Tag Archives: Robert Browning

Short Stories in September, Part I: Byatt, Hildyard, Okorie, Simpson

Each September I make a special effort to read short stories, which otherwise tend to languish on my shelves unread. In 2020 I read eight collections for this challenge. This year I hope to outdo myself. I’m knee-deep in seven more collections at the moment, including a couple from the library and two from my set-aside-temporarily shelf. Here’s my first four.

 

Medusa’s Ankles: Selected Stories by A.S. Byatt (2021)

I’ve long considered Byatt my favourite author, and have read all of her published short story collections before. One I even reread last year. So when approaching this chronological selection of 18 stories, I skipped the couple I’d read recently, even though that includes perhaps my favourite stand-alone story of all time (“Medusa’s Ankles”), plus a few more that I’d read before. This time around, I found I wasn’t as interested in the historical stories in the Angels and Insects or Possession vein – chiefly “Precipice-Encurled,” a long story about Robert Browning from her first collection – and instead focused on stories where fantasy or horror breaks into everyday life, and writerly or metafictional ones.

As David Mitchell notes in his introduction, Byatt’s range, from fairy tales to historical realism, is almost overwhelming; it’s hard to do it justice in a short review, but I’ll highlight five brilliant stories beyond the title one. “The July Ghost,” an early story, is another that has stuck with me over the years, turning up in one of my Six Degrees posts. It’s a straight-up ghost story but also a tale within a tale being recounted by a man at a party, and blends sex and death in a creepy way. “Racine and the Tablecloth” pits a clever boarding school girl and her literature professor against each other in a tacit psychological conflict. “Who won, you will ask, Emily or Miss Crichton-Walker, since the Reader is mythical and detached?”

“A Lamia in the Cévennes,” about a seductive snake-spirit living in a painter’s swimming pool, provides a delicious lick of magic. I’m surprised I didn’t remember “Raw Material,” as it was a favourite on this reread. A working-class author teaches his creative writing students to write what they know and avoid melodrama. Yet most of them craft over-the-top graphic tales of torture and revenge. Only an unassuming octogenarian follows his instructions, spinning lovingly meticulous accounts of polishing stoves and washing laundry by hand in the old days. He is captivated by her stories, reading them aloud to an unappreciative class and even entering them into a competition. But the old woman’s life holds a sordid surprise. It’s mind-blowing how Byatt turns all our expectations for this story on their head and forces us to question nostalgia and the therapeutic value of writing fiction.

Five of the late stories were originally printed in other publications and had not previously been collected. Of these, I most liked “Dolls’ Eyes” (2013), which is available as a Comma Singles e-book and was in the anthology The New Uncanny. A schoolteacher who lives in a house full of dolls welcomes a new fellow teacher to be her lodger and trusts her with her love and her dolls, only to be betrayed and call down vengeance. “Sea Story,” which appeared in the Guardian, is a thoroughly depressing closer about the persistence of plastic (but how about that last line?!).

One of the things I most admire about Byatt is her use of colour, and visual detail in general. As Mitchell puts it, “It is not easy to think of another writer with so painterly and exact an eye for the colours, textures and appearances of things. The visual is in constant dialogue with the textual.” Witness in the autobiographical “Sugar” the descriptions of boiled sweets being made almost like blown glass in a grandfather’s factory, or the colourful minerals participating in the metamorphosis in “A Stone Woman.”

If you’re new to Byatt’s work, picking a handful of stories from this collection would be a great way of trying out her style and figuring out which of her full-length books you might like to read. Fans of Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes and Michèle Roberts are specially invited to the feast. (Public library)

Some favourite lines:

“Such wonder, such amazement, are the opposite, the exact opposite, of boredom, and many people only know them after fear and loss. Once known, I believe, they cannot be completely forgotten; they cast flashes and floods of paradisal light in odd places and at odd times.”

“the world is full of light and life, and the true crime is not to be interested in it. You have a way in. Take it. It may incidentally be a way out, too, as all skills are.”

 


After that in-depth review, I’ll give just brief responses to the next three slim volumes.

 

Slaughter by Rosanna Hildyard (2021)

A debut trio of raw stories set in the Yorkshire countryside. In “Offcomers,” the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak threatens the happiness of a sheep-farming couple. The effects of rural isolation on a relationship resurface in “Outside Are the Dogs.” In “Cull Yaw,” a vegetarian gets involved with a butcher who’s keen on marketing mutton and ends up helping him with a grisly project. This was the stand-out for me. I appreciated the clear-eyed look at where food comes from. At the same time, narrator Star’s mother is ailing: a reminder that decay is inevitable and we are all naught but flesh and blood. I liked the prose well enough, but found the characterization a bit thin. One for readers of Andrew Michael Hurley and Cynan Jones. (See also Annabel’s review.)

A favourite passage:

“his mother silently spoons out second helpings of beef lasagne. Outside, the lasagne’s sisters cavort in the paddock.”

This story pamphlet was released by Broken Sleep Books, an indie publisher in Wales, in March. My thanks to Annabel for passing on her review copy.

 

This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie (2018)

Okorie emigrated from Nigeria to Ireland in 2005. Her time living in a direct provision hostel for asylum seekers informed the title story about women queuing for and squabbling over food rations, written in an African pidgin. In “Under the Awning,” a Black woman fictionalizes her experiences of racism into a second-person short story her classmates deem too bleak. The Author’s Note reveals that Okorie based this one on comments she herself got in a writers’ group. “The Egg Broke” returns to Nigeria and its old superstition about twins.

Fans of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will find a similar voice here, and enough variety to distract from the low page count (the book is padded out with an essay on refugees in Ireland) and so-so writing. (Little Free Library)

 

Dear George and Other Stories by Helen Simpson (1995)

This is the third time Simpson has made it into one of my September features (after Four Bare Legs in a Bed in 2018 and In the Driver’s Seat in 2019); safe to say she’s becoming one of my favourite short story writers. Deciding to have children (or not) looms large. In “When in Rome,” Geraldine is relieved to get her period as her relationship limps to an end. In “Last Orders,” the heavily pregnant protagonist, now 12 days overdue, fears the transformation ahead of her. “To Her Unready Boyfriend,” echoing Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” has the narrator warn him time runs short for babymaking.

I also liked “Bed and Breakfast,” about a young couple hoping not to turn into their boring parents; “Caput Apri” and its magical twist on the story behind “The Boar’s Head Carol” (a Christmas story or two is a trademark of Simpson’s collections, like the focus on motherhood); and “Heavy Weather,” in which parents of two small children have a manic Dorset holiday that takes in some beloved sites like Hardy’s cottage and marvel at the simultaneous joys and tyranny of childrearing.

The gentle absurdity of “The Immaculate Bridegroom” reminded me of a previous Simpson story in which a woman marries herself, and “Creative Writing” connects back to two of the other collections I’ve featured here with its writers’ workshop setting. (Secondhand purchase from Oxfam Books, Hexham)

Some favourite lines:

“You will not be you any more, her ego told her id. Not only will you have produced somebody else from inside you, someone quite different and separate, but you yourself will change into somebody quite different, overnight – a Mother.”

“Children were petal-skinned ogres, Frances realized, callous and whimsical, holding autocratic sway over lower, larger vassals like herself.”

 

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

Review Book Catch-Up: Dennis, Galloway, Leland-St. John and Sampson

Capsule reviews today, of four books I am inexcusably late in reviewing. I have a record of personal experience with species reintroductions, a memoir about living among reindeer herders in the far north of Norway, a set of elegiac poems, and a biography of a Victorian woman poet who struggled with poor health for most of her life.

 

Restoring the Wild: Sixty Years of Rewilding Our Skies, Woods and Waterways by Roy Dennis

Rewilding is a big buzz word in current nature and environmental writing. Few could be said to have played as major a role in the UK’s successful species reintroduction projects as Roy Dennis, who has been involved with the RSPB and other key organizations since the late 1950s. He trained as a warden at two of the country’s most famous bird observatories, Lundy Island and Fair Isle. Most of his later work was to focus on birds: white-tailed eagles, red kites, and ospreys. Some of these projects extended into continental Europe. He also writes about the special challenges posed by mammal reintroductions; beavers get a chapter of their own. Every initiative is described in exhaustive detail, full of names and dates, whereas I would have been okay with an overview. This feels like more of an insider’s history rather than a layman’s introduction. I have popped it on my husband’s bedside table in hopes that, with his degree in wildlife conservation, he’ll be more interested in the nitty-gritty.

Favourite lines:

“Tenacity and a long view to the future are important in wildlife conservation.”

“for every successful project that gets the go-ahead, there are others into which people put great effort but which then run up against problems.”

With thanks to William Collins for the free copy for review.

 

Dálvi: Six Years in the Arctic Tundra by Laura Galloway

The title is the word for winter in the Northern Sámi language. Galloway, a journalist, traded in New York City for Arctic Norway after a) a DNA test told her that she had Sámi blood and b) she met and fell for Áilu, a reindeer herder, at a wedding. She enrolled in an intensive language learning course at university level and got used to some major cultural changes: animals were co-workers here rather than pets (like the two cats she brought with her); communal meals and drawn-out goodbyes were not the done thing; and shamans were still active (one helped them find a key she lost). Footwear neatly sums up the difference. The Prada heels she brought “just in case” ended up serving as hammers; instead, she helped Áilu’s mother make reindeer skins into boots. Two factors undermined my enjoyment: Alternating chapters about her unhappy upbringing in Indiana don’t add much of interest, and, after her relationship with Áilu ends, the book feels aimless. However, I appreciated her words about DNA not defining you, and family being what you make it.

With thanks to Atlantic Books for the free copy for review.

 

A Raga for George Harrison by Sharmagne Leland St.-John (2020)

Native American poet Sharmagne Leland St.-John’s fifth collection is a nostalgic and bittersweet look at people and places from one’s past. There are multiple elegies for public figures – everyone from Janis Joplin to Virginia Woolf – as well as for some who aren’t household names but have important stories that should be commemorated, like Hector Pieterson, a 12-year-old boy killed during the Soweto Uprising for protesting enforced teaching of Afrikaans in South Africa in 1976. Many of the elegies are presented as songs. Personal sources of sadness, such as a stillbirth, disagreements with a daughter, and ageing, weigh as heavily as tragic world events.

Rhyming and alliteration create inviting rhythms throughout the book, and details of colour and fashion animate poems like “La Kalima.” Leland St.-John remembers meeting street children in Mexico, while bamboo calls to mind time spent in Japan. “Promised Land” is an ironic account of land being seized from natives and people of colour. I especially liked “Things I Would Have Given to My Mother Had She Asked” (some literal and some more abstract), which opens “A piece of my liberal mind. 5 more minutes of my time”, and the sombre “Cat’s Cradle” (“Drenched starlings perch on a cat’s cradle of telephone wires”).

You can read “I Said Coffee” and a few more of her poems online.

With thanks to the author for sending a free e-copy for review.

 

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning by Fiona Sampson

Coming in at under 260 pages, this isn’t your standard comprehensive biography. Sampson instead describes it as a “portrait,” one that takes up the structure of EBB’s nine-book epic poem, Aurora Leigh, and is concerned with themes of identity and the framing of stories. Elizabeth, as she is cosily called throughout the book, wrote poems that lend themselves to autobiographical interpretation – “her body of work creates a kind of looking glass in which, dimly, we make out the person who wrote it,” Sampson asserts.

Nicknamed “Ba,” Elizabeth was born in 1806 and brought up with 11 younger siblings at a Herefordshire estate, Hope End. Her father, Edward, had been born in Jamaica and the family fortune was based on sugar – and slavery. Sampson makes much of this inherited guilt, and also places an emphasis on EBB’s lifelong ill health, which involved headaches, back and side pain, and depression. She also suffered from respiratory complaints. The modern medically minded reader tries to come up with a concrete diagnosis. Tardive dystonia? Post-viral syndrome? The author offers many potential explanations, and notes that her subject was the very type of the Victorian female invalid. She would also suffer from miscarriages, but had one son, Pen. The Brownings were in the unusual position of the wife being the more famous partner.

Sampson draws heavily on correspondence and earnestly interrogates scenes and remembrances, but her use of the present tense is a bit odd for a historical narrative, and I found my casual curiosity about the Brownings wasn’t enough to sustain my interest. However, this did make me eager to try more of EBB’s poetry. I wonder if I still have that copy of Sonnets from the Portuguese in a box in the States?

Favourite lines:

“Within the continual process of reputation-making and remaking that is literary history, Elizabeth Barrett Browning remains a bellwether for the rising and sinking stock of women writers. … Elizabeth dramatizes the two-way creation of every writing self, from without and from within. That the life of the body both enables and limits the life of the mind is the paradox of the thinking self.”

With thanks to Profile Books for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

Blog Tour Review: The Point of Poetry by Joe Nutt

Lots of adults are afraid of poetry, Joe Nutt believes. As a Midlands lad he loved going to the public library and had a magical first encounter with poetry at secondary school – the last time many people will ever read it. A former English teacher and Times Educational Supplement columnist who has written books about Shakespeare, Donne and Milton, he also spent many years in the business world, where he sensed apprehension and even hostility towards poetry. This book is meant as a gentle introduction, or reintroduction, to the joys of reading a poem for yourself.

The 22 chapters each focus on a particular poem, ranging in period and style from the stately metaphysical verse of Andrew Marvell to the rapid-fire performance rhythms of Hollie McNish. The pattern in these essays is to provide background on the poet and his or her milieu or style before moving into more explicit interpretation of the poem’s themes and techniques; the poem is then generally printed at the end of the chapter.*

I most appreciated the essays on poems I already knew and loved but gained extra insight into (“Blackberry-Picking” by Seamus Heaney and “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy) or had never read before, even if I knew other things by the same poets (“The Bistro Styx” by Rita Dove and “The Sea and the Skylark” by Gerard Manley Hopkins). The Dove poem echoes the Demeter and Persephone myth as it describes a meeting between a mother and daughter in a Paris café. The mother worries she’s lost her daughter to Paris – and, what’s worse, to a kitschy gift shop and an artist for whom she works as a model. Meanwhile, Heaney, Hardy and Hopkins all reflect – in their various, subtle ways – on environmental and societal collapse and ask what hope we might find in the midst of despair.

Joe Nutt

Other themes that come through in the chosen poems include Englishness and countryside knowledge (E. Nesbit and Edward Thomas), love, war and death. Nutt points out the things to look out for, such as doubling of words or sounds, punctuation, and line length. His commentary is especially useful in the chapters on Donne, Wordsworth and Hopkins. In other chapters, though, he can get sidetracked by personal anecdotes or hang-ups like people not knowing the difference between rifles and shotguns (his main reason for objecting to Vicki Feaver’s “The Gun,” to which he devotes a whole chapter) or Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize. These felt like unnecessary asides and detracted from the central goal of celebrating poetry. One can praise the good without denigrating what one thinks bad, yes?

*Except for a few confusing cases where it’s not. Where’s Ted Hughes’s “Tractor”? If reproduction rights couldn’t be obtained, a different poem should have been chosen. Why does a chapter on Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” quote just a few fragments from it in the text but then end with a passage from Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (ditto with the excerpt from Donne that ends the chapter on Milton)? The particular Carol Ann Duffy and Robert Browning poems Nutt has chosen are TL; DR, while he errs to the other extreme by not quoting enough from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Paradise Lost, perhaps assuming too much audience familiarity. (I’ve never read either!)

So, overall, a bit of a mixed bag: probably better suited to those less familiar with poetry; and, oddly, often more successful for me in its generalizations than in its particulars:

if you once perceive that poetry operates on the edges of man’s knowledge and experience, that it represents in art a profoundly sincere attempt by individuals to grapple with the inexorable conditions of human life, then you are well on the way to becoming not just a reader of it but a fan.

The poet’s skill is in making us look at the world anew, through different, less tainted lenses.

A poem, however unique and strange, however pure and white the page it sits on, doesn’t enter your life unaccompanied. It comes surrounded by literary echoes and memories, loaded with the past. That’s why you get better at understanding [poems], why you enjoy them more, the more you read.

Poetry is so often parsimonious. It makes us work for our supper.

Rossetti deliberately avoids certainty throughout. I enjoy that in any poem. It makes you think.

There is really only one response to great poetry: an unqualified, appreciative ‘yes’.

 

Related reading:

(I have read and can recommend all of these. Padel’s explication of poetry is top-notch.)

 


The Point of Poetry was published by Unbound on March 21st (World Poetry Day). My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.

 

Two Mother–Daughter Author Pairs for Mother’s Day

This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day in the USA. (Mothering Sunday generally falls in March here in the UK, so every year I have to buy a card early to send to my mother back in the States, but I still associate Mother’s Day with May.) Earlier in the year I got over halfway through a Goodreads giveaway book, Beyond the Pale by Emily Urquhart, before I realized its author was the daughter of a Canadian novelist I’d read before, Jane Urquhart. That got me thinking about other mother–daughter pairs that might be on my shelves. I found one in the form of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees plus an advance e-copy of her daughter Ann Kidd Taylor’s upcoming debut novel, The Shark Club. (I’ve previously reviewed their joint memoir, Traveling with Pomegranates.) And, as a bonus, I have a mini-review of Graham Swift’s novella Mothering Sunday: A Romance.

 

The Whirlpool, Jane Urquhart

From 1986, this was Urquhart’s first novel. Overall it reminded me of A. S. Byatt (especially The Virgin in the Garden) and John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Set in 1889 on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, it features characters who, each in their separate ways, are stuck in the past and obsessed with death and its symbolic stand-in, the whirlpool. Maud Grady, the local undertaker’s widow, takes possession of the corpses of those who’ve tried to swim the Falls. Her creepy young son starts off mute and becomes an expert mimic. Major David McDougal is fixated on the War of 1812, while his wife Fleda camps out in a tent reading Victorian poetry, especially Robert Browning, and awaiting a house that may never be built. Local poet Patrick sees Fleda from afar and develops romanticized ideas about her.

Each of these narratives is entertaining, but I was less convinced by their intersections – except for the brilliant scenes when Patrick and Maud’s son engage in wordplay. In particular, I was unsure what the prologue and epilogue (in which Robert Browning, dying in Venice, is visited by images of Shelley’s death by drowning) were meant to add. This is the second Urquhart novel I’ve read, after Sanctuary Line. I admire her writing but her plots don’t always come together. However, I’m sure to try more of her work: I have a copy of Away on the shelf, and Changing Heaven (1990) sounds unmissable – it features the ghost of Emily Brontë! [Bought from a Lambeth charity shop for 20p.]

My rating:

 

Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of Our Hidden Genes, Emily Urquhart

In December 2010, the author’s first child, Sadie, was born with white hair. It took weeks to confirm that Sadie had albinism, a genetic condition associated with extreme light sensitivity and poor eyesight. A Canadian folklorist, Urquhart is well placed to trace the legends that have arisen about albinos through time and across the world, ranging from the Dead Sea Scroll story of Noah being born with blinding white skin and hair to the enduring superstition that accounts for African albinos being maimed or killed to use their body parts in folk medicine.

