Three on a Theme for Valentine’s Day: “Love” Short Story Collections
Even though I’m really not a Valentine’s Day sort of person*, this is the seventh year in a row that I’ve put together a themed post featuring books that have “Love” or a similar word in the title in the run-up to mid-February (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022).
I also don’t generally read short story collections if it’s not September – I seem to need that alliterative crutch to get to a dozen or so of them – but my “Birds” trio and these three were so great that I had to wonder why I don’t read them all year round.
Are these love stories? Some, to an extent. But also loss stories. Loneliness stories. Hatred stories. Abandonment stories. A few even verge on horror. In other words, realistic slivers of life. And as different as Carver’s lean, masculine tales of addiction and failure might seem from Bloom’s wry scenes of family life and Dunmore’s intimate pictures of isolation and mental illness, I found that all three resonated with each other. As for character detail, Dunmore’s “fat men” echo the overweight male protagonist in Bloom’s first story cycle.
Where the God of Love Hangs Out by Amy Bloom (2010)
One of these stories, “Sleepwalking,” was familiar to me because it is reprinted from her 1993 collection, Come to Me, and another two were originally published in 2000’s A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You – isn’t she great at titles?! She excels at first lines, too: some from this volume are “At two o’clock in the morning, no one is to blame,” “William has gout,” “Clare can’t walk,” “No power” and “I had always planned to kill my father.”
The book contains two quartets of linked stories and four stand-alone stories. The first set is about Clare and William, whose dynamic shifts from acquaintances to couple-friends to lovers to spouses. Bloom, a former psychotherapist, is interested in tracking how they navigate these changes over the years, and does so by switching between first- and third-person narration and adopting a different perspective for each story. She does the same with the four stories about Lionel and Julia, a Black man and his white stepmother. Over the course of maybe three decades, we see the constellations of relationships each one forms, while the family core remains. She also includes sexual encounters between characters who are middle-aged and older – when, according to stereotypes, lust should have been snuffed out.
Of the unlinked stories, the most memorable was “By-and-By,” a distressingly unemotional account of the ripple effects of a serial killer’s actions as seen by a victim’s roommate. I also loved the title story, which appears last. An older man and his daughter-in-law meet twice, by accident, in small-town eateries, the one wanting to come clean about a troubled past and the other wanting to embark on a new and surprising romance. This one reminded me of Richard Russo and early John Irving, while the collection as a whole would suit fans of Julia Glass, Tessa Hadley, Sue Miller, Lorrie Moore and Elizabeth Strout. (Secondhand – Bookbarn International)
What We Talk about When We Talk about Love by Raymond Carver (1981)
Such a famous title that it has spawned countless imitators, two of which I’ve even read (What We Talk about When We Talk about God by Rob Bell and What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank by Nathan Englander). It turns out I had Carver confused with John Cheever, so I was expecting gritty stories of alcoholism in the 1950s Midwest. Yes to the alcohol abuse, but Carver was from the Pacific Northwest and was writing in the 1980s. A number of his protagonists are drunk, deadbeat dads who have been kicked out and make a scene to get back at their wives. Others are more passive, stuck in suburban ennui. Grown men fear turning into their fathers (“Sacks”). Ultimatums are defused (“Everything Stuck to Him”) and custody arrangements fought over (the Solomonic fable “Popular Mechanics”).
The declarative simplicity of the prose, and the interest in male activities like gambling, hunting and fishing, can’t fail to recall Ernest Hemingway, yet I warmed to Carver much more than Hem. Two of these stories struck me as feminist for how they expose nonchalant male violence towards women; elsewhere I spotted tiny gender-transgressing details (a man who knits, for instance). In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” two men escape their families to play pool and drink, then make a fateful decision on the way home. I don’t think I’ve been as shocked by the matter-of-fact brutality of a short story since “The Lottery.” My favourite was also chilling, “So Much Water So Close to Home.” Both reveal how homosocial peer pressure leads to bad behaviour; this was toxic masculinity before we had that term.
Many of the stories are only 3–8 pages long, such that 17 fit into a slender volume. They’re about half and half first- and third-person, sometimes with speech marks and sometimes not. At 15 pages, the title story is the longest and a great one. Two couples are having pre-dinner drinks and discussing types of love – physical, spiritual and so on. The POV character mostly conveys monologues by his friend Mel, a cardiologist (of course he would be a heart doctor!), comparing the obsessive love of his first wife’s ex, who turned out to be a stalker, and the mature devotion he saw in an elderly couple at his hospital after a horrific car accident. There were a few flippant or less memorable stories in here, but I’m impressed enough to seek out more of Carver’s work, poetry or prose. (Secondhand – Books for Amnesty, York)
Love of Fat Men by Helen Dunmore (1997)
This was an early work by Dunmore, who was so prolific in her two-decade career that I still come across titles of hers that I’ve never heard of before. I don’t think a book by this title would get published nowadays, but I won’t hold it against her. It is literal in that Ulli, a recurring character in 10 of these 19 stories, finds comfort in sleeping with larger men. I wondered what so captured Dunmore’s imagination about Scandinavia: you can work out that Ulli is from Finland and most of the stories are set there or in nearby countries.
Every other story returns to Ulli, but the fragments of her life miss out the connective tissue: we suspect she’s pregnant as a teen, but don’t learn what she chose to do about it; we witness some dysfunctional scenes and realize she’s estranged from her family later on, but don’t find out if there was some big bust-up that prompted it. She comes across as a loner and a nomad, apt to be effaced by stronger personalities. In “The Ice Bear,” she’s on a ferry from Sweden back to Finland and can’t escape the prattle of a male missionary. In “A Question of Latitude” she’s out for a restaurant meal with friends, one of whom diagnoses her thus: “Nothing really affects you, does it? You just smile and put it out of your mind. And you cut people out of your life the same way, when you’ve finished with them.”
Whereas in the Bloom the interconnected stories are the strongest, here my preference was for the others. “The Bridge Painter” is about a man who leaves a peculiar calling card at each bridge he visits. “Annina” paints a woman with a questionable grasp on reality after the loss of a child. Best of all is probably “North Sea Crossing,” which contrasts two father-and-son pairs. If you only know Dunmore from novels, I can recommend her poetry and short stories, too. (Secondhand – Bas Books, Newbury)
Try all of these authors right away if you haven’t already!
*A daytrip into London on Thursday was our Valentine’s gift to selves. We toured the Tower of London and the Science Museum (the Wellcome medical collections for me) and had an exceptional late lunch at Dishoom (starters and drinks pictured below). Tonight we’ll be having chocolate prune pots in front of The Bookshop Band’s love-themed livestream concert.
20 Books of Summer, #12–13, BLUE: Johnson & MacMahon
Blue has been the most common colour in my themed summer reading, showing up in six out of the 20 titles. In the two books I’m reviewing today, it’s used somewhat ironically, with a YA memoir subverting its association with conventional masculinity and a Women’s Prize-longlisted novel contrasting idyllic holiday weather with the persistence of grief.
All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson (2020)
“you sometimes can’t see yourself if you can’t see other people like you existing, thriving”
Growing up in New Jersey in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Johnson knew he was different. He preferred Double-Dutch to football, called his classmates “Honeychild,” and begged for a pair of cowboy boots instead of the sneakers everyone else coveted. His effeminate ways earned the expected epithets. Even though he had plenty of LGBT precedents in his own family – a gay older half-brother, a lesbian aunt, a trans cousin – and his beloved Nanny assured him he was loved for who he was, he didn’t publicly confess his identity until he got to college and felt accepted as part of a fraternity. In fact, there are three instances in the book when, as a teenager, he’s asked directly if he’s gay and he denies it. (Do you hear a rooster?)
Johnson is a warm, earnest storyteller and deftly chooses moments when he became aware of the social disadvantages inherent to his race and sexuality. His memoir is marketed to teens, who should find a lot to relate to here, such as dealing with bullies and realizing that what you’ve been taught is comforting myth. In the “‘Honest Abe’ Lied to Me” chapter, he discovers in middle school that Lincoln didn’t actually support racial equality and questions whether landmark achievements by Black people are just conciliatory tokens – “symbolism is a threat to actual change—it’s a chance for those in power to say, ‘Look how far you have come’ rather than admitting, ‘Look how long we’ve stopped you from getting here.’”
The manifesto element of the book lies in its investigation of the intersection of Blackness and queerness. Johnson is an activist and wants queer Black kids to have positive role models. He knows he was lucky to have family support and middle-class status; many have it harder, getting thrown out and ending up homeless. Multiple chapters are devoted to his family members, some in the form of letters. The structure didn’t always feel intuitive to me, with direct address to his cousin or grandmother coming seemingly out of nowhere. The language is informal, but that doesn’t excuse “me and so-and-so” constructions or referring to “people that” instead of “who”; young adult readers need to have good grammar reinforced.
