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Three Reviews: Carmen Maria Machado, Alice Jolly, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado ** 9781781259535
I had been so looking forward to the lauded debut short story collection of Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties.  Unfortunately, I found that it fell far short of my expectations.  Whilst the stories here are well written, they all feel relatively similar, as there is such a focus upon sex within them.  Some of the tales did pull me in but had unsatisfactory endings; others did not really hold any appeal for me.

The style of prose here is varied.  I ended up skipping the second half of ‘Law and Order, SUV’, as I did not enjoy the very fragmented style of it. My favourite in the collection was by the far the first story, ‘The Husband Stitch’, which was quite beguiling.  On the whole, I felt as though the stories went on for too long, and were thus unsatisfying in consequence.

There is no real consistency to the collection, and the lack of realism in some of the stories really threw me off. Since I finished reading Her Body and Other Parties, I have found that very few of the storylines have actually stuck with me, and I cannot remember anything that happens in a few of them.  Whilst there are some interesting ideas at play here, as a collection, it felt confused and a little unfinished.

 

9781783525492Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly ***
I adored Alice Jolly’s memoir, Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, and was keen to try some of her fiction.  Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was the only work which I could source through my library, and it intrigued me very much.  In this work of historical fiction, which is told entirely in free verse, Jolly introduces us to the elderly maidservant Mary Ann Sate, who is working at the turn of the nineteenth century.  It is described as a ‘fictional found memoir’, and I found the approach which Jolly took to her story and protagonist most interesting.

I enjoyed Jolly’s writing; it feels both modern and old-fashioned, and reminded me somewhat of Nell Leyshon’s impactful novella The Colour of Milk.  Gorgeous, and often quite startling imagery, is produced throughout, and the traditional approach of chapters within the structure does help to make the 600-page story a little more accessible.  The style did take a little while to get into, as no punctuation whatsoever has been used, and there is little which denotes the changing of scene, speaker, or ideas.  Jolly has also included a lot of colloquialisms, which help Mary Ann’s voice to come across as authentic.  I very quickly got a feel for her, her life, and the time in which she was living. In some ways, Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile is a remarkable piece of fiction.

Whilst being very well researched, and having a strong historical foundation, there was a real drawback for me with Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile.  It was rather too long, and I felt as though the repetition which exists throughout made the story lose a lot of its impact.  Jolly has certainly demonstrated that she is a very talented and versatile writer, and she definitely maintained the narrative voice well.  Had it been shorter and more succinct, I more than likely would have given it a 4-star rating.

 

Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie ***
I very much enjoy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s fiction, which I find poignant and 9780008241032moving.  Of late, she has published two pamphlets, I suppose one could call them, which take feminism as their central focus.  I was rather disappointed with We Should All Be Feminists, which on one level provides a very good introduction to the topic, but does not really add any depth to its explorations.  I thought that, due to liking her novels and short stories so much, I would still go on to pick up Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manigesto in Fifteen Suggestions.  In fact, this was the first audiobook which I chose to listen to with a free Scribd trial; I have since cancelled this, as I enjoy reading at my own pace.

Dear Ijeawele is adapted from a letter which Ngozi Adichie wrote to one of her friends in response to the question of how she could raise her new baby daughter to be a feminist.  In some respects, this was a powerful and insightful work, which gave a lot of good advice on raising a daughter, and tips for enabling her to see the world through measured, fair eyes.  Ngozi Adichie definitely mentions some elements which are worth further thought; for instance, the prevalence of gendered baby clothing, and the continued use of the frankly antiquated societal expectations of ‘blue for a boy’ and ‘pink for a girl’.  I liked the way in which the author had set out this book, in fifteen ‘suggestions’; it was, in this way, like a manifesto, but rather a simplistic one in many ways.

I must admit that I found quite a lot of Dear Ijeawele rather patronising.  It may have come across this way due to the audiobook narrator I listened to, but a lot of what Ngozi Adichie points out feels obvious, and I did not think any of these things particularly needed to be stated.  Her suggestion about teaching her friend’s child to read a lot, for example, felt like a generalisation, and one which the majority of parents of certain means would encourage, regardless of whether they want to raise their child to be a feminist or not.  I failed to connect with the book that much, and felt as though it was a little old-fashioned, and quite underwhelming.

