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‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ by Karen Russell ***

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the second collection of short stories by Karen Russell, and follows her highly acclaimed debut novel, Swamplandia!. All of the tales have been previously published in various magazines and anthologies. Her newest release is hailed as a ‘wickedly funny and brilliantly dark’ collection of ‘dystopian tales’, which ‘confirms her place as a master of the short story form, and one of the most imaginative young writers at work today’. High claims indeed, but does Vampires in the Lemon Grove really live up to all the hype surrounding it?

9780099578963Russell’s collection contains eight short stories in all, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles – ‘The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis’ and ‘The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979’. (We must forget in this case that there is actually no such thing as a ‘seagull’, but no matter – the story is still a relatively intriguing one.) The title story takes pride of place at the beginning of the collection. The narrator of this tale – a vampire, who has moved to a lemon grove in ‘the blue boot’ of Italy with his equally undead ‘wife’ in the hope that the fruit there will suppress their appetites for blood – tells us that ‘most people mistake me for a small, kindly Italian grandfather, a nonno. I have an old nonno‘s coloring, the dark walnut stain peculiar to southern Italians, a tan that won’t fade until I die (which I never will)’. He features in a vampiric love story of sorts, though one which has thankfully not succumbed to the over-commercialised feel of the Stephenie Meyer brand.

The tales are often quirky and rather original, although these accolades can be applied more freely on some stories than others. The first two stories in the collection – the aforementioned ‘Vampires in the Lemon Grove’ and ‘Reeling for the Empire’ – are wonderful. The latter takes place in a factory within Japan, in an undisclosed place and period. Dozens of women have been plucked from their homes and have been given draughts of tea which causes their insides to weave luxurious silk: ‘Yards and yards of thin color would soon be extracted from me by the Machine’. Here, Russell’s imagination sparkles. The first person narrator feels realistic, and the beginning, middle and end of the tale are strong and rather scarily believable.

There are flashes of this imagination which can be found in the tales which follow ‘Reeling for the Empire’ – for example, three past American Presidents who find themselves transformed into a barn in a state which they believe to be Kentucky. Several of the stories are engrossing and rich in detail, but others feel flat in comparison and meander towards their conclusion, which does not really satisfy. This is a statement which can be applied to the majority of short story collections, however, and is an almost inevitable consequence of the form.

Russell’s descriptions are well thought out, and she heightens all of the senses, often bringing taste, touch, sight and smell into her stories. Her similes too work well. When describing creatures who roam in the night, she says, ‘They have wrinkled black faces, these bats, tiny, like gargoyles or angry grandfathers’. The sense of place – and there are many different settings contained within these stories, ranging from Japan to the United States – is evoked in the most successful way through her descriptions: ‘The sky is a deep blue vacuum’. Two differing narrative perspectives have been used, as well as a small handful of narrative techniques – the use of headings in a couple of the stories which break up the story, for example.

To conclude, the first two stories in the collection are simply marvellous. The tales which follow sadly do not quite live up to their imagination or the wonder which they impart, but they are all so diverse that there is sure to be something here which will appeal to every reader.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Three)

Part three of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase is, again, made up of some quite diverse books which I feel deserve a wider readership.

1. Savage Coast by Muriel Rukeyser 16057098.jpg
As a young reporter in 1936, Muriel Rukeyser traveled to Barcelona to witness the first days of the Spanish Civil War. She turned this experience into an autobiographical novel so forward thinking for its time that it was never published. Recently discovered in her archive, this lyrical work charts her political and sexual awakening as she witnesses the popular front resistance to the fascist coup and falls in love with a German political exile who joins the first international brigade.  Rukeyser’s narrative is a modernist investigation into the psychology of violence, activism, and desire; a documentary text detailing the start of the war; and a testimony to those who fought and died for freedom and justice during the first major battle against European fascism.

 

2. The Trail of the Serpent by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Mary Elizabeth Braddon (1837–1915), Victorian England’s bestselling woman writer, blends Dickensian humor with chilling suspense in this “exuberantly campy” (Kirkus Reviews) mystery. The novel features Jabez North, a manipulative orphan who becomes a ruthless killer; Valerie de Cevennes, a stunning heiress who falls into North’s diabolical trap; and Mr. Peters, a mute detective who communicates his brilliant reasoning through sign language.’

 

16057518.jpg3. Advice to Little Girls by Mark Twain
When Mark Twain wrote the sparky short story “Advice to Little Girls” in 1865, he probably didn’t mean for it to be shown to them. Or maybe he did, since we all know Twain was a rascal. Now, author and illustrator Vladimir Radunsky has created a picture book based on Twain’s text that adds all the right outlandish touches.

 

4. All My Friends by Marie NDiaye
A moody and beautiful reflection on relationships, and how our idea of the world too often fails to match reality, All My Friends delivers five stories that probe the boundaries between individuals to mediate on how well we really know anybody, including ourselves. Written in hypnotic prose with characters both fully fleshed and unfathomable, All My Friends opens with the fraught love story of a man who has fallen for his housekeeper, his student of many years ago. Losing his grip as he feels his own family turning against him, he plots romance between the housekeeper and an old friend, whom he thinks is perfect for her. Later NDiaye gives us the harsh tale of a young boy longing to escape his life of poverty by becoming a sex slave—just like the beautiful young man that lived next door. And when a woman takes her mentally challenged son on a bus ride to the city, they both know that she’ll return, but he won’t. Chilling, provocative, and touching, this is an unflinching look at the personal horrors we fight every day to suppress—but in All My Friends they’re allowed to roam free.

 

2533255. Unruly Times: Wordsworth and Coleridge in Their Time by A.S. Byatt
Unruly Times is a superlative portrait of the relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge, and a fascinating exploration of the Romantic Movement and the dramatic events that shaped it. With a novelist’s insight and eye for detail, A. S. Byatt brings alive this tumultuous period and shows a deep understanding of the effects upon the minds of Wordsworth, Coleridge and their contemporaries – de Quincey, Lamb, Hazlitt, Byron and Keats.

 

6. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess by Hannah Arendt
She was, Hannah Arendt wrote, “my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years.” Born in Berlin in 1771 as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to reimagine Rahel’s inner life and write her biography. Long unavailable and never before published as Arendt intended, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess returns to print in an extraordinary new edition.  Arendt draws a lively and complex portrait of a woman during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the early emancipation of the Jews, a figure who met and corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors, artists, and politicians of her time. She documents Rahel’s attempts to earn legitimacy as a writer and gain access to the highest aristocratic circles, to assert for herself a position in German culture in spite of her gender and religion.

 

7. Happy Moscow by Andrei Platonov 13533706
Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.’

 

8. In the Year of the Long Division by Dawn Raffel
Dawn Raffel’s debut delivers us to the wild spaces of a youth in the Midwest and to the blank terrors of the heart. There is a cold wind blowing through these stories, whose sentences come to us as a rebuke to anything felt. In her flight from sentiment, Raffel masterfully reifies the new will to absence that marks the moral and emotional bearing of her generation. The result is not just an acknowledgment of all our long divisions – the divide between impulse and the means to apprehend it, between desire and entrapment – but of the final sweet concession that we must each of us make to the futility of even the smallest mending. In the Year of Long Division gives us the triumph of craft over the obstinance of expression and the installation of a writer certain to be cited in the continuing reinvention of the American short story.

 

17574841.jpg9. Laziness in the Fertile Valley by Albert Cossery
Laziness in the Fertile Valley is Albert Cossery’s biting social satire about a father, his three sons, and their uncle — slackers one and all. One brother has been sleeping for almost seven years, waking only to use the bathroom and eat a meal. Another savagely defends the household from women. Serag, the youngest, is the only member of the family interested in getting a job. But even he — try as he might — has a hard time resisting the call of laziness.

 

10. Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth by Mark Hertsgaard
A fresh take on climate change by a renowned journalist driven to protect his daughter, your kids, and the next generation who’ll inherit the problem.  For twenty years, Mark Hertsgaard has investigated global warming for outlets including the New Yorker, NPR, Time, Vanity Fair, and The Nation. But the full truth did not hit home until he became a father and, soon thereafter, learned that climate change had already arrived―a century earlier than forecast―with impacts bound to worsen for decades to come. Hertsgaard’s daughter Chiara, now five yea rs old, is part of what he has dubbed “Generation Hot”–the two billion young people worldwide who will spend the rest of their lives coping with mounting climate disruption.  HOT is a father’s cry against climate change, but most of the book focuses on s olutions, offering a deeply reported blueprint for how all of us―as parents, communities, companies and countries―can navigate this unavoidable new era. Combining reporting from across the nation and around the world with personal reflections on his daugh ter’s future, Hertsgaard provides “pictures” of what is expected over the next fifty years: Chicago’s climate transformed to resemble Houston’s; dwindling water supplies and crop yields at home and abroad; the redesign of New York and other cities against mega-storms and sea-level rise. Above all, he shows who is taking wise, creative precautions. For in the end, HOT is a book about how we’ll survive.

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Really Underrated Books (Part Two)

Part two of this week’s Really Underrated Books showcase brings to light some fascinating looking tomes.

1. Going West by Maurice Gee 866199
For all the promise of his name, Jack Skeat cannot be a poet. His friend Rex Petley – eel-catcher, girl-chaser, motorbike rider – takes that prize. Is he also a murderer? And why, forty years later, does he drown out on the Gulf? Jack has to find out, and is drawn to examine their lives. Going West has long been regarded as one of the most autobiographical of Maurice Gee’s novels.

 

2. Roger Fry: A Biography by Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf’s only true biography, written to commemorate a devoted friend and one of the most renowned art critics of this century, who helped to bring the Postimpressionist movement from France to England and America.

 

16198633. I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister, 1791-1840, edited by Helena Whitbread
Upon publication, the first volume of Anne Lister’s diaries, “I Know My Own Heart,” met with celebration, delight, and some skepticism. How could an upper class Englishwoman, in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfill her emotional and sexual needs when her sexual orientation was toward other women? How did an aristocratic lesbian manage to balance sexual fulfillment with social acceptability?  Helena Whitbread, the editor of these diaries, here allows us an inside look at the long-running love affair between Anne Lister and Marianna Lawton, an affair complicated by Anne’s infatuation with Maria Barlow. Anne travels to Paris where she discovers a new love interest that conflicts with her developing social aspirations. For the first time, she begins to question the nature of her identity and the various roles female lovers may play in the life of a gentrywoman. Though unequipped with a lesbian vocabulary with which to describe her erotic life, her emotional conflicts are contemporary enough to speak to us all.  This book will satisfy the curiosity of the many who became acquainted with Lister through I Know My Own Heart and are eager to learn more about her revealing life and what it suggests about the history of sexuality.

 

4. Victorine by Maude Hutchins
Victorine is thirteen, and she can’t get the unwanted surprise of her newly sexual body, in all its polymorphous and perverse insistence, out of her mind: it is a trap lying in wait for her at every turn (and nowhere, for some reason, more than in church). Meanwhile, Victorine’s older brother Costello is struggling to hold his own against the overbearing, mean-spirited, utterly ghastly Hector L’Hommedieu, a paterfamilias who collects and discards mistresses with scheming abandon even as Allison, his wife, drifts through life in a narcotic daze.   And Maude Hutchins’s Victorine? It’s a sly, shocking, one-of-a-kind novel that explores sex and society with wayward and unabashedly weird inspiration, a drive-by snapshot of the great abject American family in its suburban haunts by a literary maverick whose work looks forward to—and sometimes outstrips—David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and the contemporary paintings of Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin.

 

5. The Penguin Book of First World War Stories, edited by Barbara Korte 3212619.jpg
This new collection of short stories about World War I features works by such famous British authors as Joseph Conrad, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Buchan, Rudyard Kipling, D. H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Radclyffe Hall, Katherine Mansfield, Robert Graves, Muriel Spark, and Julian Barnes. Written during the war and after, these stories illustrate the impact of the Great War on British society and culture, as well as the many ways in which short fiction contributed to the literature of that time period.

 

6. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark ended her life as the epitome of literary chic, one of the great writers of the 20th century. This book tells her story.

 

208197177. The Crocodiles by Youssef Rakha
Set in Cairo between 1997 and 2011, The Crocodiles is narrated in numbered, prose poem-like paragraphs, set against the backdrop of a burning Tahrir Square, by a man looking back on the magical and explosive period of his life when he and two friends started a secret poetry club amid a time of drugs, messy love affairs, violent sex, clumsy but determined intellectual bravado, and retranslations of the Beat poets. Youssef Rakha’s provocative, brutally intelligent novel of growth and change begins with a suicide and ends with a doomed revolution, forcefully capturing thirty years in the life of a living, breathing, daring, burning, and culturally incestuous Cairo.

 

8. The Shutter of Snow by Emily Holmes Coleman
In a prose form as startling as its content, “The Shutter of Snow” portrays the post-partum psychosis of Marthe Gail, who after giving birth to her son, is committed to an insane asylum. Believing herself to be God, she maneuvers through an institutional world that is both sad and terrifying, echoing the worlds of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Snake Pit.”  Based upon the author’s own experience after the birth of her son in 1924, “The Shutter of Snow” retains all the energy it had when first published in 1930.

 

9. Orpheus: The Song of Life by Ann Wroe 16088815
A powerful and poetic work of history on the figure of Orpheus: his life and myth, and his representation and imagining from the sixth century BC to the present day.  For at least two and a half millennia, the figure of Orpheus has haunted humanity. Half-man, half-god, musician, magician, theologian, poet and lover, his story never leaves us. He may be myth, but his lyre still sounds, entrancing everything that hears it: animals, trees, water, stones, and men.  In this extraordinary work Ann Wroe goes in search of Orpheus, from the forests where he walked and the mountains where he worshipped to the artefacts, texts and philosophies built up round him. She traces the man, and the power he represents, through the myriad versions of a fantastical life: his birth in Thrace, his studies in Egypt, his voyage with the Argonauts to fetch the Golden Fleece, his love for Eurydice and journey to Hades, and his terrible death. We see him tantalising Cicero and Plato, and breathing new music into Gluck and Monteverdi; occupying the mind of Jung and the surreal dreams of Cocteau; scandalising the Fathers of the early Church, and filling Rilke with poems like a whirlwind. He emerges as not simply another mythical figure but the force of creation itself, singing the song of light out of darkness and life out of death.

 

10. The Giants by Jean Marie G. Le Clezio
Upon an immense stretch of flat ground at the mouth of a river bathed in sunlight rises Hyperpolis. It stands there, surrounded by its four asphalt car-parks, to condemn us – a huge enveloping supermarket. Each of us will see ourselves reflected in the characters who move mindlessly about Hyperpolis, but The Giants is a call to rebellion. This bold and inventive novel is the work of a tremendously talented writer and both an intoxicating and exhilarating read.

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Book Haul (March 2017)

At the beginning of the month, I was standing in the bookshop of the Anne Frank Huis in 9781408842102Amsterdam with my boyfriend, deciding what to buy.  I thought I’d allow myself one tome as a souvenir of sorts, and plumped for Melissa Muller‘s Anne Frank: The BiographyBefore I went to pay for the beautiful blue covered book, I told my boyfriend that this would be the only book I’d buy all month, as I want to save up for forthcoming holidays, as well as use local libraries more.  Predictably when a bookworm utters the above words, it didn’t turn out like that at all.  In fact, I think this has been my heaviest book purchasing month in over a year…

It seems only natural then that I would want to showcase said purchases – all thirty one of them!  I feel rather ridiculous for buying so many, but haven’t spent much money on them, really (thank goodness for a slew of cheap Kindle books which I ordinarily avoid, and deals at both Fopp and The Works).

Let us begin with a huge collection of books by a single author.  I read of a comparison between my beloved Daphne du Maurier and Mary Stewart, an author whom I had heard of but never read.  Rather than buy a couple of her books just to see what I thought, I trusted the opinion of said reader, and decided to purchase a huge collection of her works from eBay.  I got nine of them in all – Thornyhold, The Ivy Tree, Stormy Petrel, Wildfire at Midnight, This Rough Magic, The Gabriel Hounds, Thunder on the Right, The Moonspinners, and Airs Above the Ground.  I did borrow her long-lost novella, The Wind Off the Small Isles, from 9781444720501the library to reinforce that I would very much enjoy her work; it was a fully successful exercise, and I am now even more excited to dive into my stack of Stewart novels.

I moved to Glasgow for University last year, and have, up until now, been very good at not seeking out the local Fopp.  For those of you who don’t know, Fopp is a cavern of treasures, with hundreds of films, CDs, and books.  It is owned by HMV, but is relatively inexpensive in comparison, and there is far more of an emphasis on literature and foreign films – both of which I have now stocked up with, having buckled and searched out the shop.  My haul is rather varied, but consists of eight tomes which are all on my to-read lists (somewhere!).  They are brand new copies, and cost me only £20 – bargain!  My fiction choices were I Saw A Man by Owen Sheers (whose novel Resistance I really enjoyed), Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas (an author whom I have been meaning to try for years), Les Enfants Terribles by Jean Cocteau, The Plague by Camus, and The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco.  I also purchased three works of non-fiction which I have been coveting for ages – The Men Who Stare at Goats by Jon Ronson, Parisians by Graham Robb, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

9781785780233I also went to The Works, and whilst they didn’t have the best book selection (it consisted mainly of old school thrillers, celebrity biographies by many celebrities I’d never heard of, and chick lit), I did manage to unearth two interesting looking novels – Fellside by M.R. Carey, and The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan – and a real non-fiction gem which I have wanted for ages, Helen Russell‘s The Year of Living Danishly.

I rarely purchase Kindle books, but I saw so many for £1.50 and below that I just couldn’t resist stocking up.  I have read a few already: We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which I must admit that I found a little underwhelming, the very witty Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, and the very odd but entertaining Peirene publication The Empress and the Cake by Austrian Linda Stift.  Those still on my to-read list are We That Are Left by Juliet Greenwood, The August Birds by Octavia Cade, Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill, A Lifetime Burning by Linda Gillard, Sweet Caress by William Boyd, and Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. 9781782390725

I also received a free copy of Home Ground, a series of short stories and poems about homelessness in Glasgow, from the library.  Inspired by the Homeless World Cup which took place here last year, I thought that the collection, edited by Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan, would be football-heavy, but thankfully it wasn’t.

I will try and resist temptation during April; watch this space!  What have you purchased this month?  Have you read any of the books mentioned above?

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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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The Book Trail: From Anne Michaels to Anne Carson

This edition of the Book Trail kicks off with one of my most recent loves – Anne Michael’s Skin Divers – and takes us through a plethora of fantastic independent presses.

1. Skin Divers by Anne Michaels 479087
From the author of Fugitive Pieces, this work provides a collection of poems, meditations on how love changes in order to survive and how we move from obsolete science to new perceptions.

 

2. Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair by S. Jane Sloat
I can find no blurb for this, but very much love the idea of what the independent press who publish this chapbook are doing: ‘The dancing girl press chapbook series was founded in 2004 to publish and promote the work of women poets and artists through chapbooks, journals, book arts projects, and anthologies. Spawned by the online zine wicked alice, dgp seeks to publish work that bridges the gaps between schools and poetic techniques–work that’s fresh, innovative, and exciting. The press has published over 90 titles by emerging women poets in delectable handmade editions. Our books are available via our website, at select independent bookstores, Chicago area literary events, and through author readings. Also a purveyor of paper, ephemera, and vintage-inspired arts and crafts, dancing girl press & studio occasionally hosts readings, discussions, and workshops related to poetics, publishing, DIY, and book arts.

 

3. Snow by Maxence Fermine
107943An international bestseller, “Snow “is “a novel that reads like a poem. Limpid, delicate, and pure like its title.”* In nineteenth-century Japan, a young haiku poet named Yuko journeys through snow-covered mountains on a quest for art and finds love instead. Maxence Fermine’s prose is hypnotic, and his sensuous love story envelops you as if you¹re wrapped in one of his dreams with your eyes wide open.  Yuko has all the makings of greatness, but must learn to reach beyond the silent starkness of snow, his ultimate inspiration, to find the color pulsing through life. Color enhanced by love, without which he will remain invisible to the world. On his journey to enlightenment he learns how fragile the balance of life can be through the tragic story of his blind master, Soseki, and the love of his life, a French tightrope walker named Snow. Love and art finally converge in a most startling and exquisite way when a special young woman opens Yuko’s heart to the purest of color and light.’

 

4. The Weather Stations by Ryan Call
The debut collection of ten short stories from Ryan Call, including stories originally published in Keyhole, The Lifted Brow, Lo-Ball, The Collagist, The Los Angeles Review, Hobart and Web Conjunctions.

 

5. Howling at the Moon by Darshana Suresh 28822274
Tell me, Atlas. What is heavier: the world or its people’s hearts?  In her debut poetry collection, Darshana Suresh explores what it means to be alive, and how hurting and healing can often be overwhelmingly intertwined.  She does not write about recovery. Instead, she writes about carrying on until you are ready to recover.

 

6. Letters from Medea by Salma Deera
A collection of poems that reincarnates one of the most wicked women in classical literature into the modern day. It is a collection that celebrates and understands girlhood, loss, and love. These are Medea’s letters to the modern girl.

 

7. Blue Hour by Carolyn Forche
393726Blue Hour is an elusive book, because it is ever in pursuit of what the German poet Novalis called ‘the [lost] presence beyond appearance.’ The longest poem, ‘On Earth,’ is a transcription of mind passing from life into death, in the form of an abecedary, modeled on ancient gnostic hymns. Other poems in the book, especially ‘Nocturne’ and ‘Blue Hour,’ are lyric recoveries of the act of remembering, though the objects of memory seem to us vivid and irretrievable, the rage to summon and cling at once fierce and distracted.

 

8. Men In the Off Hours by Anne Carson
In Men in the Off Hours, Carson offers further proof of her tantalizing gifts. Reinventing figures as diverse as Oedipus, Emily Dickinson, and Audubon, Carson sets up startling juxtapositions: Lazarus among video paraphernalia, Virginia Woolf and Thucydides discussing war, Edward Hopper paintings illuminated by St. Augustine. And in a final prose poem, she meditates movingly on the recent death of her mother. With its quiet, acute spirituality and its fearless wit and sensuality, Men in the Off Hours shows us a fiercely individual poet at her best.

 

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