Category Archives: short stories

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Here’s a fresh and startling, joyous and playful collection of short stories from Helen Oyeyemi. The ideas spill out, teeming onto the page so that the reader is swept along from the opening of a story to its destination, which might appear to be unconnected. And suddenly you meet a character from another story, or an idea that rocks you backwards and you have to slow down your reading. It was a delightful experience to read What is Not Yours is Not Yours.

The Short Stories

‘Bigarrure’ is a word found on p184 of these stories, defined as ‘a medley of sundry colours running together’. I was so unsettled by Helen Oyeyemi’s creativity that I wasn’t sure if the word existed and had to look it up. It does exist. And it does mean variegation or colourful mixture. And it’s a good word to use about this writer’s style: bigarrure.

As a reader you are entering uncertain territory with this collection. You are given very little guidance. Nothing on the cover or the title page announces that this is a book of short stories. There is no contents page. The nine stories (or perhaps there are 10, it’s not clear) announce themselves by their titles. This is just the beginning. The character who appears to be central turns out to be a minor player. Little indication is given of the gender of first person narrators, or indeed their ethnicity, there are few descriptions of people’s appearnaces. Locations shift. Time is unstable. The reader senses misdirection.

She is an accomplished an experienced author, so one has to accept that Helen Oyeyemi means to unsettle and challenge the reader. So you thought this, she seems to be saying, but that was not what I told you. You assumed.

The stories have some connections. Their locations vary, and are not always clear. Sometimes we are in Prague, sometimes in a fictional country, sometimes in a country that could be part of the UK. But characters reappear, often as narrator, sometimes in walk–on parts. And in every story there is a key, usually locked doors, and therefore secrets and things lost.

The genres of the stories vary, even within a story. The first one, books and roses, begins with a foundling and takes on the characteristics of a fairy story, shifts to a surrealism worthy of Leonora Carrington, then to a love story and in parts is made of letters and notes.

The collection includes a truly awful story, drownings, which begins

This happened and it didn’t happen: (125)

The story is about a tyrant who drowns people on a whim. He has drowned many, many of the citizens in the marshes.

… the marshland stretched out further and further, slowly pulling houses and cinemas, greengrocers, restaurants and concert halls down into the water. If you looked down into the swamps (which he never did) it was possible to see people untangling their limbs and hair, courteously handing each other body parts and keys, resuming residence in their homes, working out what crops they might raise and which forms of energy they could harness. (140-1)

Things work out, in a fashion, in drownings.

Yet more unsettling is presence, a strange tale about loss, and especially the loss of what you never had. An experiment is conducted by two psychologists to conjure up the son who never was.

There are puppets, a public tale of apology through social media, and other stories where ideas seem to pour out of Helen Oyeyemi’s pen.

My reactions

I was excited to read this book. It took me to places I was not expecting, shifting my understanding of the stories, doubling back and leaping to new locations or situations. For once I found the blurb quotations were accurate: strange delights, startling, dazzling, fireworks, disorientating, gothic, captivating. Like life really.

Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi

No review of her work avoids saying that Helen Oyeyemi is young, female and black. Born in 1984 she made a name for herself with prize-winning novels even before she left school. The titles of her novels indicate her love of oppositional ideas:

  • The Icarus Girl (2005)
  • The Opposite House (2007)
  • White is for Witching (2009)
  • Mr Fox (2011)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (2014)

A little digging reveals that she is a peripatetic writer, born in Nigeria, brought up in London, studied at Cambridge, had a university residency in America, and is currently living in Prague, perhaps. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Related Posts

Lonesome Reader blog reviewed What is Not Yours is not Yours when it was first published in April 2016.

As did Stuart Evers in the Independent in March 2016.

What is Not Yours is not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi published in 2016 and available in paperback from Picador. 262pp

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Refugee Tales edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus

This collection of stories relates naturally to my challenge: they connect writing, and walking and refugees. The framework is adapted from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, with a real walk and real stories told each night. The walk took place in June 2015 and took a route from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. At any time between 80 and 150 people were on the walk.

The purpose of the Refugee Tales project is to change the language used about refugees,

That by the oldest action

Which is listening to tales

That other people tell

Of others

Told by other

We set out to make a language

That opens politics

Establishes belonging

Where a person dwells. (Prologue pv)

And of course, to change the language is to change the meaning of refugees’ lives.

The collection was produced by the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group with stories and other contributions from writers such as Ali Smith, Chris Cleave, Marina Lewycka, Jade Amoli-Jackson, Patience Agbabi.

Refugee Tales

So we have a prologue and a series of stories, modelled on Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The Migrant’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale and so on. So many different stories, underlining the fact that we are all implicated in the experiences of refugees in this country.

The writers are retelling stories, experiences of people who often are unable to retell such stories in public places.

And the tone is welcoming

And the tone is celebratory

And the tone is courteous

And the tone is real

And every step sets out a demand

And every demand is urgent

And what we call for

Is an end

To this inhuman discourse. (x)

Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library via WkiCommons

I am going to pick out two of the fourteen Tales.

The Lorry Driver’s Tale by Chris Cleave.

This tale made deepest impression on me. Chris Cleave’s capacity to surprise as a story teller is evident in his novels: I was shocked by The Other Hand, and surprised by aspects of the less convincing Gold. This tale begins when a leftie journalist joins the narrator in his cab a hundred kilometres away from Calais. The opening paragraphs set the scene, the cab driver as common man, sporting a UKIP decal on his rig.

We learn about the practicalities of dodging the illegal migrants.

If immigration is a horror film then Calais is the scene where the zombies are massing. (26)

The leftie journalist is doing an article on the burning social issue of immigration, although he is mostly a restaurant reviewer. He serves to show us how ignorant we liberal lefties are, ignorant of what happens in the ports and the areas around them, what it means to try to drive to the UK with no illegal passengers.

All is not quite as it seems, however. Our lorry driver has a lyrical streak.

At the end of the Customs queue I stopped the lorry and it made those hissing sighing noises – as though it was powered by sadness under unbelievable pressure. (32)

The tale manages to tell us a great deal about what it means for some humans to risk everything to stowaway, and what it does to others who are required to stop them. It is a profoundly moral tale.

The Appellant’s Tale

Portrait of Chaucer as a Canterbury pilgrim, Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. The Tale of Melibee. Early 15th Century via WkiCommons

The Appellant’s Tale was told to David Herd near Crawley. It tells of the appalling experiences of a man from Nigeria, who had been living and working legally in the UK for 30 years. But incompetence and lying in the UK Border Agency resulted in the most appalling sequence of events, a nightmare when he was detained as an illegal immigrant. He was only saved from deportation by someone’s accidental failure to dispose of a black plastic sack containing his essential papers.

This Tale is long, and slow, and reflects both what happened to the man and the way in which he speaks. It is narrated in the present tense and the second person. The reader feels appalled that someone can suffer so many awful injustices in this country, that immigration practices do not have the legal safeguards, for example to defend against lies. The UK Border Agency come out badly from this tale. So does detention and deportation.

… the question of indefinite detention, a cornerstone of UK immigration policy, has remained almost entirely absent from the debate. The principal intention of Refugee Tales was to help communicate the scandalous reality of detention and post-detention existence to a wider audience and in the process to demand that such indefinite detention ends. (From the Afterword p143)

The purpose of the collection is to alter the discourse around refugees, to make English ‘sweet again’, as in Chaucer’s time, sweet so that we can listen, write it down, make stories, so that people cannot say, we didn’t know.

My blog/walk challenge has similar purposes, to draw attention to the responses to the immigration crisis, and to tell human stories.

Refugee Tales, edited by David Herd and Anna Pincus. Published by Comma Press in 2016. 150pp Profits go to Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group and Kent Refugee Help

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the seventh post in the series. You can read more about this on the page called My Challenge (click on the page title below the masthead).

At the time of writing I have achieved 60% of my target. Please help me reach my full target which is £1800 by making a donation.

February walk

The Good Name Walk, February 2017

February’s walk could be called the ‘good name walk’. It was a beautiful but muddy day in the second half of February, for a circular walk that started at my front door, took in Coombe Fishacres, Tanyard Lane, Trigwell Lane, Ipplepen Road, Aptor Lane, Butterball Copse and Berry Pomeroy Castle. Round here, lane means very muddy track! The walk was about 12.5km (7.5 miles).

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

A Country of Refuge Ed by Lucy Popescu, walk number 5 in January 2017.

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The next post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in March

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More praise for short stories

In November 2013 I wrote a post called In praise of short stories. It has maintained a modest readership ever since. Here is an updated version, with new recommendations.

Now is the time of the short story

Alice Munro

Short stories are flourishing. Both the winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature (Alice Munro) and the 2013 International Man Booker Prize Winner (Lydia Davis) were applauded for their outstanding achievements in short stories. Penguin tried out a new publishing format with: The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith in an electronic as well as small hardback. I am not aware of repeats or intentions to continue this experiment. On-line you can find many journals that publish short stories, and there are many on-line competitions throughout the year.

I love the form, writing them and reading them. They are not novels-lite, although the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader can have the experience of a novel in one story. William Boyd suggests that the form’s strength derives from its roots in our oral traditions (see his article in Prospect from 2006 called A Short History of the Short Story).

According to William Boyd:

The great modern short stories possess a quality of mystery and beguiling resonance about them – a complexity of afterthought – that cannot be pinned down or analysed. Bizarrely, in this situation, the whole is undeniably greater than the sum of its component parts.

Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. That’s another way of putting it.

Reading short stories

I love reading short stories, especially in anthologies. They can introduce us to new writers; give us a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provide us with insights into different writing in a digestible form. A friend introduced me to a collection called In a Fertile Desert: modern writing from the United Arab Emirates, translated and selected by Denys Johnson-Davies. For me, the stand-out story of the anthology was The Old Woman by Maryam Al Saedi, which provided a painful insight into the treatment and expectations of an older woman. One sentence burned a hole in the page for me.

Her children only became aware of her name when they had to obtain a death certificate.

It is not clear why large publishers don’t like to publish anthologies or collections of short stories, unless they are by established authors. But smaller and independent publishers are doing their bit (let’s hear it for them AGAIN! They do seem to listen to what the reading public say they want.)

Writing short stories

Short stories have provided a platform for writers not visible in other forms. This is especially true for novice writers, and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions by Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa, to mention a few. I refer to my own modest success in 2016 in Exeter Short Story Prize, organized by Creative Writing Matters.

Most how-to-write-fiction books assume novels, but I recommend Short Circuit: A guide to the Art of the Short Story, edited by Vanessa Gebbie (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights. [My apologies for misspelling in the earlier version of this post.]

My recommendations

My recommended short story writers (with some links):

And five collections to recommend:

Dorothy Whipple

Elizabeth Day’s top ten short stories, in the Guardian in 2014, draws attention to collections by well-known novelists: Julian Barnes, Jon McGregor, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as some I have listed, who are better known for short stories.

When I originally wrote about short stories, readers recommended the following:

  • Tim Moss – Close to the Edge
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Leaf Story
  • Alice Hoffman – The Red Garden
  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Margaret Drabble – A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman

Over to you

Which stories and writers would you recommend? What have you enjoyed? Are you a writer of short stories?

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A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu

How easy it is to feel defeated in these difficult times. Recently friends and I have been asking, what is to be done? What is to be done in response to the increase in anti-immigrant hatred and discrimination in this country? How do we address the issues raised by people who want to keep non-British people out of this country? And how are we to approach the loss of sympathy for those who are seeking refuge? And more such questions. There are things to be done.

What writers and readers can do:

  • Tell the stories
  • Tell the stories of individuals
  • Tell the stories of individuals to prevent referring to migrants as a ‘swarm’ (David Cameron’s word) or becoming ‘the other’
  • Keeping imagination alive to help people understand the stories
  • Keeping imagination alive to tell stories of different futures

In a series of posts I have highlighted ways in which writers and readers are taking action:

Today’s post looks at the contribution of another collection: A Country of Refuge. It is the 5th in a monthly series of blogs, part of my challenge to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

A Country of Refuge edited by Lucy Popescu

This book has a clear purpose as the editor Lucy Popescu says:

I wanted the writers to focus on the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers in an attempt to directly challenge the negative press and to cast a more positive light on a situation that, for many, is a living hell. (2)

In her introduction she draws attention to our long history of welcoming people seeking refuge: the Protestant Huguenots fleeing Catholic France in the C17th, the Irish escaping the famine in the C19th, some of the 14m displaced people in Europe after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956. She could have mentioned the Jewish people escaping the pogroms of Europe in the C19th and Nazi policies in the 1930s, the Basque families in the 1930s …

Refugees, it seems, are always with us. The challenges of migration and movement of people around the world needs to be dealt with in a coordinated way. At the moment we in the UK are getting in the way of solving the problems raised by displacing peoples. The dominant discourse is that migration is a risk for our country.

In A Country of Refuge we can read short fiction, poems, memoir, essays, and a lecture to help us consider the experiences of refugees, of leaving one country to try and make a home and a new life in another.

Two examples from A Country of Refuge

The Dog-Shaped Hole in the Garden is a short story (or memoir, or perhaps a mixture) by Hassan Abdulrazzak. Hassan and his family had lived well in Baghdad, but found Saddam Hussein’s regime increasingly threatening because of their family connections. He was a young lad when they left to begin a period of travelling, eventually settling in New Malden in Surrey, where Hassan ached to own a dog. The story of the family’s assessment by the RSPCA lady is humorous but tells of the separation of cultures, the misunderstandings, the crossed wires, and the adaptations and one or two unexpected sacrifices the family had to make. He twice uses the striking phrase ‘falling out of Eden’ about their losses. Hassan Abdulrazzak writes plays.

One of AL Kennedy’s two contributions is a lecture from the European Literature Days Festival in Spitz, Austria in October 2015. She asks again this question, what is to be done and she gives us an answer.

