg. I find her work effortlessly readable. She’s comparable to those other Elizabeths, McCracken and Strout, but also to Alice Hoffman and Anne Tyler. This one reminded me most of Tyler’s Ladder of Years in that both are about a middle-aged woman who takes a break from her marriage to figure out what she wants from life. Nan, “a fifty-year-old runaway,” takes off from her suburban Boston home and drives west, stopping at motels and cabins, eating at diners, and meeting the locals; eventually she gets as far as South Dakota. Her narration is in the form of letters to her husband, Martin, alternated with italicized passages from her journal. She reflects on everything that has made up her life – her upbringing, her marriage and other sexual encounters, raising her daughter, Ruthie – as well as on the small-town folk she meets in Iowa and Minnesota. The moon is a symbol of the femininity Nan fears she’s losing through menopause and hopes to reclaim on this journey.
The Moon Is Almost Full by Chana Bloch (2017)
This was a lucky find in the clearance section at Blackwell’s on my Oxford day with Annabel. It’s a beautifully produced book from Autumn House, the small Pittsburgh press that released my favorite poetic work of last year: The Small Door of Your Death by Sheryl St. Germain. This was Bloch’s sixth and final book of poetry, published in the year of her death. She writes in the awareness that this cancer will be her end and doesn’t gloss over losses of function and dignity, but still finds delight in life through her family, writing and Jewish rituals: “Never forget / you were put on earth to gather joy // with melancholy hands” (from “Instructions for the Bridegroom”). A favorite poem was “The Will,” in which she imagines how the physical and intangible relics of her life will be distributed (“My plans and projects I hereby bequeath to the air / of which they were conceived. … Let the doctors pack up my heart / and keep it humming for the right customer.”).
Off-topic note: This was typeset in Mrs Eaves, which may well be one of my favorite fonts.
To the Moon and Back: A Childhood under the Influence by Lisa Kohn (2018)
My special interest in women’s religious memoirs led me to list this among my most anticipated titles of 2018. I had it on my wish list for quite a while and then, when I saw it available for a bargain price online, snapped it up for myself. Lisa Kohn grew up in the New York City environs, the child of hippie parents she called Mimi and Danny rather than Mom and Dad. After their parents divorced, she and her brother lived in New Jersey with their mother and went into the City to visit their father, who was very lax about things like drugs. By the time Kohn was 10, her mother had gotten caught up in Reverend Moon’s Unification Church.
I knew next to nothing about the “Moonies,” so I found it fascinating to learn about this cult led by a South Korean reverend who let it be assumed that he was the new incarnation of Jesus Christ and the flourishing of his family on Earth would usher in God’s Kingdom. The Church became Kohn’s whole life until internal questioning set in during high school, and by the time she went to college she was adrift and into drugs instead. The book recreates scenes and dialogue well, but I found myself losing interest once the cult itself stopped being the main focus.
Readalikes: Small Fry by Lisa Brennan-Jobs and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott
Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively (1987)
Seventy-six-year-old Claudia Hampton, on her deathbed in a nursing home, determines to write a history of the world – or at least, the world as she’s seen it. She’s been an author of popular history books (one of which, on Mexico, was made into a film), but she’s also been a daughter, a sister, a lover and a mother. As the book shifts between the first person and the third person, the present and the past, we learn volumes about Claudia and how her memory has preserved the layers of her personal history. There are a couple of big reveals, about her relationship with her brother Gordon and her time as a Second World War correspondent in Egypt, but what’s more impressive than these 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.
I made the fine choice to start reading this on holiday at the Jurassic coast in Dorset, which was fitting because Claudia grew up in Dorset and uses ammonites and rock strata as recurring metaphors. This won a well-deserved Booker Prize and is the best of the five Lively books I’ve read. I wasn’t particularly taken with the first couple I read by her, so I’m glad I tried again this year (with Heat Wave and then this). It’s just a shame that the copy I found in the free bookshop where I volunteer has such a dreadfully inappropriate cover, making it look like contemporary chick lit rather than serious literature.
Some favorite lines:
“Argument, of course, is the whole point of history. Disagreement; my word against yours; this evidence against that. If there were such a thing as absolute truth the debate would lose its lustre. I, for one, would no longer be interested.”
“In life as in history the unexpected lies waiting, grinning from around corners. Only with hindsight are we wise about cause and effect.”
“Once it is all written down we know what really happened.”
A note on the title: From the context, it seems that a moon tiger was a special inflammatory device, maybe like a citronella candle, used to repel mosquitoes and other insects.
Other ‘Moon’ books I have happened to review:
Crossing the Moon by Paulette Bates Alden
The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham