Tag Archives: 4th Estate

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx

There have been ten novels in the Decades Project so far. We have reached the 1990s and my choice is The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. I was so pleased to reread it. It’s an excellent novel that celebrates the power of stories to build communities.

The story

Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns. (1)

Quoyle is hapless. A good word that, which in its original meaning speaks of the lack of hap, ie luck. Today it also implies incompetence. This novel is about how Quoyle found his hap.

Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clasped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds. (1)

At the start of The Shipping News Quoyle is a journalist in New York, but not competent enough to stay in employment. He is married to Petal, but she prefers to sleep with anyone else. She runs off with one of her lovers taking their two children. In one terrible week Quoyle’s parents commit suicide together, Petal is killed in a car crash having sold their children. The children are rescued and Quoyle’s aunt agrees to help him, suggesting that they move back to her childhood home in Newfoundland.

Her house there turns out to be isolated, very old, and held down by ties into the rocks. It needs a great deal of work to make it habitable. Aunt sets about getting things organised and Quoyle takes up his job with the local newspaper, the Gammy Bird. He starts out with responsibility for the shipping news, a record of which ships enter and leave the port of Killick-Claw.

He turns out to be rather good at telling stories about the boats, and just about everyone they meet has a story to tell, often connected to boats, fishing and the sea. Quoyle, Aunt and the two girls gradually connect to their new community, through work, supporting each other, making friendships and love affairs, and telling their own stories.

By the last page Quoyle has learned a good lesson.

And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery. (337)

Some reflections

The theme of knots and knitting runs through this novel. (I could have said threads). Quoyle’s name is a variant of coil. We are told that ‘it may be walked on if necessary’ (1). He needs straightening out. The woman who will do it is called Wavey. Many of the characters knit. Knots appear in the headings of the chapters, often with line drawings taken from The Ashley Book of Knots. One character uses knots to conjure magic spells. Knots, of course bind, and are essential to those who live with boats.

Another theme is of sexual abuse, especially within families. The Gammy Bird runs a column on SA stories in every edition. For one character, only when her story of abuse is revealed can she live in peace in Killick-Claw.

I love the writing of this novel. Frequently sentences appear abrupt, often because pronouns have been omitted, or phrases such as ‘there were’, or verbs. It has the effect of putting the reader alongside a character.

We have weather, the changing seas, the mysteries of the local small islands, the seafood diets, creative and handy people, and above all the stories. By the final page Quoyle has found his hap for he is now the editor of the Gammy Bird and takes part in telling the story of his community.

Annie Proulx

This year Annie Proulx won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, noting especially her ‘deep reverence for the beauty and complexities of rural America’. Now known simply as Annie Proulx, she has written other novels, short stories and memoirs. The Shipping News won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Kevin Spacey and Judi Dench starred in the 2001 film adaptation of the novel. While it does not capture the full subtlety of the novel – how could it? – it was good, not least for the grainy appearance of the Newfoundland setting. Brokeback Mountain in the collection called Close Range was also made into a film. I enjoyed Postcards (1992), but have to admit that I didn’t get far with Barkskins (2016).

(Photo Annie Proulx in 2009 US Embassy in Argentina, via wikicommons)

The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx (1993) 4th Estate. 337pp

The Decades Project

For the Decades Project I have selected a book from each decade from 1900 onwards, reading one a month, and reviewing it here. The idea is from my library’s Reading Passport scheme.

Previous posts in the Project

Hotel Du Lac by Anita Brookner, from 1984

Woman at Point Zero by Nawal el Saadawi, published in 1975

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin, published in 1969

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing, published in 1950

They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple, published in 1943

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, published in 1938

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905

The next decade: 2000s

I have not yet decided what to read for the final two decades – 2000s and 2010s. Suggestions are always welcome.

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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

Quirky, spirited, screwball, all words used to describe The Portable Veblen, the second novel by Elizabeth McKenzie, an American writer. The book was inventive enough to catch the notice of the judges of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction last year, who placed it on their shortlist. The title is arresting and the novel includes a wicked example of what we used to call the military-industrial complex, a pair of lovers and their dysfunctional families, and a squirrel.

The story

There are three Veblens in this novel: Veblen is a Latin word for squirrel; the philosopher and economist, Thorstein Veblen, who was of Norwegian origin. He invented the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’. The third Veblen is a young woman, who for reasons that quickly become apparent, hides herself from many social challenges. She works as a temp, and for fun she is learning Norwegian and translating the works of her famous namesake.