[But it is also true that] failure of the arts, of artists, helps the cruel among us triumph and begin to oppress us all, even in relatively free societies, including – and perhaps initially – those who are communicators. (205)

She makes the argument for a more careful use of vocabulary, challenging David Cameron’s ‘swarm of people’, and suggesting that noticing the individual people, identifying them, describing them and the people close to them, telling their stories makes it less likely to see them as a swarm. When we are confronted with photographs and the name of Aylan Kurdi, the little boy photographed on the beach, drowned, he and his family become hard to fit into a faceless swarm.

AL Kennedy reminds us of the lack of depth in our public media even when it pays attention to stories, such as Aylan Kurdi’s:

The massive displacement of human beings from their homes all across Europe and the Middle East was rarely examined in anything like depth, or presented as being perhaps of more importance than a variety of celebrity talent competitions and soap operas. (208)

She suggests that artists, writers, must show how important imagination is; imagining different lives, imagining different priorities and solutions, better futures for us all. And above all, imagination can help us escape from ‘othering’ and blaming victims for their situation. She reminds us that:

history teaches us that our greatest wrongs, crimes against humanity and genocide, arise from cultures where hatred has become part of the air the citizens breathe. (211)

By drawing attention to the activities of those who do not accept the culture of hatred, who provide aid, who march against unjust wars, through the best of the arts, she reminds us that we have the capacity to dream a better future.

Three notes

A Staffordshire activist, Michaela Fyson, organised, through crowdfunding, for every MP to receive a copy of A Country of Refuge as a Christmas present in December 2016. Lord Dubs supported the event. Michaela said she was moved to this action because:

there are too many politicians referring to these groups of people as if they are animals – talking about them ‘swarming’, or needing their teeth checked like horses to see how old they are. That is what we need to change.

Lucy Popescu has a track record of exposing mistreatment of writers through her column in The Literary Review and her work with PEN. She is also a mentor with the Freedom from Torture Write to Life Group. (See Lost and Found and Souvenirs).

Lucy Popescu had found it impossible to attract a mainstream publisher to A Country of Refuge. It was published through crowdfunding, by Unbound. Writers describe the books they want to publish and readers are invited to support their publication.

A Country of Refuge Edited by Lucy Popescu. Published by Unbound in 2016. 231pp

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom from Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the fifth post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach my target by making a donation.

January walk

My companion was my brother Mont, and we walked in early January on a sparkling day on a circular walk that started inland, took in Noss Mayo and part of the SW Coast Path. The fifth walk was about 13km (8+ miles).

Mont and me, January 2017

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Dartmoor, Hay Tor and Freedom from Torture, an extra walk in December, supported by about 20 walkers.

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby. My fourth walk in December

Do Refugees need holidays? My third walk in November

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes, the second walk in October

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

The sixth post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-February

To receive email notifications of future posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.

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Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes

At its best fiction takes us to places we might never go, introduces us to people we may never meet, and to situations we would avoid in the normal course of our lives. I have never been to The Jungle, the refugee camp in Calais, but through the medium of these eight short stories I have a better understanding of the place and its effects.

290-breach-cover

The writers were commissioned to give voice to the refugees through these stories, having listened to people who associated with The Jungle.

I commissioned Olumide Popoola and Annie Holmes to go to the Calais refugee camps to distil stories into a work of fiction about escape, hope and aspiration. On another level, however, these stories also take seriously the fears of people who want to close their borders. It’s that dialogue that isn’t happening in real life. A work of art can bridge that gap. Meike Ziervogel, Peirene Press.

This is the second post in my challenge series, to raise money for Freedom from Torture.

Everyone has a story

The stories are told from different points of view, and mostly in present tense. Some narrators are refugees, others include a wannabe smuggler, a volunteer, a foster parent in the Calais area, an asylum seeker in Bradford learning English from a volunteer teacher.

Everyone is touched, and for most people the experiences are not enriching. Refugees trying to get across the Channel to the UK respond to the impossible circumstances with skills they have learned along the way: lying, dissembling, stealing, exploiting. The circumstances can bring out generosity, support, connectedness, even shared humour but everyone involved wants something from the Jungle.

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

Calais overview via WikiCommons January 2016 by Malachy Browne

There are the young men, looking for a truck they can climb into; the police whose job it is to prevent them; the smugglers who earn money by facilitating transport; the volunteers who get to feel good; the young women who desperately need money and respond in the way women have throughout the ages; the groups who support each other for a while, but get splintered when one of them gives up or achieves a crossing; there are the truck drivers, the volunteers

From Counting Down, the opening story:

GPS tells me it’s eleven minutes. I don’t think that’s right. It’s too short. How can you cross a border, go from one country to another, and be there in eleven minutes? It took us two weeks to get here.

The others laugh because I say I want them to call me Obama. We are sitting down by a tree to plan the eleven minutes.

‘Why not Clinton?’ Calculate says. ‘At least it would sound like you got some action.’

I don’t know what he means; I know some boys who are called Clinton, back at home, in Sudan. It’s nothing special. But Calculate is old. Normally I wait for him to speak. (9)

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

Jungle Books via WikiCommons January 2016 by Katja Ulbert

From Oranges in the River:

This shabby truck will be stopped for sure. Jan has been on several like it. They’re easy to open and easy to hide in, so the police and the border guards always stop them. But Jan must take every opportunity. His parents sold their property for him to get this far, their insurance for old age is gone, so he can’t flag, he can’t fear, he can’t fail – he must push on. Plus, of course, he must stay on the safe side of the smuggler who drove him here and who wouldn’t take kindly to his refusing. And after all, he reminds himself, Walat made it. (135)

Breach reminds us that each migrant has their own story, and that many others are invested in her/his passage across Europe; that many countries are implicated; that the journey before crossing to the UK is fraught with difficulties, danger and is expensive. Life after arrival is frequently very difficult as well.

The bigger picture

The stories cumulatively ask questions about the effects of migration, which are broadly raw and undesirable. And we come to see that those who make the decisions and take the actions that result in the collection of migrants in a place like The Jungle, are far, far away from the consequences of their decisions.

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

Calais demolitions and police via WikiCommons March 2016 Amirah Breen

These stories are imaginatively written, and do not duck the issues, nor romanticise or demonise. We are shown what people do when they are forced into seeking refuge. We see the way lives, relationships, everything is interrupted while basic needs such as shelter, food and clothing occupy so much time. The lives of the migrants are focussed on the next stage of their journey: Jan, the character who hides in the truck in Oranges in the River quoted above says,

All these nights waiting for trucks or waiting in trucks or running away from trucks. (138)

And even when he has arrived in the UK, in Bolton, Algahli reflects:

Here they are nameless; it doesn’t matter what they call themselves, they disappear and dissolve. Here it is muteness. It doesn’t have a name. (143)

Never Really home, he texts his friend still in Calais.

And those that would rather the refugees went away, where are they?

Complexity has crept up on us. And answers are not being proposed. The human suffering continues, Even if President Hollande succeeds in his proposal to close the Jungle and disperse the residents, people will still want to get to the UK, the people who have got this far will still be in Europe.

Breach by Olumide Popoola & Annie Holmes. Commissioned and published by Peirene in 2016. 155 pp. 50p from each purchase of Breach will go to Counterpoint Arts.

254 FFTlogo

My walk and challenge.

I am raising money for Freedom From Torture, through sponsorship of a monthly walk and blogpost. This is the second post in the series. You can read more about it on the page called My Challenge (just click on the page title below the masthead).

Please help me reach a third of my target by making a donation.

October walk

The ridge north of Pewsey

The ridge north of Pewsey

The second walk was in the Vale of Pewsey, about 15km (9 miles). I was pleased to walk with my friend Sarah, meeting at the railway station and walking north across the valley to a ridge, along the ridge in a horseshoe and the descending to cross the valley to meet the Kennet and Avon Canal and return to the station. It was a beautiful day and we could see for miles.

You can sponsor my walk/blog here, by clicking onto my Just Giving Page. Please be generous.

Related posts and websites

The Challenge page on this website

Lost and Found, the first walk in September

Souvenirs in May 2016

Write to Life at Freedom from Torture

Peirene Press, from whom Beach can be ordered.

The third post about the challenge will appear on this blog …

… in mid-November

 

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Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor

I have commented on all Elizabeth Taylor’s novels on this blog. Just click on the category: Elizabeth Taylor’s Novels. She wrote twelve novels for adults and Mossy Trotter for children. She always did children really well.

Finally I have finished her collected short stories, a large volume of 626 pages, 4.5 cms, 65 stories. I’ve been reading these stories on and off for three or more years, usually if I wake in the night or when I am not ready to start a new book. Each story is a drop of Elizabeth Taylor’s art.

260 ET Sh Sts

The Collection

Elizabeth Taylor was writing these stories between 1944 and 1973, at the same time as her novels. Most of her short stories have been published, primarily in The New Yorker (especially between 1948 and 1965). Others appeared in Cornhill Magazine, McCall’s and Vogue.

The themes and settings will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Taylor‘s novels. Many of the stories are set in the suburbs of London (men frequently travel up to town by train every day) and gardens are important. Some have children, marriages, or other relationships that have grit in the oyster. Some of the characters are very sad, lonely or deluded. One or two stories are located abroad, on holiday for example in France or in Tunisia. Here are some thoughts about four stories.