She attends a NOAH (America’s National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation) conference, discovers potential evidence of a family history of albinism, and even makes a pilgrimage to Tanzania to meet some victims. It’s all written up in as engaging present-tense narrative of coming to terms with disability: to start with Urquhart is annoyed at people reassuring her “it could be worse,” but by the end she’s ever so slightly disappointed to learn that her second child, a boy, will not be an albino like his sister. [Goodreads giveaway copy]

My rating:

 

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

It’s hard to believe it was 15 years ago that this debut novel was an It book, and harder to believe that I’d never managed to get around to it until now. However, in some ways it felt familiar because I’d read a fair bit of background via Kidd’s chapter in Why We Write about Ourselves and Traveling with Pomegranates, in which she and her daughter explored the Black Madonna tradition in Europe.

It joins unusual elements you wouldn’t expect to find in fiction – beekeeping and the divine feminine – with more well-trodden territory: the Civil Rights movement in the South in the 1960s, unhappy family relationships, secrets, and a teenage girl’s coming of age. Fourteen-year-old Lily is an appealing narrator who runs away from her memories of her mother’s death and her angry father, peach farmer T. Ray. You can’t help but fall in love with the rest of her new African-American, matriarchal clan, including their housekeeper, Rosaleen, who scandalizes the town by registering to vote, and the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August, June, and May, who give Lily and Rosaleen refuge when they skip town.

Although this crams in a lot of happenings and emotional ups and downs, it’s a charming story that draws you into the brutal heat of a South Carolina summer and keeps you hoping Lily will forgive herself and slip into the rhythms of a purposeful life of sisterhood. [Secondhand purchase in America]

A favorite line: “The way people lived their lives, settling for grits and cow shit, made me sick.”

My rating:

 

The Shark Club, Ann Kidd Taylor

Dr. Maeve Donnelly loves sharks even though she was bitten by one as a child. She’s now a leading researcher with a Florida conservancy and travels around the world to gather data. Her professional life goes from strength to strength, but her personal life is another matter. Aged 30, she’s smarting from a broken engagement to her childhood sweetheart, Daniel, and isn’t ready to open her heart to Nicholas, a British colleague going through a divorce.

Things get complicated when Daniel returns to their southwest Florida island to work as the chef at her grandmother’s hotel – with his six-year-old daughter in tow. Maeve is soon taken with precocious Hazel, who founds the title club (pledge: “With this fin, I do swear. To love sharks even when they bite. When they lose their teeth, I will find them. When I catch one, I will let it go”), but isn’t sure she can pick up where she left off with Daniel. Meanwhile, evidence has surfaced of a local shark finning operation, and she’s determined to get to the bottom of it.

This is a little bit romance and a little bit mystery, and Taylor brings the Florida Keys setting to vibrant life. It took a while to suspend disbelief about Maeve’s background – an orphan and a twin and a shark bite survivor and a kid brought up in a hotel? – but I enjoyed the sweet yet unpredictable story line. Nothing earth-shattering, but great light reading for a summer day at the beach. Releases June 6th from Viking. [Edelweiss download]

My rating:


Mothering Sunday: A Romance, Graham Swift

If you’re expecting a cozy tale of maternal love, let the Modigliani nude on the U.K. cover wipe that notion out of your mind. Part of me was impressed by Swift’s compact picture of one sexy, fateful day in 1924 and the reverberations it had for a budding writer even decades later. Interesting class connotations, too. But another part of me thought, isn’t this what you would get if Ian McEwan directed a middling episode of Downton Abbey? It has undeniable similarities to Atonement and On Chesil Beach, after all, and unlike those novels it’s repetitive; it keeps cycling round to restate its main events and points. There’s some good lines, but overall this felt like a strong short story stretched out to try to achieve book length. [Library read]

My rating: