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One From the Archive: ‘Revenge’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The eleven ‘dark’ stories in Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge were originally published in Japan in 1998, and have been translated into English by Stephen Snyder.  Ogawa, who has won every major Japanese Literary Award, has been compared to the likes of Haruki Murakami, and this collection has been heralded ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant’. 9780099553939

All of the tales in Revenge have been linked together, with settings and characters overlapping from one story to the next.  Strings of plot meander their way through the whole.  Similar themes are repeated too, which adds to the feeling of one coherent whole – ageing, death and dying, grief, despair, and adultery, for example.

Some of the stories are very sad – in ‘Afternoon at the Bakery’, a woman purchases a strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday.  When asked how old he will be, she says, rather matter-of-factly, ‘Six.  He’ll always be six.  He’s dead’.  Others are merely creepy, and are filled with foreboding from the very start: a woman pulls up hand-shaped carrots from her vegetable patch, which have grown as a result of a sinister occurrence, and a woman’s revenge upon her lover when he refuses to leave his wife, for example.  Rather unusually, all of the stories are told using the first person perspective.  Ogawa focuses upon both male and female protagonists, and each narrative voice is as strong as another.

Ogawa’s work has been crafted and translated with such care.  Her descriptions are sometimes beautiful – for example, ‘The sky was a cloudless dome of sunlight’.  She fills her tales with quite surprising details – the narrator of one story is invited along when a quiet classmate meets her father for the first time, and the pair do not speak again, an elderly landlady has surprising strength, and an abandoned post office is filled to the brim with kiwi fruits.  The stories in Revenge are odd, quirky and unusual, and are sure to linger in the mind for days afterwards.

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One From the Archive: ‘That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written’, edited by David Miller ****

The tales within Head of Zeus’ That Glimpse of Truth: 100 of the Finest Short Stories Ever Written have been selected and introduced by David Miller.  The book’s blurb states, ‘Profound, lyrical, shocking, wise: the short story is capable of almost anything’, and goes on to describe the way in which the stories range ‘from the essential to the unexpected, the traditional to the surreal…  Here are childhood favourites and neglected masters, twenty-first century wits and national treasures, Man Booker Prize winners and Nobel Laureates’.

In his witty introduction, in which he leads an informed discussion about the power of the short story, Miller writes of the Herculean task of selecting the one hundred best tales ever written: ‘I’ve tried to remain dispassionate, searching for the finest, ending up being wholly and, I’d argue, usefully passionate.  I have spent weeks, then months, quarrelling with myself (and others) and, now there is a result, some will complain I’ve not included or y, or h or z or given due attention to the burgeoning literary genre or scene in delete as appropriate‘.  He goes on to say that ‘… as a short story is already a distillation, it gives the writer a far harder task to achieve everything, not just any thing.  Every thing in this book is as good as it can get’.

So many wonderful authors have been included in this anthology; just glancing at the full list on the back of the book before I began to read, I picked out Virginia Woolf, Anton Chekhov, Roald Dahl, William Maxwell, Ian McEwan and Flannery O’Connor.  The range of contributors is diverse, particularly when one takes into account the wealth of original languages in which the tales were originally penned.  Primarily, those in That Glimpse of Truth are English, but there are stories translated from Danish, Yiddish and Vietnamese to name but three.  The stories have been ordered by the chronological date of birth of each author as, says Miller, ‘that seemed easiest’. It is as good a way as any to organise a collection of tales, and there is consequently a marvellous progression from beginning to end.

The book’s title has been taken from a quote by Joseph Conrad, on why he chose to write within the short story form: ‘My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel… and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask’.  That Glimpse of Truth begins with a story from ‘The Book of Jonah’, and encompasses, among others, the Brothers Grimm, Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Stefan Zweig, Edith Pearlman and Lorrie Moore.  The format of the book makes it a perfect volume from which to read one or two stories per day.  So many themes, perspectives, characters and emotions have been encompassed.  There are stories within stories, and also those which ask wider questions.

That Glimpse of Truth has been beautifully designed.  The book itself is lovely; a red hardback with a nicely designed dustjacket and ribbon bookmarks.  The only drawback is that there are rather a lot of mistakes within the majority of the stories, and it is a real shame that it was not better edited.  Regardless, at over 900 pages, That Glimpse of Truth is sure to keep every reader amused.  It is a marvellous collection, and has been thoughtfully put together, so much so that it is an absolute delight to read.

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‘All the Beloved Ghosts’ by Alison MacLeod ****

9781408863756I was left a little underwhelmed by MacLeod’s novel Unexploded, but as I can rarely resist a short story collection, I picked up All the Beloved Ghosts.  From the outset, I was enraptured.  The stories in All the Beloved Ghosts are so varied; each encompasses a different place and time, from a riot in Tottenham, north London, to a story which speaks to the dead Sylvia Plath, who is reposing so far from her childhood home in a Yorkshire graveyard.  I very much enjoyed the fact that I had no idea what was going to come next.

McLeod’s writing is beautiful, and deft.  Throughout, she uses a variety of different perspectives, and really demonstrates that she knows her characters, and the worlds in which they move, well.  One gets the feeling that MacLeod really set out to explore the short story as a genre here; little is repeated from one tale to the next, and a lot of the techniques which she uses are quite diverse.

All the Beloved Ghosts is an accomplished collection, which spans many themes, from death and dying to love and loss; from racial discontent to community.  MacLeod’s writing is so strong throughout that there is truly something within the pages of this collection which will appeal to everyone.  Nothing feels rushed, or cut off; each story ends perfectly, and there are some interesting ambiguities left in too.  All the Beloved Ghosts is not my favourite short story collection, but it has an awful lot of merit, and I am so pleased that I gave MacLeod another chance.

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The Book Trail: From Binocular Vision to Dusk

Edith Pearlman’s fascinating short story collection, Binocular Vision, provides the starting point for today’s Book Trail.

180464621. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman
In this sumptuous offering, one of our premier storytellers provides a feast for fiction aficionados. Spanning four decades and three prize-winning collections, these 21 vintage selected stories and 13 scintillating new ones take us around the world, from Jerusalem to Central America, from tsarist Russia to London during the Blitz, from central Europe to Manhattan, and from the Maine coast to Godolphin, Massachusetts, a fictional suburb of Boston. These charged locales, and the lives of the endlessly varied characters within them, are evoked with a tenderness and incisiveness found in only our most observant seers.

 

2. Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca 6947930
Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.

 

62604233. Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing by Lydia Peelle
With its quick pace, modern society leaves scant time for us to pause and take a deep breath of fresh air, to watch the clouds move across the sky, or to appreciate the earth and its cycles of birth and death. Once out of the fray — far from our cubicles and the relentless rat race — and back into nature, we find time to ponder bigger questions.   Peelle has crafted eight stories that capture these moments: summers riding horses, life as a carnival worker, kidding season on a farm. Quiet and telling, her stories are filled alternately with supreme joy and with deep sorrow, desperation and longing, dreams born and broken — set in landscapes where the clock ticks more slowly. Her landscapes are the kind of places you want to run away from, or to which you wish you could return, if time hadn’t irrevocably changed them. A single thread runs through each of these stories, the unspoken quest to answer one of life’s most primal questions: Who am I?  Peelle’s writing is calm and smooth on the surface — even soothing in its descriptions of daily life on a farm, for example — but her words can hardly contain the depth of emotion that lies beneath them. So make some time and find a big tree to sit beneath, take a deep breath, and dive into this quietly impressive collection.

 

4. Famous Fathers and Other Stories by Pia Z. Ehrhardt 1185451
A gracefully disconcerting collection of stories by the winner of the 2005 Narrative Prize.   Wavering between fidelity and freedom, the women in this sparkling debut collection deal with emotional damage and unhealed heartbreak by plunging into unusual, often bizarre, relationships.  In Pia Z. Ehrhardt’s stories, adultery and impropriety become disquietingly mundane. Mothers expect daughters to be complicit in their love affairs, children seek shelter in families that aren’t their own, fathers court their daughters, a couple enters into a marriage that lasts thirty days a year, and a young girl takes to the road with the simple guy who bags groceries at Piggly Wiggly while her mother imagines her safely at school.

 

61774745. Big World by Mary Miller
The characters in Mary Miller’s debut short story collection Big World are at once autonomous and lonesome, possessing both a longing to connect with those around them and a cynicism regarding their ability to do so, whether they’re holed up in a motel room in Pigeon Forge with an air gun shooting boyfriend as in “Fast Trains” or navigating the rooms of their house with their dad after their mother’s death as in “Leak.” Mary Miller’s writing is unapologetically honest and efficient and the gut-wrenching directness of her prose is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill and Courtney Eldridge, if Gaitskill’s and Eldridge’s stories were set in the south and reeked of spilt beer and cigarette smoke.

 

6. Other Kinds by Dylan Nice 16079549
The stories in Other Kinds are about a place. They are stories about the woods, houses hidden in the gaps between mountains. Behind them, the skeletons of old and powerful machines rust into the slate and leaves. Water red with iron leeches from the empty mines and pools near a stone foundation. The boy there plays in the bones because he is a child and this will be his childhood. He watches while winter comes falling slowly down over the road. Sometimes he remembers a girl, her hair and the perfume she wore. These are stories about her and where she might have gone. He waits for sleep because in the next story he will leave. The boy watches an airplane blink red past his window. From here, you can’t hear its violence.

 

77860877. The Collected Stories by Deborah Eisenberg
Since 1986 with the publication of her first story collection, Deborah Eisenberg has devoted herself to writing “exquisitely distilled stories” which “present an unusually distinctive portrait of contemporary American life” to quote the MacArthur Foundation. This one volume brings together Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), Under the 82nd Airborne (1992), All Around Atlantis (1997) and her most recent collection-Twilight of the Superheroes (2006).

 

8. Dusk and Other Stories by James Salter 9825408
First published nearly a quarter-century ago and one of the very few short-story collections to win the PEN/Faulkner Award, this is American fiction at its most vital—each narrative a masterpiece of sustained power and seemingly effortless literary grace. Two New York attorneys newly flush with wealth embark on a dissolute tour of Italy; an ambitious young screenwriter unexpectedly discovers the true meaning of art and glory; a rider, far off in the fields, is involved in an horrific accident—night is falling, and she must face her destiny alone. These stories confirm James Salter as one of the finest writers of our time.

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which have particularly piqued your interest?

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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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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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