The story begins in Palo Alto, California, when Paul Vreeland proposes to Veblen. He is a medical researcher, who is developing a drill to help brain-injured servicemen in the field. She is a temp at the hospital.

And what was her response to his proposal?

Her body quickened, like a tree in the wind. Later, she would remember a filament that passed through her, of being glad she had provided him with happiness, but not really sure how she felt herself.

‘Yes?’ the man said.

The squirrel emitted a screech.

‘Is that a yes? Paul asked.

She managed to say it. Yes. Two human forms became as one, as they advanced to the sidewalk, the route to the cottage on Tasso Street.

Behind them, the squirrel made a few sharp sounds, as if to say he had significant doubts. As if to say, and she couldn’t help translating it in this way: There is a terrible alchemy coming. (4)

This extract illustrates three themes of the story. First, Veblen has been trained to smooth the way for others, ensure they are happy; second she is not in touch with her own feelings; and third, the squirrel comments and provides both Veblen and the reader with judgements about events. Like the squirrel, the reader wants to say – don’t do it!

Both lovers come from very difficult families. Their attitudes and responses to others have been formed in childhood. The narrative is driven by the approaching wedding and marriage, and by Paul’s attempt to conduct his trials and the compromises he must make and are made on his behalf by the pharma company who pay for his research. Sinister events land him in hospital when he finds that his ambitions have led to compromises to the ethics of his research. Fortunately the big pharma executive gets her comeuppance in a very satisfactory way.

The writing

The first few chapters delighted me with their lightness of touch and the possibilities of the emerging story. The squirrel’s activities provide an amusing reflection on the couple’s different attitudes to squirrels, the natural world and to their forthcoming marriage.

Veblen talks to squirrels, has done since her troubled childhood. As she becomes more troubled by her approaching wedding she address him more and more frequently and finally takes him on a road trip to visit her father.

The best creation in the novel is Veblen’s hypochondriac mother Melanie. One reviewer (Scarlett Thomas) suggests she is worthy of Dickens, and Melanie is indeed an extravagant character. When Paul is taken to meet her the reader sees why Veblen is unable to push herself forward in conventional ways and seeks to please and appease people she cares for.

Cloris Hutmacher is another rich character, something of a caricature. She exploits the world and everybody in it to her advantage through her family’s company. She entraps Paul and his cranial device and precipitates the climax of the plot.

What I liked

Elizabeth McKenzie is delightfully creative. I enjoyed the squirrel, although as a narrative device he could be irritating.

A western gray squirrel (Sciurus griseus) by Aaron Jacobs, November 2005 via WikiCommons

Veblen’s anxieties about losing her independence and adjusting to another person in her life were a theme that was well developed through this novel. This extract gets to the heart of Veblen’s coping strategies. Veblen finds herself uninterested in her wedding and with self-searching to do.

Until this engagement, Veblen thought she knew what she was about. By thirty, she had managed to put away the simmering loneliness of childhood, finding relief in things outside herself, such as in skilfully tending family members who were scattered and needy, and becoming a secret expert on the life of Thorstein Veblen. To ward off uneasy feelings that crept in at unguarded moments, she’d drawn upon a wide range of materials and activities, keeping up with all major periodicals of the day, typing along to Norwegian films, clipping interesting pictures from magazines for some future project, taking brisk bike rides. And then came Paul and the whole enterprise of their future. Escapist feelings at this point showed a serious breakdown in self-discipline. And strangest of all, right at the moment she should be happiest. (219)

It’s about love, and families and written with great verve and quirkiness. The quirkiness reminded me of Where’d you go, Bernadette? By Maria Semple (2012), also shortlisted for the Baileys Prize (in 2013). I enjoyed The Portable Veblen less as it went on, but some bits were very funny indeed.

But why are there three different covers for the novel, this one for the American edition.

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie 4th Estate (2016) 422pp

Over to you

The New York Times reviewer thought highly of it, describing it as ‘a novel of festive originality that it would be a shame to miss’.

Have you read it? Any thoughts to add?

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More praise for short stories

Short stories are not adequately commercial for small bookstores to maintain a dedicated shelf. Nor for the big publishers to risk publishing many collections, except by well-known and established writers. And all the big news stories in literature are about novels. I doubt whether any writer makes a living out of short stories. Is it possible? Let’s face it – few writers make a living from their writing.

Yet short stories are not going away. Enough of us are reading them, buying collections, writing them, enjoying them and blogging about them to sustain the survival of the form.

9781907773440frcvr.inddWhat’s to like about the short story?

The form allows as much creativity as any other; of genre, style, plot and voice. They can be dark, as many are in the Salt collection (see below). They can be easy to read but have a sharpness just beneath the surface, as Elizabeth Taylor’s do – many were published in the New Yorker.

They often contain a moment of revelation and understanding in the last paragraph. This is not always comfortable. In Hilary Mantel’s story Winter Break she presents a deeply unhappy pair locked in the coping mechanisms of an unhappy marriage. The shock of the five last words indicates their inadequacy to deal with an experience on holiday.

Short stories are not novels-lite, yet the stories of Alice Munro are as rich as any novel, and the reader feels she has had the experience of reading a novel within one story.

We can be introduced to new writers through reading short stories; be given a great experience of creative writing in a nugget; provided with insights into different approaches to writing in a digestible length.

Short stories also provide a platform for writers not visible in other forms, especially for novice writers and for women: think of the numerous short story competitions such as Fish Publishing International Short Story Award, the Bridport Prize, The Asham Award, Costa.

There was a sudden burgeoning of the form in the hands of feminist from the 1890s on: see for example Daughters of Decadence, women writers of the fin-de-siecle edited by Elaine Showalter and published by Virago.

I often read a short story or two as I make a transition from one novel to another. They are like the best palate cleansers, worth savouring in their own right.

Some recommendations

I love short stories, especially in anthologies. Nadine Gordimer said that short stories should ‘burn a hole in the page’. These three recommendations all do that.

  1. Nicholas Royle (Ed) The Best British Short Stories series

203 BBSS2015This is an annual series published by Salt. The 2015 collection has lots of dark obsessions and inverted takes on the world by inadequate people. I read these stories feeling as I do when I think I have found a new friend, only to discover too late that they are clingy and obsessive.

Nicholas Royle has a sharp tongue for those publishers that don’t help the short story project, a taste for the eerie, macabre and mysterious, and for the stories of Julianne Pachico. His useful introduction notes the growth of on-line publication of short stories, and celebrates the democratic approach of Salt Publishing.

Best British Short Stories 2015 edited by Nicholas Royle. Published in 2015 by Salt 238pp

  1. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel

203 Assof MT coverNo commercial risk to the publisher in this collection, even if many of the stories have been published elsewhere. The title story appears in the Best of British Stories and even caused ripples among the most somnolent of the House of Lords. The story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime and published in the Guardian review. Lord Timothy Bell and other Conservatives called for the police to investigate, and the word treason was mentioned. Mantel remarked that she was more interested in respect than taste in her writing. A short story piqued Thatcher-lovers – brilliant! Fiction produced apoplexy while the actual extra-judicial murder of Osama bin Laden was barely questioned.

There is a very dark strain through her stories and some are truly shocking such as Winter Break and The School of English. Mantel shows us the dark deeds of which her characters are capable and the women who are frequently the victims of abuse administered in subtle, gradual and calculating ways. Her stories have the power to make one uncomfortable without being far-fetched.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher and other Stories by Hilary Mantel. Published in 2014 by 4th Estate 288pp

  1. Subtly Worded by Teffi

201 Teffi coverI referred to these stories recently in my post on Bookword in St Petersburg. and picked out two: Tolstoy and Rasputin. I wondered if the description of the meeting were true, and one reader left a comment to say that Teffi did indeed meet Rasputin.

Many of her early stories are variations on the theme of the biter being bitten, little denouements which are nicely satisfying. Later she came to portray people in Paris, the White Russian emigres among whom she lived between the wars.

I came across this collection in July on the blog called JacquiWine. Her review inspired me to buy the collection.

Subtly Worded by Teffi published in 2014 by Pushkin Press 301pp

Translated from the Russian by Anne Marie Jackson with Robert and Elizabeth Candler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase.

Support for Short Stories

We should note and applaud the significant role of Indie publishers in supporting the short story. The platform they provide is less showy, less expensive than that of the great or popular.

203 Galen Pike coverI’m looking forward to reading The Redemption of Galen Pike by Carys Davies, winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, published in 2015 by Salt.

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 Grebble (published by Salt). Not only is the guidance relevant and helpful, but the writers all recommend further reading, further delights.

And BBC Radio4 occasionally broadcasts short stories, such as Tolstoy, a version of which can be found in Teffi’s collection and Hilary Mantel’s infamous Assassination.

For those who enjoy writing short stories there are many competitions to enter, not just the big ones mentioned above, but other respected competitions: the Exeter Writers and Bristol Short Story competitions, Mslexia (for women writers), and numerous on-line publishing possibilities (twitterati will see them in their time lines more or less daily, but beware of supplying publishers with free copy. Writers should be paid for their produce, just like car manufacturers and dairy farmers.)

