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‘We Don’t Know What We’re Doing’ by Thomas Morris ****

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is the debut short story collection by Thomas Morris.  First published in 2015, it was chosen by one of my favourite authors, Ali Smith, as one of her books of the year.  She writes that this collection is ‘Heart-hurtingly acute, laugh-out-loud funny, and not just a book of the year for me but one of the most satisfying collections I’ve read for years.’  Colm Toibin deems it ‘really impressive and memorable’, and it has also been highly praised by a number of publications; the Observer, for instance, calls it ‘brilliantly judged… a quiet masterstroke.’  For me, the collection ticked so many boxes, and as I particularly enjoy discovering new-to-me short story authors, I snapped up a copy as soon as I saw one in a branch of Fopp.

9780571317011Set in the ‘sleepy castle town’ of Caerphilly in southern Wales, this collection of ten stories ‘offers vivid and moving glimpses into the lives of some of its inhabitants – the lost, lonely and bemused.’  Each protagonist is troubled in some way.  One of the protagonists in the opening story, ‘Bolt’ calls Caerphilly a ‘paradox’, in that ‘it only looks nice when you’re away from it.’  I have read rather a lot of fiction set in Wales, but this collection felt a little different, in that it is based around a town, rather than taking place in a purely rural setting.  I found it most interesting to read something more urban in character, the town used as it is as a focal point which connects its disparate inhabitants.  Caerphilly is referenced many times throughout the stories; it is a presence always there, and always discernible.

Each of the stories in We Don’t Know What We’re Doing offer up tiny, realistic slices of life.  There are characters here going through complicated breakups, suffering at work, trying to come to terms with grief, or in less than perfect relationships.  Morris focuses upon the minutiae of life, and those things which have the power to change someone, sometimes irrevocably.  His prose and plotlines are sometimes startling relatable.  In ‘Castle View’, for instance, Morris describes the sleeplessness of his main character: ‘It’s been four months now since he started at the school, and he hasn’t been sleeping well.  He dreams of losing teeth and being chased, and in the mornings he’s disappointed by the obviousness of these dreams.  In the night, his wife talks in her sleep.  There are times when he wakes to hear her speaking a kind of Russian-sounding language.  For a while he tried to stay awake when it happened.  He thought she might disclose something important.  Another man’s name, perhaps.  But no, just more gibberish.  Where do they come from, he thinks, all these chains of nonsense?’

Much sadness and despair penetrates both the town and its inhabitants; even the characters of comparative privilege here are suffering in some way. Throughout, Morris is revealing of his intriguing cast of characters, and often of the way in which their surroundings impact upon them.  Many of them have a lot going on in their lives, and act contrary to societal expectations.  Some of Morris’ protagonists are likeable, others not so much, but each can be believed and understood.

Throughout, I really admired Morris’ writing, particular with regard to the way in which he uses similes.  In ‘Bolt’, a group of young girls teeter past on ‘heels the size of Coke cans’, and in ‘Fugue’, ‘side-on, your father’s eyes seem like two swollen capital Ds – glassy and unreal.’  He knows instinctively the number of details to reveal about a character or scene, and I was intrigued throughout by these tightly plotted tales. There are dark edges to every single one of the stories; these range from a secret and suppressed memories, to the dislocation one might feel when coming back to their childhood home after time away.

I admired the use of different narrative perspectives used throughout the collection, and found the variety here engaging.  One of the stories, ‘Fugue’, is told using the second person perspective, and begins as follows: ‘On the way back from Cardiff, your father asks questions about Edinburgh and Tim.  You answer vaguely, and look out the window as the landmarks of approaching home draw near.  You haven’t been back in a year, and you’d forgotten that these places… even exist.’

We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is a transporting and assured debut collection.  Morris already has a strong authorial voice, and it seems as though he effortlessly brings each one of his characters, many of which are unnamed, to life.  We Don’t Know What We’re Doing is the first work by a promising voice in fiction; it is an impressive collection, which reads like the work of a seasoned author.  The collection is a cohesive one, in which several characters cleverly slip in and out of other stories.  I for one am very much looking forward to Morris’ future publications.

