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Abandoned Books: ‘Collected Stories’ by Colette and ‘After the Death of Ellen Keldberg’ by Eddie Thomas Petersen

Collected Stories by Colette 9780374518653
I have been looking forward to Colette’s Collected Stories for such a long time. Translated by Antonia White, an author whom I enjoy, I expected that these tales would be immersive, beautifully written, and memorable. I normally find Colette’s work immediately absorbing and transporting, so I was surprised when I did not find myself becoming immersed in this early on. These are largely really more like sketches and monologues than short stories, and as most of them feature Colette, or a facsimile of herself, either as narrator or main character, it feels like a series of biographical fragments rather than a collection of stories.

Collected Stories had very little of the pull which I was expecting. There was little of the charm and wit of her longer works, too. Perhaps because the collection which I read is comprised of earlier stories, they are not as polished as her later work. Regardless, I felt markedly underwhelmed by this collection. I enjoyed a couple of the stories, but the plots included were largely very thin on the ground, and the characters difficult to connect with.

White’s translation felt seamless, and I had no problem with the prose itself. Collected Stories feels like an anomaly in what I have read of Colette’s thus far. I found this collection lacklustre and disappointing, but am hoping that it is just a blip in her oeuvre, as I would very much like to read the rest of Colette’s full-lenth work in future.

 

9781999944841After the Death of Ellen Keldberg by Eddie Thomas Petersen
Eddie Thomas Petersen’s After the Death of Ellen Keldberg has been translated from its original Danish by Toby Bainton. Set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which is ‘an artists’ paradise in summer, but only the locals belong there in winter’, a mystery begins to unfold when the dead body of a woman named Ellen Keldberg is discovered on a bench.

Petersen immediately sets the scene, in brief descriptive prose: ‘Bluish white, like skimmed milk, the mist seems so near that you could gather it up in your hands. The storm has blown itself out in the night and the wind has dropped, but you can still hear the waves breaking in a hollow roar out by the bay.’ There is nothing particularly wrong with the prose here, but I found the conversations to be stilted and unrealistic for the most part, and the majority of the writing which followed too matter-of-fact, and even a little dull at times. The translation used some quite old-fashioned words and phrases which made the novel seem dated.

My expectations were markedly different to what I found within the pages of this novel. Whilst I found the premise of After the Death of Ellen Keldberg interesting enough, for this genre of novel, it felt too slow-going, and plodded along in rather a sluggish manner. The book’s blurb proclaims that this is a ‘subtle novel… an enthralling family saga, a slow-burning murder mystery, and a portrait of Skagen in the dark and in the snow, full of alliances and old secrets.’ Slow is correct. Whilst I was expecting a piece of immersive Nordic Noir, I received something which felt as though it hardly got going.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg was not at all what I was expecting, and I felt distanced from the characters from the outset. They did not appear particularly interesting to me; nor were they three-dimensional. The entirety of the novel felt rather lacklustre, and I would not rush to read another of Petersen’s novels.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘My True Love Gave To Me: Twelve Winter Romances’, edited by Stephanie Perkins ****

I will just highlight the fact that I do not tend to read young adult books at all, but wanted to read something a little different a couple of years ago.  I received a review copy of this, and enjoyed it far more than I first thought.  The moral of the story is read everything, folks.

My True Love Gave to Me: Twelve Winter Romances features a variety of authors who largely write solely within the Young Adult genre, from contemporary fantasy and the paranormal, to ‘the strange things that love can do to people’.  Edited by Stephanie Perkins, this collection features one of her tales, along with work by Rainbow Rowell, Holly Black, Ally Carter, Gayle Forman, David Levithan, Matt de la Pena, Laini Taylor, Jenny Han, Kelly Link, Myra McEntire and Kiersten White. 9781250059314

The blurb of My True Love Gave to Me calls it ‘a gift for teen readers and beyond’.  It is ‘the perfect collection of short stories to keep you warm this winter…  Each is a little gem, filled with the enchanting magic of first love and the fun festive holidays’.  The inspiration within the collection is vast, and whilst all of the authors have used the festive period in their stories, they have done so in decidedly different ways.

Rainbow Rowell’s tale – the lovely ‘Midnights’ – opens the book.  In it, her protagonist, Mags, sits in her friend’s garden on the 31st of December and reflects upon three of her previous New Year’s Eve celebrations.  Each of them revolve around her allergy-prone friend Noel, who is described as ‘her person’; the one whom she turns to in periods of strife.  Rowell’s writing is sharp and her characterisation works marvellously.  In Kelly Link’s interesting ‘The Lady and The Fox’, a mysterious figure in a beautifully embroidered coat befriends a young girl named Miranda during successive Christmas celebrations.

In Matt de la Pena’s ‘Angels in the Snow’, a young man faces spending Christmas alone, hours away from his family.  Jenny Han’s story ‘Polaris is Where You’ll Find Me’ is told from the perspective of Natalie, a Korean who was adopted by Santa, and is the only human girl to live in the North Pole.  In Stephanie Perkins’ ‘It’s a Yuletide Miracle’, protagonist Marigold has gone in search of a boy who works in a Christmas tree lot near her apartment because she ‘needed his voice’ for a project; the sweetest of scenes and most sharply observed conversation ensues.  The narrator of David Levithan’s ‘Your Temporary Santa’ dresses up as Santa Claus to keep the dream alive for his boyfriend’s younger sister, despite being Jewish.  In Holly Black’s ‘Krampuslauf’, a New Year’s Eve celebration converges with a hearty – and clever – dose of magical realism.

Whilst I have not discussed each story here, it is fair to say that there is not a weak link in the collection.  Only two of the stories were not to my personal taste, but they were still interesting to read.  My True Love Gave to Me is both quirky and memorable, and it provides a great introduction to a wealth of different authors writing contemporary YA.  One can never quite work out where the majority of the stories are going to end, or what will occur within them; they are largely very unpredictable, and incredibly sweet. The physical book itself is lovely, with its duck egg blue and gold cover, fluorescent pink page edging and gold ribbon bookmark. My True Love Gave to Me is a great collection, in which many different viewpoints have been considered.  The characters which have been created are both believable and unpredictable, and each narrative voice has been crafted with the utmost care.  It is sure to make every reader – whether teenage or older – feel marvellously festive, and is a great antidote to those winter blues.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Cracked Looking-Glass’ by Katherine Anne Porter ****

The thirty-seventh book on the Penguin Moderns list, The Cracked Looking-Glass by American author Katherine Anne Porter, was one which I was particularly intrigued by.  In this story, which was first published in 1922, ‘a passionately unfulfilled woman considers her life and her marriage’.  This woman is named Rosaleen; she has been married to Dennis, thirty years her senior, for over two decades, and the pair live on a farm in rural Connecticut.

9780241339626I particularly enjoyed the opening scenes of the story, in which Porter sets both scenes, and the complexities of marriage, with precision and beauty.  She writes: ‘Dennis heard Rosaleen talking in the kitchen and a man’s voice answering.  He sat with his hands dangling over his knees, and thought for the hundredth time that sometimes Rosaleen’s voice was company to him, and other days he wished all day long she didn’t have so much to say about everything.’

Porter is so aware of her characters’ flaws, and how these adapt with the passing of time.  During their anniversary dinner, for instance, ‘He looked at her sitting across the table from him and thought she was a very fine woman, noticed again her red hair and yellow eyelashes and big arms and strong big teeth, and wondered what she thought of him now he was no human good to her.  Here he was, all gone, and he had been so for years, and he felt guilt sometimes before Rosaleen, who couldn’t always understand how there comes a time when  man is finished, and there is no more to be done that way.’

The Cracked Looking-Glass is quite tender in places.  Of Rosaleen, Porter writes: ‘She wished now she’d had a dozen children instead of the one that died in two days.  This half-forgotten child suddenly lived again her, she began to weep for him with all the freshness of her first agony; now he would be a fine grown man and the dear love of her heart.’  Given that this is a short story, there is a lot of depth here, and we learn a lot about the pasts of the characters, and how this has affected their present-day lives.

The looking glass of the story’s title is square in shape, and positioned in the living room.  ‘There was,’ writes Porter, ‘a ripple in the glass and a crack across the middle, and it was like seeing your face in water.’  Throughout the story, Rosaleen views herself in it, and Porter records her thoughts.  With this technique, and the scenes which she records, Porter has been able to create a fascinating portrait of a complex and complicated, and incredibly realistic, woman.  The Cracked Looking-Glass also presents a searing portrait of a troubled marriage in a skilfully crafted way.   I was reminded somewhat of Katherine Mansfield whilst I was reading, one of the highest accolades which I could give; not so much because of Porter’s prose style, but due to the way in which she builds her characters and their histories.

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‘When I Was A Wolf’ by Terayama Shūji ****

As winter is settling down for good and Christmas is fast approaching, what better way to spend those chilly days than cosy up with a hot beverage and a good book of fairy tale-inspired stories. 61II3YJTd9L

My fascination with fairy tales and folk stories is nothing new, so as soon as I found out about When I Was A Wolf, a book of classic Western fairy tale retellings by Terayama Shūji, a Japanese author, I was incredibly excited to get my hands on it. Fairy tale retellings have been quite popular for a long time now, but since they are usually retold by a Western perspective, I thought it would be very intriguing to gain some insight on what a Japanese author would make of those Western tales most of us grew up with and are so fond of.

Terayama Shūji doesn’t merely retell the classic fairy tales that have been chosen for this collection, but instead he twists and turns them into an entirely different entity. Attempting to give them an adult twist, much like Angela Carter had also done, Terayama creates stories that are definitely not suitable for children, mostly due to the numerous sexual references and inuendos. One such example is Pinocchio’s nose, which is being turned into a phallus that grows more and more whenever he tells a lie. This collection is excellently translated by Elizabeth L. Armstrong, who also wrote a very useful and highly informative preface to the book, giving some much needed insight into the author’s style and literary achievements.

The book is divided into two main parts. The first one contains some essays and thought pieces where Terayama explains his interpretation of fairy tales like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘Puss in Boots’, ‘Pinocchio’, as well as of literary masterpieces like Ibsen’s ‘Doll House’, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Don Quixote’ and so on. I have to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed his literary voice and the way he expressed his opinion, even if it was one that I wouldn’t always agree with. Terayama is a very talented critic and most of his opinions on the literary pieces he commented on were spot on and gave me a lot to ponder. What shines through the entire book, though, is undoubtedly his wit and sense of humour. Every sentence, every remark he makes is witty and purposeful and I believe this is what made me truly enjoy this book in the end.

The second part contains the actual retellings of fairy tales by Andersen, Aesop’s Fables and Perrault’s Mother Goose, which Terayama turns into adult-themed stories. Although it was this part of the book I was most looking forward to reading, I have to admit I was slightly disappointed in the result. Yes, the author’s wit and caustic humour encompass his writing and that makes it enjoyable, but I was probably expecting something different. In most cases, instead of a full-fledged story, we get a conglomeration of opinion pieces, “readers’ letters” and a partial rewriting of the fairy tale in question. I soon came to realise, though, that this is just Terayama’s writing style and my disappointment is mostly due to my creating unrealistic expectations, as I was expecting a rather conventionally retold story, if I can call it that.

Elizabeth L. Armstrong, the translator, perfectly describes the experience of reading Terayama’s essays and stories in her preface: “His work is often like a piece of performance art you simply cannot tear your eyes away from, so you bear witness to it, awash with feelings of revulsion, morbid attraction, revelation and compassion” (p. vii). This first encounter with Terayama’s work might not have been what I expected, but it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to seek more of his work, especially since he’s an author I had never heard of before.

Have you read this book? Do you enjoy fairy tale retellings and if yes, which is your favourite? Let me know in the comments below 🙂

A copy of the book was very kindly sent to me by the publisher, Kurodahan Press.

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Penguin Moderns: Hans Fallada and Saul Bellow

9780241339244Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada *** (#34)
I have really enjoyed what I have read of Fallada’s work thus far, and was therefore looking forward to Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, a short story collection included in the Penguin Moderns series.  These are ‘darkly funny, streetwise tales of low-lifes, grifters and ordinary people trying to make ends meet in pre-war Germany.’  All of the stories collected here – ‘Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?’, ‘War Monument or Urinal?’, and ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ – have been taken from Tales of the Underworld, which first appeared in English in 2014.  All have been translated by Michael Hofmann.

I found Fallada’s prose style interesting; he uses a rather conversational narrative voice, which I did not feel always worked.  I must admit that I found this collection a little disappointing.  The title story is a little odd, and seemed to end quite abruptly.  Given the beauty of Alone in Berlin and Every Man Dies Alone, I was expecting something rather different from these short stories.  Whilst they have a considerable amount to say, there is little cohesion between them.  The second story is clever, and makes many comments about German politics, and I did enjoy the third, about a couple who are adamant to have the happiest Christmas they can, despite the husband not expecting payment of his yearly bonus.  Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? isn’t a bad collection by any means, but if I had come to Fallada’s work with no preconceptions and read this, I can’t say I’d rush to get to the rest of his oeuvre.

 

Leaving the Yellow House by Saul Bellow *** (#36) 9780241338995
The thirty-sixth book on the Penguin Moderns list is a short story entitled ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ by Saul Bellow, which was first published in 1956.  In it, ‘a stubborn, hard-drinking elderly woman living in a desert town finds herself faced with an impossible choice, in this caustically funny, precisely observed tale from an American prose master.’  I do not recall reading anything of Bellow’s before, and as I am always keen to discover new to me short story authors, I was looking forward to reading this.

The opening of the story really sets the scene, and the period in which the story is set: ‘The neighbors – there were in all six white people who lived at Sego Desert Lake – told one another that old Hattie could no longer make it alone.  The desert life, even with a forced-air furnace in the house and butane gas brought from town in a truck, was still too difficult for her.’  Hattie has settled here after being left a yellow house by her friend India, described throughout as a real ‘lady’.  I did enjoy Bellow’s portrayal of Hattie, and found this one of the strengths of the novel.  He describes her, for instance, in the following way: ‘You couldn’t help being fond of Hattie.  She was big and cheerful, puffy, comic, boastful, with a big round back and stiff, rather long legs.’

After having ‘a few Martinis’ one evening, Hattie loses control of her car, and it veers onto the railway tracks.  ‘Leaving the Yellow House’ is ultimately a character study of Hattie, which charts her gradual decline.  She begins to plan for her death, and debates who to leave the yellow house to in her will.  The premise of the story is interesting, and it is well executed.  Whilst it kept my interest throughout, I was not quite blown away by it, however.  This taster of Bellow’s work has unfortunately not made me want to pick up any of his other books in the next few months, as I had hoped it would.

 

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Penguin Moderns: Cyprian Ekwensi and Jack Kerouac

Glittering City by Cyprian Ekwensi *** (#32) 9780241339848
In Cyprian Ekwensi’s short story, ‘untrustworthy, charming Fussy Joe spins tall tales and breaks hearts in this rollicking story set in the “sensational city” of 1960s Lagos.’  First published in 1966, reading Glittering City was my first taste of Ekwensi’s work.  I found that the opening descriptions of person and place helped to set the tone of the whole, rather than paying too much attention to the scene.  I did find that Nigeria was used barely at all as a setting, aside from several short and random descriptions of Lagos.  I know that this is a short story, but I would have enjoyed more content like this within it.

Fussy Joe has depth to him, and comes across largely as an untrustworthy creep.  When the story begins, he takes a young girl, who has arrived alone at the train station, back to his room in another part of Lagos.  It is here that she begins to feel frightened: ‘All of the tales she had heard about the bad men of the city came crawling back.  They were the exciting stories they whispered after lights out in the boarding-house.’

I felt rather uncomfortable whilst reading parts of this story.  Whilst I enjoyed Ekwensi’s prose style, and found the whole well written and nicely paced, there were elements which detracted from my enjoyment.  I did not like Fussy Joe at all, or his constant dishonesty; he tells various people that he is employed in all manner of different jobs, and has several women on the go at once.

Throughout, I could not quite tell in which the direction the story was going, and it did surprise me in a couple of places.  There did feel at times as though there was too much going on in the story, and whilst I enjoyed some elements, others I felt indifferent to, or disliked altogether.   I’m not going to rush to read any of Ekwensi’s other work, but I would be intrigued to try another of his short stories at some point, just to see how it compares.

 

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707Piers of the Homeless Night by Jack Kerouac *** (#33)
I do really enjoy Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s work, and was looking forward to reading these ‘soaring, freewheeling snapshots of life on the road across America.’  Piers of the Homeless Night, which is the thirty-third publication on the Penguin Moderns list, is composed of two journal entries – ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’ and ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’ – which were first published in Lonesome Traveler (1960).

I tend to find that Kerouac has a lot to say about American society, and that is certainly the case here.  The stream-of-consciousness style, with its longer than usual run-on sentences did take me a little while to get into, but it works on the whole.  I admire Kerouac’s writing, largely in that I would find it impossible to emulate.  His prose is fascinating, too.  There is structure here, but elements of both journal entries are a little garbled and confusing.  If this was the first work of Kerouac’s which I had read, I would be largely indifferent to picking up anything else by him.  As it is, I enjoyed On the Road and Maggie Cassidy far more than I did Piers of the Homeless Night.

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Penguin Moderns: ‘The Gigolo’ by Francoise Sagan *****

9780241339640
I was very much looking forward to the Francoise Sagan short stories published as part of the Penguin Moderns series (#31).  I have read quite a lot of her work to date, and always admire the way in which she writes, and the clever characterisation always to be found within her books.  In this collection of ‘shimmering, bittersweet tales of desire and disillusionment’, ‘a middle-aged woman breaks with her young lover; a husband is suspected of infidelity; a dying man reflects on his extramarital affairs’.

As with many of her psychologically rich novel-length stories, Sagan concerns herself here with the darker side of human relationships in these stories.  She focuses upon sexuality and affairs, and the ways in which people hurt others.  The four stories collected here are ‘The Gigolo’, ‘The Unknown Visitor’, ‘The Lake of Loneliness’, and in Joanna Kilmartin’s English translation in 1977.

Throughout, Sagan has such a deep understanding of her characters, and of what motivates them.  She knows their vulnerabilities and their thought patterns.  True to form, her stories rarely end with happy conclusions, or even with closure.  She presents the unexpected, and builds suspense well throughout.  She displays one complicated life after another, and the fragments of story which she focuses upon tell the reader so much about her protagonists.

Sagan strikes such a great balance between descriptions of place and developments of character.  She has such skill in presenting the more chilling aspects of the natural world.  In ‘The Lakes of Loneliness’, for instance, she writes: ‘The idea of those lakes in the setting sun, with reeds, furze, perhaps some duck, immediately attracted her and she quickened her step.  She came upon the first of the promised lakes almost at once.  It was a mixture of blues and greys, and although not covered with wildfowl (there wasn’t even a single duck) it was nevertheless strewn with dead leaves which were slowly sinking, one after another, in a dying spiral; and each one seemed to be in need of aid and protection.  Each of these dead leaves was an Ophelia.’

The translation of each of these stories is fluid, and the prose beguiling.  The stories in The Gigolo are not neat; they make one think for weeks after the final page has been read.  I loved each of the stories collected here, but was particularly struck by the imagery and troubled female protagonist in ‘The Lake of Loneliness’; there is such a dark beauty to it.  The stories here are so human, so deep, and so wonderful.

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