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The short stories contained in Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah debut collection “Friday Black” have a startling way of mixing everyday realism with the fantastic. Many characters are working class individuals struggling to keep their families going while labouring in retail or the night shift at a warehouse. But at the same time they can also be imbued with powers from a Twelve-tongued God, become a spirit who knows how to quell the murderous impulses of bullied boys or a 14 year old female super killer who survives daily nuclear explosions. Violence abounds throughout the stories. There are crazed shoppers who kill everyone in their way to get to sale items and there are groups who commit bloody acts of violence in retaliation for racially-motivated murders. The author amplifies some of the most contentious social issues of today in scenarios which are sadly not far from the truth. Everything from gun control to racism to abortion to genetic engineering are integrated into warped versions of reality giving a new view on these hot topics. The stories are powerfully imaginative while being darkly funny as well as heartbreakingly emotionally honest.  

Some of these tales worked better than others for me. I admire how in 'The Finkelstein 5' the story switches back and forth between two narratives. One half portrays a court trial where a white man is exonerated for beheading five black children with a chainsaw. The other half is from the perspective of a narrator who becomes part of a “Naming” gang that tortures random white people while calling out the names of the slayed black children. It felt really effective how this dual story describes a society where facts and truth have become so twisted up in the willpower of belief. The defence lawyer says at one point “if you believe something, anything then that's what matters most. Believing. In America we have the freedom to believe.” In a justice system that has allowed so many rank instances of injustice to go unpunished, it’s tragically unsurprising that some feel vigilante justice is the only option available. But this story gets at the ambivalence of such a path while delivering a riveting tale that’s a cross between an episode of Black Mirror and The Purge film series.

Not all of the stories conjure up wild fantasies or show instances of extreme violence. Another story ‘The Lion & The Spider’ also uses an alternating dual narrative where in one half a father tells his children stories based in Caribbean folklore. The other half shows a young man left to care for his ailing mother while finishing school and working a job after the father unexpectedly leaves for a long period of time. This creates an emotionally-charged atmosphere within the story as feelings of youthful innocence are paired against the onerous responsibilities of a premature adulthood when a father shirks his duty. Some of the most touching moments in this collection come when well-meaning children are forced into being carers for their parents such as a young man who takes his father to a labyrinthine hospital in 'The Hospital Where' or a young man who wants to win a jacket for his mother in a sales-driven retail competition.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

The violent chaos of a Black Friday sale.

Sometimes the creative slant the author takes on certain issues doesn’t work quite as smoothly. 'Lark Street' describes a man who comes under the accusatory gaze of his girlfriend’s aborted twin foetuses. While the story takes seriously this emotionally harrowing dilemma it felt like it revelled a little too freely in the grotesque nature of such a scenario. Equally 'Light Spitter' which describes an instance of a campus gun slaying relies a little too heavily on conventional ideas of angelic influence – even with the twist that even the “irredeemable” has a moral core. Still other stories have a surprising degree of repetitive elements like the diligent mall employees in both 'How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing' and ‘Friday Black’. But the later title story felt much more successful in hilariously playing up what’s become the most ridiculous post-Thanksgiving annual retail tradition.

One of the most striking things about this book is the consistent feeling that working class young people are frequently forced to compromise their values and education in order to make a living. Sometimes individuals must play into racial stereotypes or swallow their pride in the face of blatant racism in order to maintain their jobs. There are also asides which testify to being made to feel otherness: “A nurse called out sounds that we understood as her attempt to pronounce our last name.” Such feelings are most dramatically described in the story 'Zimmer Land' where an employee submits to being the continuous victim in violent role playing scenarios that are purportedly about “interactive justice engagement”. This story cleverly portrays the hypocrisy of profit-driven initiatives that claim to teach morality but actually perpetuate stereotypes and bigotry. I’m impressed how daring and forceful the author is in creatively describing instances of painful injustice and social inequality. He’s certainly an impressive new author well worth paying attention to.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Like many people, I was fascinated by the surreal atmosphere and ambiguous meaning of Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin's novel “Fever Dream” when it first appeared in English a couple of years ago. Now a collection of her short fiction has just been published and it's of a similar sinister vibe with odd twists of logic that often veer into near nightmares. Here are stories of children that transform into butterflies, businessmen who are turned into farm hands, a dissatisfied wife who meets an amorous merman and a daughter whose new diet consists solely of consuming living birds. This subject matter could easily feel whimsical if it were written by another author, but Schweblin maintains elements of psychological truth so this fiction continues to feel real even if it's filled with the fantastical. Her stories often feel like puzzles where the meaning is tantalizingly close and I could solve it if I could just work out the intricately constructed design she's skilfully created. But, of course, these stories offer no definitive answers – just glimpses of the inexpressible fears, desires and carnage which simmer just under the surface of our everyday reality.

The way Schweblin approaches common themes from an unlikely angle brings out a new kind of emotional honesty. So subjects such as infidelity, miscarriages, eating disorders, spousal abuse, body image and depression are explored in these stories but in a way which defamiliarises the way we commonly think about them. Although the stories are fantasies they deal with serious issues. For instance, in the story 'Preserves' a woman whose unborn child dies in uterus goes through the process of pregnancy with the support of her family even though they know the child will be stillborn. It shows how the idea of a new child forms so fully in the minds of the family its due to be born into and becomes part of their lives even before its arrival. So the story considers how to deal with feelings of mourning which can arise in this tragic situation common to many families. It's a different kind of magical thinking from what Kit De Waal describes in her novel “The Trick to Time”.

Another story which had a strong resonance for me was the titular tale 'Mouthful of Birds' which describes the perspective of a father whose daughter begins only consuming living birds and refuses to engage in discussions. He's separated from his wife and when the daughter is left in his care he witnesses her deteriorating health because he doesn't want to support her barbaric new diet. In one of the few instances when the daughter speaks she asks if her father loves her and in this moment there is so much unexpressed longing and sorrow as she desperately tries to find a way to control her crumbling family and situation.

The way Schweblin approaches her subject matter feels most poignant when it’s teased out in her longer stories. I felt some of the less successful and least impactful tales were also some of the shorter pieces such as ‘Butterflies’ and 'Rage of Pestilence'. In these it seemed like a central concept was compressed too explicitly into surreal imagery. Some stories also stretch too far into the oblique and become twisted up in a convoluted structure such as 'Olingiris'. Schweblin’s ideas come more alive when they are situated in longer stories such as ‘Headlights’ where brides left on the roadside congregate into a vengeful swarm or 'Heads Against Concrete' where a narrator’s violent impulses, emotional disconnection and racial prejudice are translated into “high” art. Better yet, some of the most eerie tales are where the central object of the story remains entirely unseen and unnamed such as a couple’s desperate attempts to “capture” a child in 'On the Steppe' or a village of vanished children in 'Underground'.

Samanta Schweblin & writer Valeria Luiselli in conversation

Not all the stories in this book are so outrageously bizarre. Some such as 'Santa Claus Sleeps at our House' and 'The Test' are so deeply ensconced in the narrator’s perspective that reality seems to be shifting around them due to innocence or guilt. Still others movingly capture people’s concealed emotions such as 'The Size of Things' where a rich, successful man steadily regresses while inhabiting a toy shop. Other stories grope at understanding the unknowable emotional condition of others such as a man that suffers from depression in 'My Brother Walter' or the story ‘Irman’ where the death of a man’s wife swiftly leaves him perilously helpless.

Overall I loved getting lost in these tales with their refreshing flavour for the absurd. They brim with a vibrant creativity and I admire the way they offer a warped counter reality to life.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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When I was very young one of my favourite books was “James and the Giant Peach”. I can still remember the vivid descriptions of James tasting a peach which made me crave the fruit for years to come. For some reason I never read more of his famous tales for children, but of course I was familiar with the stories from popular films like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’. What’s so interesting about Dahl is that his imaginatively off-kilter way of presenting the world shines through these dark fable-like stories that often involve some lesson about morality. I only became aware that Dahl also wrote stories for adults with Penguin’s recent publication of new series of books of short stories grouped under particular topics. It’s fascinating how Dahl’s distinct style still shows in these tales but they concentrate more on adult themes such as ambition, power, madness, cruelty and lust. I read the collection which centres around “Trickery” and hence each story involves a certain twist where different characters’ attempts to deceive cause them unexpected trouble. These play out in a series of creative and engaging ways which make them an absolute pleasure to read.

Although these stories are definitely for adults, Dahl’s sensibility is particularly suited to a child-like mentality. That’s not to say it’s naïve but it’s a perspective of wonder that shows how our imaginations continue to play a heavy role in our everyday lives even when we’re older. This can especially be seen in very short pieces that begin and end this collection. In the stunningly beautiful opening story ‘The Wish’ a boy plays a familiar game where he traverses sections of a carpet that has different coloured patches. He jumps between patches as if avoiding lava or snakes. Soon it begins to feel all too real and it’s as if his feverish imagination has overtaken his reality. Dahl demonstrates how this also occurs for adults as well in many different fascinating situations where characters believe their ingenious methods of trickery can manipulate things for their benefit. For instance, poachers try out a new method of trapping pheasants, a man in a foreign country tries to sleep with another man’s wife and daughter, a passenger displays unexpected talents, a couple attempt to conceal a diamond that unexpectedly comes into their possession. But our ability to control the world and other people often isn’t as strong as we think. Events go awry and we often get bitten back.

Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

Episode from Alfred Hitchcock Presents inspired by a Dahl story.

One particularly interesting story induced a feeling of déjà vu for me. ‘Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat’ is about a philandering wife who attempts to conceal from her husband an expensive gift that her lover gave her. When I was younger I loved watching the short and clever series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As I was reading the story it started to feel increasingly familiar and I finally realized that this was one of Dahl’s many tales which was turned into an episode from this Hitchcock series. Dahl’s writing is well suited for Hitchcock since his stories so frequently involve a fun twist and this story is no exception. It’s also an example of a story which hasn’t aged that well or contains a method of writing that would fall under greater scrutiny today. It begins with a paranoid rant about the deception and greed of women which is obviously meant to be satirical. But occasionally the language Dahl uses for discussing women or people of different ethnic identities might come across as insensitive or cringe-worthy to some modern readers – particularly in the story ‘The Visitor’ which contains a lot of degrading references to Egyptians and Arabs. It’s true that these are all made through the subjective perspective of a particular character so can’t necessarily be attributed to Dahl’s point of view. But they are used in the structure of the story to create a feeling of menace and it’s this narrative strategy by the author that comes across as somewhat xenophobic. I’m sure the tone of this writing wouldn’t have mattered to most readers at the time it was published but it seems worth pointing it out now and stating that it’s mainly confined to this particular story in this collection.

I think this all adds another interesting element to the stories about how fear and prejudice can play into the way adults can imagine illogical threats coming from people and places outside their experience of normality. When writing about this its only right for Dahl to bring in people’s complicated opinions and prejudices as long as its done in a way which still respects the humanity of all the characters rather than just as a means of serving the plot or making a cheap joke. Regardless of these issues, it’s easy to enjoy these stories for their ingenious ways of showing how people can entrap themselves in sticky situations when they consciously attempt to deceive. Sometimes I could guess what the twist of the story would be before it happened, but part of the pleasure in these types of tales is anticipating how it might play out and then seeing how things are actually resolved in the story. I think Dahl’s fiction is particularly suited to being read aloud so people can share in that anticipation as it unfolds. The tales in “Trickery” have sparked my interest in reading the other volumes of Dahl’s stories in this beautifully designed new series.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesRoald Dahl
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It’s fitting that Alexia Arthurs’ debut collection of stories has an epigraph from Kei Miller who writes so compellingly and inventively about national/racial Jamaican identity. In particular, his writing is often concerned with perception, self-perception and storytelling traditions. Arthurs’ lively and invigorating short stories engage with similar ideas through the diverse perspectives and tales of many different individuals. These men and women have moved from Jamaica to America or moved back to Jamaica after living in America or are first generation Americans with Jamaican ancestry. Many of these individuals feel a tension in being caught between these two nations. Their values, desires and goals have been gradually modified having lived within both cultures and this naturally makes the characters question where they fit within either country and how they interact with different communities. Arthurs depicts a wide range of points of view from the intimate thoughts of a college girl to an elderly man who holds a longstanding secret to a resentful twin brother to a lesbian who returns to Jamaica for a friend’s wedding to a pop star preoccupied with the sudden death of one of her dancers. In skilfully depicting a rich plurality of voices Arthurs raises challenging questions about how we define ourselves and the assumptions we make about others.

It’s also noteworthy that Zadie Smith gave a blurb for Arthurs’ book calling it a “thrilling debut collection” considering how Smith’s most recent novel “Swing Time” has subjects and themes that so closely mirror Arthurs’ story ‘Shirley From a Small Place’. Where Smith writes about a famous white singer (loosely inspired by Madonna) who has a mixed race assistant, Arthurs writes about a famous black singer (loosely inspired by Rihanna) who has a white assistant. These plots obviously have a sensational side to them fictionalizing the intimate lives of celebrities, but in depicting such figures they show an amplified version of the conflicts central to their stories. Arthurs’ pop star Shirley has achieved the sort of recognition and success in America many Jamaicans dream of, but she’s also subject to the projections and scrutiny of the general public. It results in a distancing from the people who have been closest to her all her life, particularly her conservative mother Diane. But it also gives Shirley a stronger identification with the meaning of home in relation to Jamaica. The way their relationship changes and how it makes Diane re-evaluate her own image and desires interestingly plays off from the previous story in the collection ‘We Eat Our Daughters’ where several children relate tales of the domineering mother they never fully understood.

The collection also fittingly begins with a story about a character who consistently makes assumptions about different people and then must readjust her understanding of them after actually interacting with them. In ‘Light-Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’ Kimberly feels a natural kinship with Cecilia because she’s one of the only other black girls in her freshman class. But Cecilia comes from a very different region and socio-economic background so their attitudes and perceptions about race are very different. There’s a melancholy poignancy in how the girls are unable to really see each other because they inhabit their racial identities so differently. In another story Arthurs also highlights how Americans often cling to people who come from similar backgrounds to themselves out of fear. She wryly observes “America, the land of diversity, where people talk to who they think it’s safest to talk to.”

Characters in several of the stories make strategic decisions about who they want to befriend or have a romantic relationship with based on someone’s race, but find it’s an individual’s values rather than their skin colour which ultimately determines whether they are compatible. For instance, unmarried teacher Doreen tries to formulate a relationship with another Jamaican man in America because of their similar backgrounds despite warning signs he might not be the one for her. There’s also often a weary awareness of how white characters will make assumptions about black characters and dictate how race should determine their position in society: “She was the kind of white person who would never let me forget my blackness – she would detail oppressions to me as though I hadn’t lived them.” These examples all highlight the tragic way people react to each other based on appearances rather than really listening to what someone has to say.

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

Characters in different stories refer to eating cornmeal porridge

‘Slack’, one of the most stylistically daring stories in the collection, shows multiple perspectives of characters reacting to the deaths of two young twin girls in a water tank. It felt reminiscent of the technique Marquez uses in his novella “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” where a proliferation of talk about a death makes it seem as if the death was always inevitable. Athurs’ story also makes a searing indictment of the perceptions surrounding the term “slack” which is used to describe women who exhibit loose morals by having affairs with multiple and/or married men. The mother of the drowned girls Pepper is referred to as such, despite the fact she was only an adolescent herself when she became pregnant and no blame is affixed to the older married man who had sex with her. It’s a term and attitude which recurs in several of the stories highlighting how people also frequently form judgements based on gender.

The title of this book has such a playful double meaning since it can be posed as a statement as if the book is like a "how to" manual, but it also functions as a question - one particularly relevant to Jamaicans who move to America. There’s such a proliferation of vibrant characters and compelling situations in all the stories found in “How to Love a Jamaican” that make it a mesmerizing and highly enjoyable read. What I appreciate most about the many perspectives Arthurs brings to the table is that she raises so many issues and questions without offering any easy answers. She merely represents these varied and idiosyncratic voices while respecting their passion and humanity.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAlexia Arthurs
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For all the daring stylistic variations and rich diversity of subject matter found in Beautiful Days, Joyce Carol Oates’s latest collection of short stories, there is a common theme throughout of disruptively close encounters with the “other.” At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2012, Oates gave a talk titled ‘Close Encounters with the Other’ and in this session she describes how “There comes a time in our lives when we realize that other people are not projections of ourselves - that we can’t really identify with them. We might sympathize or empathize with them, but we can’t really know them fully. They are other and they are opaque.” So in these stories characters strive for connections which often tragically break down. These encounters document the awkward or sometimes violent clashes that occur between individuals who are so dissimilar there is an unbreachable rupture in understanding. The factors that divide these characters include issues such as romantic intention, gender, age, race, class, education and nationality. Oates creates a wide array of situations and richly complex characters to show the intense drama that arises from clashes surrounding these subjects.

Some stories take fascinatingly different angles on the question of trust and the durability of love within romantic affairs or long-term marriages. In ‘Fleuve Bleu’ two married individuals initiate an affair with a declaration that they will maintain complete honesty. Yet there are fundamental issues left unsaid which motivate one individual to abruptly bring their affair to a halt. Here descriptions of the environment strikingly emote the passion of their connection and erotic encounters. A couple at cross-purposes is also portrayed in 'Big Burnt' where a weekend tryst to an island is initiated because Lisbeth wants to make Mikael love her, but Mikael wants a woman to witness his suicide. Whereas in 'The Bereaved' it feels as if the female protagonist was taken on as a wife only to care for the husband’s motherless child. The child’s early death precipitates a feeling of her role being taken away as well as deep feelings of guilt which manifest in a fascinatingly dramatic way while the couple embark on an ecological cruise. The stories suggest that no matter the passion or fervour of a couple’s connection there is an element of unknowability about one’s partner which makes itself known in the course of time.

Other stories describe class and racial conflicts between teachers and pupils. In 'Except You Bless Me' a Detroit English teacher named Helen earnestly tries to tutor her pupil Larissa despite strongly suspecting this student is leaving her aggressively racist messages. This is an interesting variation from a section of Oates's novel Marya where the protagonist encounters slyly aggressive behaviour from black janitor Sylvester at the school where she teaches. Both are expressions of the quandary a white individual might have faced at this time of Detroit history when racial tensions ran high. Helen makes little progress in her tutoring and then, many years later, finds herself in a vulnerable position with a woman she imagines to be Larissa as an adult. Like in 'The Bereaved', the protagonist is somewhat aware of her own prejudices, but is nevertheless drawn into paranoid fantasies. However, the wife of 'The Bereaved' is prejudiced not about race, but the obesity and perceived stupidity of a family aboard the cruise ship. Fascinatingly, she thinks of this family as like people who might be photographed by Diane Arbus in contrast to other groups on the ship who are like “Norman Rockwell families”. The central characters in these stories turn certain people they encounter into antagonists because there is an “otherness” about them which they can’t overcome.

Intergenerational conflicts which are described in some other stories are centred around a parent/child relationship. In 'Owl Eyes' teenager Jerald appears to have some form of autism where he has very advanced abilities in mathematics and experiences feelings of panic when there are deviations from his fixed routines. He regularly travels to a university campus to attend a calculus class, but when a man approaches him claiming to be his estranged father Jerald can’t reconcile how this man might fit into the narrative created by his single mother. Jerald is reluctant to engage with memory because, unlike math, it is uncertain and has an inherent malleability: “Memories return in waves, overwhelming. You can drown in memories.” Memory is distorted in the tremendously ambitious story 'Fractal' which is also about a mother and her son. At the beginning of this story the characters are only referred to as “the mother” and “the child” as if these identity roles supersede any individuality that would grant them names. “The mother” indulges her child’s specialist interest by taking him to a (fictional) Fractal Museum in Portland, Maine. As the pair explore the museums exhibits, multiple versions of their reality are gradually introduced until “the mother” is confronted with a true past that she’s wholly denied.

A very different kind of teacher/pupil relationship is depicted in 'The Quiet Car' where an arrogant male teacher/writer reflects on his declining literary fame and an adoring female student who he viewed in a disparaging way. When he bumps into this student again many years later he’s confronted by how his conception of himself has been overly inflated. Oates has recently shown a particular knack for excoriating the pompous egos of celebrated male authors/artists in her fiction. Most notably this can be seen in her collection Wild Nights! and her controversial depiction of Robert Frost in the short story ‘Lovely, Dark Deep’. However, Oates constructs a more playful tribute to a particular author’s ambition and his lasting impact in her story 'Donald Barthelme Saved From Oblivion'. Here she memorably describes the writing process as like walking over and over across a high wire and makes acute observations about the meaning and endurance of art.

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The vivid and intense story 'Les Beaux Jours' contains a much sharper critique of the problematic nature of artist Balthus’s famous painting. Here the reader inhabits the troubled psyche of the girl depicted in this artwork who is like an enslaved fairy tale heroine while simultaneously existing as a girl from a broken affluent NYC home. As with many stories in the second section of this collection, this story slides into the surreal as does the brief and powerfully haunting story ‘The Memorial Field at Hazard, Minnesota’. Here the author’s condemnation for the tyrannical nature of ego-driven politicians sees a former president forcibly condemned to the hellish task of digging up graves of those who were victims of his poor policies and warmongering.

Oates creatively engages with the politics of immigration in what is probably the most radical story in this collection 'Undocumented Alien'. Here a Nigerian-born young man J.S. Maada enters into a secret governmental psychological experiment rather than face deportation. A chip planted in his brain causes a “radical destabilization of temporal and spatial functions of cognition” and results in him believing that he’s an agent from planet Jupiter's moon Ganymede. This leads to paranoid fantasies and a horrific confrontation with the white lady who employs him as a gardener. It’s tremendously poignant that the way J.S. Maada is manipulated, persecuted and discarded is indicative of how an intolerant section of white America reacts to “otherness.”

This collection of stories seems to possess an urgency and anger influenced by current American politics. It never ceases to amaze me how Oates continually pushes boundaries and orchestrates a dialogue around some of the most pressing matters in society today. In addition to how these stories address many dramatic instances of confrontations with the “other”, they also possess an impressive diversity in their style and form. The bold variety of narratives in this collection continuously surprise and delight. Much of the fiction in Beautiful Days is longer than a typical short story. With several stories tipping into lengths considered to be a novella, it feels that many could easily expand out into novels. Given that Oates’s forthcoming novel (currently titled) My Life as a Rat is based off her short story ‘Curly Red’, it will be interesting to see if the author chooses to build upon any of the short fiction in Beautiful Days. However, the stories in this collection stand firmly on their own with all their startling psychological insight and bracing depictions of tragic conflict. 

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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This is the first time I’ve read a book by acclaimed novelist and short story writer Christine Schutt, but she has a disarming and fascinating way of writing about self-consciousness, family and the passage of time.  In “Pure Hollywood” the opening title story is also the longest tale in this collection. It’s an impressionistic story of a brother and sister after the sister’s much older husband dies. He was a wealthy famous comedian, but she soon finds she’s shut out of any substantial inheritance and she’s forced to vacate the modernist home she inhabited like a California Hockney painting. The odd series of events which make up her life feel as if they’ve been crafted in a Hollywood film script so she forms an odd emotional distance from her own sense of being. This is a feeling that recurs throughout many of the stories in this book where the enormity of characters’ loves and losses have a sense of being scripted and so they are abstracted out of the personal. What’s left is the sordid and grimy reality that they inhabit like bemused spectators blinking in the sunlight after spending too long in a dark movie theatre.

The stories include a range of characters from an affluent young couple on holiday to men purchasing flowers for a garden to a widow harangued by her daughters about her growing drinking habit. But almost all the characters are accompanied by some sense of personal loss whether it’s a spouse or child. Gardens also frequently feature in the stories so running alongside these deaths are a proliferation of plants and flowers growing with stubborn insistence. Tied into this surrounding life is a sense of eroticism, but the presence of gardens isn’t necessarily comforting or benign. In ‘The Duchess of Albany’ it’s stated “The garden was not genteel.”  In fact, two of the stories refer to the surrounding flora as “thuggish” as if they are mocking or bullying these survivors. Gardens must be tended and cared for, but also controlled and wrangled with just like the people in these characters’ unruly lives. The result is a bewitching mingling of imagery and sensations about how our relationships grow beautifully, but soon wilt or threaten to restrictively entangle us.

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

"The Duchess of Albany was not a thug, but a racer on a brittle stem, a clematis with deep pink, upside-down bells, deceptively frail and well-bred, small, timorous bells."

It’s interesting how some of the stories slip into the surreal. The story ‘Where You Live, When You Need Me?’ about a woman named Ella who is employed by a number of affluent mothers to care for their children is particularly intriguing. The narrator reports how this child carer is much trusted, but no one knows much about her. At the same time as Ella appears the body parts of unknown children start being found in KFC buckets. The story has a high-pitched unsettling edge while not giving any conclusions. It strongly reminded me of Schweblin’s anxiety-inducing novel “Fever Dream”. The shortest stories in this collection seem to be the ones where Schutt also takes the most narrative risks in a way which doesn’t always feel successful or satisfying. Yet these micro stories also left some unsettling concepts lingering in my mind such as ‘Family Man’ where a husband living a remote “country-quiet life” feels that “The past sleds behind him.” But, on the whole, it feels like longer stories allow Schutt the space to develop characters that will resonate more powerfully such as an imperious rich old horse rider named Mrs Pall-Meyer or an irascible highly sexed famous painter named Gordon. On the whole I enjoyed these stories which have a vertiginous power to disorient their reader and articulate the peculiar subtleties of conflicting emotions. 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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Part of what excites me about reading a debut author’s book is the originality of voice I might discover. The short fiction in “Her Body and Other Parties” by Carmen Maria Machado is so wild and inventive with an impressive variation in structure and subject matter shown from story to story. Often they branch into supernatural or surreal territories where women fade away into the stitching of designer dresses or the spirits of dead prostitutes with bells for eyes haunt a female detective. One story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where the narrator numbers the amount of lovers she’s had, another occurs at a housewarming party that goes awry and one is centred around a clothing shop which seeks to “terrify our patrons into an existential crisis.” But, while this fiction often spills into a wonderful absurdity, I frequently felt an emotional resonance which made it seem very real. Throughout the narrators or characters are disarmingly assertive which gives these tales a confidential and urgent tone: “you may have heard some version of this story before but this is the one you need to know.”

Many of the stories take a different slant on the complications of desire and sex, often describing lesbian affairs or relationships. They also involve complicated ideas about women’s bodies, femininity and the way women present themselves. One that deals with this explicitly is ‘Eight Bites’ where a woman gets “bariatric” surgery in an effort to get thin after all her sisters have already done so. She asks in this “Will I ever be done, transformed into the past tense, or will I always be transforming, better and better until I die?” This is such a fascinating take on the philosophical tension between becoming and being. It’s so exhausting how our lives are frequently concerned with trying to lose weight, get fitter and eat better. Machado has a talent for dredging up all this anxiety which sounds like a low hum throughout our lives. The protagonist of the fable-like ‘The Husband Stitch’ insists that a certain adornment on her body cannot be touched like a private bit of the self that must be preserved and when this is violated she literally comes undone. Another story ‘Real Women Have Bodies’ shows women wilfully melding into designer clothes in a way that seems to provoke questions about the importance we place on fashion and commodities to enhance our sense of self-worth.

I was surprised at how Machado could stir in me feelings of nostalgia with precise descriptions of a thing or sensation I haven’t felt in a long time. For instance, she describes “hard candies twisted in strawberry-patterned cellophane” which I can recall and visualise so precisely as if their colourful wrappers were more exciting than the taste of the candy itself. Or, at one point, a character remembers being a child sitting in front of a humidifier and breathing in the dense mist being pumped out. It’s fascinating how she can use these descriptions to reach back in time to our former selves recognizing in them a more vulnerable or innocent state in our lives. One of the most sombre instances of this is the story ‘The Resident’ where a writer travels to an artists’ residency which happens to be situated on a lake where she spent time as a child camping with a troop of Brownies. Her creative process seems to compel her to physically confront her younger, more awkward self and produces an almost complete breakdown.

As with all the greatest absurd fiction, humour treads closely alongside darker sensations of dread. There are some wickedly funny and original descriptions of people from “a man mean as Mondays” to someone accused of being an “aggressively ordinary woman.” There's also many amusing commentaries on modern life: “Benson is sure that her smartphone is smarter than she is, and finds it deeply upsetting.” Quite often I felt compelled to read on just because I was fascinated to see where she'd take the story next. When it felt like the stories were becoming too ridiculously unhinged I'd come upon a line which felt startlingly heartfelt: “something inside of me is breaking, I am a continent but I will not hold.” Not only does her narrative frequently burst into odd and unfamiliar territory but the form of the story itself is often a revelation. This ranges from instructions that the listener of this tale should cut the reader's hand to the novella ‘Especially Heinous’ which takes the form of episode/season summaries for a supernatural detective television show. Only occasionally did it feel like the stories became so abstract as to be completely alienating like some sections of the stories 'Mothers' and ‘Difficult at Parties’. But, overall, this is a collection filled with such wondrous delights and sharp edges that I revelled in the experience of reading it.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It feels apt there’s a luminous diagram of a heart on the cover of this book of short stories since it’s a collection which brims over with emotional tales of family life. Christina, the narrator of the opening and closing stories, has a penchant for sour fruit so her parents nickname her “sour heart.” But this name also reflects the attitudes of the different girls who are all the daughters of American-Chinese immigrants at the centre of these stories. Their tales explore innocence lost and feelings that turn rotten as these girls variously witness severe bullying from other children, undergo sexual experimentation, abuse within the family, various levels of racism, extreme poverty, homelessness and alienation. Although there are some truly shocking scenes and events within this collection, it doesn’t read like a series of misery tales because the forceful idiosyncratic voices that drive these stories have such strength and vibrancy. These are frank, densely-detailed accounts of young women sifting through the past. Their testaments collectively ponder the meaning of home and family in order to understand the dynamics of their own hearts.

There are often stories within stories told throughout the book as the parents of these girls relate accounts of life in China and the struggles they endured to make a new life in America. Stacey’s grandmother in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?' recalls the violence her own past in ways which are often contradictory, but sweetly express a feverish affection for her grandchildren. What comes over in these tales and many of the other stories in this collection is that there is an emotional truth at their heart which may not be a literal truth. Yet, in the act of recollection there is a fierce exploration of how the severe circumstances which led to many of these families emigrating has impacted both the reality and the expectations placed on the children. For this reason, quite often the children at the centre of these stories rebel against their families. In ‘The Evolution of My Brother’ Jenny states “All I had wanted for so long was to be part of a family that wasn’t mine. To have an excuse to love mine less, an excuse to run away instead of staying so close all the time.” They long to be absorbed into another kind of American family, but find themselves tied to their Chinese heritage and how that informs their identities.

One of the longest stories which literally explores the present and past by flipping between 1966 and 1996 is ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The earlier set tale is an account of how students in China empowered by the Maoist revolution rebel against and brutally persecute their teachers. The later date focuses on Annie who contemplates the opportunities her mother and father missed out on having to move to America and work hard to create a sustainable living. These dual stories embody the way the differing cultural and political landscapes have impacted the characters’ lives and why these individuals are filled with such contradictory, turbulent feelings.

Sour Heart is the first title published under Lena Dunham's imprint Lenny. Watch the author in conversation with Dunham.

As well as exploring the conflicts within families and the brutal challenges these girls sometimes face with people they encounter, there are many touching scenes of physical and emotional closeness. There are stories where the families imaginatively picture themselves as different parts of a hotdog or hamburger pressed together. Others show how the affection between family members change over time leading one girl to miss the stutter her brother grows out of and another to temporarily form a strong bond with a cousin still in Shanghai. But probably the most emotionally effective and moving story was the account of a grandmother’s different visits over the years in 'Why Were They Throwing Bricks?'

Part of what’s great about short story collections like “Sour Heart” and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s “The Refugees” is that they present a varied view of different kinds of immigrant experiences. Too often discussions about immigration lump people who have moved from one particular country to another into one generalized group. These books restore the individuality to these very different people’s lives and explore the way that the transition from one nation to another can have many different consequences. Jenny Zhang also gives a fascinating bit of puzzle work as some characters in the stories overlap thus creating a powerful sense of a particular universe where all these different stories are occurring. But an issue I had with “Sour Heart” is that the narrative tone doesn’t vary enough from story to story. Because they are all consistently densely-written and emotionally blunt, the different tales don’t always come across as distinct as they should. I would have been interested to see more stylistic differences and varying kinds of narration such as ‘Our Mothers Before Them’. The confessional authorial voice used in most stories undeniably is endowed with a special power that makes Zhang’s voice so refreshingly unique, but it also slightly detracts from what makes story collections so special.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJenny Zhang
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I’ve been a fan of watching Jen Campbell’s histories of fairy tales on her YouTube channel for some time. She gives fascinating descriptions of the dark content and themes of these stories which have been passed down through generations and illuminates how the original tale is often far different from a Disney interpretation. So I was incredibly eager to read this series of original modern-day fairy tales she’s written in her first collection of short fiction “The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night”. These are stories about fantastical situations such as purchasing hearts online, capturing ghosts to sell on the black market, a hotel where the guests sleep in coffins and a far away planet that acts as a time capsule. These distorted versions of the world often inventively shed new light on our emotional reality by ruminating on conditions such as love, jealousy, greed and the origin of existence. It makes this book such a richly rewarding and pleasurable reading experience.

Integral to these tales is the compulsion for storytelling itself. Characters read about stories, tell each other stories or make up stories themselves. Some are riffs on established fairy tales, bible tales or mythology that poignantly comment on the central thread of story. So a story about teenage pregnancy recounts a version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ that creates a powerful connection to ideas about food and nourishment. Another story incorporates aspects of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ to comment upon a lost friend and a sense of freedom. Others invent whole new kinds of tall tales to bring chaotic emotions and unwieldy feelings into some sort of order. These beautifully show the way classic stories can be incorporated into and made relevant to our everyday life and how we can write ourselves into the myths we inherit. Campbell also often incorporates snippets of oddball history like the ritualized consumption of hearts or unusual natural science like an icefish with transparent blood. The real and unreal mingle on the page to show the complex way in which we perceive, interpret and make sense of the world around us.

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The visual arts also provide another portal of understanding for some characters. The endearing story ‘Jacob’ is composed in the form of a letter a boy writes to a weather woman looking for special insight and he recounts a trip to a museum where he was overwhelmed by a painting that depicts when God flooded the earth. The deeply moving story 'Margaret and mary and the end of the world' describes how a pregnant girl goes to view Dante Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini and meditates on the condition of womanhood. In that painting the angel Gabriel is strikingly depicted as having his feet on fire and the artist modelled the ambivalent figure of Mary on his own sister, the writer Christina Rossetti whose extended poem ‘Goblin Market’ is such a wondrous joy.

Quite often when artwork is depicted in novels I feel a compulsion to actually go view that piece of art as I did reading Ali Smith’s “How to Be Both” and Neil Hegarty’s “Inch Levels”. So I felt the same in this instance wanting to see Rossetti’s painting in person. I took the bus to Trafalgar Square to see it at the National Gallery (since it’s currently on loan there from the Tate). Something quite randomly wonderful happened on my journey where I was listening to Rebekah Del Rio’s song ‘No Stars’ on a loop. This track has been frequently drifting through my mind since I saw it performed in Twin Peaks The Return. While listening to this I read Campbell’s title story ‘The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night’ about a couple speculating on both the creation of the universe and the start of their relationship at 3AM. When Evelyn asserts that in the beginning there was nothing but stars Julian critiques her by replying that stars aren’t nothing. Evelyn corrects herself saying there were no stars. This fit so perfectly with my listening not only in the repetition of there being “no stars”, but in the way both the song and story solemnly consider the meaning of a relationship. It was a fun little coincidence. 

The imaginative exuberance of this collection makes it such an enjoyable and stunningly fascinating book. Some of the stories like ‘Animals’ or ‘Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel’ revel in gothic delights and build plots of dramatic tension. Others such as ‘Plum Pie. Zombie Green. Yellow Bee. Purple Monster.’ and ‘Human Satellites’ more abstractly provoke you to consider new ideas and perspectives. Then others make arresting points about the nature of war or the stigma surrounding deformity while immersing the reader in a trip to a gay pride celebration in Brighton or a tour around an aquarium. Jen Campbell’s writing sits snugly alongside such excitingly inventive modern short story writers such as Kirsty Logan, Jackie Kay, Daisy Johnson or Ali Smith.

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Any dramatic or violent shift in society will mean that the lives of ordinary people are drastically affected. When country borders are redrawn people must also redraw their sense of identity. Some will survive this shift and some won’t. Shobha Rao writes about a large group of loosely connected individuals whose lives have been changed or residually affected by the Indian subcontinent being partitioned into the countries of India and Pakistan in 1947. These are short stories which can definitely be read independently, but this book exists in that murky realm between the novel and a collection of short stories. Part of the book’s power comes from seeing how certain characters appear differently in stories which don’t focus on them. But each story brings to the forefront the concrete life-altering changes caused by Partition in a fascinating variety of forms.

Rao’s characters embody a wide spectrum of individuals from men to women, from the wealthy/powerful to the poor/helpless, from gay to straight or somewhere on the spectrum in between, from Hindu to Muslim to agnostic and from young to old. It’s certainly not necessary to read them in order, but since I did so I could detect the way some themes or ideas would recur in different forms throughout the book. Where in the story ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ a female servant triumphs over the lord and memsahib of the manor, the story ‘The Mehsahib’ shows a similar situation but the servant’s triumph feels much more morally complicated. A woman’s grief over the death of her baby in ‘The Lost Ribbon’ resonates much differently from the grief felt by a woman taken on holiday by her husband to try to save their marriage in the story ‘Curfew.’ These show a vibrant array of personalities and how common experiences will have different repercussions depending on each character’s individual responses to them.

One of the most engaging things I found throughout the book was how Rao shows a variety of sexual identities. The first two stories ‘An Unrestored Woman’ and ‘The Merchant’s Mistress’ include female characters Neela and Renu who are housed together in a camp for women that have been outcast or left without means because of the loss of their husbands. The physical connection they find together isn’t explicitly sexual but involves complicated feelings of romance, desire and love. Another story ‘The Imperial Police’ is from the perspective of Jenkins, a British officer stationed in (what is today) a city in Pakistan. He falls for one of his subordinates named Abheet Singh who is a Sikh, but isn’t able to fully articulate this desire to him and discovers a very different perspective on Abheet’s life after he’s killed in a violent community skirmish. I always find it fascinating to read about sexuality presented in complex ways within stories, but this collection also includes different perspectives on heterosexual marriage and the problematic challenges these couples face.

I was particularly interested in reading this alongside Arundhati Roy’s “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” as both authors sought to explicitly depict the repercussions of Partition for a wide variety of individuals. While Roy’s novel is more an overarching look at society and explicitly political, Shobha Rao’s stories focus much more on the preoccupations and individual conflicts within particular moments in her character’s lives. Some are directly involved in Partition and some are not. The story ‘Such a Mighty River’ explores the life of an old man suffering from a form of dementia where he wanders the streets searching for his long-deceased wife. He’s been removed from time and circumstance in a curious way, yet he’s drawn back into it when a former prostitute he once visited and her cohorts decide to hold him hostage. However, the story ‘The Opposite of Sex’ is about a character named Mohan, one of the surveyors responsible for literally drawing the borders between India and Pakistan. He decides to use this power for his own selfish means with tragic results. Then there is the story 'Unleashed' which is far removed from India and involves a woman named Anju who lives in America in a drunken, depressed state which is reminiscent of a Jean Rhys novel.

Watch Shobha Rao discuss her collection and read from the story 'Kavitha and Mustafa'

One of the most memorable stories for me was ‘Blindfold’ where Bandra is a woman stripped of any prospects or livelihood, but she decides to muster what funds she can to found a brothel. This is a woman whose course in life was severely disrupted because of the repercussions of Partition, but who chose to survive and earn money to better the lives of her children through the exploitation of girls and women she buys from impoverished farmers. While her decision brings her temporary security and prosperity, it ultimately destroys her in both her estrangement from her children and a particular girl she purchases who cunningly asserts her independence. It’s fascinating how the issue of selling sex is represented here when compared to how it’s played out in the story ‘The Road to Mirpur Khas’ where a wife named Arya decides to sell her body when she and her husband face starvation.

In these stories, Shobha Rao powerfully represents a variety of experience all the way from the formation of the borders between India and Pakistan in 1947 to the present day where a woman of Indian descent contemplates what was lost along the way. They are at turns harrowing and heart-warming, but all utterly absorbing. 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesShobha Rao
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I was drawn to reading this debut short story collection by the beauty of its deep-blue, silver-illustrated cover and the strength of blurbs from excellent cutting-edge writers Helen Oyeyemi and Sjon. These imaginative stories do feel in some fundamental way to be aligned with these authors because of the way they similarly bend reality to give new insight into society, language and our perceptions of the past. The subjects of Tharoor's stories are far-ranging from a town awaiting its imminent destruction by an invading army to a conqueror cursed with impotence to a Russian ship hedged in by icebergs. They span great swaths of time from soldiers conversing in a heated battle in 190 BC to diplomats from dying nations marooned on a luxury spaceship in a dystopian future. Yet, there is a curious unity between these invigorating and fascinating tales which ponder the evolution of our civilization by focusing on migration, storytelling and what's left in and selected out of recorded history: “Humanity, after all, was nothing but a library.”

Several stories consider the way in which different cultures intermingle by appropriating, borrowing, learning and stealing from each other. In some voyages the explorers set out to discover and plunder, but instead find their dreams of conquest stymied by violent confrontations with the unknown. The erratic and far-reaching story ‘Letters Home’ considers many kinds of these journeys all over the world which are cut short. There's a sense of possible touchstones between civilizations which are lost through accidental blunders and chance. The story 'The Astrolabe' features a captain who has lost his ship and crew before washing on the shore of a strange island. What could have been a tale like 'The Tempest' or Robinson Crusoe hands its story over to the island's native population who consider the captain's “advancements” and dramatically reject him. Other stories consider the cross-flow of cultures in more contemporary settings such as 'Cultural Property' where a student contemplates reclaiming an artefact found on a university campus or 'The Loss of Muzaffar' where a dazzlingly talented immigrant chef caters to a wealthy NYC family against the backdrop of 9/11.

Two compelling stories show a more academic meeting point between one person and another from dramatically different social and economic groups to consider issues of cultural appropriation. In the title story ‘Swimmer Among the Stars’ an elderly woman's voice is recorded by ethnographers as she is the last person to speak her native language. She considers how “Humans always lose more history than they ever possess.” Also, the story gives a deeply fascinating perspective on the social meaning of words and language's evolution. It incorporates the way folklore is imbued with personal and political stories. The story ‘Portrait with Coal Fire’ depicts a Skype conversation between a magazine photographer and a miner discussing how the meaning his life and family appear in photographs that were taken. There is some fundamental break happening in the translation between the subject, the photograph and the viewer which creates a “chronic voyeuristic relation” as described by Susan Sontag in her famous essay 'On Photography'. This conversation is further complicated by the translator who is necessary for the photographer to speak to his subject.

Iskandar in battle

Iskandar in battle

One of the most sustained sections of the book features a series of short retellings of legends from Arabic literature that depict Alexander the Great or Iskandar (as Muslim hero). Here the leader's insatiable lust for power and control over the world sees him rampage through different nations and even journey to the bottom of the ocean to claim it for his own. This conqueror's perspective is the opposite of the view we're given in 'Tale of the Teahouse' where we feel the increasing alarm of a city about to be invaded. Tharoor has a flair for depicting clashes for power and dominance that is both dramatic and meditative. His writing reminds me strongly of Jessie Greengrass' short stories – not so much in style, but the way they contemplate the philosophical meaning of how people throughout history have flung themselves out into the great unknown to reshape civilization and their understanding of themselves. “Swimmer Among the Stars” is a deeply thoughtful book as well as being a delight to read for its imaginative leaps in storytelling.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesKanishk Tharoor

I’ve been reading some really long novels recently so I like to keep a book of short stories to read on the side. I’m very glad I picked up this new collection by Viet Thanh Nguyen despite not having yet read his debut novel “The Sympathizer” which won multiple awards including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. All of these stories touch upon the Vietnamese immigrant experience in America from different perspectives – frequently with characters forced to leave their native country. Many involve people who were directly affected by the Vietnam War or people who are still affected by it second hand based on the experiences of their parents. Their day to day lives are still weighed down by the recent history and trauma of severing ties with their native land to create a new life for themselves in America. This produces fascinating situations where characters wrestle with finding a cohesive sense of identity based on economic status, nationality, race, sexuality and gender. These exquisite stories are so impressive for being both profound and compulsively readable.

Generational clashes often play an important factor such as the story ‘The Americans’ where a former air force pilot locks horns with his daughter Claire who settles in an entirely different culture. Or in ‘Someone Else Besides You’ a regimental father who vandalizes the car of his son’s ex-wife demonstrates a different form of emotional repression. But these stories also show a tremendously moving fluid sense of identity where people are caught between their Vietnamese and American selves. Nguyen shows this so artfully in his characters that range from a ghost writer, to a peddler in fake merchandise, to a young woman who was given the same name as her older American half sister to a young refugee who is taken in by a gay couple in 1970s San Francisco. Their dramatic situations play out the tension between paths in life laid out for them and ones which they forge on their own.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

A professor who suffers from dementia is given a copy of a Picasso painting which reflects the confusion he has about his wife's identity.

The economic disparity between nations and levels of society greatly influence the lives of these characters as well. Some characters are determined to compensate for what they were forced to leave behind: “His ambition was to own more books than he could ever possibly read, a desire fuelled by having left behind all his books when they had fled Vietnam.” Stories and story telling between the characters also play an important role. In ‘Black-Eyed Women’ it’s observed that “In a country where possessions counted for everything we had no belongings except our stories.” Part-factual/part-embellished tales of life in Vietnam are passed down through generations. There is a definite divide between the narrative of those who escaped persecution in their homeland and those who remained in oppressed circumstances where dissent requires time in “re-education” camps. The reader is prompted to wonder what is “authentic” about national identity or the lives we live particularly in the story ‘The Transplant’ where compulsive gambler Arthur receives a liver transplant from an Asian man and ‘Fatherland’ where a Vietnamese woman returns to her homeland to visit her father’s second family. How much do nations owe to compensate for the wrongs of wartime, what obligation do countries have to take in those that have been forced to flee their native land and how do you assimilate people caught between two wildly different cultures? These queries subtly raised throughout the stories feel highly pertinent to the broader discussions of many nations.

It’s interesting getting a different perspective of the long lasting effects of the Vietnam War after having read Robert Olen Butler’s novel “Perfume River” last year. This considered the aftermath of the war over generations from a white American perspective. Nguyen shows how some Asian characters living in the United States still feel the war in their day to day lives like in the heartrending story ‘War Years’ where the battle against the Communists is still very personal for an ardent woman struggling with irreconcilable loss. It leads the narrator to note how “while some people are haunted by the dead, others are haunted by the living.” The overall effect of these stories is subtly haunting because the perilous positions and existential dilemmas of the characters feel so emotionally real. Nguyen skilfully plays out the ambiguities of these situations in which no one can ever feel settled or fully at home.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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It’s difficult to write about desire in a way which feels wholly new, but that’s something author April Ayers Lawson does repeatedly in her debut book. There’s a persistent sense in these five short stories that young people have access to a multitude of sexual imagery and opportunities. They are either totally sheltered from sex or there is a presumption that they know how to emotionally deal with the more mature aspects of sexuality. Yet their innocence and naivety leave them unprepared to accept the physical reality of sex and its consequences. Lawson has a fascinating way of describing the separation between people’s intentions and the outcomes of their unwieldy romantic and sexual yearnings. She does this through poignant imagery and layering complicated feelings between her characters. It’s apt that the title story ‘Virgin’ is what this book is named after because the feeling of purity cut through with the startling reality of intimate encounters recurs throughout each story.

