Short Stories for Short Attention Spans

I’m sure I’m not the only one whose attention span seems to be shrinking in the last few weeks. Although I’ve embarked upon The American by Henry James and am finding it quite humorous and easy reading, on the whole I seem to spend more time on interruptions rather than on reading. So short story collections are ideal. I can always squeeze one story in between a team meeting and starting to cook supper, or between a Barney/Zoe socialisation project and a game of Cluedo with the boys. (Sadly, that last one is becoming infrequent, as they keep reminding me that they have left such childish pursuits well and truly behind them.) And these two short story collections by women and about women are truly magnificent, highly recommended. Just don’t expect very lengthy, profoundly analytical reviews of them – my writing attention span is likewise very much reduced.

Lucia Berlin: A Manual for Cleaning Women

Everyone was buzzing about it a few years back, and I even bought it for a friend who I was sure would love it, but I somehow never got around to reading more than 1-2 stories from it. I am so glad that I discovered it now. It is so, so good. An instantly recognisable, unique voice, regardless of whether the story is in first person or third person. She reminds me of Jean Rhys, but in a different setting and a few decades later, a working woman rather than a kept one, with not just herself but four boys to look after as well.

Many of her biographical details match with what she shares in the stories, and there is something of the ‘confessional writer’ about her. (She also reminds me of Anne Sexton, with a cool, unflappable veneer hiding tormented depths.) But she twists and exaggerates memories and events, so that they can best serve the story she wants to tell. As one of her sons said: ‘Our family stories… have been slowly reshaped, embellished and edited to the extent that I’m not sure what really happened all the time. Lucia said this didn’t matter: the story is the thing.’

Her stories are never boring, and they are surprisingly humorous (unlike Rhys). Some are brief, mere glimpses into someone’s life, you can’t help feeling like a voyeur at times. Others are longer, building up to… well, sometimes there is a climax, but often the stories are not crescendo all the way. Something seems to be about to happen, and then something far less dramatic happens, and life is just that one shade clearer or foggier, heavier or lighter. But nothing has really changed, you always knew it was going to be this way.

Matsuda Aoko: Where the Wild Ladies Are, transl. Polly Barton

I read this one for the online reading group of literature in translation, organised by Peirene and other independent publishers. Unfortunately, I lost the connection after the first 20 minutes or so and was unable to log back on, but I did enjoy hearing the translator Polly Barton and the publisher Tilted Axis talk about what attracted them to these stories.

Ghost stories are very popular in Japan – I’ve recently reread and reviewed Ugetsu Monogatari – and I certainly spotted that ‘story within a story’ narrative framework in some of the stories in this collection, as well as rakugo, Kabuki and other folktales used as inspiration. But the author does a brilliant job of turning those traditional stories on their head. In Japanese tradition, the vengeful spirit is nearly always a woman (who has been severely wronged, admittedly, but nevertheless seems vengeful beyond any reason). In Matsuda’s stories, the women are free agents, surprising, mainge unexpected choices or comments. The stories are set in the present-day, with modern, often eccentric flourishes, and they often end on an inconclusive note.

They have been hailed as ‘feminist retelling’ of folk tales, but the feminism is often subtle rather than screaming out loudly. The stories have all the joyful creativity, wilful darkness and inventiveness of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber or Anne Sexton herself in her little-known retellings of Grimm’s fairytales Transformations.

 

 

 

Monthly Reading Summary: June in the United States

June was the first month that I experimented with my new geographical reading initiative, which means reading mostly (but not exclusively) authors from a particular country – or potentially books set in a specific country. I started off with the United States, because it is a country I often ignore in my reading. And it worked so well that I am certainly planning to continue doing this geographically themed reading at least until the end of year.

I read 8 novels by American authors, plus a biographical study of American women by an American woman – so a total of 9 books. Six women authors, including big names of the past such as Patricia Highsmith and Jane Bowles, popular contemporary authors such as Laura Lippman and Meg Wolitzer, and less well-known authors such as Laura Kasischke and Diana Souhami. The last of these, Wild Girls (review to come), is a book about the relationship and love life of Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, two wealthy American expats and artists living in Paris in the early 20th century. I first came across the chromatically restrained art of Romaine Brooks at the Barbican exhibition about artistic couples and wanted to know more about her.

The three male authors I read were Kent Haruf, Sam Shepard and David Vann, who all proved to be a very welcome respite from the rather self-absorbed American authors I have read previously (who may have put me off reading American books). Surprisingly, they all write about marginalised, impoverished or rural communities that we tend to think of as ‘typically’ American landscapes, filled with macho behaviour. Yet each of these authors demonstrate great sensitivity and empathy for human frailty.

So, all in all, quite a diverse and happy American reading experience, although I was perhaps less impressed with those particular books by Meg Wolitzer and Laura Lippman (compared with some of their others).

In addition to my focus on the US, I also had a bit of a Bristol CrimeFest hangover and read some more of the books I bought there. All three were enjoyable and very quick reads: Kate Rhodes’ atmospheric, closed island community in Ruin Beach, Charlie Gallagher’s almost viscerally painful He Will Kill You about domestic violence and Cara Black’s latest instalment in the Aimee Leduc series, Murder in Bel Air, which tackles France’s colonial past and present.

Last but not least, two books about betrayed women from very different decades: Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance set in the 1950s, while Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie is very much of the present moment and set in London. While the former remains stoic and resourceful, the latter is prone to self-destructive or self-belittling behaviour. Both books can be quite painful to read, although Queenie is also very funny in parts.

So, 14 books in total, 10 by women authors, zero in translation, which is quite unusual for me (reflects the geographical emphasis, I suppose).

Rural America: Kent Haruf’s Plainsong

So many people have recommended Kent Haruf to me, for his pared down style and description of what one might call ‘heartland’ America in the fictional town of Holt in the prairies of East Colorado.

Holt County, the country all flat and sandy again, the stunted stands of trees at the isolated farmhouses, the gravel section roads running exactly north and south like lines drawn in a child’s picture book and the four-strand fences rimming the barrow ditches, and now there were cows with fresh calves in the pastures behind the barbed-wire fences and here and there a red mare with a new-foaled colt, and far away on the horizon to the south the low sandhills that looked as blue as plums.

I personally hate flat, wide-open country. It feels more suffocating to me than mountains, and it’s this suffocation in the small town in the middle of nowhere that Haruf captures so well in his trilogy. He also uses flat, plain, unadorned language which fits well with this landscape (and with the simple church music that the title Plainsong refers to).

I started with his first novel to be written in his distinctive utilitarian style (although he published a couple of novels before that with the same kind of setting). Plainsong describes the lives of several individuals and families in a small farming community: aging brother farmers, who understand each other almost without words; a pregnant teenager kicked out by her mother who is taken in by the old farmers although they don’t know much about women; young boys whose mother suffers from depression and leaves home, leaving them with their baffled schoolteacher dad; another schoolteacher who helps the pregnant girl, although her own father is proving a handful with his dementia.

The stories build up gradually, patiently, layer after layer, from small details, everyday observations and the different points of view. No insight into the characters’ inner feelings other than what they say or do. Yet by the end you feel you know them well.

At times the style can grate on you and feel drab and repetitive. To think that I was afraid my sentences were too long! Here is a typical one:

He went out into the hall again past the closed door and on into the bathroom and shaved and rinsed his face and went back to the bedroom at the front of the house whose high windows overlooked Railroad Street and brought out shirt and pants from the closet and laid them out on the bed and took off his robe and got dressed.

But the advantage with this minute observational style is that it keeps both the writer and the reader at arm’s length, prevents the story from descending into melodrama and sentimentality. There are plenty of elements here that could have veered into cliche territory in the hands of another writer. Here, it feels like a universal and timeless story. Or at least, a universal story for the American rural community, that ferocious mix of cruelty and kindness, of stubbornness and innocence. Life is hard, unsparing for pretty much everyone, but it is what it is. And those patient, uncomplaining people make the best of it. It’s the small examples of humanity and the survival instinct of the pioneers who headed west that inspire Haruf’s work, although a few of his characters fall by the wayside.

There are also moments of almost reluctantly poetic descriptions too, but nothing is overdone:

The empty house… The broken –down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered.

I have a sneaking suspicion that if I read more of Kent Haruf, I will feel that his trilogy could be the quintessential Great American Novel.

Women Misbehaving: Novels by Jane Bowles and Laura Kasischke

This June is American author month for me and I started off with two unusual and insufficiently known American women. I braced myself for poetic, unusual, eccentric and they did not disappoint! Jane Bowles’ Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943 and was her only novel. Laura Kasischke is better known as a poet (I’ve had the pleasure to attend one of her master classes), but has also written several unsettling, hypnotic novels. I was a particular fan of Mind of Winter, but this time I read Be Mine, published in 2007.

Both books are about middle-aged women (I suppose back in the 1940s the mid-thirties were perceived as middle-aged) trying to recapture (or perhaps even capture for the first time) that elusive sense of happiness. And the way they choose to do so may be quite disturbing to the regular, sane reader, namely by plunging into some rather reckless adventures.

Jane Bowles led a very colourful life herself, but her two ‘matrons’, Miss Goering and Mrs Copperfield, don’t at the outset of the novel. Miss Goering has flaming red hair and a grumpy disposition, never caring about pleasing others.

I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy.

She is a wealthy spinster and at first people expect her to be easy to manipulate. Certainly Miss Gamelon thinks so,appearing on her doorstep one day and asking to be her companion. She then meets the hapless Arnold at a party (and later, his father) and they all move in with her, but then she decides to sell her luxurious home in New York and moves to a shabbier house on Staten Island. Even that doesn’t seem to satisfy her desire for bizarre and tawdry adventures, so she keeps taking the ferry back to town and getting involved with shady characters. Meanwhile, Mrs Copperfield goes on a trip with her husband to Panama but abandons him to move into the seedy Hotel de Las Palmas in Colon, run by the disillusioned yet ever-hopeful Mrs Quill and falling under the spell of teenage prostitute Pacifica. Both women have numerous entanglements from which they emerge wiser and somehow braver. As Mrs Copperfield says:

I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I have wanted to do for years … but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.

The book is almost entirely made up of dialogue; the conversation seems reckless and strange, constantly provoking you to think, retort, defend yourself, certainly not the kind of dialogue you expect to strike up with strangers. The author is also unapologetic about not giving us too many reasons for why the characters are behaving the way they are, beyond what they tell others. There is no extensive introspection here and a certain ‘don’t care if you like me or not’ attitude which is funny and refreshing. There is also no neat resolution or sense of an ending: the women have had their adventure, they are somewhat smarting from their experiences (not all of which have been pleasant). ‘Hope… had discarded a childish form forever.’ And yet they move forward, as if everything is ‘of no great importance.’

Laura Kasischke’s Sherry is less unrepentant, and less able to move on and shake off her experiences at the end of her novel. In the beginning, she appears to have a solid, happy life: a respected lecturer at her local community college, living just outside town in a nice big house with her devoted husband Jon, her only son Chad having just left for college on the West Coast. However, no life is quite as perfect as it looks on the surface. She has few real friends. Her father is in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. She experiences a bit of a midlife crisis, empty nest syndrome, her marital sex life has got a little too tame, she wants to still feel desirable and mysterious… and so, when she receives an anonymous Valentine in her locker at work with the message Be Mine, she is intrigued and excited. But then she thinks she has guessed who the sender is, finds her husband oddly turned on by the thought of her having a secret admirer and so begins a descent into a very dangerous erotic game.

Billed as an erotic thriller, it is in fact very much a poet’s introspective coming to terms with aging and with what Sherry calls ‘planned obsolescence’, as she no longer feels useful or necessary to her son:

All those years feeding and rocking him, and the birthday parties – the cakes and the candles added one by one until the surface of the whole thing danced with flames – driving him to track meets, band practice, soccer, I was driving him all those years into adulthood. Oblivion. Into my own obsolescence.

She alternates between flirtatious moments, when she thinks she might be the kind of woman ‘a man might fall in love with from a distance’ to moments of stark recoil in front of the mirror: ‘I have built my house on sand… Where have I gone?’ She spends the rest of the novel searching for herself – and in the process messing everyone else’s life.

The French cover, Kasischke being quite popular in France.

Although the ending fell a little too neatly into the thriller genre, the journey to get there was filled with terrifyingly relatable moments to perimenopausal women everywhere, while at the same time hoping that we would never make such disastrous choices.

As American writers go, perhaps neither of the two are fully representative. They are elusive, allusive, telling things slant, comfortable with ambiguity, and therefore I can imagine both of them being more popular in Europe. Or maybe they simply are representative of a more universal ‘women’s literature’ and ‘women’s sensibilities’, if there is such a thing.

Reading with a Theme: Thorny Marriages

A while ago I happened to read a whole series of books about mothers. Since my return from holiday I seem to have been on a roll with books about marriages – I was going to say ‘difficult marriages’, but at least one of them is about a happy marriage… interrupted by death. Incidentally, it also seems to have been a bit of a catch-up with North American writers, as Anne Carson, Louise Penny and Maxime-Olivier Moutier are all Canadians, while two of the remaining authors are American.

Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.
Joan Didion and her family in Malibu in 1976. From back cover of the book.

Joan Didion: The Year of Magical Thinking

Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The portrait of a 40 year marriage of true minds. Didion’s husband died of a heart-attack in 2003, and this is the searing memoir of her befuddlement, grief, sense of guilt and sheer madness of the year following her sudden loss. (At the same time, her daughter was in and out of hospital, in and out of a coma, so it was probably the hardest year of the writer’s life.) This may not be her most polished work stylistically, but it has a rawness and honesty about it which is very moving.

