Tag Archives: Anna Noyes

Five Short Story Collections I’ve Read

This is an idea I spotted it over at Kim’s Reading Matters blog and thought I’d pinch it having  enjoyed digging out books I’ve loved for my Blasts from the Past series so much. The plan is to periodically post five short thematically linked reviews, kicking off with short story collections.

There was a time when I pushed short stories firmly away, making the occasional exception for collections by favourite writers who’d not produced a novel for a while. Then I found myself picking up linked sets of stories until eventually I became persuaded that it might be worth reading a collection for its own sake. I very much doubt that short stories will take precedence over novels for me but it seems I’ve gone some way along the road to conversion. Excellent reading while travelling, too.

Cover imageHere are five of my favourite collections, all but one with links to a full review.

The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing is one of the first linked collections I read, way back at the turn of the century. Melissa Bank’s book follows Jane Rosenal through the trials and tribulations of being newly grown up in America, from sex, love and relationships to navigating the workplace. Smart and funny, these stories are hugely enjoyable.

The stories in Anna Noyes’ Goodnight, Beautiful Women are also linked, sharing the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are all recurring themes. Noyes’ women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean.

Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women draws heavily on her own rackety, vivid life which ended in 2004: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile. There’s an immediacy in her short, crisp, carefully constructed sentences – from a graphic, panicky tooth extraction to the gentleness of drunks recognising desperation. Her material is often raw but there’s always a wry humour in her delivery. Her observation is sharp and her matter-of-fact economy makes its impact all the more striking.

Written with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception, the thirteen stories that comprise The Virginity of Famous Men explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. From a woman’s reflections on marriage to a handsome movie star and the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire, to a young man who may finally have emerged from the Cover imageshadow of his father’s celebrity, Christine Sneed’s collection demonstrates a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavened with a dash of humour.

Viet Thanh Nguyen fled with his parents from Vietnam to America in 1975. Written over a period of twenty years, the eight stories that make up Nguyen’s The Refugees  explore the consequences of leaving one’s country under the most difficult of circumstances, consequences which continue to echo down the generations. These are carefully crafted, contemplative pieces which often end with a sentence that makes you consider – or reconsider – all that came before. It’s a compelling collection, heartrending yet optimistic.

Any short story collections you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in June 2017: Part Two

Cover imgeWhereas a family theme – conventional or otherwise – ran through the first installment of June’s paperback preview, this one’s much more of a hodge-podge. Given the time of year, a book aimed fairly and squarely at the summer reading market seems as good a place to start as any. Invincible Summer has a structure that never fails to appeal to me. It follows four young people, inseparable at university, and now facing the realities of life as young adults: Eva’s off to the City; Benedict decides to pursue a PhD; siblings Sylvie and Lucien indulge themselves in a life of art, travel and adventure. Summer reunions bring them back together but recreating the intimate bonds of student friendship isn’t always easy.

Structure was what attracted me to Jonas Hassen Khemiri’s prize-winning Everything I Don’t Remember. It’s the story of a young man who dies one April afternoon in Stockholm, his car wrecked in a crash which some speculate may have been suicide, others are sure was an accident. Khemiri tells Samuel’s story through a series of interviews with those who knew him – some fleetingly, others intimately – conducted by an author planning to write a book about him. Given that the novel is a made up of interwoven fragments it’s remarkably cohesive, not to mention utterly addictive. An immensely enjoyable book, cleverly constructed and completely engrossing.

Struggling for links here but I can just about work structure in again given that Anna Noyes’ Cover imageGoodnight, Beautiful Women is a collection of short stories. Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes writing is carefully crafted yet immediate – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.

Also about women, I’ll Take You There took me by surprise. It’s that rare thing: an enjoyable, commercial novel with a broad, deep streak of feminism running through it, and it’s written by a man. A divorced professor of film studies, Felix adores his daughter and is on good enough terms with his ex-wife. He’s the brother of two sisters, both of whom he loves dearly. One Monday night, as he sets up in the gloriously old-fashioned cinema in which he runs his film club, an apparition appears introducing herself as Lois Weber, a silent movie director much overlooked by her male colleagues and wanting the record put straight. There’s a nice vein of humour running through Lamb’s novel and although I suspect I won’t be investigating his backlist any time soon, this one’s well worth your time.

Cover imageMy final June choice is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad which was surrounded by a good deal of pre-publication brouhaha in hardback, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him – remember those halcyon days? Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad, offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

That’s it for June’s paperbacks. Should you be interested, a click on a title will take you to my review or to a more detailed synopsis for the ones I’ve not yet read. If you’d like to catch up with June’s new titles they’re here and the first batch of paperbacks is here.