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 The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

The character Conner is sexually drawn to Andrew Wyeth's The Helga Pictures

Often people who ought to be the object of desire are passed over for people the characters find themselves unexpectedly attracted to. In ‘Virgin’ a married man finds himself inappropriately staring at the breasts of a cancer survivor, in ‘Three Friends in a Hammock’ women press against each other in an intimate space while gossiping about their complicated private lives and in 'The Way You Must Play Always' teenager Gretchen is drawn to a much older man who is terminally ill. I found it really effective the way Lawson shows how desire is much more complicated than it appears on the surface. In real life the object of desire isn’t necessarily who you imagine you’d be drawn to. Teenage boy Conner is both intrigued and repulsed by his mother’s transvestite friend Charlene in ‘The Negative Effects of Homeschooling’. He steals a book with paintings by Andrew Wyeth that contains art which isn’t immediately sexy, but what he finds seductive about these paintings are the representation of the physical weight and reality of the woman Wyeth repeatedly painted. In the final story ‘Vulnerability’ at one point the main character is shown paintings by an artist who depicts scenes of garish violence that he imagines occurring between people in the South (rather than any experiences he’s witnessed). There’s a disjuncture throughout this book between the reality of actions/emotions/experiences and how they are envisioned in people’s minds.

It’s interesting reading an author who clearly comes out of an established tradition of writing from the American South – at times parts of these stories made me think of Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor – but Lawson’s subjects are much more modern and her influences wide-ranging: one story begins with a quote from Margaret Atwood. The themes of humorous sexual confusion reminded me slightly of Patrick Ryan’s wonderful stories from “The Dream Life of Astronauts”. April Ayers Lawson gives such a lively and refreshing slant on the peculiar reality of people’s relationships to each other that I found “Virgin and Other Stories” often surprising, enlightening and a pleasure to read.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

A new list today and I’m talking about short stories from this year that I’ve loved reading. These include an anthology that includes women writers from the north of Ireland, stories of personal change, satirical stories that give a lot of LOLs, icy tales of loneliness, fantastic tales that feel all too real, moving stories of Irish life, exquisitely-crafted tense gothic tales, highly inventive stories of transformation, the misguided adventures of people in Cape Canaveral and stories that give a new view of modern London. Watch me discuss ten exceptional books of short stories here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8cdt7sHCSbQ

There have been many short story collections I’ve started this year, but not entirely finished reading so haven’t reviewed them yet. What have been some of your favourites?

 

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It was reported on RTE at the beginning of this month that the number of homeless families in Dublin has surpassed 1000 and the number of homeless individuals totals over 5000. The property crash in 2007 created an economic strain on the country which is still being felt today with many people being rendered homeless primarily because rental prices are rising to an unaffordable degree. Writer Kerrie O'Brien has witnessed the increasing amount of people living on the street in Dublin for years. She decided to take action raising money for Simon Communities, one of Ireland's leading homeless charities, by creating and editing the beautiful anthology “Looking at the Stars” which features fiction, poetry and nonfiction by some of Ireland's leading writers. All the money earned from selling this book is going to the Rough Sleeper Team at the Dublin Simon Community.

This writing gives a dynamic look at the condition of homelessness – from inside perspectives of children, families and individuals left without anywhere to live to people working on the front lines assisting those in need to ordinary citizens who witness its effects only peripherally. Not all the writing deals directly with homelessness, but considers different angles of loss, empathy or hope. There are several moving and thoughtful accounts written by people who have experienced homelessness themselves. A piece by Tara Flynn creatively addresses issues of safety and security. Some of the fiction gives vivid depictions of people in need. A mother and her baby are scammed out of money in Sarah Bannan's 'Because Privacy'. The story 'Louise' by Belinda McKeon gives voice to an eleven year old girl living with her family in emergency shelter at a hotel where she must learn the restrictive rules and policies which make them into second class citizens. Whereas Donal Ryan's 'Detached' shows a man trying to care for his family and explain to his children why their house now belongs to an American bank even though it will be left vacant. One of the most vivid accounts of the grimy harsh reality of homelessness comes in Sinéad Gleeson's 'Counting Bridges' which makes you feel the bitter chill and continuous humiliation of living on the street.

Anyone who has spent time in a city encounters homelessness in some form and it always creates a personal dilemma. You can reach out to someone obviously in need by offering some form of support or walk past them. Poetry by Afric McGlinchey confronts this awkward question. Mary O'Donnell considers how the homeless can become merely “shapes” to us. Although we have statistics about homelessness we never know how many people are truly in need because they might not be counted in these collated numbers. Madeline D’Arcy presents the story ‘Census’ about a boy who has gone off the grid, but ironically finds himself being counted anyway. Meanwhile, Jane Casey's tense story ‘Runaways’ shows girls whose home lives have become untenable and embark on an unknown journey. Similarly the protagonist of Danielle McLaughlin's ‘The Woman in the Bowl’ can no endure her home life so takes drastic and much darker action.

More troubling to consider are people in need who are understandably tempestuous from the considerable strain they live under. Colin Barrett presents an intense inner view of an irascible character's thought process when he's plagued by feelings of isolation and feels disconnected from others. Nuala O'Connor's story 'Eulogy' considers the problematic life of a woman who can no longer be saved. Similarly, Jaki McCarrick gives us the point of view of a character who only witnesses the aftermath of a troubled individual's life and recognises how “this sensation of life being weirdly 'alien' must worsen, deepen” when someone is plagued by mental illness or absolute poverty. Dermot Bolger's striking poem considers a more complex meaning for the word home whereas Patrick Cotter's inventive poem 'The View' gives an entirely different perspective.

Issues of faith come up in several pieces in this book. Stephen James Smith's poem ‘Relit Flame’ shows a faithless person seeking solace in a church because he/she has nowhere else to go. Similarly, Mary O'Malley finds that “Habit takes you to an empty church”. In 'Jamie' by Christopher McCaffrey the issue of extreme faith is considered from the perspective of a person who can't stop himself from helping the homeless. The story '1988, Sabina' by Kevin Barry shows how an ordinary object like leather police boots can become something sacred when it takes on a historic and symbolic personal significance.

In a society where the division between the rich and poor is widening it's shocking to consider how ostentatious wealth can sit so smugly alongside cruel poverty. Gerard Smyth looks at the way prized horses receive much better treatment than people in 'The Horses of Kildare'. Anne Enright writes a story about absolute resistance in the face of these untenable gaps in society. Rick O'Shea considers the reality of the situation by looking at developments on a particular street in his piece 'Molesworth Street' where he recognises “We're living in a time where things are going to get harder for those on the margins, not easier.”

It's heartening to see writers take direct action not only be creating an anthology whose profits will go to combat homelessness, but which also make readers consider the issue from so many points of view. As Kerrie O'Brien writes in her introduction “Our government is not doing enough for homelessness – so maybe we all need to do something as individuals – be it a gig, a bake sale, a sponsored run, anything.” Buying this book is certainly a good place to start and reading it will leave you enriched and inspired. You can find out more about this anthology, the Dublin Simon Community and where to purchase the book here: http://www.lookingatthestars.ie/