Tag Archives: linked short stories

Women’s Prize 2019: Longlist Review Excerpts and Shortlist Thoughts

There’s a reason I could never wholeheartedly shadow the Women’s Prize: although each year the prize introduces me one or two great novels I might never have heard of otherwise, inevitably there are also some I don’t care for, or have zero interest in reading. Here’s how I fared this year, in categories from best to worst, with excerpts and links to any I’ve reviewed in full:

 

Loved! (5)

  • The Pisces by Melissa Broder: This starts off as a funny but somewhat insubstantial novel about a thirtysomething stuck with a life she isn’t sure she wants, morphs into a crass sex comedy (featuring a merman), but ultimately becomes a profound exploration of possession, vulnerability and the fluidity of gender roles. It’s about the prison of the body, and choosing which of the many different siren voices calling us we’ll decide to listen to. It’s a Marmite book, but perfect Women’s Prize material.

 

  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans: Reminds me of On Beauty by Zadie Smith, one of my favorite novels of this millennium. It focuses on two Black couples in South London and the suburbs who, in the wake of Obama’s election, are reassessing their relationships. Their problems are familiar middle-class ones, but Evans captures them so candidly that many passages made me wince. The chapter in which two characters experience mental instability is a standout, and the Black slang and pop music references a nice touch.

 

  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones: Roy and Celestial only get a year of happy marriage before he’s falsely accused of rape and sentenced to 12 years in prison in Louisiana. I ached for all three main characters: It’s an impossible situation. There’s a lot to probe about the characters’ personalities and motivations, and about how they reveal or disguise themselves through their narration. I found it remarkable how the letters, which together make up not even one-fifth of the text, enhance the raw honesty of the book.

 

  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss: It’s the late 1980s and teenager Silvie Hampton and her parents have joined a university-run residential archaeology course in the North of England, near the bogs where human sacrifice once took place. Nationalism, racism, casual misogyny – there are lots of issues brewing under the surface here. Women’s bodies and what can be done to them is central; as the climax approaches, the tricksy matter of consent arises. I ended up impressed by how much Moss conveys in so few pages. Another one custom-made for the Women’s Prize.

 

  • Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn: I just finished this the other day. It’s a terrific hybrid work that manages to combine several of my favorite forms: a novella, flash fiction and linked short stories. The content is also an intriguing blend, of the horrific and the magical. After her brother-in-law’s defection, Alina and her husband Liviu come under extra scrutiny in Communist Romania. Bursts of magic realism and a delightful mixture of narrative styles (lists and letters; alternating between the first and third person) make all this material bearable.

 

 

Did not particularly enjoy (2)

  • Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi: Magic realism and mental illness fuel a swirl of disorienting but lyrical prose. Much of the story is told by the ọgbanje (an Igbo term for evil spirits) inhabiting Ada’s head. The conflation of the abstract and the concrete didn’t quite work for me, and the whole is pretty melodramatic. Although I didn’t enjoy this as much as some other inside-madness tales I’ve read, I can admire the attempt to convey the reality of mental illness in a creative way.

 

  • Normal People by Sally Rooney: This book’s runaway success continues to baffle me. I kept waiting for more to happen, skimming ahead to see if there would be anything more to it than drunken college parties and frank sex scenes. It is appealing to see into these characters’ heads and compare what they think of themselves and each other with their awareness of what others think. But page to page it is pretty tedious, and fairly unsubtle.

 

 

Attempted but couldn’t get through (3)

  • Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton: A historical novel marked by the presence of ghosts, this is reminiscent of the work of Cynthia Bond, Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward. It’s the closest thing to last year’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I only read the first 36 pages as neither the characters nor the prose struck me as anything special.

 

  • Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott: Full of glitzy atmosphere contrasted with washed-up torpor. I have no doubt the author’s picture of Truman Capote is accurate, and there are great glimpses into the private lives of his catty circle. I always enjoy first person plural narration, too. However, I quickly realized I don’t have sufficient interest in the figures or time period to sustain me through nearly 500 pages. I read the first 18 pages and skimmed to p. 35.

 

  • Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lilian Li: Vague The Nest vibes, but the prose felt flat and the characters little more than clichés (especially scheming ‘Uncle’ Pang). I grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland so was expecting there to be more local interest for me, but this could be taking place anywhere. Reviews from trusted Goodreads friends suggested that the plot and characterization don’t significantly improve as the book goes on, so I gave up after the first two chapters.

 

 

Not interested (6)

(Don’t you go trying to change my mind!)

  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Updated Greek classics are so not my bag.
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: Meh.
  • Milkman by Anna Burns: Nah.
  • Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli: I’ll try something else by Luiselli.
  • Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden: The setting of a fictional African country and that title already have me groaning.
  • Circe by Madeline Miller: See the note on Barker above.

 


The shortlist will be announced on Monday the 29th. Broder and Moss will most likely make the cut. I’d love to see the van Llewyn make it through, as it’s my favorite of what I’ve read from the longlist, but I think it will probably be edged out by more high-profile releases. Either Evans or Jones will advance; Jones probably has the edge with more of an issues book. One of the Greek myth updates is likely to succeed. Luiselli is awfully fashionable right now. Emezi’s is an interesting book and the Prize is making a statement by supporting a non-binary author. Rooney has already won or been nominated for every prize going, so I don’t think she needs the recognition. Same for Burns, having won the Booker.

 

So, quickly pulling a combination of wanted and expected titles out of the air would give this predicted shortlist:

 

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

 


Eleanor, Eric, Laura and Rachel have been posting lots of reviews and thoughts related to the Women’s Prize. Have a look at their blogs!

Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Shiny New Books and the TLS

We’re back from a pleasant but whirlwind weekend in France. Even just sticking to one corner of Normandy, there was far too much to see and do and not enough good weather to do it all in. Highlights were the Bayeux tapestry, the gorse-covered rocky cliff above a river at Les Roches de Ham, a delicious three-course meal in a restaurant just outside Bayeux, fresh bread and cake from boulangeries, and the enormous Sunday morning open-air market in Caen. (Low point: being sick on the boat on the way back. I hate sailing.) I finished up The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, read all of A Breath of French Air by H.E. Bates, and started a few more books.

It was good to have a gripping novel to take my mind off the rocking motion of the ferry on the trip out.


Here are excerpts from and links to some of my recent print or online writing for other places. (No surprise that four out of the five are nonfiction and involve medical or bereavement themes!)