The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed: Short stories with humour and bite

Cover image Rather like buses – you wait for ages then several come along in swift succession – my short story reviews seem be posted in clumps. A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Anna Noyes’ elegant Goodnight, Beautiful Women, attracted by the idea of a linked collection promised by the press release. It was its eye-catching title and the raft of endorsements for Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men which snagged my attention this time. It’s nice and meaty too – stories long enough to get your teeth into. Despite having reviewed several collections by now, I still find it hard to avoid turning the whole thing into a lengthy catalogue so forgive me if this post reads a little like a list.

The thirteen stories that comprise Sneed’s collection explore themes of fame, loneliness, love, family and marriage. ‘Beach Vacation’ sees a woman on holiday, unexpectedly alone with her cocksure handsome sixteen-year-old, coming face to face with her feelings for him. In ‘Clear Conscience’ a brother suffering the very public fallout of his acrimonious divorce has his loyalty stretched to breaking point. A woman reflects on marriage to a handsome movie star, the strangeness of sleeping with a man who so many desire and being in a glaringly spotlit relationship in ‘The First Wife’ while a young man may finally have emerged from the shadow of his father’s fame in the titular ‘The Virginity of Famous Men’. Recognition hits a lonely divorced call centre worker when her newly married colleague appears to be straying, a sixteen-year-old learns the lesson in compassion set by her mother and a woman finds herself charmed by a ghost but comes to understand that a prosaic living lover is better than an overly attentive dead one. These are a small sample of what’s on offer in this collection which grabs your attention and keeps it.

Sneed writes with a clear-eyed sensibility and perception: ‘These murdered women were not their responsibility, the General argued, despite their self-conferred role as the planet’s conscience’ lays bare the hypocrisy of politicians in ‘The Functionary’. She has a keen yet empathetic awareness of the messiness of human vulnerability often leavening her stories with a dash of humour: ‘It went all right, overall, because he didn’t do anything too stupid’ thinks Michael in ‘Clear Conscience’ contemplating his epitaph. After trying her very best for sixteen years a woman is faced with the realisation that ‘it seemed possible that she had turned into a terrible mother’ in ‘Beach Vacation’.  Just one foot put wrong for me and that was the slapstick comedy of ‘The New, All-True CV’, in which a job applicant reveals all – a great idea but a little too long. An interesting collection, then, deserving of all those starry endorsements.

Goodnight, Beautiful Women by Anna Noyes: The human condition, elegantly sketched

Cover imageHaving got over my lifelong antipathy to short stories I still find myself drawn more to the linked variety rather than collections of standalones. There’s something about spotting a character familiar from a previous story and wondering how they might develop. Anna Noyes’ debut collection seemed like it might fit that category and although it turned out to be not quite what I was expecting – to be fair the press release does say ‘loosely interconnected’ – it’s immensely satisfying.

Noyes’ stories share the backdrop of smalltown Maine, and they’re about women. Men tend to be somewhere off stage, their presence – or absence – often keenly felt. In ‘Hibernation’, for instance, a woman’s increasingly unhinged husband has drowned, apparently killing himself, but she’s convinced he’s still alive, watching her. A girl ricochets between childhood and womanhood then back again while her widowed father worries about how to discuss the rape of a young woman in ‘Safe as Houses’. ‘The Quarry’ has a ten-year-old taxing her fifteen-year-old sister about her love life and finding out more than she wants to hear. The titular story sees a young woman aghast at what happens when she, her reclusive mother and the man who helped raise her since she was six take a trip out-of-state while in ‘Changeling’ a young nurse constantly searching for a mother after her own left nineteen years ago thinks she may have found her but turns out to have found something else instead. These five give a flavour of the eleven stories which comprise Noyes’ slim, elegant collection.

These are stories about ordinary, everyday people sometimes emotionally damaged, often struggling to get by. Single parents fretting about their kids; children overhearing too much; mental illness and too much alcohol; sexual misadventure and abuse, are recurring themes. Noyes’ writing is arrestingly striking at times, quietly controlled and finely honed: ‘Dad only touched me twice. Both times he was gentle and looked bewildered, like my body wasn’t the one he expected, but it was too late, too embarrassing for both of us to turn back’ exemplifies her empathetic exploration of human complexity. ‘I thought of my mother, who had taken to wearing her robe from morning until evening, and ghosting around the house with her swollen eyes and mottled face’ elegantly expresses depression’s devastating effects on both mother and child. Noyes sketches subtle word pictures of the human state in myriad shades of grey. These women are entirely believable, their lives unfolding in carefully crafted yet immediate prose – sometimes dreamlike, sometimes sharp and clean. It’s an admirable collection. Ron Rash came to mind for me although the Washington Post compares Noyes to Alice Munro with which, I’m sure, her publishers will have been very much more delighted.