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‘Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings’ by Shirley Jackson ****

I am an enormous fan of Shirley Jackson’s work, and have been eager to read Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings since its publication in 2015.  For various reasons, I hadn’t managed to pick it up, but finally requested a copy from my local library.  The volume, which contains a great deal of unseen work of Jackson’s, from early stories to pieces of observation, has been edited by her son and daughter, Laurence Jackson Hyman and Sarah Hyman DeWitt.  The foreword to the book has been written by Jackson’s biographer, Ruth Franklin.

The blurb explains that Let Me Tell You ‘brings together a treasure trove of short stories – 81nzbak1holeach a miniature masterpiece of unease – with candid, fascinating essays, lectures, articles and drawings.’  In each of these pieces, ‘strange encounters occur, unwanted visitors arrive, places and objects take on lives of their own.’  They shift between the ‘ordinary and the uncanny, the comic and the horrific.’  Many of the stories collected here are from Jackson’s earliest writing period; they were written in a time of ‘impressive productivity as well as inspiring persistence.’

In her introduction, Franklin talks at length about the importance of Jackson’s posthumous collection.  She writes that the real highlight in Let Me Tell You is ‘especially for aspiring writers’, as Jackson shares ‘succinct, specific advice about creating fiction’ in both essays and transcripts of lectures which she gave.

Let Me Tell You has been split into several sections, which are often thematic.  Due to the emphasis which Jackson placed on writing about her family and her own life, many of the sections which are not purely made up of her short stories have overlapping content.

Let Me Tell You further demonstrates just how marvellous Jackson was at writing, and how she could so deftly create atmosphere and foreboding.  She had an innate ability to know just where to end a story, when all of the reader’s senses are heightened, and the tension which she is built is almost unbearable.  Jackson was also wonderful at suggestion, and of making her readers question often quite ordinary things.  As with her better known work, her stories contain clever and surprising twists.  At first, the situations which she crafts, and the lives which she lets us glimpse, appear ordinary; however, her stories are anything but. Even the shortest of her stories has been meticulously plotted, and strikes just the right balance.  A mixture of narrative perspectives has been used throughout, the characters are varied, and there is an unsettling quality to each.

Many of Jackson’s stories are steeped in the domestic, and the everyday: for instance, Mrs Spencer in ‘Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons’, who sets about preparing a party with no help whatsoever from her indifferent husband; and the wife of a professor talking to two of his young female students in ‘Still Life and Students’, one of whom has been having an affair with him.  We meet a man who walks around a park fabricating stories to tell to everyone he meets, and a woman who returns to her hometown after many years, and finds that nothing at all is the same, or is as she expected.  In this last story, ‘The Lie’, Jackson writes: ‘She felt wary of going too close to her old house, although she had been anxious to see it again; perhaps if she came within its reach it would capture her again, and never let her go this time.  Or perhaps it was only because she was embarrassed about being seen by people looking out their windows and telling one another, “There’s Joyce Richards come back.  Thought she was doing so well in the city?”‘

The accompanying illustrations, of which there are surprisingly few, are whimsical, and her essays witty and amusing.  Throughout, there is a sharpness to Jackson’s writing, perhaps more apparent in her short stories than her non-fiction pieces.  She was an extremely perceptive and intelligent author.

For a Jackson fan, Let Me Tell You is a real treat.  To those unfamiliar with her work, it could act as a great introduction to both her stories and style.  Jackson is quite unlike any other author I have ever come across, and it feels like a real privilege to be able to read these previously unpublished and forgotten pieces.  They are polished, written with the hand of a very talented author who already seems at the height of her craft.

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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
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The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser ****

I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected.  I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect.  De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia.  Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago.  I therefore ordered a copy immediately.

Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one 9781760111212sitting.  There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre.  Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules…  One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’  It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.

Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow.  They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis.  Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’  Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story.  At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring.  It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists.  Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed.  Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.”  How had that happened?  She was twenty-eight.’  As a character, I liked her immediately.  She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’

We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood.  Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve.  There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’  After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’  This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’

In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney.  In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned.  Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay?  The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’  Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm.  At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’  I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’  I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass.  It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it.  Small parrots shrieked with self-importance.  Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’

I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place.  De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges.  It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension.  I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character.  The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted.  It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful.  There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.