 

BookBrowse

The Unwinding of the Miracle: A Memoir of Life, Death, and Everything That Comes After by Julie Yip-Williams: A lawyer facing late-stage cancer reflects on the happy life she had despite disability and an inauspicious start, and bids farewell to her family. It was miracle enough to have survived her first few years (blindness, a euthanasia attempt, and fleeing Vietnam by boat), but she eventually graduated from Harvard Law School and joined a Wall Street law firm. The author dubs herself “a somewhat ruthless realist.” Early on she vowed she would do nothing desperate or bizarre in her quest for healing, in contravention of what she calls the American “hope industrial complex.” Yet she also left room for spirituality to surprise her. The book resembles a set of journal entries or thematic essays, written at various times over her five years with colon cancer. Some stories are told more than once; an editor might have combined or cut some passages to avoid repetitiveness. Still, this posthumous memoir stands as a testament to a remarkable life of overcoming adversity, asking questions, and appreciating beauty wherever it’s found. (See also my list of other recommended posthumous cancer memoirs.)

 

That Time I Loved You: Stories by Carrianne Leung: The residents of a Toronto suburb cope with growing up amid a spate of surprise suicides in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Leung explores different points of view on the same events and changes that take place in a community over several years. Three of the stories are narrated by June, who is 11 years old at the start. Her parents came over from Hong Kong 15 years ago. Other stories fill in a kaleidoscopic view of the neighborhood, showing how lonely the residents are – and how segregated along ethnic lines. Leung returns to June’s perspective at the beginning, middle, and end of the book, so we see her growing up and learning how the world works. Hard lessons are in store for her: people are sometimes punished for their differences, and the older generation doesn’t have it all figured out. Suburbia gets a bad rap, but it’s where so many of us come from, so it’s heartening to see a writer taking it seriously here. (See also my article on linked short story collections, for which I enlisted lots of blogger help via book Twitter.)

 

Shiny New Books

War Doctor: Surgery on the Front Line by David Nott: Welsh surgeon David Nott combines advanced technical skills with extreme altruism: for weeks of every year he takes unpaid leave to volunteer with a medical charity like Médecins sans Frontières or Syria Relief in war zones or disaster areas around the world. The kinds of procedures he has performed in Sarajevo, Kabul and Darfur are a world away from his normal work as an NHS consultant in London: amputations, treating injuries caused by homemade bombs, and delivering the babies of young rape victims. His memoir is mostly structured by countries and/or time periods. There are gripping moments – such as completing a difficult amputation by following instructions texted to him by a London colleague – but also some less fascinating chronology. The book is slow to start and took me weeks to get through. However, it shines when Nott recalls particular patients who have stood out for him. All told, his is an amazing and inspiring story.


As if you haven’t already heard enough about the Wellcome Book Prize from me (!), I also wrote this article for Shiny about the Prize’s history and the range of books that have won or been nominated over the last 10 years, finishing up with some reflections on this year’s shortlist.

 

Times Literary Supplement

Somehow I seem to have become a TLS regular. The biography editor periodically contacts me with lists of recent memoirs to be reviewed in 400 words for the “In Brief” section, and I’ve been doing about one per month this year.

 

Blood Ties by Ben Crane: Artist Ben Crane has developed a passion for birds of prey, raising hawks and training as a falconer. “I saw that my feelings towards nature, and birds of prey in particular, ran in parallel with my feelings for my son,” he writes. Blood Ties accordingly cuts between the story of rehabilitating a pair of rescued sparrowhawks named Girl and Boy and a parallel story about raising his son as a part-time single father. Together these strands emphasize the common concerns that arise when caring for any creature. Crane’s descriptive language is memorably sharp. Whatever struggles his Asperger’s entails, it seems to heighten his observational skills. Pruning the travel segments would have produced a more focused memoir, but this is a powerful story all the same – of the ties that bind us, both to nature and our own families. (Full review in February 8th issue.)

 

Notes for the Everlost: A Field Guide to Grief by Kate Inglis: Inglis, a Nova Scotian photographer and children’s author, has written this delicate, playful handbook – something between a bereavement memoir and a self-help guide – for people who feel they might disappear into grief for ever. In 2007, Inglis’s identical twin sons were born premature, at twenty-seven weeks. Ben lived but Liam died. Every milestone in Ben’s life would serve as a reminder of the brother who should have been growing up alongside him. The unfairness was particularly keen on the day she returned to hospital for two appointments: Ben’s check-up and a report on Liam’s autopsy. Unable to sustain the eye-popping freshness of the prose in the introduction, Inglis resorts to some clichés in what follows. But this kooky, candid book will be valuable to anyone facing bereavement or supporting a loved one through it. (Full review in March 15th issue.)

 

Would any of these books interest you?

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.

The cover image is Raja (1925) by Felice Casorati.

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.

Three Books that Originated on the Radio

As the end of the year approaches and I try to get through a final handful of review books, I’m looking for ways to combine posts. It may seem like a fairly arbitrary connection, but all three of these books originated as essays or short stories that were aired on British radio. I never listen to the radio so I miss out on these projects the first time around, but I’ve been interested to note how short forms and conversational styles lend themselves to oral performance.

 

Beneath the Skin: Great Writers on the Body

These 15 pieces were commissioned for the BBC Radio 3 series “A Body of Essays.” Thomas Lynch, a small-town American undertaker and wonderful, unjustly obscure writer, opens and closes the volume. In his introduction he remarks – appropriately as Christmas draws near – that “We are an incarnate species”: we experience the world only through our bodies, which are made of disparate parts that work together as a whole. This project considers single organs by turn “in hopes that by knowing the part we might better know the whole of our predicament and condition.”

Naomi Alderman, musing on the intestines, draws metaphorical connections between food, sex and death, and gives thanks that digestion and excretion are involuntary processes we don’t have to give any thought. Ned Beauman reports on misconceptions about the appendix as he frets about the odds of his bursting while he’s in America without health insurance. The late Philip Kerr describes the checkered history of the lobotomy, which used to reduce patients to a vegetative state but can now quite effectively treat epilepsy.

The pieces incorporate anatomical knowledge, medical history, current research, cultural connections, and sometimes observation of a hospital procedure. These threads are elegantly woven together, as in Patrick McGuinness’s essay on the ear, which skips between Hamlet’s father’s death, the secretive delight of mining for earwax, Beethoven’s ear trumpet, and what we know about in utero sounds.

Most authors chose a particular organ because of its importance to their own health. Christina Patterson’s acne was so bad she went to the UK’s top skin specialist for PUVA light treatments, Mark Ravenhill had his gallbladder removed in an emergency surgery, and Daljit Nagra’s asthma led his parents to engage Sikh faith healers for his lungs. Two of my favorite chapters were by William Fiennes, whose extreme Crohn’s disease caused him to have a colostomy bag for two years in his early twenties, and poet Kayo Chingonyi, who has always been ashamed to admit that his parents both died of complications of HIV in Zambia. Such personal connections add poignancy to what could have been information dumps.