Related posts

An excellent article about differences in writing short stories and novels by Paul McVeigh from the British Council’s Voices Magazine.

My first post on this topic was called In praise of short stories and was published in November 2013. I’ve reused some portions of that post here,

I’ve mentioned Salt Publishing already six times on this blog so here’s the link to the website and you can order books direct from them.

Here’s a list of 13 short story collections from Bustle’s site.

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

 

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Four Good Reads

Here are some recommended reads from the last six months. There are so many books around at the moment that deserve to be read I’ve put together four for today’s post (and will recommend another four very soon).

  1. All my Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

193 ALl my puny cover This is a novel that holds you tight, makes sure you don’t escape. Look, it says, look! What do you do when someone you love really, really wants to end her life? Someone like your sister? Do you help her?

Elfreda is a famous pianist and the sister of Yolande, the narrator. She tells us how Elfreda wants to commit suicide, and the novel begins as she is hospitalised after her most recent attempt. We find out that their father also found death in front of a train. The novel concerns the attempts by Yolande and other close to Elf, to keep her alive. But then Yolande has to consider the request ‘to take me to Switzerland’, to Dignitas, because she sees her sister’s unhappiness.

Miriam Toews is a Canadian novelist, who draws from her Menonite background. She knows how to create sparky characters, with lives full of the stuff of living. And she knows how to portray sisters and adult relationships. Yolande is sparky and flawed. The emotional content of the novel is crafted so that the reader cares what happens to both sisters, and yet the material never becomes mawkish. It’s very moving and very challenging.

The novel explores a person’s right to die; whether another person should help them; the pain of knowing your loved one wants to die; the pain when loved ones do die; and how families support each other. I couldn’t help comparing this book to Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in which Will’s disability made the questions less tricky than for Efl, the successful concert pianist and in which the theme of assisted suicide notched up the tension rather than encouraging reflection on the dilemmas of assisted suicide.

Miriam Toews (2014) All my Puny Sorrows, published by faber 321 pp

  1. The Bees by Laline Paull

193 Bees coverThis novel was short-listed for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2015. It is certainly a sustained tour de force. The main character, Flora 717, is a bee and the action of this novel takes place in a hive.

Laline Paull has done her research, and the mysterious and rather alien functions of the hive, in particular its hierarchies and the brutal way in which these hierarchies are enforced, is reimagined in a story of the triumph of the humble bee. It is the author’s challenge to present a great deal of close observation of bee behaviour in a convincing way: how bees communicate, the function of smell in their lives, group communication through humming, dancing and chemical means. The world of bees is sustained to the end.

Flora attracts attention by being a little different at birth. She is taken to the nursery, and later to the Queen. Fiercely loyal to the Queen – as are all bees – she learns the geography and culture of the hive as she takes on the roles of nurse, sanitation worker, forager and finally a definitive role in the hives future after it disintegrates through internal conflict.

The Bees by Laline Paull (2014), published by 4th Estate 344 pp

  1. The Dig by Cynan Jones

193 Dig coverThis novel featured as a book of the year for several people in Guardian Review of 2014. I mentioned it in brief post because one character, an older woman, seemed to me to be so beautifully portrayed, albeit very briefly. You can find my comments about her here. There is more to this novel than that one character, of course.

The dig refers to digging badgers out of their setts, and so the novel is about cruelty and loss. The big man is a loner, who hunts badgers for sport, but must evade the law to do so. The practice seems rooted in the traditions of the countryside, in this case in Wales. It may be traditional but the badger dig is gruesome, and the baiting that follows worse. Dennis is also a loner, a sheep farmer grieving for his wife, recently killed by the kick of a horse. The paths of the two men cross with tragic consequences.

The story unfolds in the Welsh countryside, and Cynan Jones has a great feel for place, evoked especially through sound, but also through the taciturn communications of the people in the rural communities, and of the skill and knowledge that both men develop of their crafts. The two main characters, and the others, such as the boy who goes on a dig, and Dennis’s mother, all are evoked through a sparse but powerful style. It’s short, brutal and difficult to read.

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014), published by Granta 156 pp

  1. This Boy by Alan Johnson

193 This Boy coverOur book group decided to read this autobiography. We enjoyed it, partly because Johnson has such respect for women, and especially for his mother and sister. He was brought up by them in post-war London slums, where poverty was shockingly present. Deserted by his father, much of his story details the family’s struggle with money, ill-health and the expectations of their neighbours. Told with humour as well as shocking detail, we read because we know our boy came good.