The Thames Spread Out (December 1959, published in The New Yorker)

This is the story of Rose, an isolated and not very happy young woman, ‘kept’ by a married man in a rented house on the Thames. Gilbert pays the rent and gives her some pocket money. He visits every Friday, and sometimes, when his wife goes to see her sister, spends a week with Rose.

The Thames floods and cuts Rose off from her usual routines. Letters are delivered by boat and boy scouts offer to get her shopping for her, but she forgets to ask for peroxide. Everything begins to look more and more strange as the water rises.

A swan had come in through the front door. Looking austere and suspicious, he turned his head about, circled aloofly, and returned to the garden. (334)

The disruption leads her to spend an evening drinking with two young men, her neighbours, who come and fetch her in their boat. In the morning, the waters receding, she realises how confined she is, and takes off.

I love the image of the swan circling near the staircase. Aloofly. What a great word! Many of Elizabeth Taylor’s plots include a slight change that shifts perspectives. The spreading out of the Thames helps Rose see the possibilities of her life differently and abandon the dreary Gilbert.

260 ET

Crepes Flambees

This is a tale about how Harry and Rose (not the same Rose) return to Tunisia to recapture the excitement of a previous holiday when they befriended the people in a local bar, above all the patron, Habib. Returning four years later they find that everything has changed. The bar has closed and Habib, when they find him, tells them he is now a respected chef in a local tourist hotel. The reader comes to see, long before Harry and Rose do, that Habib wants to present them with what they want to see, and the truth is less satisfactory. They blunder about in his life, his job, the hotel, his family, his friends. The differences between the lives of the tourists and the Tunisians are painfully revealed, even if Harry and Rose have good motives for befriending Habib. Elizabeth Taylor portrays both the pleasures of foreign holidays and the difficulties for any tourists who try to break down barriers with the locals.

Mice and Birds and Boy (February 1963, published in The New Yorker)

This is a sad story. A young boy visits an old and isolated lady. William himself is a bit of a loner, not much liked by other children. His curiosity about Mrs May’s early life develops into a nice friendship, but she becomes dependent upon him. He grows up and begins to move away from her. She is left more bereft than before. Elizabeth Taylor’s writing about children is always excellent. She knows what children think about, what takes their interest, and how they change.

Their estrangement grows.

The truth was that he could hardly remember how he had liked to go to see her. Then he had tired of her stories about her childhood, grew bored with her photographs, became embarrassed by her and realised, in an adult way, that the little house was filthy. One afternoon, on his way home from school, he had seen her coming out of the butcher’s shop ahead of him and slackened his pace, almost walked backwards not to overtake her. (419)

Hotel du Commerce (Winter 1965/6, published in the Cornhill Magazine)

This story is only 8 pages long, and follows a couple from their arrival during the evening in the small and disappointing French hotel on their honeymoon through to breakfast the next morning. The reader becomes aware that their marriage is doomed to unhappiness, revealed by their reactions to the rowing couple in the room next door.

She lay on her side, well away from him on the very edge of the bed, facing the horrible patterned curtains, her mouth so stiff, her eyes full of tears. He made an attempt to draw her close, but she became rigid, her limbs were iron. (547)

In her stories human failings are not catastrophic, but they do cause hurt, sadness or regret. Many have very poignant characters who do not thrive in life. Others seize their chances. Always there is a little nugget of truth of perceptiveness in each story.

260 Elizabeth_Taylor_(novelist)Complete Short Stories by Elizabeth Taylor, published by Virago in 2012. 626pp

 

Related posts

Two Elizabeths, two First Novels. This post comments on At Mrs Lippincote’s by Elizabeth Taylor, alongside The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. This was the first in the older women in fiction series. It is one of the most read posts on Bookword blog.

183 Mossy Totter ET cover

Mossy Trotter by Elizabeth Taylor: her children’s book.

The Other Elizabeth Taylor, looking at Elizabeth Taylor’s biography by Nicola Beauman.

 

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Filed under Books, Books for children, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, short stories

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

I like this novel. And I like Olive Kitteridge. I am so pleased to have found this book and this writer. Elizabeth Strout was included on the Baileys Women’s Fiction longlist in 2014 with The Burgess Boys, and was longlisted this year with My Name is Lucy Barton, but I didn’t pay attention. So now I am looking forward to reading more of her fiction.

259 Olive K UK cover

The Novel

The framing of this novel is unusual – thirteen short stories, in which Olive Kitteridge plays a role, often quite a minor one. All the stories are about the people of Crosby in Maine, where Olive was a math teacher in the local school, and her husband a pharmacist – so both are well known.

