Tag Archives: Short Stories

Lot by Bryan Washington: No place like home

Cover imageBryan Washington’s Lot comes garlanded with praise from all manner of people not least Max Porter, whose own writing has caught the eye of a multitude of reviewers, but it was Jami Attenberg’s description of it as her ‘favourite fiction debut of the year’ which piqued my interest. Billed as a collection of short stories, Washington’s book comprises thirteen pieces – some snapshots, others much longer – all firmly rooted in Houston, Texas. That said, for me it read like a fragmentary novella through which runs the story of a narrator whose name we finally learn in the book’s last section.

The son of a black mother and a Latino father grows up in a rundown Houston neighbourhood where his family scrapes a living running a restaurant. Our narrator discovers a liking for boys while his brother entertains an endless parade of women and their sister works hard at finding a way out. Their father eventually leaves, packing his bags after a long string of nights with his lover, then our narrator’s brother joins the army after one too many skirmishes and his sister marries a white man. Finally, his mother goes home to Louisiana leaving him alone, faced with the question what’s keeping him and finding a surprising answer. Threaded through these episodes are stories of others who share the city: a beautiful woman whose affair with a white man ends in tragedy when the local gossips reveal it; two sushi restaurant workers who think they’ve found a way to make their fortune with a strange creature found abandoned; a young man’s john becomes his lover offering kindness he can hardly believe. These thirteen pieces are woven together to form a tapestry of life in a city full to bursting with diversity.

East End in the evening is a bottle of noise, with the strays scaling the fences and the viejos garbling on porches, and their wives talking shit in their kitchens on Wayland, sucking up all the air, swallowing everyone’s voices whole, bubbling under the bass booming halfway down Dowling  

The sense of place in Lot is so strong you can almost see, smell, taste and hear it. There are neighbourhoods where one of the smartest things a boy can do is get himself apprenticed to a well-connected savvy dealer, others where white boys who see themselves as cool live because they think it’s the real Houston while those with no choice are hoping for escape. Washington’s writing is striking: sometimes poetic, often raw, vibrant and immediate. Here’s a tiny sample of the many quotes I pulled out:

It was the house you shook your head at when you drove up the road  

My father was a handsome man. Wore his skin like a sunburnt peach  

We filled the corners with our silence. It leaked into the hallway. If you didn’t know us better you might call us content  

He knocked her up in the usual way. For six minutes it looked like he’d stick around  

These are stories which explore, sex, love, identity and the meaning of home with empathy and wit. They’re not always an easy read but the writing is so powerful sometimes it makes you stop to catch your breath.

Show Them a Good Time by Nicole Flattery: An idiosyncratic collection

Cover imageI’d heard good things about Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time well before publication, not in a shouty in-your-face, can’t-get-away-from-it kind of way but enough to snag my attention. Then I spotted Jon McGregor’s and Sally Rooney’s comments, both clearly smitten with Flattery’s writing. I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it but her collection certainly made an impression.

Show Them a Good Time comprises ten stories – some quite short, others lengthier and one which, at over ninety pages, is almost on its way to becoming a novella. ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ sees two young women, students in their final year, collaborate in writing a play staged for just one night before they find their way to the unemployment office. In ‘Not the End Yet’ a woman dates a series of unsatisfactory men in a basement restaurant as surly teenage waiters look on. ‘Parrot’ is about a stepmother who feels uneasy in her role, fielding phone calls from her stepson’s expensive Parisian school about his behaviour. In ‘You’re Going to Forget Who I Am Before I Forget Who You Are’ a children’s author on tour talks to her pregnant sister who’s troubled by her sudden inability to make small talk. Then her memory dims further. ‘Track’ sees a young woman fleeing depression, falling into an affair with a comedian whose career is in decline, his only solace the laughing track his mother gave him. These are my favourites in a collection which explores relationships, gender roles and trying to find a place for yourself in the world.