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One From the Archive: ‘Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories’ by P.L. Travers ****

Virago’s delightful Christmas gift book for 2014 is P.L. Travers’ Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories.  In the early 1940s, Travers – most famous, of course, for her charming Mary Poppins books – wrote these stories, which she gave as Christmas gifts to her friends.  Each was published in a limited run of 500 copies – ‘Aunt Sass’ in 1941, ‘Ah Wong’ in 1943 and ‘Johnny Delaney’ in 1944 – and they are now available to a wide audience for the very first time.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers focuses upon three quite unusual characters, all of whom inspired her childhood.  They range from ‘eccentric great aunt’ Christina, who was known as Sass and was the inspiration for Mary Poppins, to a Chinese cook and a ‘foul-mouthed ex-jockey’.

9780349005683Victoria Coren Mitchell’s foreword is rather lovely, and so nicely written.  She begins: ‘These stories should be a delight for any reader, but particularly magical for fans of P.L. Travers; great masterpiece, the Mary Poppins stories.  Many of the preoccupations of those wonderful novels appear in these pages: merry-go-rounds, gorgon nurses, small dogs, smart hats, suns and moons and comets and constellations’.

As in Mary Poppins, Travers’ descriptions are lovely, and her characters sparkle with vivacity from the moment in which they are introduced.  Aunt Sass, whom it is believed is based upon Travers’ own great-aunt Ellie, is ‘stern and tender, secret and proud, anonymous and loving’.  ‘Like Mary Poppins,’ writes Coren Mitchell, ‘she twinkles and snaps in spits and spots’.

In her title story, Travers describes the way in which ‘Everything in the world came back to herself – or her family.  She used notable people simply as a background for her own life…  The universe and other unknown worlds swung about the central pivot of Aunt Sass and those nearest her…  She was like the central shaft of a merry-go-round.  When her whistle blew the family revolved about her like so many wooden horses’.  Parallels can certainly be drawn between Aunt Sass and Mary Poppins in sentences such as this: ‘The gruff words were immediately discounted by the smile that lit the grim face with a radiance more moving than beauty’.

In ‘Ah Wong’, a family of Australian children try to convert their quirky Chinese cook to Christianity, with some quite amusing results.  In the third and final story, ‘Johnny Delaney’, the title character, with his ‘little thin bow-legs’ and ‘black, Irish head’, works on the family’s plantation and is a jack-of-all trades: ‘I suppose you would have said that he was primarily a jockey.  That, at any rate, was the form of address he preferred.  But he was also groom, stable-boy and carpenter; even, when labour was short, a cane cutter, and sometimes a feeder at the mill’.  In each successive story, elements of darkness creep in, and everything has a hidden depth of sorts.

In Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories, Travers lets her readers in, just a little, to her craft: ‘We write more than we know we are writing.’  The places which spring from her pen are so richly described that it does not take long for the scenes which she depicts to become vivid.

Despite the title of the collection, the stories themselves are not festive; they are merely autobiographical tales which show those who had a large impact upon Travers when she was young.  Aunt Sass: Christmas Stories is amusing and heartwarming, and would make a charming addition to any bookshelf.  The book contains lovely illustrations by Gillian Tyler, which match the tales beautifully.

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Short Story Series: Part Three

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the ” Secret Annex” of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne’s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank’s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady’s Life.’

2. M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
‘In this collection of wonderful stories, which range between fantasy, humour, science fiction and a sprinkling of horror, the reader will relish the range and skill of Neil Gaiman’s writing. Be prepared to laugh at the detective story about Humpty Dumpty’s demise, spooked by the sinister jack-in -the-box who haunts the lives of the children who own it, and intrigued by the boy who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard in this collection of bite-sized narrative pleasures.’

3. The Persephone Book of Short Stories
This is an absolutely marvellous collection of short stories, featuring a plethora of different authors.

