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And Other Stories: Favourite Collections

I hope you enjoyed the posts during And Other Stories week!  If you did, please let me know, as I’d love to schedule something similar with fresh reviews in future.  To end the week, please find below a selection of ten short story collections which I absolutely adore, and would highly recommend to everyone.  I have excluded all of the authors whose reviews I shared last week, just for variety, but I would – of course – highly recommend that you go and pick up everything by Mansfield and Jansson!

1. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson
9780316159371Not the End of the World is Kate Atkinson’s first collection of short stories. Playful and profound, they explore the world we think we know whilst offering a vision of another world which lurks just beneath the surface of our consciousness, a world where the myths we have banished from our lives are startlingly present and where imagination has the power to transform reality.  From Charlene and Trudi, obsessively making lists while bombs explode softly in the streets outside, to gormless Eddie, maniacal cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who may just have discovered the secret to eternal life, each of these stories shows that when the worlds of material existence and imagination collide, anything is possible.’

 

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
‘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. O’Connor published her first story, “The Geranium, ” in 1946 while she was working on her master’s degree at the University of Iowa. This Book, which is arranged chronologically, shows that her last story, “Judgement Day, ” sent to her publisher shortly before her death, is a brilliantly rewritten and transfigured version of “The Geranium.” Taken together, these reveal an amazing lively, imaginative, and penetrating talent that has given us some of the most powerful and disturbing fiction written this century.’

 

3. A Haunted House by Virginia Woolf 50203
The stories found in A Haunted House reflect Virginia Woolf’s experimental writing style and act as an enlightening introduction to the longer fiction of this pioneer novelist. Gathering works from the previously published Monday or Tuesday, as well as stories published in American and British magazines, this book compiles some of the best shorter fiction of one of the most important writers of our time.

 

4. The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith
‘The First Person and Other Stories’ effortlessly appeals to our hearts, heads and funny bones. Always intellectually playful, but also very moving and funny, Smith explores the ways and whys of storytelling.

 

81393985. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
‘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.

I’m tired of feeling so terrible all the time. Eight years, Mr. Kapasi, I’ve been in pain eight years. I was hoping you could help me feel better; say the right thing. Suggest some kind of remedy.

Of course, Mr. Kapasi has no cure for what ails Mrs. Das–or himself. Lahiri’s subtle, bittersweet ending is characteristic of the collection as a whole. Some of these nine tales are set in India, others in the United States, and most concern characters of Indian heritage. Yet the situations Lahiri’s people face, from unhappy marriages to civil war, transcend ethnicity. As the narrator of the last story, “The Third and Final Continent,” comments: “There are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept.” In that single line Jhumpa Lahiri sums up a universal experience, one that applies to all who have grown up, left home, fallen in or out of love, and, above all, experienced what it means to be a foreigner, even within one’s own family. (less)

 

6. Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka
In subtle, sensuous prose, the stories in Sara Majka’s debut collection explore distance in all its forms: the emotional spaces that open up between family members, friends, and lovers; the gaps that emerge between who we were and who we are; the gulf between our private and public selves. At the center of the collection is a series of stories narrated by a young American woman in the wake of a divorce; wry and shy but never less than open to the world, she recalls the places and people she has been close to, the dreams she has pursued and those she has left unfulfilled. Interspersed with these intimate first-person stories are stand-alone pieces where the tight focus on the narrator’s life gives way to closely observed accounts of the lives of others. A book about belonging, and how much of yourself to give up in the pursuit of that, Cities I’ve Never Lived In offers stories that reveal, with great sadness and great humor, the ways we are most of all citizens of the places where we cannot be.

 

7. All the Days and Nights: Collected Stories by William Maxwell 15924350
In settings that range from small town Illinois to the Upper East Side of Manhattan, these stories are distinguished by Maxwell’s inimitable wisdom and kindness, his sense of the small details that make up a life, the nuances of joy and sadness that change its direction. Whether describing the reunion of two brothers who will never agree, the furniture of the apartment that becomes everything to a childless couple, the search for the perfect French meal or the life of a ne’er-do-well uncle, Maxwell’s stories capture responses that are recognisable in us all.

 

8. The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks
In the weird and wonderful tradition of Kelly Link and Karen Russell, Amber Sparks’s dazzling new collection bursts forth with stories that render the apocalyptic and otherworldly hauntingly familiar. In “The Cemetery for Lost Faces,” two orphans translate their grief into taxidermy, artfully arresting the passage of time. The anchoring novella, “The Unfinished World,” unfurls a surprising love story between a free and adventurous young woman and a dashing filmmaker burdened by a mysterious family. Sparks’s stories—populated with sculptors, librarians, astronauts, and warriors—form a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Mythical, bizarre, and deeply moving, The Unfinished World and Other Stories heralds the arrival of a major writer and illuminates the search for a brief encounter with the extraordinary.

 

69506019. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson
The Lottery, one of the most terrifying stories written in this century, created a sensation when it was first published in The New Yorker. “Power and haunting,” and “nights of unrest” were typical reader responses. This collection, the only one to appear during Shirley Jackson’s lifetime, unites “The Lottery:” with twenty-four equally unusual stories. Together they demonstrate Jackson’s remarkable range–from the hilarious to the truly horrible–and power as a storyteller.

 

10. Dear Life by Alice Munro
With her peerless ability to give us the essence of a life in often brief but spacious and timeless stories, Alice Munro illumines the moment a life is shaped — the moment a dream, or sex, or perhaps a simple twist of fate turns a person out of his or her accustomed path and into another way of being. Suffused with Munro’s clarity of vision and her unparalleled gift for storytelling, these stories (set in the world Munro has made her own: the countryside and towns around Lake Huron) about departures and beginnings, accidents, dangers, and homecomings both virtual and real, paint a vivid and lasting portrait of how strange, dangerous, and extraordinary the ordinary life can be.

 

Which of these have you read?  Which collections would make your top ten?

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And Other Stories: ‘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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And Other Stories: ‘Art in Nature and Other Stories’ by Tove Jansson *****

First published in July 2013.

Sort Of Books, who have already published five of Tove Jansson’s adult novels and story collections, as well as several of her Moomin books, have just released this new volume of her short stories, all of which are printed in English for the first time. The entire book has been translated by Thomas Teal, who won the Rochester Best Translated Book Award in 2011. This prize sets him in wonderful stead to translate one of Finland’s finest authors and to introduce more of her stories to a wider readership.

Art in Nature and Other Stories
 comprises eleven short stories, all of which are mesmerising from the outset. The title story, ‘Art in Nature’, tells of a ‘very old’ caretaker who has been put in charge of looking after a large art exhibition when it closes each night. He works alone through ‘the long, lonely evenings’, finding solace in the peace around him. One night he comes across a man and woman who have made their way into the exhibition past closing time. Rather than throw them out as protocol dictates, an impassioned and rather surprising discussion about art ensues.

The stories themselves are all rather varied, but there are many which feature protagonists who are artists or are involved with art in some way – a sculptor, a cartoonist, an actress and a writer of children’s books, amongst others. A story entitled ‘The Doll’s House’ follows an upholsterer with a love of classic novels ‘which enchanted him with their heavy patience’, who constructs an elaborate wooden house, assembling it bit by bit: it ‘would be allowed to grow however it wished, organically, room by room’. The characters in every story are beautifully portrayed. All are well-developed and feel like real, fully fleshed out people, and not a single one feels as though their construction has been rushed. Many touches of autobiography can be found throughout.

Jansson’s prose is absolutely and often startlingly beautiful. She describes everyday scenes with such deftness and skill that it feels as though we are viewing the scenes afresh. The reader is essentially given a new perspective through Jansson’s words, in which the wonders of the world are evident. In ‘Art in Nature’, she describes how the sculptures in the exhibition ‘grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing’. The ideas woven throughout the majority of the stories are just lovely. A group of young people in ‘White Lady’ are described as being ‘like a flock of birds… that settle for a moment, for as long as it suits them’.

Ali Smith, author of novels including The Accidental and There But For The, states ‘that there can still be as-yet untranslated fiction by [Tove] Jansson is simultaneously an aberration and a delight, like finding buried treasure’ – a sentiment which could not be more true. To build up such rich, detailed stories within just a few pages as Jansson does here is masterful, and Teal’s translation of her work is faultless. Art in Nature and Other Stories is a pure delight from beginning to end. It is an absolute joy to read and certainly reaffirms Jansson’s position as a wonderful storyteller and a master of her craft.

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And Other Stories: ‘Something Childish and Other Stories’ by Katherine Mansfield *****

Written in April 2012

Although an incredibly famous figure in her home country of New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield does not seem to achieve the levels of press which she deserves in the United Kingdom. From reading her work, however, it is clear to see why she is declared a master of modernist fiction, and why New Zealand hail her as ‘a qualified national icon’.

Katherine Mansfield

Known almost solely for her wonderfully varied short story collections, Mansfield’s style, storylines and subject matter are always carefully chosen and compulsively readable. Her stories are often sarcastic and satirical, but some are hopeful and bright, thus creating an incredibly well-balanced oeuvre.

Over her writing career, Mansfield published four short story collections, beginning with the publication of In a German Pension in 1911 when she was just twenty-one years old. A further fifteen stories, collected together in The Dove’s Nest and Other Stories, were published after her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1923.

Something Childish and Other Stories encompasses the nine-year period between the publication of her first and second collections, and features several of her earlier efforts. It includes twenty-five separate stories, all of which feature a medley of diverse characters. It seems to be one of the least well-known of her short story collections, despite the fact that the power the stories have is just as strong as in her later writing.

Mansfield successfully evokes a complex tapestry of human emotions throughout Something Childish and Other Stories. This is particularly vivid in the title story, ‘Something Childish’, which follows a young man named Henry as he meets a “simply beautiful” red-haired girl named Edna on an otherwise monotonous train journey out of London. A wealth of emotions are peppered throughout the story – timidity, wonder, comprehension, misunderstandings and utter adoration. Throughout this particular story, the reader simultaneously feels hope and sympathy for Henry, as there is a sense of continuous foreboding that a poignantly depressing ending is just around the corner.

‘The Tiredness of Rosabel’, Mansfield’s first published story, creates an evocative picture of London as viewed by a young girl working in a milliners. Along with a past-tense narrative which conjures up Rosabel’s seemingly mundane job and the echoes of poverty apparent in her lodgings, there is an interwoven sense of perpetual daydream which gives the story an almost magical feel. In ‘A Suburban Fairy Tale’, the reader is presented with the adorable character of an inquisitive child named ‘Little B’, constantly asking questions of his parents who more often than not ignore him. A sense of fantasy and magical realism has been employed in this particular story, as the ending sees Little B turned into a sparrow, joining the birds which he is so enthralled with watching on the lawn.

Even in these earlier stories which Mansfield herself was never content with, the writing style seems incredibly polished and there are elements within each that truly surprise the reader in terms of their clarity. Tiny moments in the day-to-day existence of so many characters are portrayed as being paramount in defining their lives – from a small girl intent on pleasing her Father who is rewarded with a rap across the knuckles when the construction of his birthday gift goes horribly wrong in ‘The Little Girl’, to ‘Pénsion Seguin’ which deals with a woman intent on finding a room to let who is suddenly catapulted into frantic family life.

Many different settings have been used throughout, from the bustling city of London to colonial New Zealand life which is starkly portrayed in ‘Millie’ and ‘The Woman at the Store’. Whilst many other short story writers may have one or two stories within a published collection which do not seem to fit with the themes of those which precede them, the balance of Something Childish and Other Stories is near perfection.

The way in which Mansfield carefully selects the words she uses ensures that her writing is always striking. As well as mastering the elements of the short story and creating a wonderful wealth of work which can be dipped in and out of or read continuously whilst still holding the reader’s full attention, Mansfield is also a master of the narrative voice, using both first and third person perspectives. This collection includes two short plays which show how polished Mansfield is at creating believable dialogue. Slight dialects are suggested throughout – the country boy and girl in ‘See-Saw’, for example – which build up an even more three-dimensional picture of the characters which are infused within the stories themselves. This adds yet another dimension to Mansfield’s prose.

Mansfield’s work is heartrending, poignant and simply beautiful. Some of the exquisiteness of her writing comes from the way in which she presents ordinary beings in everyday situations, thus making her stories incredibly easy to relate to. Her stories can be read multiple times over the span of a lifetime and a wealth of different elements are guaranteed to be picked up by the reader on each separate occasion. The stories grow with us, and encompass the main elements of life – from birth to childhood, from courting to marriage, from naïvety and innocence to a heightened sense of experience.

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Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

irmgard-keun-in-1935

Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

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‘Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame’ by Mara Wilson *****

‘Mara Wilson has always felt a little young and a little out of place: as the only child on a film set full of adults, the first daughter in a house full of boys, the sole clinically depressed member of the cheerleading squad, a valley girl in New York and a neurotic in California, and one of the few former child actors who has never been in jail or rehab. Tackling everything from how she first learned about sex on the set ofMelrose Place, to losing her mother at a young age, to getting her first kiss (or was it kisses?) on a celebrity canoe trip, to not being “cute” enough to make it in Hollywood, these essays tell the story of one young woman’s journey from accidental fame to relative (but happy) obscurity. But they also illuminate a universal struggle: learning to accept yourself, and figuring out who you are and where you belong.’

9780143128229Mara Wilson’s Where Am I Now? was one of my most anticipated Christmas reads.  Wilson is just wonderful; I found myself wanting to be best friends with her when I saw her in both Matilda and Miracle on 34th Street as a small child, and was a little sad when I noticed years later that she seemed to have faded from the limelight.

Wilson is a witty and original writer, and comes across just as I thought it would.  Her narrative voice is engaging, and this renders the book rather difficult to put down from the very beginning.  Wilson is candid about her childhood struggles with continued acting and her mother’s death from cancer; she is intelligent, warm, and eye-opening in many respects.  Her letter to Matilda is insightful and almost tear-inducing.  Where Am I Now? is a poignant and meaningful memoir, and I for one cannot wait to see what she turns her hand to next.

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