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Short Story Collections

I have always been a fan of the short story; they are sharp, thoughtful reflections on very precise portions of life, and often stick in my mind for an awfully long time. I find that I review short story collections far less often than I do novels, or works of non-fiction, so I thought I would gather together several which I have very much enjoyed, and would highly recommend.

1. Runaway by Alice Munro

‘The incomparable Alice Munro’s bestselling and rapturously acclaimed Runaway is a book of extraordinary stories about love and its infinite betrayals and surprises, from the title story about a young woman who, though she thinks she wants to, is incapable of leaving her husband, to three stories about a woman named Juliet and the emotions that complicate the luster of her intimate relationships. In Munro’s hands, the people she writes about–women of all ages and circumstances, and their friends, lovers, parents, and children–become as vivid as our own neighbors. It is her miraculous gift to make these stories as real and unforgettable as our own.’

2. On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya

A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important. These thirteen stories, which have been translated from the original Russian, focus on outsiders, those who do not quite belong.

3. Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

‘Sittenfeld’s wryly hilarious and insightful new collection, Help Yourself, illuminates human experience and gracefully upends our assumptions about class and race, envy and disappointment, gender dynamics and celebrity.

Suburban friends fall out after a racist encounter at a birthday party is caught on video and posted on Facebook; an illustrious Manhattan film crew are victims of their own snobbery when they underestimate a pre-school teacher from the Mid-West; and a group of young writers fight about love and narrative style as they compete for a prestigious bursary.

Connecting each of these three stories is Sittenfeld’s truthful yet merciless eye, as her characters stagger from awkwardness, to humiliation and, if they’re lucky, to reconciliation. Full of tenderness and compassion, this dazzling collection celebrates our humanity in all its pettiness and glory.’

4. Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson

‘This is a daring, witty and provocative collection of twelve thematically-linked stories.

Inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses or, if you prefer, by Prada, Mary Poppins, Moschino and Barbie, these are stories of abandoned children and lonely adults, the seductiveness of our consumer society and fatalism in a post-Apocalyptic world.

From Charlene and Trudi, shopping madly while bombs explode outside, to gormless Eddie, a cataloguer of fish, and Meredith Zane who has discovered the secret to eternal life, each story brings to life a startling cast of characters. Linking the stories is an exploration of the infinite variety of ways in which people attempt to change the world around them, and themselves.’

5. I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay by Deirdre Sullivan

‘In this dark, glittering collection of short stories, Deirdre Sullivan explores the trauma and power that reside in women’s bodies.

A teenage girl tries to fit in at a party held in a haunted house, with unexpected and disastrous consequences. A mother and daughter run a thriving online business selling antique dolls, while their customers get more than they bargained for. And after a stillbirth, a young woman discovers that there is something bizarre and wondrous growing inside of her.

With empathy and invention, Sullivan effortlessly blends genres in stories that are by turns strange and exquisite. Already established as an award-winning writer for children and young adults, I Want to Know That I Will Be Okay marks her arrival as a captivating new voice in literary fiction.’

6. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

‘Navigating between the Indian traditions they’ve inherited and the baffling new world, the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri’s elegant, touching stories seek love beyond the barriers of culture and generations. In “A Temporary Matter,” published in The New Yorker, a young Indian-American couple faces the heartbreak of a stillborn birth while their Boston neighborhood copes with a nightly blackout. In the title story, an interpreter guides an American family through the India of their ancestors and hears an astonishing confession. Lahiri writes with deft cultural insight reminiscent of Anita Desai and a nuanced depth that recalls Mavis Gallant.’

Have you read any of these books? Which short story collections are your favourites? Please feel free to send me some recommendations, which will be much appreciated.

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Books to Read in One Sitting

I quite often read relatively slim tomes, without writing down enough thoughts in my notebook to type up a full review. I have collected together ten such books which I have very much enjoyed, and which are fitting to read in a single sitting.

1. My Robin by Frances Hodgson Burnett (50 pages)

‘Fans of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden will relish this charming anecdote that further expands upon the robin that features in that book. In response to a reader’s letter, Burnett reminisces about her love of English robins — and one in particular that changed her life forever.’

2. Someone Not Really Her Mother by Harriet Scott Chessman (162 pages)

‘In this graceful and compassionate fiction, three generations of mothers and daughters in the McCarthy family face the challenges of Alzheimer’s. This story offers unusual insight into the consciousness of Hannah Pearl, who lives her daily life with courage and generosity in spite of her confusion. Although her daughter and granddaughters attempt to help her stay in the present of her Connecticut shoreline town, Hannah increasingly inhabits the world of her ardent youth in war-torn France and England. As Miranda McCarthy and her daughters Fiona and Ida walk on tiptoe around Hannah’s secrets, it is the reader who discovers and illuminates all the pieces of this intelligent and dream-like puzzle.’

3. Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (176 pages)

‘A marvelous new novel from the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies–her first in nearly a decade.

Exuberance and dread, attachment and estrangement: in this novel, Jhumpa Lahiri stretches her themes to the limit. The woman at the center wavers between stasis and movement, between the need to belong and the refusal to form lasting ties. The city she calls home, an engaging backdrop to her days, acts as a confidant: the sidewalks around her house, parks, bridges, piazzas, streets, stores, coffee bars. We follow her to the pool she frequents and to the train station that sometimes leads her to her mother, mired in a desperate solitude after her father’s untimely death. In addition to colleagues at work, where she never quite feels at ease, she has girl friends, guy friends, and “him,” a shadow who both consoles and unsettles her. But in the arc of a year, as one season gives way to the next, transformation awaits. One day at the sea, both overwhelmed and replenished by the sun’s vital heat, her perspective will change. This is the first novel she has written in Italian and translated into English. It brims with the impulse to cross barriers. By grafting herself onto a new literary language, Lahiri has pushed herself to a new level of artistic achievement.’

4. The Part-Time Job by P.D. James (46 pages)

‘Follow the ‘Queen of Crime’ as she takes us into the mind of a man who has waited decades to enact his patient, ingenious revenge on a school bully.’

Also included in The Part-Time Job is a highly enjoyable essay entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’, which I feel the book is worth picking up for alone.

5. The Shortest Day by Colm Tóibín (31 pages)

In Ireland, a man of reason is drawn to a true mystery older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge in this enthralling story about ethereal secrets by New York Times bestselling author Colm Tóibín.

During the winter solstice, on the shortest day and longest night of the year, the ancient burial chamber at Newgrange is empowered. Its mystifying source is a haunting tale told by locals.

Professor O’Kelly believes an archaeologist’s job is to make known only what can be proved. He is undeterred by ghost stories, idle speculation, and caution. Much to the chagrin of the living souls in County Meath. As well as those entombed in the sacred darkness of Newgrange itself. They’re determined to protect the secret of the light, guarded for more than five thousand years. And they know O’Kelly is coming for it.’

6. My Mortal Enemy by Willa Cather (112 pages)

‘”Sometimes, when I have watched the bright beginning of a love story, when I have seen a common feeling exalted into beauty by imagination, generosity, and the flaming courage of youth, I have heard again that strange complaint breathed by a dying woman into the stillness of night, like a confession of the soul: ‘Why must I die like this, alone with my mortal enemy.'”

Willa Cather’s protagonist in My Mortal Enemy is Myra Henshawe, who as a young woman gave up a fortune to marry for love—a boldly romantic gesture that became a legend in her family. But this worldly, sarcastic, and perhaps even wicked woman may have been made for something greater than love.

In her portrait of Myra and in her exquisitely nuanced depiction of her marriage, Cather shows the evolution of a human spirit as it comes to bridle against the constraints of ordinary happiness and seek an otherworldly fulfillment. My Mortal Enemy is a work whose drama and intensely moral imagination make it unforgettable.’

7. The Touchstone by Edith Wharton (112 pages)

‘Glancing by chance at an advertisement in the Spectator, Stephen Glennard perceives a way to escape the downward spiral his career has taken, begin a new life for himself, and win the hand of the beautiful Alexa Trent. It would seem he has one highly sought-after possession: the letters written to him by the eminent and now deceased author, Margaret Aubyn. All he need do is silence his uneasy conscience and sell the letters for publication.

As the publicity frenzy around its publication heightens, the Aubyn Letters becomes the latest hot topic among the glamorous and money-driven society that Glennard’s wealth now gives him entrée to. And the source of greatest fascination is the identity of the man whom Aubyn so adored but who has betrayed her so irrevocably. Glennard, resolute in his silence, can only watch in dismay as, from the grave, Aubyn begins to exert a powerful and unmistakable influence over him.

Exploring the dual themes of money and moral compromise, The Touchstone is an early and extremely accomplished work, foreshadowing many of Wharton’s greatest novels.’

8. Summerwater by Sarah Moss (208 pages)

‘On the longest day of the summer, twelve people sit cooped up with their families in a faded Scottish cabin park. The endless rain leaves them with little to do but watch the other residents.

A woman goes running up the Ben as if fleeing; a retired couple reminisce about neighbours long since moved on; a teenage boy braves the dark waters of the loch in his red kayak. Each person is wrapped in their own cares but increasingly alert to the makeshift community around them. One particular family, a mother and daughter without the right clothes or the right manners, starts to draw the attention of the others. Tensions rise and all watch on, unaware of the tragedy that lies ahead as night finally falls.’

9. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey (112 pages)

‘When Olivia turns sixteen she is sent to a Parisian finishing school to broaden her education. Soon after her arrival, she finds herself falling under the spell of her beautiful and charismatic teacher. But Madamoiselle Julie’s life is not as straightforward as Olivia imagines and the school year is destined to end abruptly in tragedy.’

10. The Fruit of My Woman by Han Kang (28 pages)

The Fruit of My Woman is about a woman born in an impoverished fishing village. She wants to go to the ends of the earth on her own but, believing that marriage is ultimately one of the best ways to face the world, she ends up settling down with her husband. They gradually lose their attachment and affection towards each other. Aside from the communication problem, the woman’s wish of running away from her husband to a remote place fails to come true. She then imagines herself as a plant soaring through the veranda ceiling of her house up to the roof top. Through this outstanding story, the writer shows that people have a strong will to escape from the mental fatigue and hopelessness of modern life.’

Are you tempted by any of these books? Which are your favourite books to read in one sitting?

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‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’

Powell’s Bookstore, in Portland, Oregon, is somewhere I dream of going in future (and preferably with an empty suitcase…).  I peruse their website from time to time, and have come across some absolutely wonderful book lists over the years.  One of their latest showcased shelves is entitled ‘Finding Home: The Immigrant Experience’, which collects together books about people who have moved to many different countries and experienced culture shocks and the like.  Travel is a big part of my life, and I am always interested in reading such accounts, both fiction and non-fiction.  I thought it would therefore be a nice idea to collect together eight of these novels, the first four of which I have read and would highly recommend, and the final four which are high on my to-read list.  You can view the full list here.

97806184852221. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Namesake is a finely wrought, deeply moving family drama that illuminates this acclaimed author’s signature themes: the immigrant experience, the clash of cultures, the tangled ties between generations.  The Namesake takes the Ganguli family from their tradition-bound life in Calcutta through their fraught transformation into Americans. On the heels of an arranged wedding, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli settle in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Ashoke does his best to adapt while his wife pines for home. When their son, Gogol, is born, the task of naming him betrays their hope of respecting old ways in a new world. And we watch as Gogol stumbles along the first-generation path, strewn with conflicting loyalties, comic detours, and wrenching love affairs. With empathy and penetrating insight, Lahiri explores the expectations bestowed on us by our parents and the means by which we come to define who we are.’
2. Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (review here)
‘In the north of England, a group of young Indian immigrants struggle to begin something new–to support their families; to build their futures; to show their worth; to escape their pasts. An epic for our times, The Year of the Runaways is a stunning work of fiction that explores what it means and what it costs to make a new life, the capaciousness of the human spirit, and the power of humanity in the face of unspeakable suffering.’

3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (review here) 9780749399573
‘Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who’s “saying” the stories. In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. “To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable.” Forty years later the stories and history continue.  With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.’
4. Brick Lane by Monica Ali
‘After an arranged marriage to Chanu, a man twenty years older, Nazneen is taken to London, leaving her home and heart in the Bangladeshi village where she was born. Her new world is full of mysteries. How can she cross the road without being hit by a car (an operation akin to dodging raindrops in the monsoon)? What is the secret of her bullying neighbor Mrs. Islam? What is a Hell’s Angel? And how must she comfort the naïve and disillusioned Chanu?  As a good Muslim girl, Nazneen struggles to not question why things happen. She submits, as she must, to Fate and devotes herself to her husband and daughters. Yet to her amazement, she begins an affair with a handsome young radical, and her erotic awakening throws her old certainties into chaos.  Monica Ali’s splendid novel is about journeys both external and internal, where the marvellous and the terrifying spiral together.’
97814197294855. The Displaced: Writers on Refugee Lives, edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen
‘Viet Nguyen, called “one of our great chroniclers of displacement” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New Yorker), brings together writers originally from Mexico, Bosnia, Iran, Afghanistan, Soviet Ukraine, Hungary, Chile, Ethiopia, and others to make their stories heard. They are formidable in their own right–MacArthur Genius grant recipients, National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award finalists, filmmakers, speakers, lawyers, professors, and New Yorker contributors–and they are all refugees, many as children arriving in London and Toronto, Oklahoma and Minnesota, South Africa and Germany. Their 17 contributions are as diverse as their own lives have been, and yet hold just as many themes in common.  These essays reveal moments of uncertainty, resilience in the face of trauma, and a reimagining of identity, forming a compelling look at what it means to be forced to leave home and find a place of refuge. The Displaced is also a commitment: ABRAMS will donate 10 percent of the cover price of this book, a minimum of $25,000 annually, to the International Rescue Committee, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing humanitarian aid, relief, and resettlement to refugees and other victims of oppression or violent conflict.’
6. The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
‘Seventeen years ago, Sepha Stephanos fled the Ethiopian Revolution for a new start in the United States. Now he finds himself running a failing grocery store in a poor African-American section of Washington, D.C., his only companions two fellow African immigrants who share his bitter nostalgia and longing for his home continent. Years ago and worlds away Sepha could never have imagined a life of such isolation. As his environment begins to change, hope comes in the form of a friendship with new neighbors Judith and Naomi, a white woman and her biracial daughter. But when a series of racial incidents disturbs the community, Sepha may lose everything all over again.’
7. Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya 9781594632143
‘In this account of two decades in the life of an immigrant household, the fall of communism and the rise of globalization are artfully reflected in the experience of a single family. Ironies, subtle and glaring, are revealed: the Nasmertovs left Odessa for Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, with a huge sense of finality, only to find that the divide between the old world and the new is not nearly as clear-cut as they thought. The dissolution of the Soviet Union makes returning just a matter of a plane ticket, and the Russian-owned shops in their adopted neighborhood stock even the most obscure comforts of home. Pursuing the American Dream once meant giving up everything, but does the dream still work if the past is always within reach?  If the Nasmertov parents can afford only to look forward, learning the rules of aspiration, the familys youngest, Frida, can only look back.  In striking, arresting prose loaded with fresh and inventive turns of phrase, Yelena Akhtiorskaya has written the first great novel of Brighton Beach: a searing portrait of hope and ambition, and a profound exploration of the power and limits of language itself, its ability to make connections across cultures and generations.’
8. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
‘Profoundly moving and gracefully told, Pachinko follows one Korean family through the generations, beginning in early 1900s Korea with Sunja, the prized daughter of a poor yet proud family, whose unplanned pregnancy threatens to shame them. Betrayed by her wealthy lover, Sunja finds unexpected salvation when a young tubercular minister offers to marry her and bring her to Japan to start a new life.  So begins a sweeping saga of exceptional people in exile from a homeland they never knew and caught in the indifferent arc of history. In Japan, Sunja’s family members endure harsh discrimination, catastrophes, and poverty, yet they also encounter great joy as they pursue their passions and rise to meet the challenges this new home presents. Through desperate struggles and hard-won triumphs, they are bound together by deep roots as their family faces enduring questions of faith, family, and identity.’

Which are your favourite books about the immigrant experience?  Have you read any of these?

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First Novels

I often find that when reading through the oeuvres of my favourite contemporary writers, I often do not begin with their first books.  Whilst I do not make this choice intentionally, I find it fascinating to read later efforts, and then go back to the beginning to see how a particular author’s style has changed over time.  With that said, I thought I would showcase five first novels by some of my favourite contemporary authors, all of which (aside from the McGregor) I read when already familiar with a lot of their other work.

  1. Like by Ali Smith (1997) 9781860493171
    ‘There’s Amy and there’s Ash. There’s ice and there’s fire. There’s England and there’s Scotland. Ali Smith evokes the twin spirits of time and place in an extraordinarily powerful first novel, which teases out the connections between people, the attractions, the ghostly repercussions. By turns funny, haunting and disconcertingly moving, Like soars across hidden borders between cultures, countries, families, friends and lovers. Subtle and complex, it confounds expectations about fiction and truths.’
  2. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
    The Namesake is the story of a boy brought up Indian in America. ‘When her grandmother learned of Ashima’s pregnancy, she was particularly thrilled at the prospect of naming the family’s first sahib. And so Ashima and Ashoke have agreed to put off the decision of what to name the baby until a letter comes…’ For now, the label on his hospital cot reads simply ‘BABY BOY GANGULI’. But as time passes and still no letter arrives from India, American bureaucracy takes over and demands that ‘baby boy Ganguli’ be given a name. In a panic, his father decides to nickname him ‘Gogol’ – after his favourite writer. Brought up as an Indian in suburban America, Gogol Ganguli soon finds himself itching to cast off his awkward name, just as he longs to leave behind the inherited values of his Bengali parents. And so he sets off on his own path through life, a path strewn with conflicting loyalties, love and loss… Spanning three decades and crossing continents, Jhumpa Lahiri’s much-anticipated first novel is a triumph of humane story-telling. Elegant, subtle and moving.’
  3. 9780747561576If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
    ‘On a street in a town in the North of England, ordinary people are going through the motions of their everyday existence – street cricket, barbecues, painting windows… A young man is in love with a neighbour who does not even know his name. An old couple make their way up to the nearby bus stop. But then a terrible event shatters the quiet of the early summer evening. That this remarkable and horrific event is only poignant to those who saw it, not even meriting a mention on the local news, means that those who witness it will be altered for ever. Jon McGregor’s first novel brilliantly evokes the histories and lives of the people in the street to build up an unforgettable human panorama. Breathtakingly original, humane and moving, the novel is an astonishing debut.’
  4. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985)
    ‘This is the story of Jeanette, adopted and brought up by her mother as one of God’s elect. Zealous and passionate, she seems destined for life as a missionary, but then she falls for one of her converts. At sixteen, Jeanette decides to leave the church, her home and her family, for the young woman she loves. Innovative, punchy and tender, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is a few days ride into the bizarre outposts of religious excess and human obsession.’
  5. Everything You Know by Zoe Heller (1999) 9780141039992
    ‘The women in Willy Muller’s life are trouble. His mother insists he eat tofu. His dopey girlfriend, Penny, wants him to overcome his personal space issues – while Karen, his other, even dopier, girlfriend, just wants more sex. Meanwhile, his oldest daughter, Sophie, wants him to finance her husband’s drug habit. But it’s his youngest daughter, Sadie, who’s giving him the biggest headache. Just before committing suicide three months ago, she sent Willy her diaries. Poring over the record of her empty life, he feels pangs of something unexpected …remorse. But isn’t it a bit late for such sentimental guff? Set in London, Hollywood and Mexico, Everything You Know is a supremely witty take on love, death and the age-old battle of the sexes.’

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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.”