The themes of the novel concern the community and people’s places within it. Elizabeth Strout writes on her website that,

It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.

Murkiness of human experience, that’s a good phrase. And that’s what we get in Olive Kitteridge. We meet all kinds of people, some of whom have made a success of their lives, others just seem to be getting along, not always happily. Some are in agony, others have lived through bereavement or infidelity and made their accommodation to the discomforts and the murkiness of their lives.

As the stories progress we find that a clearer picture of Olive emerges, as a woman who knew most of people who live in Crosby, who endured her husband’s passion for another, younger woman, disappointments with her son who married and moved away, her husband’s severe stroke, and finally widowhood.

Through the stories the threads that connect the lives of the community are revealed. We see the longevity of some marriages, the rural rather closed community on the coast of Maine, the importance of small acts, the significance of social events – funerals, weddings, visits, eating donuts. Elizabeth Strout shows us broken social skills and people not coping. She shows us the warmth that communities can bring when they help people.

259 Strout

Elizabeth Strout has a very clear and sparse way of writing. She shows us what is and what is not said. And in the background the landscape of Maine is always present, the rocky coastline, the light from the sea.

The older woman, Olive Kitteridge

Olive Kitteridge is in her 70s, and she is not altogether happy about her physical appearance. Her she is, taking a moment for herself at her son’s wedding.

Olive is a big person. She knows this about herself, but she wasn’t always big, and it still seems something to get used to. It’s true she has always been tall and felt clumsy, but the business of being big showed up with age: her ankles puffed out, her shoulders rolled up behind her neck, and her wrists and hands seem to become the size of a man’s. Olive minds – of course she does; sometimes, privately, she minds very much. But at this stage of the game she is not about to abandon the comfort of food, and that means right now she probably looks like a fat dozing seal wrapped in some kind of gauze bandage. (62)

She is not especially wise or heroic, comforting or generous. She is not an attractive woman. Elizabeth Strout frequently refers to her size. But Olive is perceptive, and sometimes knows exactly what to say and do for other people, although with her own son she seems less surefooted.

Here she is sitting with Marlene, a not very bright but sweet and gentle woman who has just learned that her husband may have been unfaithful with her cousin, Kerry. This little scene is played out at the gathering following his funeral. They are watching Kerry sleep.

For a while neither woman speaks, then Marlene says pleasantly, “I’ve been thinking about killing Kerry.” She raises a hand from her lap and exposes a small paring knife lying on her green flowered dress.

“Oh,” says Olive.

Marlene bends over the sleeping Kerry and touches the woman’s bare neck. “Isn’t this some major vein?” she asks, and puts the knife flat against Kerry’s neck, even poking slightly at the vague throbbing of the pulse there.

“Yuh. Okay. Might want to be a little careful there.” Olive sits forward.

In a moment Marlene sighs, sits back. “Okay, here.” And she hands the paring knife to Olive.

“Do better with a pillow,” Olive tells her. “Cut her throat, there’s going to be a lot of blood.”

A sudden, soft, deep eruption of a giggle comes from Marlene. “Never thought of a pillow.” (177)

And Olive knows when not to say what is in her mind. But the reader gets her reaction. Earlier in the same story Olive is waiting to go to Marlene’s house to help Molly Collins prepare for the funeral guests.

Molly Collins, standing next to Olive Kitteridge, both of them waiting along with the rest, has just looked around behind her at that side of the grocery store, and with a deep sigh says, “Such a nice woman. It isn’t right.”

Olive Kitteridge, who is big-boned and taller by a head than Molly, reaches into her handbag for her sunglasses, and once she has them on, she squints hard at Molly Collins, because it seems such a stupid thing to say. Stupid – this assumption people have, that things should somehow be right. But she finally answers, “She’s a nice woman, it’s true,” turning and looking across the road at the budded forsythia near grange hall. (164)

In case you think Olive is impervious to life’s difficulties, here she is responding to another comment by Molly. Olive’s husband Henry has suffered a stroke and is completely incapacitated. Olive goes to talk to him every day in the local hospital.

“Is Henry able to understand, then?” Molly asks a few minutes later.

For Olive this is like someone has swung a lobster buoy and slammed her in the breastbone. But she answers simply, “Some days, I think so, yes.” (165)

What we learn about Olive is that Henry kept her grounded. And when he suffers a stroke, and later dies, she finds herself ‘out of life. This phrase recurs, referring to the importance of social connections, meaningful ones, to make an older person’s life worth living.

In the final story Olive does make a connection, with a man who voted for George W Bush, to her horror. But she is learning to compromise, to see that this new relationship might offer her something in an otherwise bleak life. Jack’s need for her ‘had given her a place in the world’. (269)

259 Olive K US cover

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2008. Published in the UK by Simon & Schuster 270pp. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The Older Women in Fiction Series.

