Tag Archives: New Yorker

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

It sometimes seems that everyone else has known about a great writer long before I discover her. This was true of Elizabeth Strout. When Olive Kitteridge was recommended to me for the older women in fiction series on Bookword it seemed that everyone else had already read the book. Everybody who hadn’t read it had seen the tv series, and vice versa and some had absorbed both. I was just catching up.

I did read Olive Kitteridge and included it in the older women in fiction series in June 2016, and then I read My Name is Lucy Barton in March 2017, also reviewed on the blog. Now I am catching up again.

Anything is Possible

As with Olive Kitteridge, Anything is Possible is a series of connected short stories. Such a structure makes possible details from a variety of perspectives, and unexpected connections between incidents and characters. In this novel, the connection is the town of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy Barton grew up here, in utter poverty.

Anything is Possible references her previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton, but it also stands alone. Lucy Barton is a character in one story, Sister, and is mentioned by several characters in others. Her brother Pete is featured in two stories.

What emerges from these stories is pain, hidden and overt: pain from extreme poverty in childhood, from experiences in Vietnam, from hiding homosexuality, from maintaining a veneer or trying to escape.

Anything is Possible requires the reader to look into what is not said, to the silences, the gaps. As the New Yorker reviewer Ariel Levy observed, ‘withholding is important to Strout.’ Her characters find it almost impossible to express their emotions.

Here’s a passage from the story Sister, about Lucy Barton’s return to Amgash, to see her brother Pete. Their sister Vicky joins them. Each of the three has prepared their appearance, and each of the three feel that they got it wrong. I notice that the concrete details – the couch, the attempt to cross her legs, the lipstick, the lack of lipstick – show the reader the awkwardness of this reunion, within each character but also between the three of them. Just before this point Pete has noticed that Vicky has become fat (‘He had known this without knowing it’ 160). We are looking through his eyes.

Vicky dropped her pocketbook onto the floor and then sat down on the couch as far away from Lucy as she could. But Vicky was big so she couldn’t get that far away, the couch was not very large. Vicky sat, her almost-all-white hair cut short, with a fringe around it, as though it had been cut with a bowl on her head; she tried to hoist a knee up over the other, but she was too big, and so she sat on the end of the couch, and to Pete she looked like someone in a wheelchair he had seen in Carlisle when he went to get his hair cut, an older woman, huge, who was sitting in a motorized wheelchair that she drove around.

But then he saw: Vicky had on lipstick.

Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey–red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had toothache. (161-2)

Each of the stories reveals the conflicts between people and within people, and does it through their dialogue, the details of their actions or their observations and through strong imagery, like the soul with toothache. Another reviewer, Elizabeth Day in the Guardian, referred to Elizabeth Strout’s skill at understatement and how well she shows the reader the conflict between ‘private desire and public obligation’.

This is the lot of small towns. There is deep loneliness for the characters in the small town, and for some an irresistible urge to leave, as Lucy Barton did, as Elizabeth Strout herself did. She grew up in a small town, Brunswick, Maine, and is now able to return with insight. Lucy Barton told the story of her ache to leave Amgash in My Name is Lucy Barton. Anything is Possible tells the stories of the inhabitants who know there is something beyond the town, something other that Lucy found, but are not able to escape.

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, published by Penguin in 2017. 254 pp


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Dear Diary, today I wrote …

Why are writers so often advised to keep a diary or journal? How can regular entries support your writing? I always wanted one of those 5-year diaries with a key, kept in a box or a slipcase, bound in padded faux leather, edged with gold. Instead, every Christmas I was given an adult’s one-year pocket diary, with rice-thin paper and four or five lines per day. They were often business gifts my father had received at work, so they bore the trademark of the company and details of relevant business organisations inside.

I diligently made entries for a few weeks: ‘went on a walk’, ‘snowed’, ‘went to see the Bennetts and played charades’, that kind of thing. Then around the time I went back to boarding school (mid-January) the entries would tail off. After all, every day was more or less the same. Got up, had breakfast, made my bed, did English/Maths/Geography and Games. Rained.’ and so forth. It became boring to write, it is boring to read. But I was learning a useful skill: recording in words.

Writers’ diaries.

249 Jrnl of a novel

On writing courses I have been recommended to read writers’ diaries, specifically John Steinbeck’s Journal of a Novel from the time he was writing East of Eden. In this collection of letters you learn that Steinbeck was a keen amateur woodworker. He wrote in pencil and really did have a pencil sharpening routine as a prelude to his writing. He planned a fixed amount to write everyday and which scenes. It was all mapped out in advance. Nothing I read in his diary has any relevance to my writing, except it was often very hard work for Steinbeck as well.

Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck, published by Penguin Classics. 192pp

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf in 1902 by George Charles Beresford via WikiCommons

Virginia Woolf kept diaries. They have been edited by her husband and published, with an eye to illuminating her writing practices. When I posted about To The Lighthouse as part of #Woolfalong recently I greatly enjoyed looking up the references to the novel in the diary. The entries cast light on her writing processes, what she saw as her innovations, how she felt she was dealing with the new approaches she was trying. Recommended!

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. One edition was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Reasons to keep a diary

I mentioned my desire for the locked 5-year diary. Two features of my thwarted wishes indicate important reasons to keep a diary:

  1. To make a record over time. I grew up to read a history degree. Perhaps you can see the connection.
  2. To have a secret or at least a private place. An interesting piece in the New Yorker in March referred to the importance of diaries as secret places in a review of What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Black Women Writers and the Secret Space of Diaries by Morgan Jenkins.

And I can think of a number of other reasons why I still do have a journal of sorts:

3. As I indicated above, it is a place to make sense of the world through words.

4. It’s a place to make sense of my writing through reflection, comments, experiments, notes, mistakes.

249 deardiary

I have a daily weekday routine of getting up, making coffee and writing two A4 pages by hand, intending to focus on my writing. But it often turns out to be a reflection on activities of the previous day: a play, an exhibition, a conversation, a walk, a book or a dilemma not connected to writing. How is it helping my writing? Perhaps it just gets my writing mojo going. A way to loosen the ligaments, to use Virginia Woolf’s phrase (April 20th 1919, p13).

The benefits according to others

Writing about traumatic experiences and the associated emotions for 20 minutes a day speeds up the healing of wounds, it is claimed. Research on this was reported by Oliver Burkeman in his Guardian Blog in July 2013.

Michael Palin has an instrumental reason for keeping his diaries: a record of his days, helping him remember things he would otherwise have forgotten. But he also has this to say

I’ve tried to approach each morning’s entry as a story of the day that’s just passed, without limits and without self-censorship. And composing a story a day is not a bad discipline for any would-be writer. (The Guardian, Do Something supplement, September 2015.)

Journaling to help learning

249 blank pages

I think the most useful aspect of my regular writing is that it is part of my reflective process. I record my successes – a story completed and entered for a competition; the MS of The New Age of Ageing sent to the publishers; a target number of words achieved and so on. I record my frustrations. Periodically I review the pages of my journal, focusing on what I did, and what I learned from my actions. And sometimes I plan what I will do in future in the light of this learning.

On my tbr pile

What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Diary of a Notable Woman by Jean Lucey Pratt

Journals of Sylvia Plath

Over to you

How does writing a journal help your writing? Are there any journals by writers that have influenced your writing?

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Filed under Learning, Reading, Virginia Woolf, Writing

Vertigo by WG Sebald

Vertigo is that nauseous feeling induced by losing balance or from being at a height. Everything appears to be unsettled and to whirl around. It is hard to keep the scene in front of you coherent as it moves and eludes perception.

The book’s title is perfect; it is a work that teeters at the edge of uncertainty … Sebald’s journey into himself and his past is compelling, puzzling, unique. [Erica Wagner in the Times, quoted by Stephen Moss, see below.]

226 Vertigo

Structure and other features

The question of genre is frequently raised about Sebald’s work. Vertigo is a novel and a memoir and a travel book and a disquisition on European culture. It is organised into four parts, describing the travels of Beyle (better known to us by his pen name: Stendhal), WG Sebald, Dr K (aka Kafka) and WG Sebald again. They travel through Europe, mostly on railways, occasionally by foot. Connections between the four sections are not obvious.

Beyle, Sebald and Dr K share hypersensitivity. The effect of this is that their journeys and the narration of their travels can turn in a moment, and take the reader down a side track, a digression. The digression quickly becomes the topic of the next few pages. And the original narrative line is left behind. Much like a railway journey really. Impossible to read for some, but I get seduced, like looking out of a railway carriage at the scenery.

As with his other novels, the text contains many grainy pictures. Some of them appear to have no connection with the text, others appear to illustrate it. Some might have given Sebald ideas about what to include: for example the grusome Drs Ringger and Pesavento on pages 118 and 119. There is a sense that some may be frauds, stand-ins, and some real, like memory, or the randomness of life from which we try to make sense. Nothing is clear.


Memories and truth seem to be the big themes, especially in the last section where Max revisits his birthplace W., not visited for decades. The critical scene perhaps is when he is in the attic with Lukas he touches an old grey chasseur uniform from the 19th century it crumbles to nothing. You touch and it’s gone.

At last he explains, or does not, what he has been about in the place of his birth:

… Lukas wanted to know what had brought me back to W. after so many years, and in November of all times. To my surprise he understood my rather complicated and sometimes contradictory explanations right away. He particularly agreed when I said that over the years I had puzzled out a good deal in my own mind, but in spite of that, far from becoming clearer, things now appeared to me more incomprehensible than ever. The more images I gathered from the past, I said, the more unlikely it seemed to me that the past had actually happened in this or that way, for nothing about it could be called normal: most of it was absurd, and if not absurd, then appalling. (212)

30 WG Sebald2


The writing gives the impression that the narrator is detached from the events described. There is an evenness of tone, an absence of dialogue, little reported speech. The narrative is like the railway lines, stretching behind, and onwards, with branches off which he may or may not take.

The restlessness manages to be the opposite of dull, and perhaps this is due to Sebald’s extensive middle European cultural knowledge, especially of art and literature and his skill in descriptions of landscapes. Obfuscation is what happens all the time. There are no explanations, no emotional responses to events. In Milan, two young men set upon the narrator, and I had to read the passage twice before I could understand that they had taken nothing from him.

Not until I turned on my heel and swung the bag off my shoulder into the pair of them did I manage to disengage myself and retreat to one of the pillars in the archway. LA PROSSIMA COINCIDENZA. None of the passers-by had taken any notice of the incident. I, however, watched my two assailants, jerking curiously as if they were out of an early motion picture, vanish in the half-light under the colonnades. In the taxi, I clutched my bag with both hands. To my remark that Milan was dangerous territory, ventured in as casual a tone as I could muster, the driver responded with a gesture of helplessness. (109)

And we are into a description of the fortified taxi cab, and then of the hotel. The mugging is already behind him.

We don’t know whether the people referred to really existed or not. How do the four sections relate? Why are Stendhal and Kafka referred to as Marie Henri Beyle and Dr K respectively? Is this memoir or fiction? Is it a new form of travel writing? I think it defies labelling and we need not be detained trying to fit the labels to this book.

I’ve recently been reading Virginia Woolf and it strikes me that she was trying to reproduce how humans experience the world, and that may also be Sebald’s purpose. The world is not delivered to us in neat packages, but in an ever-turning series of events, which change and become less secure as we examine them. The experience of the world is not unlike the experience of vertigo.

It has been suggested that his four novels should be seen as a quartet: The Emigrants, Austerlitz, The Moons of Saturn and Vertigo. I don’t think it matters too much whether they are seen as separate or a quartet. They all have virtues, and together they remind us what was lost when Sebald died in a road accident in December 2001.

Vertigo by WG Sebald was first published in English in 1999 and published by Vintage in 2002. 263pp

Translated from the German by Michael Hulse.

226 Emmig

Related posts

Why you should read WG Sebald by Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker to mark the 10th anniversary of Sebald’s death, December 2011, is a useful introduction.

Written in January 2000, before Max Sebald died, this post by Stephen Moss in the Guardian made most sense and was very helpful to me. Falling for Vertigo

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald from January 2016

The original post The Emigrants by WG Sebald; one of those enduring blogposts that receives constant readership, from May 2013

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The Green Road by Anne Enright

Anne Enright was awarded the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2007 for The Gathering. She has since been regarded as one of the foremost Irish writers of our time. The Forgotten Waltz was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Women’s Fiction (as it was called in 2012). The Green Road was published last year. It did well – Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Irish Novel of the Year, Costa Novel Award short list and choice of the year for several people. It has also gained a few blog endorsements. I read one review, however, which dismissed the novel as clichéd. While some of the situations may be very familiar in Irish history (and life), Anne Enright’s treatment is anything but a cliché. Here’s why.

231 Gr Rd cover

The story and structure of the novel

Rosaleen Madigan lives in County Clare. By 2005 her four children have grown up and away: Hanna is an alcoholic failed actress with post-natal depression; Constance stayed, married a local man who makes a good living in the Irish building boom of the early 2000s; Emmet works for NGOs to save lives in the developing world; Dan went to be a priest and decided he was gay and lives in Toronto.

In part one we see the family members in a number of different episodes, distant from each other and from their parents: Hanna as a child in 1980; Dan in New York at the height of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1991; Constance having a cancer check in 1997; Emmet in Mali breaking up with yet another lover in 2002. Their separate lives make their connections to each other tenuous. By the end of the first section the reader knows much more about the lives of the four Madigan children than their family members ever will.

In the second part, narrated in one timeframe, 2005, they are together in County Clare. Rosaleen, now widowed, has summoned her children to a Christmas reunion. None of the four bring partners or children except Constance who lives locally and does much of the fetching and carrying and organising. Their separation is emphasised by the festivities. Rosaleen adds to the discomfort when she goes missing for a while on a walk in the darkness, and the dramas continue even after they find her. No much is resolved by the conclusion.


The novel is concerned with connections and absence of connections within families; the pull of the past, relatives, place, personal histories and myths; how individuals and families face challenges; compassion for the difficulties of others; the change of parental role from providing care to neediness. ‘It’s about the gaps in the human heart and how we learn to fill them.’ (LRB video see below)

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

View from Mount Vernon across the Flaggy Shore and the inlet by Keith Salvesen May 2006 via WikiCommons

Rosaleen’s disappearance highlights how she and the landscape are the only connections between the family members, and they are not that strong. Her decision to sell the family home, Ardeevin, creates tensions. She has reminded her children that they have little invested in their past. They are shocked by the prospect of Rosaleen moving, but then realise that it makes no difference, except for Constance with whom she threatens to move in.

The writing

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright in 2008 by Hpschaefer via WikiCommons

Anne Enright is a compelling writer. She has referred to ‘the pleasure of the sentence’. I found the section on New York and the gay community unbearably sad.

The story is small, undramatic, although individual episodes in the first part have plenty of action. As Emmet observes, they live ‘small lives’. Not much happens to the family except that Rosaleen goes missing. But within the small spaces a great deal is revealed about families and relationships. Here are some examples.

Emmet prepares for the reunion in his house in Dublin. He says goodbye to his Dutch girlfriend and then waits for Hanna to arrive for their journey to Ardeevin.

Then he faced back into the horrors of the Madigans – their small hearts (his own was not entirely huge) and the small lives they put themselves through. Emmet closed his eyes and tilted his face up, and there she was: his mother, down in the kitchen in Ardeevin. Her shadow moving through him. He had to shake her out of himself like a wet dog.


His stupid sister late, as ever. (210)

Emmet’s awareness does not help him in his relationships with women. His compassion is reserved for those in the countries he works in.

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Knockvorneen from the Flaggy Shore by A McCarron June 2008 via WikiCommons

Constance, of course Constance, meets Dan at Shannon Airport and as they drive to Ardeevin he looks out of the window of her Lexus.

As they travelled towards home, the landscape accumulated in Dan like a silt of meaning that was disturbed by the line of the hedgerow or the sight of winter trees along a ridge. All at once it was familiar. He knew this place. It was a secret he carried inside himself; a map of things he had known and lost, these half glimpsed houses and stone walls, the fields of solid green. (203)

The image of the ‘silt of meaning’ carried around from childhood is a powerful one. Many of the aspects of childhood in this family are silted up. The landscape runs through the novel, surfacing every now and again – Constance’s first trip to the clinic, Rosaleen’s walk in darkness, and Dan’s experience on arrival. The town in which Rosaleen lives is never named ‘to give a sense of elsewhere’ to the landscape. The Green Road that gives the novel its title is exists.

The description of Constance’s pre-Christmas shopping trip is terrifying. The excess of buying, the volume of stuff, the return for yet more, all conveyed in calm prose, a huge list – it is powerful a statement of Constance’s life and values.

Anne Enright seems to be saying that life is hard; relationships, especially those you are born into, but others you take on, they are difficult however you choose to live your life.

That mean-spirited blog review which suggested The Green Road is clichéd and Anne Enright over-rated made me look more closely at her skill. While the outline of the characters may be clichéd her skill is to capture, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor, the silences and shifts between people.

The Green Road by Anne Enright, published in 2015 by Vintage 310 pp


The books that I loved in 2015 by James Wood in the New Yorker, 4th January 2016.

LRB video 9 minutes, from which Anne Enright’s quotations are taken.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, Writing

Returning to The Emigrants by WG Sebald

I regard the writings of WG Sebald as amongst the most original, creative and intelligent of the last 25 years. I wrote about The Emigrants on the blog in May 2013. The original post still attracts readers, so I thought I would revisit and revise the original for any new readers. What follows is a slightly revised version.

226 Emmig

The Emigrants by WG Sebald

Is it a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it a collection of biographies? No, it’s The Emigrants by WG Sebald whose writing seems to generate such questions. One of the most frequent is – in what category does his writing fit? Is it fiction or not? I’m not going to get diverted into addressing that question. It’s a novel that explores themes of loss, displacement, memory and especially of what remains of people, of their lives, of their words. With his own premature death in a car accident in 2001, we can ask such questions also about WG Sebald.


The Emigrants has four sections of unequal length. Each section carries the name of one emigrant: Dr Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth and Max Ferber. There is a fifth story, contained within the final section. Max Ferber’s mother wrote a memoir of her childhood, which makes her the fifth emigrant. The narrator is himself an emigrant (in reality as well as in the fiction). In these accounts the narrator tells us of his connections with the five emigrants and what he has been told about them: his neighbour Dr Selwyn, Paul Bereyter was his primary school teacher in the village of S, Ambros Adelwarth a member of his family who went to the States, and Max Ferber a painter met during a lonely period in Manchester.


His manner of writing generates another set of questions. Why does he write in very long sentences and paragraphs, and make extensive use of reported speech and reported text? My friend Rose, who recommended Sebald’s writing to me a couple of years ago (thank you so much Rose) spoke of the tension this creates as she reads. And it is carefully crafted so that the reader trusts the author to carry them to the end of the paragraph, or the section, or even the book. Somehow Sebald balances this tension with an apparent ‘take it or leave it’ manner, and by very little differentiation of tone or pace. The reader has the sense that every detail has been carefully chosen.

Illustrations and Playfulness

30 WG Sebald2Then there are those fuzzy black and white photographs, usually relating to the topic on the page, but they might not. What are they for? The Emigrants, for example, opens with a photo of a tree in a churchyard, on the same page that he refers to house he (or a man he refers to as himself) was looking for in the village of Hingham.

Sebald constantly presents us with information that may or may not be accurate. For example, there is a market town called Hingham in Norfolk, but picture does not quite match the description in the text. I love this playfulness. One sentence jumped out at me

Clara had bought a house one afternoon on the spur of the moment.

I was especially piqued by this achievement of Clara’s as I was in the middle of house buying while I was reading The Emigrants. The aside about Clara is an example that Sebald knows that his reader will experience house buying as a very involving experience, but he is writing about something else.

Sebald’s reputation

Another question is why is he so highly regarded? Susan Sontag had an answer even before Austerlitz had been published in 2001.

Is literary greatness still possible? Given the implacable devolution of literary ambition, and the concurrent ascendancy of the tepid, the glib, and the senselessly cruel as normative fictional subjects, what would a noble literary enterprise look like now? One of the few answers available to English-language readers is the work of WG Sebald. (A Mind in Mourning, reprinted in Where the Stress Falls, first published in TLS, February 2000).