I also questioned whether the author needed to be so sexually explicit in describing his molestation at the hands of an older male cousin (he has about a zillion cousins) and losing his virginity at age 20. Then again, today’s teens are probably a lot more sexually knowledgeable than I was 20+ years ago. All in all, I wondered if Johnson is more successful as a motivational speaker than a writer. I think his occasional bravado (he closes his introduction with “This is the story of George Matthew Johnson. This is a story for us all.”) would come across better in person than in print. Still, considering I couldn’t be much further from the target audience, I found this a sweet and engaging read. (Public library)
Nothing but Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon (2020)
“Incongruous, the situations we found ourselves in. To be talking about such sorrow against the backdrop of a Mediterranean summer.”
SPOILERS in the following; otherwise it would be difficult to say anything other than that this novel is a deeply touching look at loss and what comes next. When I read a synopsis, I thought it would be Sue Miller’s Monogamy with the roles reversed, but that’s because the blurb makes it sound like there were secrets in David and Mary Rose’s marriage that only emerge after her death in a plane crash. I was on the alert for something sordid and earth-shattering, but in fact this is a quiet novel about what goes unsaid in any marriage.
David, a foreign correspondent on Dublin’s television news, always put his career first, his sophistication and wicked humour masking the wounds of an emotionally chilly upbringing. Mary Rose, a hospital midwife, was the perfect foil, deflating his pomposity and calling him out on any unfeeling quips. Her loving nature was the soul of their relationship. Now that’s she gone, David regrets that he didn’t take more seriously her desperation to have children, a desire he didn’t share. His voice, even flattened and numbed by grief, is a delight. For instance, here’s how he describes Irish seaside holidays: “Summer to us was freezing your arse off on a windswept beach, with a trip to the ice-cream shop if you were lucky. Of course, they never had the ice-cream you wanted.”
The novel is set in Aiguaclara, a hidden gem on Spain’s Costa Brava where David and Mary Rose holidayed every summer for 20 years. Against his friends’ advice, he’s decided to come back alone this year. Although most of the book remembers their life together and their previous vacations here, there is also a present storyline running underneath. Initially subtle, it offers big surprises later on. These I won’t spoil; I’ll only say that David’s cynical belief that he’ll never experience happiness again is proven wrong. Grief, memory, fate: some of my favourite themes, elegantly treated. This reminded me of Three Junes and also, to a lesser extent, The Heart’s Invisible Furies. (Public library)
Coming up next: Pairs of green and red titles.
Would you be interested in reading one of these?
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
I had the “wrong” introduction to Julia Glass’s work in that I started with The Whole World Over (2006) in January 2019 instead of the novel to which it is a rough sequel: her National Book Award-winning debut, Three Junes. This wasn’t really a problem, though. The main link between the two is the character Fenno, a Scottish transplant to New York City who runs a bookstore. He narrates the central and longest section of Three Junes, while the shorter bookend chapters are in the third person. All three pieces braid past and present together such that the novel’s 10-year span feels even more expansive.
“Collies,” set in 1989, opens the book on Greece, where Paul McLeod has headed for a package holiday after the death from cancer of his wife, Maureen, who was an obsessive dog trainer. In “Upright,” which moves six years into the future, Paul’s son Fenno and his younger twin brothers, David and Dennis, are at the family home in Dumfries to divvy up the estate. Fenno’s mind drifts back through his time in New York City and particularly the lovers and friends of his life, some of whom died at the height of the AIDS crisis. In the present day, he faces a dilemma when his brother and sister-in-law ask him an intimate favor.
“Boys,” dated 1999, closes the book and centers on Fern, a young widow who is visiting a friend’s beach home in Long Island and contemplating how she will tell her new boyfriend (who happens to be her landlord’s son) that she is five months pregnant. This final chapter ropes in a few characters from previous sections – but, in a frustrating yet delicious instance of dramatic irony, the two main figures don’t realize there’s a couple of connections between them.
Many of the elements that I loved in The Whole World Over were present here, too: a New York City bookstore setting, the comfort of animals (David is a vet), gourmet meals (Dennis is a chef), and a matter-of-fact but tender consideration of loss. A minor character declares, “people overestimate the power of the past,” but this tripartite narrative puts the lie to that statement as the past continues to seep into everyday life. And the last line goes on my list of favourites encountered so far this year: “Here we are—despite the delays, the confusion, and the shadows en route—at last, or for the moment, where we always intended to be.”
I didn’t particularly warm to the first chapter and worried that this boded ill for the whole book, but as soon as Fenno’s voice took over at about page 60 I sank into the inviting prose. After my first taste of her work, I likened Glass to Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst; now I’d add in Elizabeths Berg and Strout. I’ll read the rest of her books for sure. I have a paperback copy of I See You Everywhere and her latest, A House among the Trees, is on my Kindle.