As is usual for essay collections, my interest varied somewhat. I had my hopes too high so was disappointed with a scattered piece on the kidneys. But the overall quality is terrific. If you enjoy medical reads to any extent, I recommend this as a bedside book to read occasionally.

Some favorite lines:

“It’s a strange and shifting thing – this sense I have that I am my body, of which some bits are essential and some expendable.” (Mark Ravenhill)

“There are things we only think about when they go wrong: the fan belt, the combi boiler, the bowel.” (William Fiennes)

“Like most of us, I take my body for granted. I live in the most complex, intricate machine and as long as it wakes up in the morning, and goes to bed at night, I am uninterested in its inner workings.” (Chibundu Onuzo, “Thyroid”)

My rating:


Beneath the Skin was published by the Wellcome Collection imprint of Profile Books on October 25th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

 

In Mid-Air by Adam Gopnik

New Yorker writer Gopnik contributed to BBC Radio 4’s A Point of View for over a decade. These essays date from 2012 to 2017 and are grouped into three loosely thematic sections on family, culture and politics. Gopnik self-deprecatingly sees himself as “offering measured ambivalences on everything.” As an American who was raised in Canada and has lived in Paris and spent significant time in London, he has a refreshingly cosmopolitan outlook and can appreciate the nuances in different countries’ identities. At the same time, he brings out what’s universal: being annoying to one’s teenage children, gauging the passing of time by family members’ changes, the desire to die with dignity (remembering his father-in-law’s death at age 95), and lessons in a happy marriage from Charles and Emma Darwin – he boils it down to lust, laughter and loyalty.

During the weeks that I spent with these essays I was frequently reminded of Jan Morris’s In My Mind’s Eye, which casts a similarly twinkling eye over the absurdities of modern life and the aging body. Gopnik endures shingles and shrugs over his funny last name (“drunken lout” in Russian) and short stature. He mostly ignores Twitter and decries our dependence on smartphones. As he’s never learned to drive, he’s amused by the idea of self-driving cars.

My favorite pieces were on significantly more trivial matters, though: the irony of famous Christmas songs being written by Jews, and a satire on society’s addiction to DVD box sets. Other arts references vary from the Beatles and Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize to Cubism and literary festivals. It’s a quirky blend of high and low culture here. Bizarrely, Gopnik has recently written an oratorio on Alan Turing and a musical about a New York City restaurant.

The author is an unabashed liberal who prizes pluralism above all else but warns how fragile it is. In the final section he prophesies catastrophe under Trump and, afterwards, can only say that at least his election puts lesser issues into perspective. I valued the diagnosis of American insularity and British inwardness – this particular essay was written in 2013 but seems all the more relevant post-Brexit. This was my fifth book from Gopnik. While I didn’t engage with every essay and would have liked them to be chronological so there was a mix of topics all the way through, it was a pleasant and often thought-provoking read.

Some favorite lines:

“Watching the people we love die bit by bit is the hardest thing life demands until we recall that watching the people we love die bit by bit is in a certain sense what life simply is. It just usually takes more time for the bits to go by.”

“We should never believe that people who differ from us about how we ought to spend public money want to commit genocide or end democracy, and we should stop ourselves from saying so, even in the pixellated heat of internet argument. But when we see the three serpents of militarism, nationalism and hatred of difference we should never be afraid to call them out, loudly, by name”

My rating:


In Mid-Air was published by riverrun, a new Quercus imprint, on October 18th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

 

Turbulence by David Szalay

These 12 linked short stories, commissioned for BBC Radio 4, focus on travel and interconnectedness. Each is headed by a shorthand route from one airport to another, and at the destination we set out with a new main character who has crossed paths with the previous one. For instance, in “YYZ – SEA” the writer Marion Mackenzie has to cancel a scheduled interview when her daughter Annie goes into labor. There’s bad news about the baby, and when Marion steps away from the hospital to get Annie a few necessaries from a supermarket and is approached by a pair of kind fans, one of whom teaches Marion’s work back in Hong Kong, she’s overcome at the moment of grace-filled connection. In the next story we journey back to Hong Kong with the teacher, Jackie, and enter into her dilemma over whether to stay with her husband or leave him for the doctor she’s been having an affair with.

As he ushers readers around the world, Szalay invites us to marvel at how quickly life changes and how – improbable as it may seem – we can have a real impact on people we may only meet once. There’s a strong contrast between impersonal and intimate spaces: airplane cabins and hotel rooms versus the private places where relationships start or end. The title applies to the characters’ tumultuous lives as much as to the flight conditions. They experience illness, infidelity, domestic violence, homophobia and more, but they don’t stay mired in their situations; there’s always a sense of motion and possibility, that things will change one way or another.

My favorite story was “DOH – BUD,” in which Ursula goes to visit her daughter Miri and gains a new appreciation for Miri’s fiancé, Moussa, a Syrian refugee. I also liked how the book goes full circle, with the family from the final story overlapping with that of the first. Though a few of the individual stories are forgettable, I enjoyed this more than Szalay’s Booker-shortlisted All that Man Is, another globe-trotting set of linked stories.

Like Beneath the Skin, this acknowledges the many parts making up the whole of humanity; like In Mid-Air, it encourages a diversity of opinion and experience rather than narrow-mindedness. Maybe the three books had more in common than I first thought?

A favorite line:

“In fact it was hard to understand quite what an insignificant speck this aeroplane was, in terms of the size of the ocean it was flying over, in terms of the quantity of emptiness which surrounded it on all sides.”

My rating:


Turbulence is published by Jonathan Cape today, December 6th. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

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:

 

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

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award: Shadow Panel Winner & Giveaway

After a month of reading, reviewing, thinking and discussing, our shadow panel has come to a unanimous decision. Our winner is Julianne Pachico for The Lucky Ones. (My full review is here.)

We were all blown away by this linked short story collection set largely in Colombia. The way the whole book fits together, with story building on story, is so sophisticated, and at the sentence level the writing is nigh on flawless. Here’s a glimpse of what the rest of the shadow panel had to say, with links to their full reviews:

“However you style it, this collection is stunningly good and marks the debut of a young author to watch.” (Annabel)

“Pachico’s writing exhibits a surreal power and I’m looking forward to reading what she writes next.” (Clare)

“Pachico’s writing is stunning, and just the way she strings sentences together was a joy to behold.” (Dane)

“Throughout the collection, the sense of something being off-kilter competes with an evocation of place and atmosphere so strong that the book practically creates its own weather.” (Eleanor)

Clare, Eleanor, Rebecca, Annabel and Dane. Photo by Maddy Pickard.

In the run-up to the official awards ceremony on December 7th, we are giving our blog readers a chance to be one of five overall winners, each of whom can choose which one of the shortlisted books they’d like to have sent to them. (The other options are Outlandish Knight by Minoo Dinshaw, The End of the Day by Claire North, Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, and The Lauras by Sara Taylor.)