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‘The Early Stories of Truman Capote’ ****

I spotted a gorgeous US edition of The Early Stories of Truman Capote in Fopp, and could not resist picking it up.  As one of my favourite authors, I have been wanting this collection since I first learnt of its publication, which followed the rediscovery of a lot of Capote’s juvenilia in the New York Public Library’s archives.  It collects together ‘the early fiction of one of the nation’s most celebrated writers… as he takes his first bold steps into the canon of American literature.’  They ‘provide an unparalleled look at Truman Capote writing in his teens and early twenties’.  Many of the stories were published for the first time between 1940 and 1941.

718oijyWWSLThe edition which I read featured a foreword by Hilton Als, a writer at the New Yorker magazine.  He begins by focusing upon a moment in 1963, in which Truman Capote was in Kansas, conducting his research for In Cold Blood.  Als writes: ‘He’s almost forty and he’s been a writer for nearly as long as he’s been alive.  Words, stories, tales – he’s been at it since he was a child, growing up in Louisiana and rural Alabama and then Connecticut and New York – a citizen formed by a divided world and opposing cultures: in his native South there was segregation, and, up north, at least talk of assimilation.  In both places there was his intractable queerness.  And the queerness of being a writer.’  He goes on to note that ‘Capote’s cinematic eye – the movies influenced him as much as books and conversation did – was sharpened as he produced these apprentice works.’  Als also remarks upon Capote’s fascination with outsiders, believing himself to be one too.

The collection is short, spanning less than 170 pages, but over a dozen relatively brief pieces have been included.  Throughout, Capote is more focused on people than plot, but things do happen in each of the stories.  Indeed, the blurb writes that in his early work, it is evident that ‘Capote’s powers of empathy [are] developing as he depicts his characters struggling at the margins of their known worlds.’    For the most part, his early efforts have a tremendously effective pace to them.

The stories here take into account many different themes: ‘crime and violence; of racism and injustice; of poverty and despair.  And there are tales of generosity and tenderness; compassion and connection; wit and wonder.’  There are moments of comedy in some of these stories, and shades of tragedy in others.  Whilst there was less about race in the book than I was expecting, it is possible to identify Capote’s later influences and interests in this collection.

The stories here are not overly simplistic, but they perhaps err a little, on the whole, on the matter-of-fact, and are less descriptive than his later work tends to be.  As in the books of Capote’s written when he was more mature, however, I found that he has an uncanny ability to evoke both place and character by mentioning just a few details.  In ‘Parting of the Way’, for instance, he describe his protagonist like so: ‘Jake’s flaming red hair framed his head, his eyebrows looked like hors, his muscles bulged and were threatening; his overalls were faded and ragged, and his toes stuck out through pieces of shoes.’  Of Jake’s companion Tim, very much the antithesis, Capote writes: ‘His thin shoulders drooped from the strain, and his gaunt features stood out with protruding bones.  His eyes were weak but sympathetic; his rose-bud mouth puckered slightly as he went about his labor.’ Although many of the stories did not mention the specific geographic location in which they were set, each holds certain allusions to Capote’s Deep South.

In his tales, Capote’s characters have a lot of variance to them, hailing as they do from different walks of life – from the aforementioned downtrodden Tim in ‘Parting of the Ways’, to the privileged protagonist of ‘Hilda’, who is troubled in an entirely different way.  He is adept throughout at setting scenes, particularly when they involve impoverishment. As in his later work, Capote has a real knack here for capturing his characters.  In ‘This is for Jamie’, Capote describes the typical Sunday morning for his young protagonist: ‘Teddy ran along the paved paths of the park with a wild exuberance.  He was an Indian, a detective, a robber-baron, a fairy-tale Prince, he was an angel, he was going to escape from the thieves through the bush – and most of ask he was happy and he had two whole hours to himself.’

The authorial voice here is recognisably Capote’s, but I did find it possible to identify echoes of other works and influences as I was reading.  The opening of ‘Miss Belle Rankin’ reminded me somewhat of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, beginning as it does: ‘I was eight the first time I saw Miss Belle Rankin.  It was a hot August day.  The sun was waning in the scarlet-streaked day, and the heat was rising dry and vibrant from the earth.’  I did find it atmospheric at times, particularly within this story.  Capote writes: ‘The room was cold when she awoke and long tears of ice hung on the eaves of the roof.  She shuddered a little as she looked about at the drabness.  With an effort she slipped from beneath the gay colored scrap quilt.’  Later in the story, Capote’s descriptions become darker and more tense: ‘It was quite dark when Miss Belle started climbing up the hill towards home.  Dark came quickly on these winter days.  It came so suddenly today that it frightened her at first.  There was no glaring sunset, only the pearl grayness of the sky deepening into rich black.’  There are other beautiful, evocative touches to be found within The Early Stories of Truman Capote.  In ‘If I Forget You’, for example, he writes: ‘She wanted to stay out here in the night where she could breathe and smell and touch it.  It seemed so palpable to her that she could feel its texture like fine blue satin.’

I found it fascinating, having read all of Capote’s other fiction, and a large chunk of his non-fiction, to see his growth as an author from these earliest efforts.  Some of the stories in this collection perhaps end a little abruptly, but actually, I did not mind this.  I found that the majority of the tales tended to finish at just the right time, leaving a sense of intrigue in their wake.  The Early Stories of Truman Capote is rather a quick read, but it offers much to mull over.  For juvenilia, some of it certainly feels quite accomplished.  There perhaps is not the polish to the majority of the pieces here, but they are certainly interesting precursors.  Regardless, Capote manages to capture a great deal in this collection, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys his later work.

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‘Speculative Japan 4: “Pearls for Mia” and Other Tales’ ****

There’s nothing better and more satisfying than finding a way to combine one’s passions. This is exactly what the Speculative Japan series does for me, as it successfully combines my love for fantasy and my fascination with Japan and its unique literature. 37550505

It’s been almost 3 years since I first read and reviewed the second volume in the series, which also happened to be my introduction to the fascinating world of Japanese fiction of the fantastic. In a similar fashion to the previous volumes, this fourth instalment includes 15 short stories, all by different authors and containing fantasy or sci-fi themes.

I really enjoyed reading this volume, as I think it was quite diverse in its content. There were some really long stories (“Dancing Babylon” by Makino Osamu) and some very short ones (“Nightfall” by Suzuki Miekichi or “Communion” by Takahashi Takako); there were stories by women as well as by men (and I’m always enthralled when I encounter fantasy stories by Japanese women); and, of course, there was the right balance between fantasy/fantastic and sci-fi stories, something which I think is an improvement compared to the previous volume where sci-fi seemed to prevail.

As with every collection, it is rather difficult for all of the stories to appeal to the reader to the same degree, and even though there were a couple of stories that were not really akin to my usual reading style, I did enjoy most of the stories contained in this volume. Two of my favourite stories were “The Fish in Chryse” by Azuma Hiroki and “The Sparrow Valley” by Hanmura Ryo.

But what I really love about the Speculative Japan series is the fact that I can encounter authors I haven’t read or even heard of before, and that expands my reading horizons immensely. The Japanese literary fantastic is a genre I’m very passionate and enthusiastic about, but since I’m still relatively new to it and I don’t have immediate access to all the untranslated works all the way here in Greece, it’s always very difficult for me to come across new and exciting authors. Speculative Japan does the job for me in this case, and so far, it has never failed me. I also love how the titles of the stories and the names of the authors are also given in Japanese, for those of us who want to research the originals, too.

If I had to mention something I find lacking in this volume, that would be more information on the translators of each piece. Especially when I read a story by an author I haven’t read before, I really enjoy reading about the author him/herself, as well as about their translators, as I tend to find their bios fascinating. That is just me, though, but it’s a little something I would like to see included in translated story collections more often.

Lastly, I would like to mention that the publishing house of Speculative Japan 4 is organising a short story translation contest (I believe) every year, and the winner’s translation is included in the upcoming Speculative Japan volume(s). I think that’s an amazing initiative, as well as a great incentive for new and aspiring translators of Japanese to English to become recognised. One day I might enter as well! 😉

While I’m eagerly anticipating the next volume of Speculative Japan to be released, I will go hunt down the ones I’m missing.

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

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‘Three Japanese Short Stories’ by Akutagawa & Others (Penguin Modern #5)

My second read (actually third in order read but second I review) for Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12 was the fifth installment in the Penguin Modern series.

Despite its short length, this slim volume is packed with three short stories which are very different from one another, each one representative of a different aspect of Japanese literature at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, all translated by Jay Rubin.  38727862

The first story, ‘Behind the Prison’ by Nagai Kafu, is a lyrical monologue written in the form of a letter the protagonist writes to his Excellency. The story is filled with beautiful descriptions of nature, as well as musings on the traditional culture of Japan and its being ‘tainted’ by the Western beliefs. Although he’s one of the most famous classic Japanese writers, I had never read any of Kafu’s works before and I fell madly in love with his prose and use of language (or, at least, its English translation that I read).

The second story, ‘Closet LLB’ by Uno Koji, recounts the tale of a man who loved literature and the arts but ended up studying law, only to discover that this profession is no more lucrative than his literary passion would have been, as he ends up living in a closet. The story is written in the very typical satyrical style of Uno, in the form of a fairy tale or fable, but with very realistic and not at all ideal situations. Although merely 18 pages long, this story manages to raise issues that still plague all of us today, such as being stuck in a job that doesn’t satisfy the individual and what a happy life constitutes of.

The third and final story is ‘General Kim’ by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, one of my favourite Japanese authors. This is the shortest of the three stories included in this volume, and yet I feel its message and impact is equally powerful as in the other two. It recounts the story of General Kim, a Korean soldier, and how he ends up saving his country from the ‘evil Japanese’. The story is told as a fable, as a piece taken from a mythology book, filled with fantastic elements such as decapitated bodies that still move, flying swords and all this nice stuff. At the very end, Akutagawa, with obvious irony, gives us his critique of such stories, claiming that history is filled with tales of triumph for the winners, however silly and laughable they might actually be.

Overall, I really enjoyed this collection. These stories might not be the best starting point for getting acquainted with these authors, but I think they were diverse enough to appeal to people of different tastes.

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Penguin Moderns: Vladimir Nabokov and Wendell Berry

Lance by Vladimir Nabokov **** (#49) 9780241339527
I will begin this review by saying that of the work of Nabokov’s which I have read in the past, I have not enjoyed it anywhere near as much as most people seem to.  I had never encountered his short stories before picking up Lance.  All of these ‘dazzling stories of obsession, mania and an extra-terrestrial nightmare feature all of the wit, dexterity and inventiveness that are the hallmarks of Nabokov’s genius’, and were published between 1931 and 1951.  ‘The Aurelian’ was originally written in Russian, and appears in translation here by Peter Pertzov in collaboration with the author.  The other two stories – ‘Signs and Symbols’ and ‘Lance’ – were first written in English.

The three tales collected here are all rather sad.  ‘The Aurelian’ follows protagonist Paul Pilgram, who has taken over the running of his parents’ shop in Berlin.  Of Pilgram, Nabokov writes: ‘… as a boy he already feverishly swapped specimens with collectors, and after his parents died butterflies reigned supreme in the dim little shop.’  He is an entomologist, who knows so much about species all around the world, but has never travelled farther than Berlin’s suburbs.  His wish is to see butterflies living in their natural habitat.  I will say no more lest I give any of the story away, but suffice to say, I very much enjoyed reading it.  It is the first time in which  I have ever felt fully engaged with Nabokov’s work.