It’s as much a social history, including a reminder of the role of popular music in a boy’s life in the late 50s and early 60s. (This Boy is the title of a Beatles song). It is written with passion, humour and generosity.

This Boy by Alan Johnson (2013), published by Corgi Books 284pp

 

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5 books for World Book Day

Thursday 5th March is World Book Day. At my grandson’s pre-school they are asked to dress up as a favourite character from a book. I wonder what people would think if I accompanied my Gruffalo to pre-school down the village street dressed as Elizabeth Bennett.

Remove that thought and consider instead five world books – my contribution to the celebrations.157 book pile

  1. Stone in a Landslide, by Maria Barbal (2008) Peirene Press. Translated from the Catalan by Laura McGoughlin and Paul Mitchell

The story concerns Conxa who at the age of 13 leaves her too-big family to live with her childless aunt in a nearby village in the hillside. It is the early 1920s. She lives a patient and level headed life, marries Jaume and has three children by him. The village community is everything, with its customs, rituals, tolerances and slow change until the Civil War intervenes and her husband is taken from her.

157 Stone coverThis is the quiet story of a woman living close to subsistence level, valuing family connections, friends, differences, and respect built up by years of honouring and community. Large events shape life, as do poverty, seasons, the demands of land, family and animals.

Each stone in the landslide is necessary to the existence of the landslide; each stone is affected by others around them; a landslide is dangerous.

One of my bookish pleasures is my subscription to Peirene Press, which each year brings me three novellas, translations of European fiction. Here’s a second Peirene publication.

  1. Under the Tripoli Sky, by Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) Peirene. Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

157 Triploi coverA boy grows up in Tripoli before Gadafi comes to power. The heat of the city, the poverty of many families, the iron conventions that ruled the lives of women are all evoked. The child is lonely and spends much of his time with women. The novel is suffused with affection for women, their humour and warmth (including physical warmth), their resilience and their resolution in the face of bad treatment and abuse by men. We are treated to the physical sweet smelling environment of women, together with much spicy and tasty and sweet food. This is a book about the divisions of life between male and female, and adults and children in Libya at the time.

  1. Zebra Crossing, by Meg Vandermerwe (2013) Oneworld

157 Z Crossing coverFrom the southern end of the African continent comes a novel by a Zimbabwean about migration into South Africa. It’s a grim story of exploitation of immigrants and life on the underside of poverty.

Chipo is an albino Zimbabwean, who following the death of her mother from AIDs escapes with her brother George by crossing to South Africa. They live in a shared room with twins from their home village.

It is the year of the World Cup and there are rumours of xenophobic violence after the final. Chipo and her brother cook up a scheme with Dr Ongani to use Chipo’s appearance to cast magic for people who bet on the World Cup. This leads to her exploitation, imprisonment and eventual abandonment.

Recommended on Annecdotalist’s blog.

  1. In the Orchard, the Swallows by Peter Hobbs (2012) faber and faber

148 Orchard coverI reviewed this book in January 2015, recommending it for its fragility and poetic qualities.

In northern Pakistan the unnamed narrator has returned to his family farm and the pomegranate orchard, which he loved as a child. Everything has changed for he has been in prison for 15 years, since he was a boy of 14. He sits in the orchard and writes.

The novel asks, what sustains people in extreme pain? And what heals them?

  1. Americanah, by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) 4th Estate

Shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014.

This is a long book about Ifemelu and her childhood boyfriend Obinze growing up in Nigeria at the time of military dictatorship. Both aspire to escape as soon as possible. Ifemelu goes to America where she stays for 17 years. Obinze tries to follow her, can’t get a visa, so goes to the UK and is deported. At the time of the story Ifemelu is planning to return to Lagos, and Obinze is a married man, made rich by some suspect property deals for a man known as Chief.

The story is framed by Ifemelu’s trip to get her hair prepared for her journey home, which takes hours and she has to travel from Princeton to a less salubrious part of New Haven to find the right shop. She reflects on her life in America, as a student, attempting to find work, even taking some sex work, and then beginning her blog, which is successful enough to bring her an income.

Obinze in the meantime has had to demean himself in the UK, rent the identity of another person to work and live in pretty squalid conditions. He is on the point of getting the right to remain through marriage when he is deported.

157 Americanah coverThe more interesting themes of this novel are to do with identity and home country, race, blogging, the effects of life on relationships, and vice versa. Much of the story is about the on-off communications between Ifemelu and Obinze during her absence, and then when she returns. In the end … Well it is a love story.

 

What world books would you recommend?

 

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