This post is the 21st in my Older Women in Fiction series. Recent posts include

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen

The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey

And still the most popular of all the posts is Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

The next in the series will appear in August, a Hungarian novel: The Door by Magda Szabo.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reviews, short stories

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin

I became aware of a twitter stir about this book last autumn. The title struck me as original, but I had never heard of the author. Eventually I wrote it on my tbr list, and soon after that requested it from my local library. Here it is and I must give it back after only 3 weeks because another reader has reserved it.

237 Manual cover

What have we here?

43 short stories by an American writer who died in 2004. Lucia Berlin was known and admired by some, but with the publication of this collection it is expected she will have something of a renaissance.

Many of the stories appear to be based on her own life. The same characters and situations are revisited: her sister dying of cancer in Mexico City, receptionist job in a doctor’s surgery, Oakland, Boulder. The blurb and introduction by Stephen Emerson tell us something of her life: three husbands, four sons, alcoholism, conquering alcoholism, an itinerant life.

The stories show the writer’s ability to enter the lives of her characters, sometimes two in one story. And some read almost as if she had responded to people saying oh, you should write a story about that.

The stories

A collection with 43 stories has many themes: living at the very bottom of the heap, needing to find a few coins to get the next bottle, knowing exactly when each liquor stores opens in the morning, the consequences of ignorance and naivety in a cruel world, illness, exploitation, and above all addiction.

I lost count of the stories in which addiction, usually to alcohol but also to heroin, rob the characters of their humanity. They abandoned self-respect, they are exploited and betrayed, and they suffer.

Yet these are not stories of misery. She also observes many actions of extreme kindness and generosity: the tenderness and attention to the sister who is dying of cancer; people who stay after hours, persuade others to do a little more for the unfortunates, the friendships made.

502 is a story about the protection given by four older guys to Miss Lou. The men re alcoholics who spent their days in a broken down old car. Their joshing made it impossible for the local policeman to prosecute Miss Lou for a driving offence. Some bonds are forged in extremis. And the sting in the tale of the story is that Officer Wong was known to be a kind cop.

As the stories follow one another, however, the reader accumulates a picture of the precariousness of life, how easily people can be tripped up and betrayed and end up in desperate situations.

237 Lucia-Berlins

The writing

Lucia Berlin writes with little outward emotion, almost deadpan, but she makes circumstances clear. Silence is a story about her beloved Uncle John, an important person in her childhood in a dysfunctional family. But out in the truck with him one day she witnesses him hurting a dog and a boy in an accident. He does not stop and nothing is said. The reader wonders about all this until the end of the story, when the narrator, now an adult catches up with her elderly uncle. ‘Of course by this time I had realised all the reasons why he couldn’t stop the truck, because by this time I was an alcoholic.’ (332).

Writing about very painful things is hard to do well. Lucia Berlin does not overwrite, and the evenness of the distance she keeps us from her events and characters heightens the pain, the despair. Without commentary she observe the small details of life that tell of bigger things. She trusts her readers to approach the stories intelligently, lets us do some of the work.

The title story is a masterpiece: saying things while writing about others. It has humour, wit and acute observation. The narrator used to be much better off, but now must join those who use public transport, must earn their living cleaning up after profligate people. She sees the dirty side of life. Here are some extracts from A Manual for Cleaning Women.

This practice tells you all you need to know about the cleaning woman and her relationship with her employers:

The minute I get to work, I first check out where the watches are, the rings, the gold lame evening purses. Later when they come running in all puffy and red-faced I just coolly say, “Under your pillow, behind the avocado toilet.” All I really steal is sleeping pills, saving up for a rainy day. (27)

She describes how to get your employer to notice your work.

My masterpiece in this area was when I cleaned the top of Mrs Burke’s refrigerator. She sees everything, but if I hadn’t left the flashlight on she would have missed the fact that I scoured and re-oiled the waffle iron, mended the geisha girl, and washed the flashlight as well. (35)

And the misunderstandings, in this case in the home of a pair of psychiatrists:

Once I bought Natasha, four years old, a black sequined blouse. For dress-up. Ms Dr Blum got furious and hollered that it was sexist. For a minute I thought she was accusing me of trying to seduce Natasha. She threw the blouse in the garbage. I retrieved it later and wear it now, sometimes, for dress-up. (32)

And a typical acute observation:

Women’s voices always rise two octaves when they talk to cleaning women and cats. (31)

These extracts also illustrate two particular skills of Lucia Berlin: the use of lists and her deadpan humour. Try her!

A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin. Published in 2015 by Picador 399pp

Related

You can read one short story – Friends – on Vice website here.

Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times from August 2015.

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