Short Stories in September, Part I: Nam Le, Deesha Philyaw, Dan Rhodes
Part of my annual project to read as many short story collections as possible in September. Here’s the first three.
The Boat by Nam Le (2008)
Le, who was born in Vietnam and raised in Australia, won the Dylan Thomas Prize for this collection of seven stories. The opener, “Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice” – the title being William Faulkner’s advice for what authors should write about – knocked my socks off. It’s a crisp slice of autofiction about his father coming to visit him while he is a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam (the character) is ambivalent about whether to write about his family’s history of escaping Vietnam by boat, but as a deadline looms he decides to go for it, no matter what his father might think. There’s a coy remark here from one of his friends: “you could just write about Vietnamese boat people all the time. … You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires [not in this collection!] and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”
So there you have four of the story plots in a nutshell. “Cartagena” is an interesting enough inside look at a Colombian gang, but Le’s strategy for revealing that these characters would be operating in a foreign language is to repeatedly use the construction “X has Y years” for giving ages, which I found annoying. “Meeting Elise” is the painter-with-hemorrhoids one (though I would have titled it “A Big Deal”) and has Henry nervously awaiting his reunion with his teenage daughter, a cello prodigy. There’s a Philip Roth air to that one. “Hiroshima” is brief and dreamy, and works because of the dramatic irony between what readers know and the narrator does not. “The Boat,” the final story, is the promised Vietnam adventure, but took forever to get to. I skimmed/skipped two stories of 50+ pages, “Halflead Bay,” set among Australian teens, and “Tehran Calling.”
It’s a shame that the rest of the book didn’t live up to the first story. The settings and styles felt too disparate overall, with no linking theme. I know that authors are supposed to be able to write about whatever they want, rather than just sticking to their own heritage – a provincial attitude the above quote is mocking, surely – but I had to wonder why these stories mattered to the author, and thus why they should matter to me. As far as I can tell, this is all Le has published. He won another five awards for it, and landed on the National Book Foundation’s 5 under 35 list in 2008. What happened after that?? (Public library)
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020)
I’d heard such good things about this collection after its U.S. release (it was a National Book Award finalist and won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, PEN/Faulkner Award and more), so was delighted to learn that it was coming to the UK earlier this year. These nine stories, mostly set among Black women in the Southern USA, are bold and sexy. The opening pair is a particularly provocative one-two punch. In “Eula,” two friends with benefits meet up in a hotel on New Year’s Eve 2000, as they do every year; narrator Caroletta is committed to this relationship, while Eula is only killing time until she can marry a man as everyone expects. In “Not-Daniel,” a man and woman have sex in a car parked behind a hospice to try to forget that their mothers are dying inside.
“How to Make Love to a Physicist,” told in the second person, is about an art teacher scared to embark on a relationship with a seemingly perfect man she meets at a conference. “Dear Sister,” in the form of a long, gossipy letter, is about a tangled set of half-siblings. “Jael” alternates a young teen’s diary entries and her great-grandmother’s fretting over what to do with her wild ward. (The biblical title takes on delicious significance later on.) Multiple characters clash with authority figures about church attendance, with the decision to leave the fold coinciding with claiming autonomy or rejecting hypocrisy.
“Peach Cobbler” and “Snowfall” were my two favourites. In the former, reminiscent of Tayari Jones’s Silver Sparrow, Olivia’s mother has been having a long-term affair with the pastor, for whom she bakes a special dessert she denies her own daughter (“I’m not going to raise [my child] to go through life expecting it to be sweet, when for her, it ain’t going to be”). The latter has Arletha and Rhonda suffering through a Midwest winter and dreaming of a Southern crab boil, but fearing they can never go home to mothers who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge their bond as anything other than friendship (“like a beautiful quilt in summertime, my mother’s love was the suffocating kind”).
The insight into familial and romantic relationships, the frank bisexuality, the allusions to scripture and churchgoing traditions, and the folksy foods and metaphors all made this stand out for me. The collection tails off with two unmemorable stories, but the previous seven are more than compelling enough for me to recommend this to your attention.
With thanks to Pushkin Press (the ONE imprint) for the proof copy for review.
Anthropology: and a Hundred Other Stories by Dan Rhodes (2000)
I should have known, after reading When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow (an obvious satire on Richard Dawkins’s atheism) in 2017, that Dan Rhodes’s humour wasn’t for me. However, I generally love flash fiction so thought I might as well give these 101 stories – all about 100 words, or one paragraph, long – a go when I found a copy in a giveaway box across the street. Each has a one-word title, proceeding alphabetically from A to W, and many begin “My girlfriend…” as an unnamed bloke reflects on a relationship. Most of the setups are absurd; the girlfriends’ names (Foxglove, Miracle, Nightjar) tell you so, if nothing else.
There’s a kind of ‘nothing sacred’ approach here, with death, disability, race and gender the fodder for any number of gags. For example, in the title story the ex-girlfriend “went to Mongolia to study the gays. … It breaks my heart to think of her herding those yaks in the freezing hills, … nothing but a handlebar moustache to keep her top lip warm.” Or “Taxidermy”: “Columbine broke her neck by mistake. I took her to the taxidermist, and they delivered to my house a fortnight later. When I unwrapped the package I found the wrong girl.” I marked out a couple that I liked, “Beauty” and “Eggs,” but 2/101 is a poor return. Flippant, repetitive and ridiculous; best avoided. (Free from a neighbour)
Currently reading: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris, Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff, Hearts & Bones by Niamh Mulvey
Up next: The Quarry by Ben Halls, The High Places by Fiona McFarlane, Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
More Books about Cats
Back in April I reviewed five books about cats, several of which proved to be a mite disappointing. I’m happy to report that in the meantime I have searched high and low and found some great books about cats that I would not hesitate to recommend to readers with even the slightest interest in our feline friends. I’ve got a book of trivia, a set of heart-warming autobiographical anecdotes, two books of poems, a sweet memoir, and – best of all – a wide-ranging new book that combines the science and cultural history of the domestic cat.