4. The Wordsworth Collection of Classic Short Stories
‘Poignant, wry, chilling, challenging, amusing, thought-provoking and always intriguing, these accomplished tales from the pens of great writers are object-lessons in the art of creating a literary masterpiece on a small canvas. From the straightforwardly anecdotal to the more analytical of human behaviour, all are guaranteed to capture the imagination, stir the emotions, linger in the memory and whet the reader’s appetite for more. In this book, Wordsworth Editions presents the modern reader with a rich variety of short stories by a host of towering literary figures ranging from Arnold Bennett to Virginia Woolf. This disparate and distinguished company of writers has rarely – if ever – met within the pages of one volume: the result is a positive feast.’

5. Stories to Get You Through the Night, edited by Helen Dunmore
‘”Stories to Get You Through the Night” is a collection to remedy life’s stresses and strains. Inside you will find writing from the greatest of classic and contemporary authors; stories that will brighten and inspire, move and delight, soothe and restore in equal measure. This is an anthology to devour or to savour at your leisure, each story a perfectly imagined whole to be read and reread, and each a journey to transport the reader away from the everyday. Immersed in the pages, you will follow lovers to midnight trysts, accompany old friends on new adventures, be thrilled by ghostly delights, overcome heartbreak, loss and longing, and be warmed by tales of redemption, and of hope and happiness. Whether as a cure for insomnia, to while away the hours on a midnight journey, or as a brief moment of escapism before you turn in, the stories contained in this remarkable collection provide the perfect antidote to the frenetic pace of modern life – a rich and calming selection guaranteed to see you through the night. It features stories by: Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Anton Chekhov, Oscar Wilde, Haruki Murakami, Wilkie Collins, Kate Chopin, Elizabeth Gaskell, The Brothers Grimm, John Cheever, Arthur Conan Doyle, Virginia Woolf, Rudyard Kipling, Helen Simpson, Richard Yates, James Lasdun, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Somerset Maugham and Julian Barnes.’

6. Cliffs of Fall by Shirley Hazzard
‘From the author of “The Great Fire,” a collection of stories about love and acceptance, expectations and disappointment Shirley Hazzard’s stories are sharp, sensitive portrayals of moments of crisis. Whether they are set in the Italian countryside or suburban Connecticut, the stories deal with real people and real problems. In the title piece, a young widow is surprised and ashamed by her lack of grief for her husband. In “A Place in the Country,” a young woman has a passionate, guilty affair with her cousin’s husband. In “Harold,” a gawky, lonely young man finds acceptance and respect through his poetry. Moving and evocative, these ten stories are written with subtlety, humor, and a keen understanding of the relationships between men and women.’

You can find my review here.

7. The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman
‘”The Red Garden” introduces us to the luminous and haunting world of Blackwell, Massachusetts, capturing the unexpected turns in its history and in our own lives. In exquisite prose, Hoffman offers a transforming glimpse of small-town America, presenting us with some three hundred years of passion, dark secrets, loyalty, and redemption in a web of tales where characters’ lives are intertwined by fate and by their own actions. From the town’s founder, a brave young woman from England who has no fear of blizzards or bears, to the young man who runs away to New York City with only his dog for company, the characters in “The Red Garden” are extraordinary and vivid: a young wounded Civil War soldier who is saved by a passionate neighbor, a woman who meets a fiercely human historical character, a poet who falls in love with a blind man, a mysterious traveler who comes to town in the year when summer never arrives. At the center of everyone’s life is a mysterious garden where only red plants can grow, and where the truth can be found by those who dare to look. Beautifully crafted, shimmering with magic, “The Red Garden” is as unforgettable as it is moving.’

8. Art in Nature by Tove Jansson
‘An elderly caretaker at a large outdoor exhibition, called Art in Nature, finds that a couple have lingered on to bicker about the value of a picture; he has a surprising suggestion that will resolve both their row and his own ambivalence about the art market. A draughtsman’s obsession with drawing locomotives provides a dark twist to a love story. A cartoonist takes over the work of a colleague who has suffered a nervous breakdown only to discover that his own sanity is in danger. In these witty, sharp, often disquieting stories, Tove Jansson reveals the fault-lines in our relationship with art, both as artists and as consumers. Obsession, ambition, and the discouragement of critics are all brought into focus in these wise and cautionary tales.’

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