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‘The 25 Greatest Essay Collections of All Time’

I have been reading far more essay collections over the last couple of years, and wondered which collections were seen as the pinnacles of an already great genre.  I found the following list on Flavorwire (see here), and thought I would type it up, along with a blurb, and see how many I have made part of my reading life to date.  Pitifully, the only one which I have read is Woolf’s The Common Reader!

1. The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon
15793567Aleksandar Hemon’s lives begin in Sarajevo, a small, blissful city where a young boy’s life is consumed with street soccer with the neighborhood kids, resentment of his younger sister, and trips abroad with his engineer-cum-beekeeper father. Here, a young man’s life is about poking at the pretensions of the city’s elders with American music, bad poetry, and slightly better journalism. And then, his life in Chicago: watching from afar as war breaks out in Sarajevo and the city comes under siege, no way to return home; his parents and sister fleeing Sarajevo with the family dog, leaving behind all else they had ever known; and Hemon himself starting a new life, his own family, in this new city.  And yet this is not really a memoir. The Book of My Lives, Hemon’s first book of nonfiction, defies convention and expectation. It is a love song to two different cities; it is a heartbreaking paean to the bonds of family; it is a stirring exhortation to go out and play soccer—and not for the exercise. It is a book driven by passions but built on fierce intelligence, devastating experience, and sharp insight. And like the best narratives, it is a book that will leave you a different reader—a different person, with a new way of looking at the world—when you’ve finished. For fans of Hemon’s fiction, The Book of My Lives is simply indispensable; for the uninitiated, it is the perfect introduction to one of the great writers of our time.

 

2. Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
‘The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem “remains, forty years after its first publication, the essential portrait of America particularly California in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.’

 

3. Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan 9780374532901
‘A sharp-eyed, uniquely humane tour of America’s cultural landscape from high to low to lower than low by the award-winning young star of the literary nonfiction world.In “Pulphead, “John Jeremiah Sullivan takes us on an exhilarating tour of our popular, unpopular, and at times completely forgotten culture. Simultaneously channeling the gonzo energy of Hunter S. Thompson and the wit and insight of Joan Didion, Sullivan shows us with a laidback, erudite Southern charm that’s all his own how we really (no, really) live now. In his native Kentucky, Sullivan introduces us to Constantine Rafinesque, a nineteenth-century polymath genius who concocted a dense, fantastical prehistory of the New World. Back in modern times, Sullivan takes us to the Ozarks for a Christian rock festival; to Florida to meet the alumni and straggling refugees of MTV’s “Real World, “who’ve generated their own self-perpetuating economy of minor celebrity; and all across the South on the trail of the blues. He takes us to Indiana to investigate the formative years of Michael Jackson and Axl Rose and then to the Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina and back again as its residents confront the BP oil spill. Gradually, a unifying narrative emerges, a story about this country that we’ve never heard told this way. It’s like a fun-house hall-of-mirrors tour: Sullivan shows us who we are in ways we’ve never imagined to be true. Of course we don’t know whether to laugh or cry when faced with this reflection it’s our inevitable sob-guffaws that attest to the power of Sullivan’s work’

 

4. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
‘Rarely does the debut of a new writer garner such attention & acclaim. The excitement began the moment “The Fourth State of Matter,” one of the fourteen extraordinary personal narratives in this book, appeared in the pages of the New Yorker. It increased when the author received a prestigious Whiting Foundation Award in November 1997, & it continued as the hardcover edition of The Boys of My Youth sold out its first printing even before publication. The author writes with perfect pitch as she takes us through one woman’s life – from childhood to marriage & beyond – & memorably captures the collision of youthful longing & the hard intransigences of time & fate.’

 

97803160133215. Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
‘Do lobsters feel pain? Did Franz Kafka have a funny bone? What is John Updike’s deal, anyway? And what happens when adult video starlets meet their fans in person? David Foster Wallace answers these questions and more in essays that are also enthralling narrative adventures. Whether covering the three-ring circus of a vicious presidential race, plunging into the wars between dictionary writers, or confronting the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker at the annual Maine Lobster Festival, Wallace projects a quality of thought that is uniquely his and a voice as powerful and distinct as any in American letters.’