The second haunting story, ‘Signs and Symbols’, takes as its focus a suicidal young man living in a sanatorium, and the effects which he has upon his family: ‘The last time their son had tried to take his life, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded, had not an envious fellow patient thought he was learning to fly – and stopped him.  What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.’  I found such descriptions touching and evocative, and indeed, this style of writing and character reveal threads through all three tales in Lance.  The stories are very human, and I now have an interest to read more of Nabokov’s work in the near future.

The third titular story was the only one in this collection which I did not much enjoy.  However, that may be because it is so firmly rooted in science fiction, something which I am not at all a fan of.  I found it interesting enough to read, but it was certainly peculiar.  Had this surprising collection featured only the first two stories, I certainly would have given it a five star rating.

 

9780241337561Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer by Wendell Berry ***
The fiftieth, and final, Penguin Modern is Wendell Berry’s Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer, which features two essays.  The title essay was published for the first time in Harper’s magazine in 1987, and the second – ‘Feminism, the Body and the Machine’, which provides a reflection upon it – in 1990.

In the first essay, as is evident in its title, Berry argues his case for writing ‘in the day time, without electric light’, and with only paper and a pencil.  He says, of his decision: ‘I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.’  He also points out that he very much enjoys the collaborative experience which he shares with his wife, who types up his work on a Royal Standard typewriter: ‘Thus (and I think this is typical of present-day technological innovation), what would be superseded would be not only something, but somebody.  In order to be technologically up-to-date as a writer, I would have to sacrifice an association that I am dependent upon and that I treasure.’

This first essay ends with a transcription of several responses received after its publication, and Berry’s quite witty response.  In the second, and more extended response essay, Berry writes in a measured way of those who chose to send letters to him, and the overriding view that he was both exploiting and oppressing his wife by getting her to type his work.  Here, he reflects: ‘That feminists or any other advocates of human liberty and dignity should resort to insult and injustice is regrettable.  It is also regrettable that all of the feminist attacks on my essay implicitly deny the validity of two decent and probably necessary possibilities: marriage as a state of mutual help, and the household as an economy.’

I found this short collection easy to read, and found that Berry argues his various points succinctly, although perhaps a little briefly at times, throughout.  His reasoning, in some ways, feels quite ahead of its time.  He touches upon many themes here, from materialism and relationships to technology and values.  Berry’s essays have such a nice message at their heart: ‘My wish simply is to live my life as fully as I can.  In both our work and our leisure, I think, we should be so employed.  And in our time this means that we must save ourselves from the products that we are asked to buy in order, ultimately, to replace ourselves.’

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Penguin Moderns: Carson McCullers and Jorge Luis Borges

The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers ***** (#45) 9780241339503
The forty-fifth publication on the Penguin Moderns list is one which I was particularly looking forward to – The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers.  Whilst a huge fan of her fiction, and of the Southern Gothic genre in which she wrote, I have only read a handful of her short stories to date.  The blurb states that ‘these moving stories portray love, sorrow and our search for happiness and understanding.’  All of the tales here – ‘The Haunted Boy’, ‘The Sojourner’, and ‘A Domestic Dilemma’ – were published between 1950 and 1955.

As with her longer works, McCullers’ writing is fantastic – multilayered, perceptive, and admirable.  She captures moods particularly so well in the first story, ‘The Haunted Boy’: ‘It was then, in the unanswering silence as they stood in the empty, wax-floored hall, that Hugh felt there was something wrong’.  McCullers also marvellously explores her characters and their psyches.  From the same story, she writes of young protagonist Hugh: ‘Confession, the first deep-rooted words, opened the festered secrecy of the boy’s heart, and he continued more rapidly, urgent and finding unforeseen relief.’

McCullers also fantastically captures the essence of memory; from ‘The Sojourner’, for instance: ‘The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning, splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city of blossoms and age-soft stone.  Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss ski-ing and a snow hotel.  Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn.  Rome it was this morning in the fearless region of dreams.’

McCullers writes of some very dark topics in this selection of her work, and contrasts this darkness with a series of glorious descriptions.  Her character portraits are always sharp and varied.  All three stories here are rich, thoughtful, and searching, and I enjoyed every single word of them.  I am very excited to read the rest of McCullers’ short work at some point very soon.

 

9780241339053The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges ** (#46)
I do not think I had ever read any of Argentinian author Borges’ work before picking up the forty-sixth Penguin Modern, The Garden of Forking Paths.  I was not entirely sure, from other reviews which I have seen of various pieces of Borges’ work, whether this would be for me.  Collected here are several ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries, from the unique imagination of a literary magician’, and all were first published during the 1940s.  They have been variously translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley, and James E. Irby.

The stories in this collection are the title story, alongside ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and ‘Death and the Compass’.  All are very short, and ‘On Exactitude in Science’ covers just a single page.  There are some interesting ideas at play throughout, and I found the collection strange and unusual.  I could never quite guess where the stories were going to end up.

Whilst I found The Garden of Forking Paths interesting enough to read, and enjoyed some of the quite beguiling descriptions in its pages, it has not sparked an interest within me to pick up any more of Borges’ work.  I can see why other readers would really enjoy this collection, but it was not really my style.  The tales were a little obscure for my particular taste at times, and I found that they sometimes ended a little abruptly.

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Penguin Moderns: Yuko Tsushima and Javier Marias

9780241339787Of Dogs and Walls by Yuko Tsushima *** (#43)
I must admit that I find Japanese fiction a little hit or miss.  A lot of the stories which I have read have been a little too obscure for my taste, and even sometimes when I have enjoyed a particular plot, I find the writing, or the translation of it, rather too simplistic.  Regardless, I came to the forty-third Penguin Modern with an open mind.  These are described as ‘luminous, tender stories from one of Japan’s greatest twentieth-century writers, showing how childhood memories, dreams and fleeting encounters shape our lives.’

This collection is made up of two short stories, ‘The Watery Realm’, and ‘Of Dogs and Walls’.  The first was published in 1982, and the second in 2014, and this is the first time in which both tales have been translated into English, by Geraldine Harcourt.  ‘The Watery Realm’ begins in rather an intriguing manner: ‘It was in the middle of the summer he turned five, as I recall, that my son discovered the Western-style castle in the window of the goldfish shop in our neighbourhood.’  I found this tale engaging throughout, and the narrator and her son both felt like realistic creations.  I didn’t enjoy ‘Of Dogs and Walls’ anywhere near as much, unfortunately.  Whilst on the whole both stories were interesting and kept me guessing, and neither was overly obscure, I do not feel inspired to read the rest of Tsushima’s work.

 

Madame du Deffand and the Idiots by Javier Marias **** (#44) 9780241339480
Javier Marias’ Madame du Deffand and the Idiots sounded like such an interesting concept.  This volume presents ‘five sparkling, irreverent brief portraits of famous literary figures (including libertines, eccentrics and rogues) from Spain’s greatest living writer’.  All of these sketches are taken from Written Lives, which was published in Spain in 2009, and all have been translated by Margaret Jull Costa.

The essays here are written variously about Madame du Deffand, Vladimir Nabokov, Djuna Barnes, Oscar Wilde, and Emily Bronte.  I was particularly interested to read the final three, all writers whom I adore.  This is the first time which I have read Marias’ work, and I found it rather amusing and intriguing.  The first essay, for instance, begins: ‘Madame du Deffand’s life was clearly far too long for someone who considered that her greatest misfortune was to have been for at all.’  On discussing the unusual names used in Djuna Barnes’ family, ‘which, in many cases, do not even give a clue as to the gender of the person bearing them’ he writes: ‘Perhaps it is understandable that, on reaching adulthood, some members of the Barnes family adopted banal nicknames like Bud or Charlie.’  All of these pieces are rather short, and quite fascinating – and sometimes enlightening – to read.  Marias seems to really capture his subjects throughout, and shines a spotlight on a handful of quite unusual people.  Madame du Deffand and the Idiots has certainly piqued my interest to read more of Marias’ work, and soon.

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