*Note: Unfortunately, this giveaway is limited to entries from the UK and Ireland. All entries must be received by the end of December 6th.*

 

Click on the Rafflecopter link below to get to the entry screen:

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Young Writer of the Year Award: Shortlist Readings Event

On Saturday I attended an exclusive bloggers’ event at the Groucho Club in London with four of the authors shortlisted for the Sunday Times / Peters Fraser + Dunlop Young Writer of the Year Award (Sally Rooney was unable to make it from Dublin). Also in attendance were fellow shadow panelists Annabel and Clare and some other notable names from the UK blogging community, including Eric Karl Anderson and Naomi Frisby. It was lovely to meet them, and Annabel, for the first time, and to have time to chat with the shortlisted authors.

That’s me with Clare and Annabel. Thanks to Eric Karl Anderson for taking the photo.

The event was chaired by Robert Collins, a former deputy literary editor of the Sunday Times now with Intelligence Squared. Each author gave a short reading from their book and answered questions from the chair and the audience. In every case, what I heard helped me appreciate the work and the author more. All four writers were so funny and warm, and seemed equally humbled and delighted to be in the running for this award.

Minoo Dinshaw reminded me of an Oxford don twice his age. (Indeed, his father is an Oxford don, and his mother is Scottish writer Candia McWilliam, so he has a proud literary pedigree.) He first became aware of Steven Runciman as a child when he and his mother spotted the wizened old man in a hotel lobby in Edinburgh, where they had traveled for the book festival. He then read Runciman’s Crusades books at school, and when in 2011 he met Runciman’s niece and she asked him to write the biography, he said he couldn’t think of anything else he wanted to do. (And still can’t.) Reading from his Kindle as “I didn’t want to break my wrist” (!), he chose a late passage featuring Steven in his nineties. Dinshaw said that while writing about Runciman he felt by turns flirted with and accused. Living in his subject’s house, working in his library, even sleeping in his bed (just the once), he felt he “had a very strange ghost in my life.” Dinshaw said the project captured his attention because he’s romantic and competitive, but that he’d like to try writing fiction in the future.

Clare with Minoo Dinshaw. Photo by Annabel Gaskell.

Julianne Pachico read a party scene from “The Tourists,” as it’s approaching the festive season. I was intrigued to learn that the interlinking structure of her book only emerged late on in the editing process; she’d originally meant to write a post-apocalyptic novel set all in one house, but found that setting too limiting. “I sort of work it out as I go along,” she said. So is it short stories or a novel? She’s sick of this question! Really she just wanted to write the kind of book she likes to read, citing Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten as examples. Asked about her mentors, Pachico cited her mother, who told her “you’ll never be lonely, you’ll never be bored” as long as you read; and her first tutor, Andrew Cowan, who told her no one out there was writing anything like her story “Junkie Rabbit” – just the affirmation she needed. With all that’s happened in 2017, Pachico said she plans to turn to writing as a way “to outcreate the abyss” (a phrase from her twin sister, who’s also a writer). Pachico also teaches creative writing at Sheffield Hallam.

Julianne Pachico signing my book. Photo by Annabel Gaskell.

(As Sally Rooney was not in attendance, Collins read on her behalf a passage about Frances and Bobbi’s early friendship at school.)

Claire North, aka “Cat” (real name: Catherine Webb; her fantasy and science fiction books are under various names) was in a way the odd one out at this event. Collins opened by saying that this award is all about getting in on the ground level with these writers, several of whom are debut authors. But North is a teen phenom who published her first book at age 14 and is set to release #20 next year. All along her parents called her a freak and demanded that she get her GCSEs and go to uni because writing “isn’t a proper job” (“but we’re very proud of you!” they’d usually append). She’s experienced the full gamut of responses over the years: some swore she wouldn’t have anything to say until age 40; others sighed that once she turned 18 she could no longer be marketed as “young.” She read the perfect passage from The End of the Day: a frantic, bravura account of the riders of the apocalypse together on a plane. She loves that science fiction “makes the extraordinary domestic” and playing with death appealed to her “flippant nature.” Charlie is, she thinks, the kindest character she’s ever written.


Sara Taylor read from one of Ma’s earliest stories about how her parents met. She wrote The Lauras while she was supposed to be completing her PhD thesis on censorship in American literature. At the time she was coming to terms with the fact that she was going to be staying in the UK, as well as remembering family road trips and aspects of her relationship with her mother that she wishes were otherwise. Her agent wasn’t comfortable with the focus on an “agender” character, but Taylor held firm. She’s used to ignoring the advice her (older, male) professors and advisors tend to give her. Instead, she gets tips from her ten-years-younger sister back in the States, who knows exactly how to “fix” her work. Taylor feels the USA is 5–10 years behind the UK on gender issues, and revealed that The Lauras is a response to the novel Love Child (1971) by Maureen Duffy. She has recently finished her third novel and hopes to get back into teaching since writing non-stop for nine months makes her “go a little funny.”

 


This was such a special event. There were no more than 20 people in the room, and at the end I got a chance to speak to each of the authors as they signed my books. I normally get shy in such situations, but everyone was completely approachable. (Sara Taylor and I confirmed that we were indeed on the same study abroad program to England, a few years apart, so spent some time reminiscing about Reading and our formerly women-only colleges. Her mother went to Hood College, my alma mater – thus the brief mention of it in The Lauras.)


Important upcoming dates:

  • November 24th: shadow panel meeting in 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 at the London Library

I’ll be aiming to post my last couple of reviews on Wednesday.

The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist review #3

If you’ve been following the shadow panel’s progress on Twitter, you’ll know that we’re all extremely impressed with this one. Marketed as a novel in America but as a short story collection here in the UK, The Lucky Ones is really somewhere in between: it’s a linked story collection in which the 11 chapters could stand alone but are so much richer together. Each generally adds a layer of meaning to the others by filling in the background or following a certain character a decade or more into the future. The book keeps creeping backward and leaping forward to show how terror endured in one’s past never really goes away.

The title certainly seems ironic, as many of the schoolmates, teachers and hangers-on who people these Colombia-set stories face imprisonment, torture or disappearance. The story titles, too, seem innocuous, even sweet. But the first story, “Lucky,” sets the precedent for things turning very dark very fast. Stephanie Lansky’s family leaves for a weekend party at the Montoyas’ country house, but teenage Stephanie stays home, planning to smoke in secret and meet up with a friend at the mall. Scary snatches of radio dialogue about Communist rebels and bombs contrast with her escapist re-reading of Arthurian romances, but the threat becomes real when a man comes to the door to get her. With the maid missing and her parents not answering their phones, she’s effectively a hostage in her own home. The open-ended conclusion is masterly; its “could be,” “maybe” and “It’s still possible” phrases leave the reader to wonder whether Stephanie will be one of the lucky ones or not.