 

6. Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
‘Written during the 1940s and early 1950s, when Baldwin was only in his twenties, the essays collected in “Notes of a Native Son “capture a view of black life and black thought at the dawn of the civil rights movement and as the movement slowly gained strength through the words of one of the most captivating essayists and foremost intellectuals of that era. Writing as an artist, activist, and social critic, Baldwin probes the complex condition of being black in America. With a keen eye, he examines everything from the significance of the protest novel to the motives and circumstances of the many black expatriates of the time, from his home in The Harlem Ghetto to a sobering Journey to Atlanta. “Notes of a Native Son”inaugurated Baldwin as one of the leading interpreters of the dramatic social changes erupting in the United States in the twentieth century, and many of his observations have proven almost prophetic. His criticism on topics such as the paternalism of white progressives or on his own friend Richard Wright s work is pointed and unabashed. He was also one of the few writing on race at the time who addressed the issue with a powerful mixture of outrage at the gross physical and political violence against black citizens and measured understanding of their oppressors, which helped awaken a white audience to the injustices under their noses. Naturally, this combination of brazen criticism and unconventional empathy for white readers won Baldwin as much condemnation as praise. “Notes” is the book that established Baldwin s voice as a social critic, and it remains one of his most admired works. The essays collected here create a cohesive sketch of black America and reveal an intimate portrait of Baldwin s own search for identity as an artist, as a black man, and as an American.’

 

7. Naked by David Sedaris 9780349119779
‘A riotous collection of memoirs which explores the absurd hilarity of modern life and creates a wickedly incisive portrait of an all-too-familiar world. It takes Sedaris from his humiliating bout with obsessive behaviour in ‘A Plague of Tics’ to the title story, where he is finally forced to face his naked self in the company of lunatics. At this soulful and moving moment, he brushes cigarette ashes from his pubic hair and wonders what it all means. This remarkable journey into his own life follows a path of self-effacement and a lifelong search for identity leaving himself both under suspicion and over dressed.’

 

8. Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag
‘ Against Interpretation was Susan Sontag’s first collection of essays and made her name as one of the most incisive thinkers of our time. Sontag was among the first critics to write about the intersection between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art forms, and to give them equal value as valid topics, shown here in her epoch-making pieces ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. Here too are impassioned discussions of Sartre, Camus, Simone Weil, Godard, Beckett, Levi-Strauss, science-fiction movies, psychoanalysis and contemporary religious thought. Originally published in 1966, this collection has never gone out of print and has been a major influence on generations of readers, and the field of cultural criticism, ever since.’

 

97801560277869. The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf
‘This is Virginia Woolf’s first collection of essays, published in 1925. In them, she attempts to see literature from the point of view of the ‘common reader’ – someone whom she, with Dr Johnson, distinguished from the critic and the scholar. She read, and wrote, as an outsider: a woman set to school in her father’s library, denied the educational privileges of her male siblings – and with no fixed view of what constitutes ‘English Literature’. What she produced is an eccentric and unofficial literary and social history from the fourteenth to the twentieth century, with an excursion to ancient Greece thrown in. She investigates medieval England, tsarist Russia, Elizabethan playwrights, Victorian novelists and modern essayists. When she published this book Woolf’s fame as a novelist was already established: now she was hailed as a brilliant interpretative critic. Here, she addresses her ‘common reader’ in the remarkable prose and with all the imagination and gaiety that are the stamp of her genius.’

 

10. Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
‘In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard fixes her entrancing gaze and powerful sense of wonder on the natural world. Whether watching a sublime lunar eclipse or locking eyes with a wild weasel, Dillard captures the grand and miniature miracles of our universe. Annie Dillard is one of the most respected and influential figures in contemporary non-fiction and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. With Teaching a Stone to Talk, she illuminates the world around us with a new and glowing light.’