Fifty Nifty Cat Facts by J.M. Chapman and S.M. Davis
This one’s geared towards children, but I enjoyed the format: each page pairs a cute cat photo with a piece of trivia you might or might not have known. I learned a few neat things:
- a cat’s internal temperature is higher than ours (more like 101.5° F)
- cats have no sweet taste buds and have a dominant paw
- all calicos are female (orange spots being an X-linked genetic trait)
- cats could actually drink seawater – their kidneys are effective enough to process the salt
- people who say they are allergic to cat fur are actually allergic to a protein in the saliva they use to wash themselves!
Cat Stories by James Herriot
When I was a child my mother and I loved Herriot’s memoirs of life as a primarily large-animal veterinarian in Yorkshire. One story from this volume – the final, Christmas-themed one – is familiar from a picture book we brought out around the holidays. The rest are all drawn from the memoirs, though, so the fact that I don’t remember them must be a function of time; it could be as many as 22 years since I last picked up a Herriot book! In any case, these are charming tales about gentle medical mysteries and even the most aloof of stray cats becoming devoted pets. I especially liked “Alfred: The Sweet-Shop Cat” and “Oscar: The Socialite Cat,” about two endearing creatures known around the village. I also appreciated Herriot’s observation that “cats are connoisseurs of comfort.” With cute watercolor illustrations, this little book would make a great gift for any cat lover.
I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano
Cat owners must own a copy for the coffee table. That’s just not negotiable. You will recognize so many of the behaviors and attitudes mentioned here. This is a humor book rather than a poetry collection, so the quality of the poems (all from the point-of-view of a cat) is kind of neither here nor there. Even so, Chapter 1 is a lot better than the other three and contains most of the purely hilarious verses, like “I Lick Your Nose” and “Closed Door.” Favorite lines included “I trip you when you walk down the stairs / So you know I’m always near” and “I said I could sit on your lap forever / Don’t you even think of trying to get up / Well, you should have gone to the bathroom beforehand”. “Sushi” is a perfect haiku with a kicker of a last line: “Did you really think / That you could hide fish in rice? / Oh, the green paste burns!”
Well-Versed Cats by Lance Percival
A cute set of poems, most of them describing different breeds of domestic cats and a few of the big cats. There are a lot of puns and jokes along with the end rhymes, making these akin to limericks in tone if not in form. My favorite was “Skimpy the Stray?” – about a wily cat who wanders the neighborhood eliciting sympathetic snacks from various cat lovers. “The routine still goes on, so I mustn’t be too catty, / But she ought to change her name from ‘Skimpy’ into ‘Fatty’.” Our cat had a habit of stealing neighbor kitties’ food and a history of “going visiting,” as the shelter we adopted him from put it, so this particular poem rang all too true. The illustrations (by Lalla Ward, wife of Richard Dawkins) are also great fun.
Raining Cats and Donkeys by Doreen Tovey
Originally from 1967, this lighthearted memoir tells of Tovey’s life in a Somerset village with her husband Charles, two demanding Siamese cats named Solomon and Sheba, and Annabel the donkey. “Nobody misses anything in our village,” Tovey remarks, and along with her charming anecdotes about her pets there are plenty of amusing encounters with the human locals too. In my favorite chapter, Annabel is taken off to mate with a Shetland pony and Solomon has a tussle with a hare. I can recommend this to fans of animal books by Gerald Durrell and Jon Katz. Tovey wrote a whole series of books about her various Siamese cats and life in a 250-year-old cottage. I found a copy of Cats in the Belfry on my visit to Cambridge and will probably read it over Christmas for a cozy treat.
The Lion in the Living Room by Abigail Tucker
Now this is the amazing cat book I’d been looking for! It’s a fascinating interdisciplinary look at how the domestic cat has taken over the world – both literally and figuratively. A writer for Smithsonian magazine, Tucker writes engaging, accessible popular science. The closest comparison I can make, style-wise, is to Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, even though that has much heavier subject matter.
The book traces domestic cat evolution from the big cats of the La Brea tar pits to the modern day, explaining why cats are only built to eat flesh and retain the hunting instinct even though they rarely have to look further than their designated bowls for food nowadays. Alongside the science, though, is plenty of cultural history. You’ll learn about how cats have been an invasive species in many sensitive environments, and about the bizarre, Halloween-scary story of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite. You’ll meet the tender hearts who volunteer for trap, neuter and release campaigns to cut down on the euthanizing of strays at shelters; the enthusiasts who breed unusual varieties of cats and groom them for shows; and the oddballs who buy into the $58 billion pet industry’s novelty accessories.
From the earliest domestication of animals to the cat meme-dominated Internet, Tucker – a cat lady herself, as frequent mentions of her ginger tom Cheeto attest – marvels at how cats have succeeded by endearing themselves to humans and adapting as if effortlessly to any habitat in which they find themselves. A must for cat lovers for sure, but I don’t think you even have to be a pet person to find this all-embracing book pretty enthralling.
Up next: The Church Cat, an anthology from a recent charity shop haul; The Cat Who Came for Christmas by Cleveland Amory, Cat Sense by John Bradshaw, and Talk to the Tail by Tom Cox from the public library.