The stories range from 1993 to 2013, and over those two decades we zoom in and out to visit some of Stephanie’s classmates and teachers. For instance, in “Lemon Pie,” my favorite individual story, her teacher, Mr. B., is now a prisoner in a jungle camp and nourishes what little sanity he has left by teaching his old Hamlet lesson plans to groups of leaves and sticks. In the next story, “M + M,” we meet another of Mr. B.’s pupils, a scholarship student who fell out spectacularly with a friend over their differing class status. Ten years later, he’s a guerrilla commander so harsh that he orders deserters executed by their friends.

Seven of the stories are in the third person, but others add in some interesting variety: in “Siberian Tiger Park,” the third graders of Stephanie’s class form a first-person plural voice as they set their vivid imaginations loose on the playground and turn against their former ringleader, and “The Bird Thing,” a slice of horror in which a maid’s traumatic memories feed a monster, is told in the second person. And then there’s “Junkie Rabbit,” a first-person story set among a coca-consuming colony of pet rabbits gone feral. It’s Watership Down on speed. Indeed, drug use and wildness are recurring tropes, and there’s a hallucinatory quality to these stories – somewhere between languid and frantic – that suits the subject matter.

Before starting this I knew nothing about the relatively recent conflict in Colombia. It’s estimated that there were 60,000 forced disappearances on top of the documented carnage. We meet one character who has his hand chopped off for “publishing the wrong kind of articles,” but the country’s atrocities usually show up in asides, woven in so subtly and elegantly that they’re among the most arresting passages in the book:

On Saturdays … you got to run to the riverside, slide down the bank, and go swimming or throw stones or try to catch tiny silver fish with your bare hands, then feed them leftovers from lunch. Except when the bodies were floating in the water. Rumor was that men always floated face up, women face down. Sometimes there were vultures sitting on them and sometimes not. But if there were bodies, you would just go to the little stream instead and that was better. There the fish would eat rice straight from your hand, grains floating through the water like confetti thrown at a wedding.

Almost every story has at least one paragraph that striking. I thought two stories added less than the others and might have been cut to get the page count down closer to 200, but for the originality of the setup and the sheer excellence of the writing this book can’t be topped.

 

More shadow panel reviews of The Lucky Ones:

Annabel’s at Annabookbel

Clare’s at A Little Blog of Books
Dane’s at Social Book Shelves

Eleanor’s at Elle Thinks

Reviews Roundup, October–November

One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I provide links to all book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a taster so you can decide whether to read more. A few exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie, BlueInk or Publishers Weekly reviews since I don’t get a byline.

This month you may recognize a few books I already previewed in my posts on books as beautiful objects and library books read in October.


The Bookbag

Charlotte Brontë’s Secret Lovejanzing by Jolien Janzing: Charlotte and Emily Brontë’s time in Belgium – specifically, Charlotte’s passion for her teacher, Constantin Heger – is the basis for this historical novel. The authoritative yet inviting narration is a highlight, but some readers may be uncomfortable with the erotic portrayal; it doesn’t seem to fit the historical record, which suggests an unrequited love affair. My other issue with the book is a couple of subplots that only seem to have minor significance.

3.5 star rating

In Fidelity by Jack Wilson: In this 1970s-set novel, the central couple’s relationship is tested by illness and extramarital sexual experiences. Moving from New England to Nigeria and back, the story asks what loyalty really requires when a once-strong connection has faded over time. Strongly reminiscent of John Updike in Part One, this is the male view of adultery. Something about the self-justifying tone stuck in my craw. A more balanced book would give the wife’s perspective, too, as Carol Shields did in Happenstance, or like Lauren Groff recently did to great success in Fates and Furies.

 3 star rating


BookBrowse

tsar of loveThe Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra [subscription service]: This collection of tightly linked short stories, an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards, reveals how politics, family, and art intertwine. Ranging from 1937 to 2013, the pieces show how fear and propaganda linger in the post-Stalinist era. In art as much as in politics, it can be difficult to distinguish airbrushed history from bitter reality. Just as he did in his excellent debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable because of his warm and witty writing. All his characters’ voices are well-realized and inviting, and he comes up with terrific one-liners.

5 star rating


BookTrib

Mad Feast mech.inddMad Feast by Matthew Gavin Frank: This is the cookbook David Foster Wallace might have written. In an off-the-wall blend of memoir, travel, history and fiction, Frank proceeds region by region, choosing for each American state one beloved dish and interrogating its origins as well as its metaphors and associations. It’s a mixed bag of familiar foods and ones that only locals are likely to know about. Each chapter ends with a recipe for the signature plate, whether from a Lutheran church or a posh restaurant. Frank’s digressive, anecdotal approach takes some getting used to. If you appreciate the style of writers like Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and Will Self, this should be your next food-themed read.

3 star rating


For Books’ Sake

bronte biogCharlotte Brontë: A Life by Claire Harman: With her bicentennial approaching in April 2016, it’s the perfect time to revisit Charlotte Brontë’s timeless stories. One of the things Harman’s biography does best is trace how the Brontës’ childhood experiences found later expression in fiction. A chapter on the publication of Jane Eyre is a highlight. Diehard fans might not encounter lots of new material, but Harman does make a revelation concerning Charlotte’s cause of death – not TB, as previously believed, but hyperemesis gravidarum (extreme morning sickness). This will help you appreciate afresh a “poet of suffering” whose novels were “all the more subversive because of [their] surface conventionality.”

4 star rating

cockfosters

 

Cockfosters by Helen Simpson: Simpson’s sixth story collection is full of wry, incisive reflections on aging, loss, regrets, gender roles, and a changing relationship to sex. Most of Simpson’s characters are in their late forties, a liminal time when they’re caught between older parents and still-needy children. Many pieces are dialogue-driven, like scenes in plays. In “Kentish Town,” book club members meet to discuss Dickens’s The Chimes. Simpson weaves in discussion of the plot with commentary on the state of the nation as the ladies set the world to rights and make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a perfect story to read in the run-up to Christmas. The overall stand-out is “Erewhon,” named for Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel. It quickly becomes clear that gender roles are reversed in its fictional world.

3 star rating


Foreword Reviews

addiction is addictionAddiction Is Addiction by Raju Hajela, Paige Abbott and Sue Newton: This comprehensive, well-organized guide discusses the features of addictive thinking and feeling, suggests holistic recovery methods, and offers useful definitions, diagrams, and case studies. The authors are affiliated with Health Upwardly Mobile Inc., Calgary, Alberta. Tracing the history of addiction back to the eighteenth century, when it was first known as “alcoholic disease syndrome,” they present an expert view of the disease’s symptoms and outlook. Strongly recommended to those who have participated in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous. 

4 star rating


Kirkus

Indie Spotlight: Books about Religion: Self-publishing allows writers to tell their full stories. An article based on interviews with four indie religion authors and mini-reviews of their books.


Nudge

Notes on Suicide by Simon Critchley: Critchley is a philosophy professor at New York’s New School for Social Research. Although he reassures readers with his first line that “This book is not a suicide note,” he also hints that its writing was inspired by personal trouble: “my life has dissolved over the past year or so, like sugar in hot tea.” Not suicidal himself, then, but sympathetic to those who are driven to self-murder. This concise essay illuminates arguments surrounding suicide, with points of reference ranging from Greek philosophers to Robin Williams. Overall, though, it feels cursory and inconclusive.

3 star rating

gratitudeThe Gratitude Diaries by Janice Kaplan: We can all do with a little encouragement to appreciate what we already have. In so many areas of life – finances, career, relationship, even the weather – we’re all too often hoping for more or better than what we are currently experiencing. Here Kaplan undertakes a year-long experiment to see if gratitude can improve every aspect of her life. She draws her information from interviews with researchers and celebrities, quotes from philosophers, and anecdotes from her own and friends’ lives. It’s easy, pleasant reading I’d recommend to fans of Gretchen Rubin.

4 star rating

water bookThe Water Book by Alok Jha: An interdisciplinary look at water’s remarkable properties and necessity for life on earth. For the most part, Jha pitches his work at an appropriate level. However, if it’s been a while since you studied chemistry at school, you may struggle. Part IV, on the search for water in space, is too in-depth for popular science and tediously long. In December 2013 Jha was part of a month-long Antarctic expedition. He uses the trip as an effective framing device, but I would have liked more memoiristic passages. All in all, I was hoping for less hard science and more reflection on water’s importance to human culture.

3 star rating

claxtonClaxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet by Mark Cocker: Mark Cocker is the Guardian’s country diarist for Norfolk. The short pieces in this book are reprints of his columns, some expanded or revised. I would advise keeping this as a bedside or coffee table book from which you read no more than one or two entries a week, so that you always stay in chronological sync. You’ll appreciate the book most if you experience nature along with Cocker, rather than reading from front cover to back in a few sittings. The problem with the latter approach is that there is inevitable repetition of topics across years. All told, after spending a vicarious year in Claxton, you’ll agree: “How miraculous that we are all here, now, in this one small place.”

3.5 star rating

mile downA Mile Down by David Vann: Vann, better known for fiction, tells the real-life story of his ill-fated journeys at sea. He hired a Turkish crew to build him a boat of his own, and before long shoddy workmanship, language difficulties, bureaucracy, and debts started to make it all seem like a very bad idea. Was he cursed? Would he follow his father into suicide? The day-to-day details of boat-building and sailing can be tedious, and there’s an angry tone that’s unpleasant; Vann seems to think everybody else was incompetent or a crook. However, he does an incredible job of narrating two climactic storms he sailed through.

3 star rating


Wasafiri

The Triumph of the Snake Goddesssnake goddess by Kaiser Haq: Beginning with the creation of the world and telling climactic tales of the snake goddess Manasa’s interactions with humans, Haq crafts a uniquely playful set of sacred stories that bear striking similarities to those from other religious traditions. Like Greek myths, the Manasa stories are full of shape-shifting and mistaken identity; rape and incest; jealousy and revenge; and over-the-top exploits of warring gods. She even wears snakes in her hair, like Medusa. Many parallels can also be drawn with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Haq’s rendering of the creation account, in particular, resembles the language of Genesis. This book will appeal to students of comparative religion, but can be read with equal enjoyment by laymen in search of engaging storytelling.

4 star rating


I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.

 

Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton: Although I’m a huge fan of Sarton’s memoirs, this was my first taste of her fiction. I was underwhelmed: it’s slight and strangely unfeminist. Part of the problem may be that I know so much about Sarton that I couldn’t help but see all the autobiographical detail here. Most of the novel’s action takes place in one day, as Mrs. Stevens awaits the arrival of two interviewers and reflects on past love affairs (some with women) and the meaning of the Muse. For me, Sarton’s journals are a better source of deep thoughts on the writer’s vocation, the value of solitude and the memory of love. This was seen as Sarton’s coming-out book, although it’s not at all sexually explicit.

3 star rating

running on the march windRunning on the March Wind by Lenore Keeshig: Keeshig is a First Nations Canadian; these poems are full of images of Nanabush the Trickster, language from legal Indian acts, and sly subversion of stereotypes – cowboys and Indians, the only good Indian is a dead Indian (in “Making New”), the white man’s burden, and so on. In places I found these more repetitive and polemical than musical, though I did especially like the series of poems on trees.

3 star rating

The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion by Kei Miller: Kei Miller is a Jamaican writer who uses island patois and slang, and Rastafarian images and language, alongside standard English. Here he sets up (especially with the long, multi-part title poem) a playful contrast between the cartographer, emblem of civilization and unbiased science, and the rastaman, who takes an altogether more laidback approach to mapping his homeland. This was the perfect poetry collection to be reading in tandem with A Brief History of Seven Killings (see below).

4 star rating

very britishVery British Problems Abroad by Rob Temple: This is possibly ever so slightly funnier than the original (Very British Problems). A lot of it rings true. Once again the fact that the book originated as tweets means you can’t read too much of it at a time or the one-liners grow tiresome. A couple of my favorites were: “The feeling of dread as you approach the campsite and only then remembering that last year you said you’d never, ever do this again” and “Noticing an avalanche heading your way and hoping your umbrella’s up to the job.”

3 star rating

purityPurity by Jonathan Franzen: By starting and ending with Purity ‘Pip’ Tyler, Franzen emphasizes his debt to Dickens: shades of both Bleak House and Great Expectations are there in the discovery of true parentage and unexpected riches. This is strong on the level of character and theme. Secrecy, isolation and compassion are recurring topics. East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is close. With a more dynamic opening section, it might have been 5 stars.

4 star rating

brief historyA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: This is an edgy, worthwhile Booker pick, but not for the faint-hearted. For the most part, James alternates patois and standard speech, but nearly every section is packed with local slang and expletives. Whether in monologue or dialogue, the many voices form a captivating chorus. The novel is in five parts, each named after a popular song or album of the time. James’s scope, especially as he follows Josey Wales to the Bronx, is too wide. All the narrative switches, once so dynamic, grow tiresome. At 350 pages this would have been a 5-star read. Nevertheless, I’ll be watching the HBO miniseries. (Full review to appear in December 2015 issue of Third Way magazine.)

3.5 star rating

kitchens greatKitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of 2015.  Stradal has revealed that his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook was the inspiration for this culinary-themed novel that takes place over the course of 30 years. His unique structure takes what are essentially short stories from different perspectives and time periods and links them loosely through Eva Thorvald. Eva’s pop-up supper club gains fame thanks to her innovative adaptations of traditional Midwestern foods like venison or Scandinavian lutefisk; it charges $5,000 a head. I loved almost all of Stradal’s ordinary, flawed characters. If you want a peek at how average Americans live (apart from the $5,000 meals), you’ll find it here.

4 star rating

japaneseThe Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende: Allende is a wonderful storyteller. This isn’t up to the level of her South American novels (e.g. The House of the Spirits), and in elaborating both Alma’s and Irina’s stories there’s a bit too much telling rather than showing, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book all the same – I devoured it in just a few days. Allende is sensitive to both the process of aging and the various strategies for dealing with traumatic events from the past.

3.5 star rating

accidental saintsAccidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People by Nadia Bolz-Weber: I knew of Nadia Bolz-Weber through Greenbelt Festival. She’s a foul-mouthed, tattooed, fairly orthodox Lutheran pastor. This brief, enjoyable memoir is about how she keeps believing despite her own past issues and the many messed-up and outwardly unlovable people who show up at her church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. In my favorite section, she zeroes in on one Holy Week and shows the whole range of emotions and trauma that religion can address. The Ash Wednesday chapter is the overall highlight.

3.5 star rating

road to littleThe Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain by Bill Bryson: Bryson’s funniest book for many years. It meant a lot to me since I am also an American expat in England. Two points of criticism, though: although he moves roughly from southeast to northwest in the country, the stops he makes are pretty arbitrary, and his subjects of mockery are often what you’d call easy targets. Do we really need Bryson’s lead to scorn litterbugs and reality television celebrities? Still, I released many an audible snort of laughter while reading.

3.5 star rating

shalersShaler’s Fish by Helen Macdonald: I was a huge fan of Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk, so was excited to read her poetry collection, originally published in 2001 but to be reissued by Atlantic Monthly Press. Unfortunately, despite the occasional bird and nature imagery (e.g. in “Monhegan”), I found these poems largely inaccessible. Perhaps it was the sprinkling of archaic vocabulary and spellings, or the general lack of punctuation apart from annoying slashes and ampersands.

2.5 star rating

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man: A Memoirportrait addict by Bill Clegg: One of the finest memoirs I’ve come across (and I read a heck of a lot of them). Through this book I followed literary agent Bill Clegg on dozens of taxi rides between generic hotel rooms and bar toilets and New York City offices and apartments; together we smoked innumerable crack pipes and guzzled dozens of bottles of vodka while letting partners and family members down and spiraling further down into paranoia and squalor. Every structural and stylistic decision works: the present tense, short paragraphs, speech set out in italics, occasional flashback chapters distanced through third-person narration. Clegg achieves a perfect balance between his feelings at the time – being out of control and utterly enslaved to his next hit – and the hindsight that allows him to see what a pathetic figure he was becoming.

5 star rating

landfallsLandfalls by Naomi J. Williams: An enjoyable novel of eighteenth-century maritime adventure, based on a true story and reminiscent of Matthew Kneale’s English Passengers and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. Williams moves between the perspectives of various crew members and outsiders, sometimes employing first person and sometimes third. Key chapters are set in South America, California, Alaska, Macao, and the Solomon Islands. I especially enjoyed a chapter from the point-of-view of a native Alaskan girl – one of the few times the novel focuses on female experience.

3.5 star rating

dept ofDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill: Not as innovative or profound as I was expecting given the rapturous reviews from so many quarters. It’s an attempt to tell an old, old story in a new way: wife finds out her husband is cheating. Offill’s style is fragmentary and aphoristic. Some of the facts and sayings are interesting, but most just sit there on the page and don’t add to the story. What I did find worthwhile was tracing the several tense and pronoun changes: from first-person, past tense into present tense, then to third-person and back to first-person for the final page.

3 star rating

mcgoughAs Far As I Know by Roger McGough: A bit silly for my tastes; lots of puns and other plays on words. In style they feel like children’s poems, but with vocabulary and themes more suited to adults. I did like “Indefinite Definitions,” especially BRUPT: “A brupt is a person, curt and impolite / Brusque and impatient / Who thinks he’s always right.” The whole series is like that: words with the indefinite article cut off and an explanation playing on the original word’s connotations. From the “And So to Bed” concluding cycle, I loved Camp bed: “A la Recherche du Temps Perdu / on the bedside table / Gardenia on the pillow / Silk pyjamas neatly folded.”

3 star rating

penguin lessonsThe Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird by Tom Michell: Marley & Me with a penguin. Well, sort of. A sweet if slight story about the author keeping a Magellanic penguin as a pet while teaching in an Argentina boarding school in the 1970s. On a vacation to Uruguay the twentysomething rescued a penguin from an oil spill and named him Juan Salvado. The uproarious process of cleaning the oil-sodden bird, achieved with a bidet, string bag, and plenty of dish soap, was my favorite passage. However, I’m hesitant about anthropomorphizing, and the language can be stiff – I would have dated this to the 1950s by the speech. Also, there’s precious little evidence of Argentina’s political upheaval.

3 star rating

Paulette Bates Alden: An Underrated Author

I first came across Paulette Alden’s work last June, when she contacted me to ask if I’d like to review her new short story collection, Unforgettable. It’s a self-published book available through Kindle, and in all honesty, given my experience reviewing self-published material for Kirkus and Foreword, I wasn’t expecting much. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that these were excellent, literary short stories with a strong voice and sense of place. Since then I have read two more Alden books: Crossing the Moon, her memoir of infertility, and Feeding the Eagles, her first short story collection, which shares a protagonist with Unforgettable. Here, in the order in which I have read them, are Alden’s published works:

 

Unforgettable

unforgettableNine linked stories focus on the life of Miriam Batson, a writer and adjunct professor at a Minnesota college. Now in her late forties, Miriam faces the challenge of caring for her aging mother. Indeed, the final five stories are inspired by Alden’s experience as a caregiver for her late mother, who suffered from dementia. Although it is intriguing to ponder just how autobiographical these stories might be, ultimately it makes little difference to a reader’s enjoyment. The close third-person perspective creates such intimate knowledge of the main character that one cannot help but feel sympathy for her professional and personal struggles.

The opening story, “The Student,” is among the strongest. Miriam learns that Brian, one of the students in her advanced short story class, has attempted suicide – in three different ways. Horror cedes to compassion as she realizes how he must have been suffering, even while keeping up a cheerful exterior in class. As she visits Brian in the hospital during his recovery, Miriam is taken aback by her feelings for him. Hesitant to borrow spiritual language, she still senses that she and Brian have a soul connection. At the same time, she realizes that no relationship is entirely one thing or another; their teacher-student dynamic may resemble a parent-child link, but sex keeps creeping in unexpectedly.

In “Sorrow,” told in the present tense, Miriam learns of the death of one of her black nannies and returns to South Carolina to pay her respects. Filled with memories of segregation, this story shares the social conscience of Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. “Enormously Valuable” returns to the first story’s academic setting, with Miriam receiving notification that someone else – a less experienced man – has gotten the teaching job she applied for. She decides to take legal advice to determine whether this is a case of sex discrimination. This story tips over into melodrama slightly, but is still an affecting look at career disappointment. The themes of bureaucracy and petty infighting in a university English department recall John Williams’s Stoner.

“Swimming, Snow” was commissioned as the Minnesota Center for Book Arts’ 1993 Winter Book. Miriam slowly starts to heal after her father’s death, thanks to the therapeutic effects of activities like massage, classical music, and sex. This one is a perfect segue into the collection’s last five stories, which together reflect on Alden’s experiences as a caregiver during her mother’s final years with dementia.

The title story, the last in the collection, does indeed have a stand-alone feel, combining all the emotions of the previous four into the most shrewdly crafted of the tales, rich with symbolism. It opens with Miriam driving to a monastery for a writing retreat. Although it is April, it is snowing, and Nat King Cole’s song “Unforgettable” is on the radio. Ironically, that title is also the name given to her mother’s nursing home’s remodeling campaign. Miriam has been taking beginner’s Italian lessons; her bewilderment is an echo of her mother’s confusion about language. In addition, Easter is coming up the following week, and the symbology of death and restoration plays a significant role. Miriam can no longer deny that her mother will be dead soon, yet she feels that she will live on – perhaps even through Miriam’s work: “Writing is her religion, her resurrection. Long after her mother is gone, she will have this moment. Her mother will rise from the dead and live again in those words.”

Alden tenderly conveys the overwhelming difficulties and small joys of being the primary caregiver for a loved one with serious health problems. You do not have to share any of Miriam’s experiences to value her insight and admire her courage. I daresay every reader will find at least one aspect of these stories to be, as the title suggests, simply unforgettable.

My rating: 4 star rating


Crossing the Moon

Frank and tender, this is a wonderful memoir about women’s reproductive choices – or the way life sometimes takes those choices out of your hands. Alden was happily married, with a beloved cat named Cecil and her first short story collection coming out soon. At age 39, she still hadn’t thought all that much about motherhood, but suddenly decision time was on her. Despite her ambivalence (“I might never have a child, and the irony is not lost on me, that I’m not even sure I want one”), she went ahead with multiple rounds of infertility treatment, only conceding defeat and grieving her loss when she was 42.

All along she was resisting multiple voices: that of her Southern upbringing, which said all women were supposed to have children; that of feminism, which told her she wasn’t supposed to want what all women are supposed to have. There was also her own inner suspicion that the life she already had was the one she wanted. “From the very start, I had seen writing and motherhood as mutually exclusive.”

I found this a very touching story of learning to love the life you have. “It came to me that it really was a choice between two good things – having a child and not having a child. Our life without a child seemed good to me. I caught a glimpse that it was what was right for us, for the best.”

My rating: 5 star rating


feeding the eaglesFeeding the Eagles

Miriam Batson first appeared in this 1983 collection published by Graywolf Press. Of the 11 stories here, seven are in the third person and four in the first person. They dart back and forth in time: sometimes Miriam is married and back in South Carolina visiting her parents and sister; other times she’s a young graduate student on the way back to California. It was particularly interesting for me, having read Alden’s memoir, to trace the autobiographical roots of many of the stories. I even spotted a couple of lines taken word for word from life: “‘I’ll tell you what I think,’ [Miriam’s] mother says slowly. ‘I think people who don’t have children are the most selfish people in the world.’”

These stories are strong on symbolism and often have memorable endings. For instance, the title phrase seems odd but in context is a beautiful image of turning failure into a positive. Miriam and her husband Ted have gone out fishing from their Minnesota cabin. Ted throws a big fish back, hoping the hook injury wasn’t too deep, but a while later they see it floating on its side. They’re feeling a little guilty – until an eagle drops in and snatches the dead fish. “‘Now you don’t have to feel so bad,’ Ted says. ‘We’re feeding the eagles.’” Elsewhere, Miriam’s grandmother’s wig is a peculiar token of family inheritance, while a snake encountered at a campground is a reminder of excessive sensuality.

As in Unforgettable and Crossing the Moon, the overarching theme of the book is a woman’s identity and how this shifts through life. Miriam is a daughter, a wife, a grown sister, a writer. She is not a mother, a decision that defines her as much as any other. But even within these roles, time creeps in and changes things. With her elderly parents facing bankruptcy, Miriam realizes, “It occurred to me for the first time that maybe my father didn’t know what was going on.” That sense of a turning of the generations, of the child taking on the responsible parent guise, is undoubtedly true to life.

Another central theme is how places of safety and familiarity lose their capacity to reassure us. For Miriam/Alden, the South becomes increasingly foreign but still has a metaphorical hold on her. “Stretching out around us in every direction are the flat Midwestern plains, and it comes to me that I will not live my life as I have always imagined I would—without even thinking of it—in South Carolina.” All the same, as she drives to the old family cabin in South Carolina before it passes out of their hands for good, she thinks how “all of the roads of her life lead back to this one.”

On this reading the story that meant most to me was “At the Beach,” in which Miriam and her sister Linda take a rare vacation together and marvel at how their parents are aging. “Just so you take them in in their old age,” Miriam jokes, but beneath the quip lies deep concern. I could recognize my sister and myself – now separated by an ocean but not so much anymore by the eight years between us – in this sentence: “It seems we talk more now that we are older, now that we live so far apart and have so little time together.”

One thing I love about Alden’s books is how she seems to see life in discrete parts but also, looking back nostalgically, as a coherent narrative that leads logically and inevitably to the present. This makes for a gently bittersweet tone, but I come away sensing gratitude. As my favorite lines from Crossing the Moon have it, “who can say what is ‘best’? Maybe it’s possible to get to a place where what is best is simply what is.”

My rating: 4 star rating


answer to your questionThe Answer to Your Question

I haven’t read this one yet, but I have a copy on my e-reader and am saving it for a rainy day treat. On the surface it sounds completely different from anything else Alden has written. The blurb describes a page-turning thriller about a man who has been accused of murdering four women and his librarian mother’s quest to figure out whether he really did it and why. It won the Kindle Book Review Best Indie Book of 2013 in the suspense category. I feel sure that it will have the same psychological acuity as Alden’s other books.


Who are some of your favorite lesser-known authors? Share them in the comments below!