 

11. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man by Henry Louis Gates Jr 9780679776666
‘In these stunning portraits of prominent black American men, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., takes us behind closed doors and into the lives, minds, and experiences of some remarkable people to reveal, through stories of individual lives, much about American society and race today. James Baldwin, Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Albert Murray – all these men came from modest circumstances and all achieved preeminence. These men and others speak of their lives with candor and intimacy, and what emerges from this portfolio of influential men is a strikingly varied and profound set of ideas about what it means to be a black man in America today.’

 

12. Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer
‘Geoff Dyer has earned the devotion of passionate fans on both sides of the Atlantic through his wildly inventive, romantic novels as well as several brilliant, uncategorizable works of nonfiction. All the while he has been writing some of the wittiest, most incisive criticism we have on an astonishing array of subjects music, literature, photography, and travel journalism that, in Dyer’s expert hands, becomes a kind of irresistible self-reportage. “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition “collects twenty-five years of essays, reviews, and misadventures. Here he is pursuing the shadow of Camus in Algeria and remembering life on the dole in Brixton in the 1980s; reflecting on Richard Avedon and Ruth Orkin, on the status of jazz and the wonderous Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, on the sculptor ZadKine and the saxophonist David Murray (in the same essay), on his heroes Rebecca West and Ryszard Kapuscinski, on haute couture and sex in hotels. Whatever he writes about, his responses never fail to surprise. For Dyer there is no division between the reflective work of the critic and the novelist’s commitment to lived experience: they are mutually illuminating ways to sharpen our perceptions. His is the rare body of work that manages to both frame our world and enlarge it.’

 

13. Art and Ardor by Cynthia Ozick
‘Among the pieces included in this collection of wide-ranging essays are two extended essays on Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf and analyses of the work of contemporaries including Updike and Capote.’

 

978081668079514. No More Nice Girls by Ellen Willis
‘With characteristic intelligence, wit, and feminist insight, Ellen Willis addresses democracy as she sees it: a commitment to individual freedom and egalitarian self-government in every area of social, economic, and cultural life. Moving between scholarly and down-to-earth activist writing styles, Willis confronts the conservative backlash that has slowly eroded democratic ideals and advances of the 1960s as well as the internal debates that have frequently splintered the left.’

 

15. The War Against Cliche by Martin Amis
‘Like John Updike, Martin Amis is the pre-eminent novelist-critic of his generation. The War Against Cliche is a selection of his reviews and essays over the past quarter-century. It contains pieces on Cervantes, Milton, Donne, Coleridge, Jane Austen, Dickens, Kafka, Philip Larkin, Joyce, Waugh, Lowry, Nabokov, F. R. Leavis, V. S. Pritchett, William Burroughs, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Shiva and V. S. Naipaul, Kurt Vonnegut, Iris Murdoch, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Don DeLillo, Elmore Leonard, Michael Crichton, Thomas Harris – and John Updike. Other subjects include chess, nuclear weapons, masculinity, screen censorship, juvenile violence, Andy Warhol, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.’

 

16. Cultural Amnesia by Clive James 9780330481755
‘Organized from A through Z, and containing over 100 essays, Cultural Amnesia is the ultimate guide to the twentieth century. ‘This is a beautiful book. James proves himself not only to be in possession of a towering intellect, but a singular ability to communicate his passions’ Observer ‘Witty, insightful and unashamedly erudite, the book is a superb miscellany of 20th-century cultural and political subjects’ The Sunday Times ‘Over the past forty years James has been scribbling notes in the margins of the books he has read …and this is the result.’

 

17. I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman by Nora Ephron
‘Academy Award-winning screenwriter and director Nora Ephron (“When Harry Met Sally”, “Heartburn”, “Sleepless in Seattle”, “You’ve Got Mail”) turns her sharp wit on to her own life. It includes: Never marry a man you wouldn’t want to be divorced from; if the shoe doesn’t fit in the shoe store, it’s never going to fit; when your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you; anything you think is wrong with your body at the age of thirty-five you will be nostalgic for by the age of forty-five; the empty nest is underrated; and if only one third of your clothes are mistakes, you’re ahead of the game.’