Flattery’s stories are hard to do justice to in a few lines. Puzzling, sometimes disconcerting and a little off the wall, they’re oddly captivating, both funny and sad. All are written from the perspective of young women: men tend to appear as bit-parts, often not very flattering ones. Flattery’s tone is sardonic and a little subversive. Her female characters are cleverly observed, vivid despite their feelings of not fitting into the world. Lucy and Natasha in ‘Abortion, A Love Story’ reminded me of the eponymous Paulina and Fran in their mismatched friendship. As is so often the case with short stories,  it was the writing that had me scribbling quotes right, left and centre. Here’s a smattering of favourite lines:

As the night progressed, the realisation invariably arrived that this man was not a package at all: he was an envelope, an envelope with a bill in it, an envelope she, quite frankly, wanted to put in a drawer and forget all about (Not the End Yet)

Her mind felt like a long trailer carrying a number of cars; if one car went they would all go, scatter across the motorway, cause carnage.  (Abortion, A Love Story)

Athough she was alone, she didn’t feel alone, she felt like a part of a large pantomime dragon made-up of other women, a long line of them, moving and swaying invisibly through the city. (Abortion, A Love Story)

This was the end of her first relationship and she was determined to enjoy it. (Abortion, A Love Story)

We were both long acquainted with disappointment and the joys of being used (Show Them a Good Time)

She moved up and down the staircase, cheapening the place with the cut of her clothes, searching for her soul at a frantic pace that suggested she was rummaging through a demolition site for the remains of her belongings rather than spending a pleasant few hours in a museum (Parrot)

She had been a bit tired when she entered art college, but dropping out exhausted her (Parrot)

I’ll leave you with one final quote from ‘Abortion, A Love Story:

‘I’m not sure,’ Lucy said, ‘I’m not sure. I don’t know if I get it’

I’m not sure I do, either, but it was fun trying.

The Wooden Hill by Jamie Guiney: Stairway to heaven?

Cover imageJamie Guiney’s collection first caught my eye at What Cathy Read Next. It was its striking jacket that snagged my attention, perfectly fitting its theme with four figures of different ages making their way up a staircase towards a halo although several of Guiney’s characters are more likely to be travelling downwards towards a rather different destination. Comprising eighteen stories – some lengthy, others just a few pages – Guiney’s brief collection offers snapshots of life’s different stages, from an early arrival to a much mourned end.

The Wooden Hill opens with a father remembering his daughter’s happily anticipated birth in ‘We Knew You Before You Were Born’. ‘Summer Stories’ captures the dogged determination of a six-year-old intent on accumulating a collection of carefully selected stones, rudely interrupted by kindly adult concern while in ‘Peas’, a young boy waits for Santa on Christmas Eve only a little disconcerted by what he’s overheard through his older brothers’ bedroom door.  ‘The Cowboy’ sees a bout of scrumping launch a boy into a lifetime of dishonesty and in ‘A Woman Named Celie’ the antics of a dog provide distraction at his master’s funeral to the relief of the congregation and the disgust of the priest. A veteran pins his medal to his new Harris Tweed suit and marches smartly through his village, the sounds of long ago battle in his head in ‘A Quarter Yellow Sun’ as the collection approaches its end.

Guiney has chosen a very appealing theme for his collection whose tone is often engagingly intimate. There’s a healthy streak of humour running through these stories, some of it a little slapstick – the pipe-smoking dog was an amusing if surreal turn – some of it dark. His characters are well drawn but it’s his writing that I found most impressive: clean and plain yet often poetic in its descriptions. Here are a few favourite quotes:

But we knew you before you were born. Felt this powerful connection from our hearts to yours, like an invisible spindle of silk

Out in the barley, you catch the flicker of a giant stork lifting off, the majesty of its spread wings pushing off against the blue

It is like winter has crawled inside me and decided to rest out the other three seasons

She’d watch his rugby matches every weekend and hug him as he came off the field no matter how wet or muddy or sometimes even bloody he was. Now he did nothing and his body had sagged like a baked apple

I stand beside Dad. As we sing the hymn, his body shakes. Trying with all its might to cry. Trying with all its might not to cry

Altogether an enjoyable collection, both eloquent and moving in its portrayal of the human condition.

Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: An unexpected treat

Cover imageI owe my short story conversion largely to Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. There’d been others along the way but it was Berlin’s collection that sealed the deal. Given that she died in 2004, I’d assumed that was it and so was delighted when Evening in Paradise turned up. Comprising twenty-two stories, this new collection lacks the more detailed biographical notes included in A Manual for Cleaning Women, perhaps because there’s a memoir due to be published alongside it, but it’s clear that it also draws on her own life and what a rackety life it was: several marriages, four children and alcoholism followed a peripatetic childhood spent in mining towns with a brief glamorous teenage period in Chile.

Opening in segregated Texas in 1943 with the bright childhood memories of ‘The Musical Vanity Boxes’, these are vivid stories which glow with evocative descriptive language, often set against gorgeous backdrops, from the Chilean countryside to the Mexican coastline and the Arizonan desert. Many explore relationships between men and women with a dry wit and sharp insight. Men are artists, musicians and writers who expect their wives to get on with the humdrum details of life such as sorting out the plumbing and bringing up the children, not to mention dealing with the former tenants who never quite move out in ‘The Adobe House with a Tin Roof’. Humour and social observation are hallmarks of Berlin’s style, exemplified in ‘My Life Is an Open Book’ which sees town gossips use the opportunity of a potential tragedy to rifle the home of a single mother in search of her address book, but she can be sombre, too. In ‘Anando’ an apparently sophisticated fourteen-year-old girl is groomed for seduction by her father’s boss almost with her father’s collusion. My two favourites, however, are both darkly comic: in ‘Cherry Blossom Time’ Cassandra, bored with her teeth-grindingly predictable routine, imagines something different with dramatic results while ‘The Wives’ sees two ex-wives compare remarkably similar intimate notes on their rich junkie ex-husband.

Berlin is such an immensely quotable author that it’s hard to know where to start with her writing, or perhaps that should be where to stop, but these are a few of my favourites:

Alma was sweet and beautiful until late in the evening when her eyes and mouth turned into bruises and her voice became a sob, like she just wished you’d hit her and leave. Ruby was close to fifty, lifted and dyed and patched together. (Evening in Paradise)

Downtown the Washington Market is deserted until midnight Sunday when suddenly the fruit and vegetable markets open out onto the streets, wild banners of lemons, plums, tangerines. (A Foggy Day)

The sky was filled with stars and it was as if there were so many that some were just jumping off the edge of it, tumbling and spilling into the night. Dozens, hundreds, millions of shooting stars until finally a wisp of cloud covered them and softly more clouds covered the sky above us. (Sometimes in Summer)

It would have been in poor taste for me to tell the girls at school just how many unbelievably handsome men had been at that funeral. I did anyway. (Dust to Dust)

In the airport women wore fur coats and their dogs wore fur coats. I was terrified by so many dogs. Little dogs with hair dyed peach to match the women’s hair. Painted toenails. Plaid bootees. Rhinestone or maybe diamond collars. The whole airport was yapping. (Itinerary)

I hope that’s whetted your appetite.

Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore: An unexpected, very welcome treat

Cover imageIn his touching Foreword to Girl, Balancing and Other Stories, Helen Dunmore’s son, Patrick Charnley, tells us that she had discussed with him the possibility of a collection of short stories to be published after her death. Charnley mined his mother’s papers and laptop, gathering together thirty-three pieces written in the two decades since Dunmore’s last collection was published. Demonstrating the empathy that characterised so much of his mother’s work, Charnley tells us that the family’s delight in what he found is one of our reasons for publishing the collection, to share this work with Mum’ s readers, many of whom, too, must feel that their enjoyment of Mum’s writing has been cut short.

The first of the collection’s three sections, The Nina Stories, is made up of three linked pieces beginning with the comfort of warm olive oil in a sore ear and ending with an assertion of a young woman’s independence in the face of danger.

The Present starts with the teasing humour of ‘Taken in the Shadows’ in which the narrator contemplates John Donne’s portrait, the object of many a fifteen-year-old’s desire, imagining his ankle itching as he sits for it before recounting the miseries of a life spent in poverty. Three favourites from this section for me include ‘All Those Personal Survival Medals’ which turns a burning childhood humiliation into a life-saving triumph, ‘A Night Out’ in which two women, prematurely widowed, find unexpected friendship and the poignant ‘Portrait of Auntie Binbag, with Ribbons’ in which a young girl is faced with the result of her family’s dismissive perception of her aunt.

The Past takes us from the wartime passion of ‘Rose, 44’ which sees a young woman’s hopes for her black American lover violently quashed to ‘With Shackleton’ in which a woman inwardly rails against her mother-in-law’s pride as she misses her husband, off on an expedition soon after her miscarriage to ‘Grace Poole Her Testimony’ in which Dunmore has fun with Jane Eyre, throwing a very different light on Rochester and his daughter’s governess.

Many of the themes running through these stories will be familiar to Dunmore fans. Family, friendship, memory, love and passion, and, of course, women and their place in the world are all adroitly explored. Several are set in Bristol where Dunmore had lived and worked for many years: ‘A View from the Observatory’ which recalls an illicit moonlit visit to the camera obscura on the Downs is a particular delight with its air of menace, deftly handled in Dunmore’s characteristic style. As ever with Dunmore, so much is said in a few precisely chosen words: in ‘Duty Free’ a woman reflects on the youth of the soldiers passing through on their way to Afghanistan but with characteristic restraint Dunmore makes no mention of what may happen to them. You won’t be surprised to hear that there are a multitude of lines I could have quoted but here are a few which seem to me to capture Dunmore’s wonderful facility with language and acute observation:

There were lots of drawings of a bare man who looked as if he didn’t know he hadn’t got any clothes on thinks an eleven-year-old at an exhibition

Our students like modules which demand opinions rather than extensive reading an academic wryly observes

I would stare down to see if my badness was flickering away across the dust like a snake remembers a woman of her childhood beating

They were offering smiles now, and Christmas greetings, as if they were all survivors of a wreck and had been hauled up on to the same raft expresses the relief of family Christmases almost over

I’m driving in the dark. There’s not another car in sight. I haven’t seen one for miles. Only my own headlights, brushing the loneliness

Even if a woman has always coloured her hair, she won’t be able to fool anyone after her death 

There’s not one dud in this collection. I’m sure Dunmore’s many fans will be as grateful to her family as I am for sharing this final, unexpected treat.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld: Appearances can be deceptive

Cover imageI read Curtis Sittenfeld’s The American Wife on holiday quite some time ago and found it hard to drag myself away from. Those who’ve read it will know that the titular wife is loosely based on Laura Bush which certainly added spice to the reading but the quality of Sittenfeld’s writing would have kept me riveted regardless of that. The same acute social observation and smartly delivered writing marks her first short story collection, You Think It, I’ll Say It.

In the opening piece, ‘The Nominee’, Hillary Clinton wonders why a journalist to whom she’s extended kindness in the most humiliating of circumstances insists on describing her as unlikable. ‘Do-Over’, which caught the Sunday Times Short Story Award judges’ attention, nicely bookends the collection with its examination of gender in the Trump/Clinton contest seen through the lens of two competitors for a student post. Now middle-aged, their reunion takes a surprising turn for the male candidate. In ‘Gender Studies’ a recently single professor finds herself in an unexpected encounter with a cab driver while ‘The Prairie Wife’ sees a woman driving herself into a fury, constantly checking the Twitter feed of an old acquaintance whose online persona is at odds with her past and longing to spill the beans until a very public revelation touches her. Unusually, rather than referring to a story, the collection’s title is the name of a game devised by a man who encourages his colleague’s wife to disparage their friends for his amusement leading to an embarrassing misapprehension on her part in ’The World Has Many Butterflies’.

The overarching theme of these stories is the gulf between our perception of ourselves and other people, and theirs of us. Characters’ initial impressions are often proven entirely, sometimes comically, wrong: the apparently confident girl from high school days turns out to have been wracked with shyness; a naive young student makes a string of social misjudgments happily corrected in later life; a journalist is surprised by a TV star’s apparent assumption of intimacy between them. Often a relationship which begins with suspicion or downright dislike turns into something else so that we re-examine our own prejudices. Gender is firmly to the fore – women and childcare, expectations of female beauty, distribution of domestic chores – all deftly and effectively handled. Sittenfeld’s last novel, Eligible, was a twenty-first century take on Pride and Prejudice which seems entirely appropriate. Her acute observation, neatly skewering modern social mores with sly, occasionally waspish wit, is a match for Jane Austen’s in this intelligent, satisfying collection.

Letti Park by Judith Hermann (Transl. by Margot Bettauer Dembo): Quiet and thoughtful elegance

Cover imageThis is the third book I’ve read by Judith Hermann. Like Alice, the first, Letti Park is a collection of short stories comprising seventeen pieces, some just a few pages long. All three books are characterised by the delicacy of their writing but unlike the stories in Alice which are linked by the theme of loss and grief, these stories don’t lend themselves to easy analysis which is not to say they fall short in comparison, just that they’re harder to describe.

Hermann’s collection ranges from a group of people storing a delivery of coal, wondering about the precocious motherless four-year-old who arrives on his bicycle, to a daughter reluctantly visiting her father caught up in his own mental illness and unable to express an appreciation of her thoughtfulness, to a woman whose relationship with the therapist a friend has recommended long outlasts the friendship. In ‘Some Memories’ a lodger is disquieted by her elderly landlady’s tale of a long ago swimming accident on the eve of her holiday, worried about her landlady’s decline  A woman catches a frightening glimpse of another world when on a holiday her partner has advised against in ‘The East’. In ‘Mother’ a woman takes on the duties of a daughter when her best friend dies prematurely and becomes part of a distant family much to her children’s annoyance.

These are not stories in which a great deal happens. Memories are examined, epiphanies are experienced, encounters with strangers or people from characters’ pasts quietly change lives. Much is left unsaid, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions: a man mentions video footage of a trip taken with a friend; a woman observes the controlling behaviour of the partner of someone who was once lively and in charge of their life. All this is expressed in elegantly understated prose: The champagne is ice-cold, and for Ada it turns the afternoon into something that hurts behind the ears, hurts in certain places in her body where, she suspects, happiness is hiding. This is a fine collection, thoughtful and thought-provoking. It’s one that I’d been looking forward to very much and it didn’t disappoint.

The Bear and the Paving Stone by Toshiyuki Horie (transl. by Geraint Howells): Memory and friendship

Cover imageThis is the latest in Pushkin Press’ series showcasing contemporary Japanese writing, all brightly packaged and all elegantly slim. It’s the third I’ve read: I started with Hiromi Kawakami’s surreal Record of a Night Too Brief, having enjoyed both Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop, then ended last year’s reviews with Mieko Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich. Toshiyuki Horie’s The Bear and the Paving Stone is made up of three stories: one not quite long enough to be a novella, the other two much briefer.

The eponymous story sees a Japanese translator, educated in Paris and back from Tokyo on a visit, contact a friend he met as a student but has not seen for some time. Yann suggests they meet in Normandy where he now lives. It’s to be a brief visit as he has a photographic assignment in Ireland the next day. The two pick up where they left off five years ago, discussing all manner of things from the decimation of Yann’s family in the Second World War to the narrator’s project, translating a biography of the renowned lexicographer Lettré whose family originated in Normandy. Yann leaves the next day but the narrator stays, engaging in a little desultory research and coming to a surprising conclusion.

In ‘The Sandman is Coming’ a man visits his best friend’s family on the second anniversary of the friend’s death. Walking along the beach with his friend’s sister and her little girl, they recall her love of sand castles and our narrator is surprised by a vivid memory. A letter from a friend prompts a man to remember a night when he took fright in ‘In the Old Castle’. Locked in an old Normandy fortress by an officious groundsman he had a sudden understanding of freedom’s preciousness.

All three of these pieces are narrated in the first person making them both immediate and vividly impressionistic – from the titular story’s opening with its sea of bears stretching up into the mountains, to the lovely seashore exploration of the second. All three are closely linked by themes of memory and friendship. ‘The Bear and the Paving Stone’ ends on a particularly pleasing ‘madeleine’ moment with the narrator greedily biting into a tarte tatin only to be met with a piercing pain in a troublesome molar and remembering a similar moment with a carrot cake made for him by Yan. These are quietly enjoyable stories, elegantly polished. I hope Pushkin Press have a few more up their sleeves.

The Accusation by Bandi (transl. by Deborah Smith): Please read this book

Cover imageIt’s rare for me to feel that I owe it to a writer to read their book but the anonymous North Korean author of The Accusation risked his life to get it published, and continues to do so. Bandi, which translates as firefly, still lives and works in North Korea. Should he be unmasked he would undoubtedly be executed. His short story collection was first published in South Korea after being smuggled out of his own country. As the Afterword urges: ‘This work should be heard as an earnest entreaty to shine a spotlight on North Korea’s oppressive regime’

The Accusation comprises seven stories, each based on a real situation occurring between 1989 and 1995. In ‘City of Spectres’ a family faces dire consequences after the mother’s attempts to hide their toddler’s hysterical terror of Karl Marx and Kim Il-Sung’s images which adorn Pyongyang’s main square in celebration of National Day. ‘Life of a Swift Steed’ sees an old man who once championed the idea of a Communist North Korea where all is plentiful reveal his shattered illusions the day he receives yet another medal commemorating his service. In ‘So Near, Yet So Far’ a man, desperate to see his dying mother, flouts draconian travel regulations and pays a brutal price for it while ‘Pandemonium’ sees a grandmother’s choice of myth to entertain her granddaughter after a surreal meeting with the Great Leader neatly mirror her own country’s plight. I could describe all seven, but you should read them for yourself

Bandi’s stories reveal a world ruled by the whim of a capricious all-powerful regime in which guilt by association is punished for generations and the slightest perception of disrespect is met with harsh retribution. Unquestioning obedience is demanded, the smallest transgression provoking vengeance. Shortages are endemic: bean paste is made from acorns, stoves fuelled by sawdust. Officialdom’s callousness in the face of loss and pain contrasts with the compassion and concern of ordinary people for their friends and family, even for acquaintances despite the constant threat of spies in their midst. Almost as if in defiance of their dour subject, these stories have a rich vein of humour running through them, a sharp satirical wit: Died at her new place of residence, from resentment toward her husband’s punishment declares one man’s file sourly.

The collection’s Afterword provides a little context for both its author and his country. Reading it makes me shiver. Long may this brave man’s identity be preserved. He’s risked so much to shine a light into his strange, frightening country. We owe it to him to read his stories and take note.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: Podcast in print

Cover imageThis collection is an unusual one: it was written for radio rather than print. The BBC commissioned Jon McGregor to write a set of stories that together comprise a prequel to the sublime Reservoir 13 which won the Costa Novel Award earlier this week, much to my delight. Unsurprisingly, given that was my book of last year, I was eager to both hear and read them. For those who haven’t read the novel, it explores the effects of the disappearance of a young girl on a small rural community over thirteen years – one for each of her life – rather like throwing a stone into a pool and following its ripples

The collection opens with a reporter interviewing Becky’s mother. We only have one side of the interview and so must fill in Charlotte’s part for ourselves. What follows are fourteen stories – vignettes from the Shaws’ previous holiday in the village and the days around Becky’s disappearance – each told from the perspective of a different character. They range from a woman who once worked as a prostitute in the area watching the news and recognising a client to a young boy bullied by Becky, from a man who remembers another missing girl found almost by chance to a woman who recognised her own daughter in Becky’s demeanour. As McGregor says in a brief BBC interview, there’s no attempt to solve the mystery of Becky’s disappearance.

McGregor kicks his collection off brilliantly with the reporter’s interview in which we can almost hear the tearful, faltering, sometimes angry responses from Becky’s mother despite their absence from the page. Each piece has a distinctly individual voice: an elderly man, lonelier that he’ll admit, answers the police tersely becoming more garrulous in the hope that they’ll stay; the reporter’s insinuating, subtly judgemental false sincerity when interviewing Charlotte; a woman’s memories of being rescued from alcoholism by kindness. McGregor’s acutely observed characters all have their own stories – often interconnected – offering a nuanced portrait of a small community with its secrets and history, and the writing is all that fans like me would want it to be:

There were bees buzzing fatly in the foxgloves by the wall vividly summons up the summer heat

Sometimes you’d break things just to see what would happen thinks a character trapped in early parenthood

They’d seen her realising what kind of woman she would be, and playing with the part thinks  a mother, remembering her own precocious daughter

For those of us who loved McGregor’s novel this is an additional treat to be enjoyed two ways. If you have access to it, the stories will be available through BBC iPlayer for a further nine months.