4

‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ by Hiromi Kawakami ***

Kawakami Hiromi has been one of the authors I meant to read more of this year (I had only read her short story 「神様2011年」 (translated in English as “God Bless You, 2011”) for my Modern Japanese Literature course in my Master’s degree last semester), so seeing this story collection published by Pushkin Press (one of my favourite publishers) I just had to get my hands on it. 9781782272717

This book consists of three separate stories (they’re not actually short at all, so I’ll just call them stories). The first one, “Record of a Night Too Brief”, which gives the entire collection its name as well, is a truly peculiar one and probably my least favourite of the three. It is divided in 19 smaller parts, each one describing a different, utterly peculiar situation. Each of those snipets has a very strange, dream-like quality.

“The girl was already showing signs of no longer being a girl. In a short span of time, her skin had become like paper, her eyes transparent. The ends of her arms and legs had begun to divide into branches; her hair had fallen out.”

The format of this story, being divided into separate sections or dreams, is very reminiscent of Natsume Sōseki’s “Ten Nights of Dream” which follows the exact same pattern. The snipets describe utterly absurd situations which can also be characterised as fantastic,

“No matter how much I poured into the cup, it never filled. And then I realized that the liquid I assumed to be coffee had, unbeknownst to me, turned into night.”

but they resemble more nightmares rather than mere dreams, since their endings are often unpleasant.

The second story, “Missing”, is also rather strange and has many fantastic elements throughout. In it, some people disappear (perhaps a metaphor for death) physically but their spiritual form may linger around their past surroundings. The protagonist’s older brother disappeared like that one day but his presence in the house was very quickly replaced by the second brother. This story is filled with Japanese folkloric elements, such as lingering spirits, talking utensils, as well as beliefs like every family needing to consist of five people exactly (I’m not sure whether that actually was a true belief in Japan), which add more to the absurd atmosphere of the story.

“A Snake Stepped On” is the third and final story of the collection and my personal favourite out of all three. Japanese folkloric beliefs and the fantastic are also widely present here as well, as certain snakes are transformed into women and impose themseves on the houses of the people who accidentally step on them, trying to lure them in the snake world (perhaps another allusion to death). This story held my interest for much longer than the previous two and I found it much more intriguing. Interestingly enough, this story is the one which gives the title to the Japanese version of this collection, as it is the one which won the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize in 1996. I’m not sure why the editors decided to change the title in the English version, especially since, in my opinion, the snake story is of higher quality than the rest.

Overall, this collection is very nicely put together, since there are certain themes which can be traced in all them. However, I wouldn’t suggest a newcomer to the fictional realm of Kawakami Hiromi to start with this collection, since the absurdity of those stories (especially of the title one) and Kawakami’s quirky style of writing might scare them away if they are not very accustomed to it.

This book was provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

Advertisements
0

‘May We Shed These Human Bodies’ by Amber Sparks *****

I adored Amber Sparks’ second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories, which my parents bought for me from the wonderful Strand Bookstore in New York last year.  I was therefore markedly impatient to get my hands on her debut short story collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies.  Despite the moderate expense for a secondhand book, and the fact that I had to order it from the USA, I decided that it would be the perfect treat to read whilst on holiday in France in August.

May We Shed These Human Bodies has been very well received.  Matt Bell writes that it ‘is a collection of marvellous inventions, each one a wonder-machine propelled by fairytale and dream and human and hope, ready to carry us off into new adventure’, and Ben Loory captures his thoughts thus: ‘I always love a book that makes me fear for the writer’s sanity.  I’m over here praying for Amber Sparks.’.

9780983422877There is almost an ethereal quality to Sparks’ books; her prose is complex and multilayered.  Some of the stories within May We Shed These Human Bodies are strange, and all are startling.  There are some very short stories to be found within her debut, which run to less than two full pages.  Others are quite a bit longer.  The individuality of each tale shines through; whilst none of them are alike, the collection is coherent, and reads like a singular unit.  This is helped, in part, with the unusual, intriguing, and quirky titles Sparks gives to her stories.  Here, they range from ‘The Monstrous Sadness of Mythical Creatures’ and ‘Gone and Gone Already’, to ‘All the Imaginary People are Better at Life’ and ‘The Ghosts Eat More Air’.

I could quote extensively from May We Shed These Human Bodies, beautiful and thought-provoking as it is, but rather than ruin some great surprises for those of you whose interest is piqued, I shall whet your interest by sharing the initial paragraph of ‘The City Outside of Itself’: ‘The City longed to travel.  He hadn’t been anywhere in ages, and wanted to see what things looked like outside of himself.  So the City asked his best friend Tammie if she would mind giving him a lift.  Tammie took her gum out of her mouth and twirled it around and around her index finger, pink on peach on pink, while she thought about it.’

May We Shed These Human Bodies is a beguiling and absorbing collection, from an author who already has such a distinctive voice.  Sparks’ use of language is often beautiful and original, and sometimes loaded with meaning.  A great balance of reality and magical realism has been struck.  All of these stories here chill, and sing, and sparkle, and Sparks’ playfulness serves to make the collection entirely surprising.  Inventive, creative, and intelligent, May We Shed These Human Bodies became a firm favourite of mine on my first reading, and is certainly a tome which I hope to pick up many more times in the future.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

The Book Trail: A Persephone Special

We begin this edition of The Book Trail with one of my favourite reads of late, Elizabeth Jenkins’ depiction of a real Victorian murder case, Harriet.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed…’ feature on Goodreads to compile this list.  Harriet is a Persephone publication; each of the recommended reads on its page, as well as pages for following books, is also published by the same wonderful press.

1. Harriet by Elizabeth Jenkins 13607031
This story traces the life of Harriet Richardson, a mentally-disabled young woman who was allowed to die of starvation by her husband.

 

2. Tea With Mr. Rochester by Frances Towers
When these captivating and at times bizarre stories were published posthumously in 1949, Angus Wilson wrote: ‘It appears no exaggeration to say that Frances Towers’s death in 1948 may have robbed us of a figure of more than purely contemporary significance. At first glance one might be disposed to dismiss Miss Towers as an imitation Jane Austen, but it would be a mistaken judgment, for her cool detachment and ironic eye are directed more often than not against the sensible breeze that blasts and withers, the forthright candour that kills the soul. Miss Towers flashes and shines now this way, now that, like a darting sunfish.’ ‘At her best her prose style is a shimmering marvel,’ wrote the Independent on Sunday, ‘and few writers can so deftly and economically delineate not only the outside but the inside of a character…There’s always more going on than you can possibly fathom.’ And the Guardian said: ‘Her social range may not be wide, but her descriptions are exquisite and her tone poised between the wry and the romantic.’

 

14458613. Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories by Mollie Panter-Downes
‘For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes’ name was associated with “The New Yorker”, for which she wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’, book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted – these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.  Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime.’

 

4. The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
The setting for this, the third novel by Dorothy Whipple Persephone have published, is Saunby Priory, a large house somewhere in England which has seen better times. We are shown the two Marwood girls, who are nearly grown-up, their father, the widower Major Marwood, and their aunt; then, as soon as their lives have been described, the Major proposes marriage to a woman much younger than himself – and many changes begin.

 

5. The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield Fisher 2703159
Although this novel first appeared in 1924, it deals in an amazingly contemporary manner with the problems of a family in which both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family. The changes that take place between husband and wife and particularly between parents and children are both fascinating and poignant.

 

6. Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd
Tells the tale of a woman who goes on a cruise and is swept overboard. She lives for three years on a desert island before being rescued by a destroyer in 1943. When she returns to England it seems to her to have gone mad: she cannot buy clothes without ‘coupons’, and she is considered uncivilised if she walks barefoot or is late for meals.

 

7. Doreen by Barbara Noble
Describes the mind of a child torn between her mother, whom she leaves behind in London, and the couple who take her in.

 

8. Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski 163544
Hilary Wainwright, poet and intellectual, returns after the war to a blasted and impoverished France in order to trace a child lost five years before. Is the child really his? And does he want him?

 

Which of these books have you read?  Have any of them piqued your interest?  Which is your favourite Persephone publication?

1

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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

‘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.

Purchase from The Book Depository

0

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?

Purchase from The Book Depository