 

978085789258418. Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
‘Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a matchless writer, debater and humanist. Throughout his life he shone the light of reason and truth into the eyes of charlatans and hucksters, exposing falsehood and decrying hypocrisy wherever he found it. With his passing, the world has lost a great soul, the written word one of its finest advocates and those who stand for freedom everywhere have lost one of their clearest voices. Arguably collects Hitchens’ writing on politics, literature and religion when he was at the zenith of his career; it is the indispensible companion to the finest English essayist since Orwell.’

 

19. The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Erlich
‘Writing of hermits, cowboys, changing seasons, and the wind, Ehrlich draws us into her personal relationship with this “planet of Wyoming” she has come to call home. She captures the incredible beauty and the demanding harshness of natural forces in these remote reaches of the West, and the depth, tenderness and humor of the quirky souls who live there.Ehrlich, a former filmmaker and urbanite, presents in these essays a fresh and vibrant tribute to the new life she has chosen.’

 

20. The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders 9781594482564
‘The breakout book from “the funniest writer in America”–not to mention an official “Genius”–his first nonfiction collection ever. George Saunders’s first foray into nonfiction is comprised of essays on literature, travel, and politics. At the core of this unique collection are Saunders’s travel essays based on his trips to seek out the mysteries of the “Buddha Boy” of Nepal; to attempt to indulge in the extravagant pleasures of Dubai; and to join the exploits of the minutemen at the Mexican border. Saunders expertly navigates the works of Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, and Esther Forbes, and leads the reader across the rocky political landscape of modern America. Emblazoned with his trademark wit and singular vision, Saunders’s endeavor into the art of the essay is testament to his exceptional range and ability as a writer and thinker. ‘

 

21. Against Joie de Vivre by Philippe Lopate
‘This rejoinder to the cult of hedonism and forced conviviality moves from a critique of the false sentimentalization of children and the elderly to a sardonic look at the social rite of the dinner party, on to a moving personal testament to the “hungry soul.” Lopate’s special gift is his ability to give us not only sophisticated cultural commentary in a dazzling collection of essays but also to bring to his subjects an engaging honesty and openness that invite us to experience the world along with him. Also included here are Lopate’s inspiring account of his production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya with a group of preadolescents, a look at the tradition of the personal essay, and a soul-searching piece on the suicide of a schoolteacher and its effect on his students and fellow teachers. By turns humorous, learned, celebratory, and elegiac, Lopate displays a keen intelligence and a flair for language that turn bits of common, everyday life into resonant narrative. This collection maintains a conversational charm while taking the contemporary personal essay to a new level of complexity and candor.’

 

978160358337422. Sex and the River Styx by Edward Hoagland
‘Called the best essayist of his time by luminaries like Philip Roth, John Updike, and Edward Abbey, Edward Hoagland brings readers his ultimate collection. In Sex and the River Styx, the author’s sharp eye and intense curiosity shine through in essays that span his childhood exploring the woods in his rural Connecticut, his days as a circus worker, and his travels the world over in his later years. Here, we meet Hoagland at his best: traveling to Kampala, Uganda, to meet a family he’d been helping support only to find a divide far greater than he could have ever imagined; reflecting on aging, love, and sex in a deeply personal, often surprising way; and bringing us the wonder of wild places, alongside the disparity of losing them, and always with a twist that brings the genre of nature writing to vastly new heights. His keen dissection of social realities and the human spirit will both startle and lure readers as they meet African matriarchs, Tibetan yak herders, circus aerialists, and the strippers who entertained college boys in 1950s Boston. Says Howard Frank Mosher in his foreword, the self-described rhapsodist “could fairly be considered our last, great transcendentalist.’

 

23. Changing my Mind by Zadie Smith
‘Changing My Mind is a collection of essays by Zadie Smith on literature, cinema, art – and everything in between. ‘A supremely good read. Smith writes about reading and writing with such infectious zeal and engaging accessibility that it makes you want to turn up at her house and demand tutoring’ Dazed and Confused ‘Alarmingly good’ Metro ‘Striding with open hearted zest and eloquence between fiction (from EM Forster to David Foster Wallace) and travel, movies and comedy, family and community in a self-portrait that charts the evolution of a formidable talent. In lovely elegiac pieces on her late father Harvey, D-Day veteran and Tony Hancock fan, Smith also delivers some of the most affecting autobiographical writing in any form’ – Independent, Books of the Year ‘Brilliant. She’s friendly and conspiratorial, voicing the kind of clever theories we could imagine ourselves holding if only we were as articulate as Zadie Smith’ – Vogue ‘Fascinating. Smith has the gift of showing you how she reads and thinks; watching her do it makes you feel smarter and more observant. Her account of her struggles as an author may be the most authentic, unglamorous description of novel-writing ever put on paper’ – Time’

 

24. My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum 9781250067654
‘Meghan Daum is one of the most celebrated nonfiction writers of her generation, widely recognised for her fresh, provocative approach with which she unearths the hidden fault lines in the American landscape. From her well-remembered New Yorker essays about the financial demands of big city ambition and the ethereal, strangely old fashioned allure of cyber relationships to her dazzlingly hilarious riff in Harper’s about musical passions that give way to middle brow paraphernalia, Daum delves into the center of things while closely examining the detritus that spills out along the way. With precision and well balanced irony, Daum implicates herself as readily as she does the targets that fascinate and horrify her.’

 

25. The White Album by Joan Didion
‘First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.’

 

How many of these collections have you read?  Which pique your interest the most?  Which are your favourite essay collections?

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1

‘Murder Under the Christmas Tree’, edited by Cecily Gayford ****

When Akylina and I met up in Edinburgh at the end of November, we decided to purchase two copies of Murder Under the Christmas Tree to read together.  With essay deadlines and the like, our collaboration didn’t quite go to plan, but I thought I’d post my review of the book regardless.  I decided to open it on the first of December and read one of the ten stories per day, as a kind of constructive advent treat.

With regard to crime novels, cosy crime is definitely my favourite sub-genre; I adore authors such as Agatha Christie and Edmund Crispin, and will always seek them out over contemporary thrillers (much as I’ll admit that I tend to enjoy these too, I’m generally not that surprised by the plot twists, as I feel that a lot of them follow the same – or at least very similar – guidelines).  Whilst I had heard of a lot of the authors in this collection, there were a couple who were on my radar but whom I was not familiar with, and one (Carter Dickson) whom I hadn’t even heard of before.9781781257913

I feel that the best way in which to approach such a collection is to give a mini review of each tale.  Murder Under the Christmas Tree begins with Dorothy L. Sayers’ ‘The Necklace of Pearls’, a clever tale in which a very rich, and not very well liked, man named Septimus Shale’s daughter has her precious pearl necklace stolen during a holiday gathering.  Lord Peter Wimsey makes an appearance (of course), just happening as he does to be part of the festivities.  The way in which Sayers writes is enjoyable, and she sets the scene perfectly throughout.  The second story in the collection is Edmund Crispin’s ‘The Name on the Window’, which I very much enjoyed.  In this Boxing Day mystery, which centres upon his famous creation of Oxford Don-cum-detective Gervase Fen, a recent murder is investigated.  The locked-room variety of plot which has been used here is clever; not the best Fen story, but its workings and conclusion certainly suited the length of the piece.

Val McDermid’s ‘A Traditional Christmas’ catapults one from past decades to the present, and its opening sentence was reminiscent to me of Daphne du Maurier’s wonderful Rebecca: ‘Last night, I dreamed I went to Amberley’.  This is where our female narrator’s wife was brought up in luxury.  Again, the story deals with a murder.  McDermid’s prose style is rather matter-of-fact at points, but it has flashes of great humour within it, and any oddness which the tale holds is made up by the fact that it has been so well done.  Next comes a classic, Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle’.  I have read this before on numerous occasions, and still find it wonderfully clever.  For those of you unfamiliar with this particular Sherlock Holmes story, a rare and precious stone – the blue carbuncle of the title – has been placed within a goose, and subsequently lost.

tbr-pile-christopher-fowler

From Waterstones Birmingham’s blog

‘The Invisible Man’ by G.K. Chesterton and ‘Cinders’ by Ian Rankin both have merit.  The tales are very different from one another, but the contrast provided by their placing in the collection is memorable.  In the former, which provided my first taste of Chesterton’s work, a spectre appears, and a mysterious note consequently shows itself upon the window of a shop in Camden Town.  Chesterton’s prose is rich, and stylistically rather original.  This Father Brown story takes on many issues about the perils of the modern world, and is entertaining from start to finish.  In Rankin’s effort, the crux of the problem is immediately shown to the reader: ‘The Fairy Godmother was dead’.  At an Edinburgh pantomime, the body is found, and Rebus is sent to investigate.  The manner of the murder is simple, yet it demonstrates Rankin’s intelligence and clever plot twists, struck as she is by Cinderella’s slipper: ‘Not that it was a glass slipper.  It was Perspex or something.  And it wasn’t the one from the performance.  The production kept two spares.’

‘Death on the Air’ provided my first glimpse into Ngaio Marsh’s work, and I very much enjoyed it.  She immediately sets the scene, and I was reminded a little of Harry Potter: ‘On the 25th of December at 7:30am our Septimus Tonks was found dead beside his wireless set’.  His body is discovered by the under-housemaid, and the investigation comes about when it is found that he was not accidentally electrocuted as first thought.  After Marsh’s crafty tale, we come to ‘Persons or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson, which I must admit I didn’t much enjoy.  The new owner of an old house in Sussex is convinced that it is haunted; he then tells a story from the 1660s which supposedly happened on the site.  Whilst Dickson’s story marks a differentiation in the collection in some ways, I did not personally find it immediately interesting or engaging, and could have happily skipped past it. There was a curious distancing and framing here, and the monologue structure makes it rather dull and plodding.

Margery Allingham’s ‘The Case is Altered’ picked up the pace once more; as a penultimate tale, it fits perfectly.  This particular Campion tale is wonderfully crafted, from its initial sentence – ‘Mr Albert Campion, sitting in a first-class smoking compartment, was just reflecting sadly that an atmosphere of stultifying decency could make even Christmas something of a stuffed-owl occasion, when a new hogskin suitcase of distinctive design hit him on the knees’ – to its plot, in which his contemporary, Lance, receives an anonymous letter instructing him to wait in the grounds one night.  True to form, Campion is immediately suspicious.  This is one of the only stories in the collection which does not deal with a murder, and it feels refreshing in consequence.  The final tale, Ellis Peters’ ‘The Price of Light’, was a bit of a letdown in consequence.  It does not feel overly grounded historically, despite the necessity of such a thing, being set in 1135 as it is.  Whilst Peters’ story was well written, I did not find it captivating by any means, and am of the opinion that it jarred the whole collection; it did not fit with anything else within Murder Under the Christmas Tree, aside from the general theme of murder.

To conclude, Murder Under the Christmas Tree would have been utterly fantastic had it consisted solely of festive Golden Age crime fiction.  As it is, the book is enjoyable enough, but a couple of the entries do tend to make the whole feel a touch disjointed.  Regardless, it has finally given me the push I needed to incorporate Ngaio Marsh into my 2017 reading.

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3

One From the Archive: ‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’ ****

First published in October 2012

‘The Persephone Book of Short Stories’

To celebrate Persephone Books’ one hundredth publication, the publishing house have issued a new volume of short stories, all of which have been written by female authors between 1909 and 1986.

Of the included stories, ten are taken from volumes already published by Persephone, ten have been previously featured in their Biannually Magazine, and ten have been ‘selected especially for this collection’. Each tale is ‘presented in the order they are known, or assumed, to have been written’, and the year has been printed after the title and author of every story, which is a rather useful touch. In fact, the entire volume has been very well laid out, with an accessible author biographies section and a well-spaced contents page.

The collection is a wonderfully varied one and features authors from all walks of life. There are many British and American authors, as well as others from further afield – New Zealand-born Katherine Mansfield, Pauline Smith, who spent her childhood in South Africa, Irene Nemirovsky who grew up in Kiev and spent many years in Paris, and Frances Towers, who was born in Calcutta. The Persephone Book of Short Stories begins with Susan Glaspell’s 1909 story ‘From A to Z’ and finishes with Georgina Hammick’s 1986 offering, entitled ‘A Few Problems in the Day Case Unit’.

The stories woven into the collection are as varied as the authors who wrote them. They encompass every aspect of life in their perfectly crafted portraits. There are first jobs, first loves, marriages, affairs, illnesses and death, and these are merely the more obvious themes which float upon the surface.

The protagonist in the beautifully written vignette ‘From A to Z’ by Susan Glaspell is a young girl named Edna Willard, who spent her senior university year ‘hugging to her mind that idea of getting a position in a publishing house’, and is then discontent when this dream is realised. In Pauline Smith’s tale ‘The Pain’, we meet a South African couple who have been married for fifty years, brave in the face of the wife Deltje’s illness. Smith describes the way in which Deltje has ‘a quiet, never-failing cheerfulness of spirit in spite of her pain’, and the story is beautifully and sensitively realised. In E.M. Delafield’s ‘Holiday Group’, we meet a kindly and rather patient reverend, who struggles to take his young and rather demanding family – his wife Julia ‘had gone on being blissfully irresponsible until she was quite grown up’ and has a particularly selfish streak – to the seaside.

Some of the authors in The Persephone Book of Short Stories are more well-known than others, but all share common ground in the way in which they all deserve to be read on a wider scale than they currently are. The balance of longer and shorter stories works incredibly well, as do the differing narrative styles, which range from the third person omniscient perspective to interesting streams of consciousness. Hopefully, this lovely volume of short stories will inspire readers to seek out other novels and short story collections by the authors which they enjoy in this collection. Each story in The Persephone Book of Short Stories is like a small but perfectly formed work of art, and the book is sure to delight a wealth of readers.

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7

‘Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries’, edited by Martin Edwards ****

The eye-catching British Library Crime Classics publications now have a short story collection in their midst.  Resorting to Murder: Holiday Mysteries has been edited by Martin Edwards, and presents a ‘collection of vintage mysteries’, all of which centre upon the theme of holidays.

In his introduction, Edwards writes9780712357487 that Resorting to Murder ‘shows the enjoyable and unexpected ways in which crime writers have used summer holidays as a theme’.  The tales have a wide range across the Golden Age of British crime fiction, encompassing both ‘stellar names from the past’ and uncovering ‘hidden gems’.  Edwards believes that some of the stories which he has selected for publication within the volume are ‘obscure’ and ‘rare’, and have ‘seldom been reprinted’.  Well-known authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett and G.K. Chesterton thus sit alongside the lesser-known likes of Basil Thomson, Leo Bruce and Gerald Findler.

Only British writers have been focused upon here, but the settings which they use as their backdrops are rather diverse.  We visit Conan Doyle’s Cornwall, E.W. Hornung’s Switzerland, and stop off at golf courses, secluded resorts and walking tours conducted in France along the way.

Edwards’ aim was to present ‘vintage stories written over the span of roughly half a century, and which have the backdrop of a holiday’, whether at home or abroad.  ‘This straightforward unifying theme,’ he tells us, ‘is counterpointed by the stories’ sheer diversity’.  The differing perspectives and shifts with regard to time periods and settings works marvellously, and ensures that the collection can be read all in one go by the greedy traveller, or dipped in and out of by the more relaxed reader.  Diversity exists between the detectives themselves, too; there are shrewd man-of-the-moment types who go out of their way to appear in charge of the situation, and those who are quite unsuspected by others until the pivotal moment at which all is revealed.

It is a nice touch that each story within Resorting to Murder has been introduced with biographical details of each author, as well as the ‘background to their writing’.  The only unfortunate detail which is missing is that nowhere does it specify which year each story was written or published in.  Chronologically ordered they may be, but one cannot help but feel that this small yet important element would have been useful in a collection which purports to show the progression of crime stories.

Resorting to Murder is engaging and filled with aspects of interest.  As is often the case with anthologies, particularly thematic ones, some tales are far stronger than others, but there is definitely something for everyone within its pages.  Resorting to Murder is a wonderful choice for summer escapism, as well as the perfect book for the discerning armchair traveller.

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American Literature Month: Short Story Collections

I thought that I would take the opportunity to recommend some wonderful short story collections during American Literature Month.  Whilst not all of these stories are set in the United States, all of the authors have American nationalities, and there is sure to be something of interest here for every reader.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
“The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1991)
“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O’Connor’s monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O’Connor put together in her short lifetime–Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 
“Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in “A Temporary Matter” whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in “Sexy,” who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das–first-generation Americans of Indian descent–and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. “I told you because of your talents,” she informs him after divulging a startling secret.”

4. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (1980)
“Including the earlier collections A Curtain of GreenThe Wide NetThe Golden Apples, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, as well as previously uncollected ones, these forty-one stories demonstrate Eudora Welty’s talent for writing from diverse points-of-view with “vision that is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry” (Washington Post).”

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
“In The Ballad of the Sad Café, a tale of unrequited love, Miss Amelia, a spirited, unconventional woman, runs a small-town store and, except for a marriage that lasted just ten days, has always lived alone. Then Cousin Lymon appears from nowhere, a little, strutting hunchback who steals Miss Amelia’s heart. Together they transform the store into a lively, popular café. But when her rejected husband Marvin Macy returns, the result is a bizarre love triangle that brings with it violence, hatred and betrayal.”

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‘Collected Poems’ by May Sarton ****

The beginning of the hefty tome of May Sarton’s complete poetic output includes an interesting publisher’s note, which converses upon what poetry means to us in the modern world.  The reading of poetry underwent such change during the period in which Sarton was writing, and it is fascinating to be able to see how her work changed from her beginnings in 1930, to the final poems here, which were written in 1993.

Each collection has been arranged chronologically, and Sarton’s writing from the first is beautiful.  Consider the following lines from wondrous poem ‘She Shall Be Called Woman’: “She lay quite still / and leaned / against the great curve / of the earth, / and her breast / was like a fruit / bursten of its own sweetness.”

Sarton’s use of surrounding landscapes, imagery and vocabulary is masterful throughout, as can be seen in the poem ‘Meditation in Sunlight’: “Far all is blue and strange / The sky looks down on snow / And meets the mountain range / Where time is light not shadow’.

Throughout, many different themes have been considered – architecture, love, what it means to be a woman, death and loss, the coming of the seasons, the passing of time, the grandeur of America, dancing, religion, teaching and learning, and the notion of experience. So many different poetic techniques have been used throughout too that whilst this is a wonderful volume to dip in and out of, it can also be read all at once.

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‘The Haunted Life and Other Writings’ by Jack Kerouac ***

The late Jack Kerouac, most well known for his stream of consciousness novel On the Road, had many previously unpublished fragments to his name, which have been collected together within The Haunted Life and Other Writings. The work within its pages has been separated into three different sections – the first is comprised of ‘The Haunted Life’, a relatively short work, Part Two consists of various sketches and reflections, and the final segment is entitled ‘Jack and Leo Kerouac’.

The selection has been edited by Todd Tietchen, who is also the author of the book’s rather long introduction, ‘Jack Kerouac’s Ghosts’. Tietchen’s introduction is nicely written and rather informative, setting out as it does the start of Kerouac’s friendships with the likes of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, and the more important elements of his life and writing. Tietchen believes that the thing which ‘emerges from these writings is an image of the young Kerouac as a careful and thorough drafter of his ideas, committed to an artistic process that does much to refute the public perception of Kerouac as a spontaneous word-slinger whose authorial approach merely complemented his Dionysian approach to life’.

The title story, ‘The Haunted Life’, is not stylistically similar to the majority of Kerouac’s work; it is built largely of dialogue and conventional prose, and talks mainly about America – her history, her political situation, the many races which she consists of, and the influence of President Roosevelt.

As each section or inclusion here tends to be quite short, the entirety does feel like rather a mismatched collection at times. Often, there are no threads of cohesion which link one entry to the next. Whilst some of the considerations within the title story and the essay fragments are interesting, nothing is quite long enough to render it memorable.

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