Source: Secondhand purchase from Wonder Book and Video outdoor clearance area
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley & Improvement by Joan Silber
Late in the Day by Tessa Hadley (2019)
Two London couples: Christine and Alex, and Lydia and Zachary. They’ve known each other for decades, and their affiliations have changed in major, even ironic ways. It was Lydia who was initially infatuated with Alex when he taught both her and Christine, and Christine and Zachary who dated for a time. But this is how things ultimately fell out, each marriage resulting in one daughter. Christine with Alex; Lydia with Zachary.
Except now Zachary is dead. The phone call comes in the novel’s very first sentence. How Lydia and her friends – not to mention her daughter, Grace, who’s studying art in Glasgow – will cope with the loss, and rearrange what was once such a comfortable quadrilateral, is the ostensible subject of the rest of the book. There’s a funeral to plan and a future for Lydia to construct. But the problem, for me, is that every other chapter hosts a seemingly endless flashback to the couples’ backstory. Apart from an odd, titillating moment when the four nearly let down their guard together, these sections don’t reveal an awful lot.
This is my sixth book by Tessa Hadley. Her eye is always sharp on how families work, how relationships fall apart, and how memories form and linger as we age. She’s also a master of third-person omniscience, moving effortlessly between characters’ perspectives. The writing here is exquisite; there’s no question about that. I especially love the descriptive passages, full of so much sensual detail that you can imagine yourself right into a scene:
A breeze fanned the newspaper on the table, the smells of a city summer were wafted through the open window: tar and car exhaust, the bitter-green of the flowering privet hedge. Police horses went past in the broad street, their hooves clip-clopping conversationally alongside the voices of the women who rode them; the stables were nearby.
Her perception was a skin stretched taut, prickling with response to each change in the light outside as it ran through the drama of its sunset performance at the end of the street, in a mass of gilded pink cloud. When eventually the copper beech was only a silhouette cut out against the blue of the last light, Christine pulled down the blinds, put on all the lamps, turned her awareness inwards.
Despite the fine prose, I found the past strand of this novel tedious. If you’re new to Hadley, I’d recommend starting with Clever Girl and/or Bad Dreams and Other Stories.
Late in the Day was published in the UK by Jonathan Cape on February 14th, and in the USA by Harper on January 15th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Improvement by Joan Silber (2017)
I’ve been thinking a lot about linked short story collections, having written a brief article about them for BookBrowse to accompany my review of Carrianne Leung’s That Time I Loved You (those who contributed ideas on Twitter, thank you!). I find them easier to read than the average short story volume because there are fewer characters and settings to keep track of, and you get the fun of tracing unexpected connections between characters. Improvement didn’t quite work for me in that way, mostly because you can tell that it started as one short story, “About My Aunt”: now the untitled first chapter, it is, as you might guess, a solid stand-alone narrative about Reyna and her aunt Kiki. It was originally published in Tin House and collected in The Best American Short Stories 2015.
I was most interested in Kiki, a terrific character with a completely unsuitable name. Her marriage to a Turk failed – but hey, at least she got a great rug out of it, as well as the fun but temporary challenge of third-world life. (“For a hardheaded person, she had let herself be flung about by the winds of love, and she wasn’t sorry either.”) Back in New York City she directs a house-cleaning agency and babysits for Reyna’s four-year-old son, Oliver. Tattooed Reyna’s African-American boyfriend, Boyd, is in prison for three months for selling pot; when he gets out he comes up with the bright idea of smuggling cigarettes between Virginia and New York to profit from the tax difference. He asks Reyna to make one of the pick-ups, but she chickens out at the last minute. Boyd’s friend Claude drives instead, and is killed instantly in a crash.
Part II reaches into the lives of some of the minor characters on the fringes: Claude; Teddy, the truck driver who was the other party in the car accident; Osman, Kiki’s ex-husband; a trio of Germans who passed through their Turkish town in the summer of 1977 with smuggled antiquities in their possession; and so on. For me, these narratives were too diffuse and didn’t hang together as a novel. I had hoped to enjoy this more since it won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction and Silber is one of those writer’s writers you always hear about but never get to read. I found her voice similar to Anne Tyler’s or perhaps Julia Glass’s, but I’m not sure I’d try another book by her.
Improvement was published by Allen & Unwin on February 7th. It came out in the USA from Counterpoint Press in 2017. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Bottom line for both:
Subtle, sophisticated but underwhelming.
Doorstopper(s) of the Month: Julia Glass (& Umberto Eco)
The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)
When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.
Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.
One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.
My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.
All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.
Page count: 560
I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.
A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”