Tag Archives: Short Stories

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.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd: A satisfying snack

Always a delight to open a new William Boyd and find it dedicated ‘To Susan’. Nothing to do with me, obviously, but still… Short stories are almost as welcome as a novel for me these days particularly when two of them are pleasingly lengthy. Boyd’s collection also includes seven much shorter stories but, perhaps inevitably for a reader who still prefers longer fiction, these two were the ones I enjoyed best. Several are linked by the theme of art – those who would like to make it and those who do.

At just under 100 pages, you could almost call the eponymous story a novella. In her early twenties, Bethany flits from job to job, cursing her habit of immediately adding the last name of every attractive man she meets to her own and assessing the result. She’s the child of well-connected, acrimoniously divorced parents – father in Los Angeles, mother in London with whom she lives when she’s between men. When we first meet her, she’s working in a niche stationers’, spending her lunch hours working on her somewhat autobiographical novel, but before long she’s taken a bit-part in an indie film then she’s working in a gallery, calling herself a photographer. The story ends with the beginning of another year which sees Bethany wondering what she’s going to do next.

The Vanishing Game: An Adventure… is somewhat shorter but long enough for Boyd to have a lot of fun with Alec Dunbar, an actor down on his luck who accepts a job delivering a flask of water, supposedly from the River Jordan, to a remote Scottish church. Alec’s many roles in low-rent thrillers come in handy when he finds himself caught up in a real life version.

Of the seven shorter pieces, three stood out for me. In Humiliation a novelist fleeing eviscerating reviews bumps into one of his worst maulers and spots an opportunity for revenge. The Things I Stole tells the story of a man’s life through a trail of stolen goods – from a tin of cherry pie filling to his daughters’ happiness – ending pleasingly back where he began. The Man Who Loved Kissing sees a philandering gallery-owner get his comeuppance when his sure-fire way of avoiding another financially ruinous adultery backfires.

There’s much to enjoy in this collection, not least it’s humour. Bethany had me laughing out loud several times, reminding me of the comedy in Boyd’s earlier work. Most of the stories explore worlds which Boyd knows well enough to ridicule effectively. Both writing and film feature but it’s the art barbs that are the most satisfying reminding me of the Nat Tate trick he and David Bowie pulled off back in the ’90s. One of my favourites is Fernando Benn – Neville to his friends – who declares in Bethany:I’m not a photographer… …I’m an artist who chooses to work in lens-based media’. Benn’s show consists of photographs of war photographs clipped out of books, surely a law suit waiting to happen if the gallery were not so obscure that no one will notice. He pops up again in The Diarists peddling ‘faux-faux naif’ art to the rich, so bad it’s good. A few of the shorter pieces felt a little dashed-off to me but on the whole this is a very enjoyable collection, enough to keep Boyd fans happy until the next novel.

If you’d like to read another (possible) short story convert’s review, you might like to pop over to Cleopatra Loves Books  who was thoroughly won over.

Letters from Klara by Tove Jansson (transl. Thomas Teal): Short stories to delight in

Cover imageI have to confess that these are the first short stories I’ve read by Tove Jansson although I’ve very much enjoyed her novellas, given a new lease of lease of life by the lovely Sort of Books. I’ve harboured a fondness for them since their publicist sent me a copy of The Moomins and the Great Flood on hearing that H’s elderly aunt was a huge Jansson fan back in 2012. She was delighted to share it with her grandchildren and I’m sure would have been very pleased to hear of a clutch of newly translated short stories.

Comprising thirteen pieces, Jansson’s collection opens snappily with the titular ‘Letters from Klara’ which ranges from punchy advice on ageing to a consoling letter to a goddaughter on the loss of her ancient cat, all delivered in a jaunty no-nonsense tone. There should be something to please all Jansson fans in the stories that follow but rather than turn this review into a long list of synopses, I’ll mention just a few favourites. In ‘Party Games’ a class reunion ends surprisingly amicably after a revealing parlour game rakes up old memories and resentments. A desperate and argumentative young man strides into an elderly couple’s retreat, taking shelter from a summer storm, and finds himself calmed in ‘Pirate Rum’. The vignettes from a child’s diary offer snapshots of summer, solitary adventures and learning to paint in ‘About Summer’. In ‘My Friend Karin’ – one of the longer stories which range from a few pages to over twenty – a woman looks back at the conflict between her own beliefs and those of her deeply religious family through her friendship with her beloved cousin who sees God in everything.

The stories in this collection range from bright summer recollections to darker, almost fairy tale-like pieces – alone in a foreign city, a young man finds himself painting the phantoms which haunt his father; an enigmatic young woman has a way of helping people towards their hidden desires using unconventional methods. There’s often a thread of humour running through them: ‘Mama, you’re a snob.’ says a daughter chidingly only to receive the reply ‘So are you, thank goodness, though you’re still in the early stages’. Deftly translated by Thomas Teal, Jansson’s writing is clean, crisp and fresh. She excels at word pictures, simple yet vivid, and her characters are astutely drawn. This is an insightful, perceptive collection – sometimes playful, sometimes dark but always pleasing.

I’m sure Jansson fans with a sharp eye on the UK TV schedules will have spotted BBC Scotland’s documentary on her life, repeated a year or so ago, but for those of you who haven’t yet seen it here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tYgC0nKyF0g. It’s a wonderful film, both uplifting and moving – Letters from Klara has set me up nicely for a third viewing.

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Lucy North): Three strange stories

Cover imageHiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming tale of a young, slightly awkward woman and her eccentric colleagues, The Nakano Thrift Shop, was one of my books of last year. It’s written in the same understated style as the rather more melancholic Strange Weather in Tokyo, a style of which I’m particularly fond. Unsurprisingly, I was hoping for more of it from the three stories that comprise Record of a Night Too Brief but these somewhat disconcerting tales, first published in Japan over twenty years ago, are very different.

In the titular story a woman begins her long night, irritated by the itch of darkness around her shoulders, opening her mouth to rail against it but finding herself only able to whinny: she’s become a horse. It’s the first of several transformations in this increasingly bizarre night which includes encounters with a singer as tall as a three-story building, a kiwi firing irascible questions and a man spilling moles from his pockets who turns out to be one in a suit. Our narrator is accompanied on her journey by a girl she seems to love, lose, consume and destroy by turns – her alter ego, perhaps, or maybe not. In comparison, ‘Missing’ seems almost prosaic. A young woman’s brother disappears but no one else seems much concerned. When her middle brother marries his sibling’s fiancée, things begin to go awry in a strange and unexpected way. The third story sees Hiwako stepping on a snake on her way to work, opening up a terrifying world in which snakes use their sinuous wiles to seduce humans into coming over to their side. Resistance it seems comes at a high price.

Of the three, ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ is the most surreal of these richly imaginative, sometimes perplexing stories. The dreamer inhabits an Alice in Wonderland world in which she frequently becomes something else, finds herself discombobulated or is the butt of unjustified annoyance. Both the gentle humour and understated writing familiar to me from Kawakami’s novels are more apparent in ‘Missing’ and ‘A Snake Stepped On’, although the effect is to make the fantastical turn these stories take all the more striking: ‘Since disappearances happen all the time in my family, we got used to it pretty quickly’; ‘The thought of raw fish prepared by a snake was simply too creepy to take’. Quite a challenging translation job for Lucy North, I imagine. Not what I was expecting then, but I’m glad I read these strange yet beguiling stories. The book’s biographical notes suggest that Kawakami has written many more novels and short stories which leaves me wondering how many others are characterised by the same surreal style.