I’m not sure why this has been branded as pretentious or whining or self-pitying rants of a rich bitch. It shows how grief can drive us all mad, whether privileged or not, whether calm and collected or dramatic and hysterical. The author has also been accused of coldness, because she tries to present things in a detached way. This feels to me more like a deliberate strategy to remain calm, to try and understand, to analyse oneself. The polar vortex of memory that she tries to avoid by not going to places that were familiar to them: how can that be described as cold and unfeeling?

Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband

beautyhusband

By contrast, Carson’s collection of poems all add up to an essay on beauty and truth, our search for perfection but our paradoxical human ability to put up with imperfection for a very long time. All in all, it presents the picture of a toxic marriage, a destructive relationship captured with true poetic flourish. Based on Keat’s assertion that beauty is truth, the poet then shows us just why the husband was anything but truthful, no matter how beautiful he was (and remained) in the eyes of the wronged wife.

 

Louise Penny: The Long Way Home

LongWayHome

I’m already a confirmed Louise Penny fan, but this 10th book in the Armand Gamache/ Three Pines series is less crime fiction and more the story of a Quest: for a missing husband, for inspiration, for one’s true self, for the Holy Grail almost. I wrote a full review of it for Crime Fiction Lover, but from the perspective of marriage, it is the sad story of the dissolution of a loving long-term partnership when the insidious three-headed serpent of jealousy, envy and inadequacy makes its appearance. Clara and Peter Morrow are both artists, who met in college. Peter has always been the more successful artist with his carefully controlled, intricate paintings, while Clara was the wild and messy experimentalist. But when Clara’s star begins to rise, Peter finds it impossible to rejoice for her, as he becomes aware of his own artistic stagnation.

 

louise douglas your beautiful liesLouise Douglas: Your Beautiful Lies

Set against the backdrop of the miners’ strikes in Yorkshire in the 1980s, this is the story of Annie, a woman who is feeling trapped in a very correct but rather dry marriage of convenience, which has provided her with a comfortable lifestyle but has also isolated her from the rest of the community. When her old boyfriend (who had been convicted of manslaughter) is released from prison and shows up on her doorstep, trying to protest his innocence, she is at first reluctant to engage with him. But then she unravels rather spectacularly and becomes very reckless indeed… This book has an old-fashioned feel about it, as if it were set in the 1950s rather than the 1980s, and I struggled to empathise with Annie.

And, just in case you thought that only women can write about marriage, here is the most depressing one of all, written by a man but from a woman’s perspective.

scelleplombeMaxime-Olivier Moutier: Scellé plombé

The title roughly translates as ‘sealed with lead’, which was apparently an old method for food preservation – until the poisonous qualities of lead were discovered. This hints at the poisonous conjugal relationship and what an odd, unsettling story it is. The husband is struck by lightning on a golf course and is buried by his wife and children in secret.  Told entirely from the point of view of the wife, but addressed to her husband in a tone designed to humiliate and provoke, we then discover the story of their marriage, the rising ennui, the many daily cruelties and sarcasms, the lack of communication, the secret lives each partner found refuge in. A chilling disregard for the children emerges from this novel: it appears it’s not the marriage, but the hearts themselves which have turned to lead.

 

Finally, I almost hesitate to include Ann Patchett’s ‘This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage’ in this post, not because of the word ‘happy’ in the title, but because this collection of essays is about so much more than marriage: it is about creativity, travelling, a beloved dog, a burgeoning interest in opera music, family, friendships and, above all, writing. It also talks about the author’s first marriage and divorce, which led to many years of avoiding commitment to her second husband. In her characteristic clear-eyed, fluid style, she describes the compassion and understanding that she developed for all women who suffered in their marriages, whether they were able to get away from them or not.

www.annpatchett.com
http://www.annpatchett.com

My mother had divorced my father when I was four. Two years later she remarried. My mother and stepfather spent the next twenty years trying to decide whether or not they should stay together. While growing up I had never faulted her for the divorce, but I hated what I thought was her weakness. My mother didn’t want to be wrong a second time. She wanted to believe in a person’s ability to change, and so she went back and back, every resolution broken by some long talk they had that made things suddenly clear for a while. I wanted her to make her decision and stick to it. In or out, I ultimately didn’t care, just make up your mind. But the mind isn’t so easily made up. My mother used to say the more lost you are, the later it got, the more you had invested in not being lost. That’s why people who are lost so often keep heading in the same direction. It took my own divorce to really understand… I understood how we long to believe in goodness, especially in the person we promised to love and honor. It isn’t just about them, it is how we want to see ourselves…