Not tepid, glib, or the senselessly cruel then. But what are his qualities? Why should you read this author, who in any case was writing in German, even if he was living in England. She points out that his books are all about travel, journeys, provoked by a curiosity about a life, or in the wake of some crisis, and as a quest. She reminds us that a journey is often a revisiting, as in the last of the four stories in The Emigrants.

Sebald described his work as ‘documentary fiction’, according to Mark O’Connell in the New Yorker.

Reading him is a wonderfully disorienting experience, not least because of the odd, invigorating uncertainty as to what it is, precisely, we are reading.

An extract

Apart from the reference to Clara, I have not yet quoted from The Emigrants. In part, this is because it is hard to pick out a section, so relentlessly do the sentences and paragraphs move along. Here’s the end of the first section, which refers to a friend of Dr Selwyn, an alpine guide who had disappeared in 1914. Enjoy the flow of the first sentence!

Three quarters of an hour later, not wanting to miss the landscape around Lake Geneva, which never fails to astound me as it opens out, I was just laying aside a Lausanne paper I’d bought in Zurich when my eye was caught by a report that said the remains of the Bernese alpine guide Johannes Naegli, missing since summer 1914, had been released by the Oberaar glacier, seventy-two years later. And so they are ever returning to us, the dead. At times they come back from the ice more than seven decades later and are found at the edge of the moraine, a few polished bones and a pair of hobnailed boots. [A clipping of a relevant newspaper illustrates the previous page]. (p23)

Why do I think everyone should read Sebald?

Here are my five reasons.

  1. He treats the reader as intelligent and as someone who can do some work.
  2. He writes about Europe, the Europe with which I am familiar, its history, beliefs, monuments, and how these things affected people’s lives.
  3. He is innovative, playful and interesting (especially in the details, the objects he presents to the reader).
  4. He says something important about what we used to call the ‘human condition’, about memory, loss, displacement and how we have lived.
  5. He writes beautifully, with rhythm, tension and movement.

More Sebald for me

226 Vertigo

I still have Vertigo to read. He wrote poems that have also been published: Across the Land and the Water, published in 2011.

His essays about influences upon his ideas were published by Penguin in May 2013 called A Place in the Country.

I am planning to take Austerlitz to re-read on my desert island.

226 AusterlitzHis influence continues through his students. For example, Richard Skinner’s blog has a post that records Sebald’s writing tips: a great collection. Here’s a selection of three:

There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pocket.

Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.

Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer for a while.

I’d like to try to capture that libidinous delight in my writing!

We should acknowledge the skill of the translator of The Emigrants, in this case it is Michael Hulse.


The Emigrants by WG Sebald, first published in English in 1996, available in Vintage Classic series since 2002. 257pp. Translated by Michael Hulse.

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Reading is good for you

There is a simple and inexpensive treatment that reduces symptoms of depression and the risk of dementia, improves wellbeing throughout life increases empathy, improves relationships with others and makes you happy. It’s freely available to everyone, at least while public libraries still exist. To make the treatment effective the only necessary pre-condition is enjoyment:

With reading so good for you this statement, from the Reading Agency is a little shocking:

In the UK, reading levels are low among people of all ages: most children do not read on a daily basis and almost a third of adults don’t read for pleasure. (August 2015)

I think again of the young woman in the bookshop I reported on in a recent post: ‘I’ve never bought a book in my life’.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Old Woman Reading by Sandor Galimberti 1907 via WikiCommons.

Reading is good for you

In the summer the Reading Agency published the report The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment. It brought together findings from 51 research papers to conclude that reading does us good.

Reading helps you understand the world

Barack Obama was talking to novelist Marilyn Robinson when he described how reading made him a better citizen, which was about

being comfortable with the notion that the world is complex and full of greys, but there is still truth to be found …And the notion that its positive to connect with someone else though they be very different to you. (From The Guardian 30.10.15)

The President is a best selling writer himself. The importance of fiction for politicians was wittily demonstrated by Yann Martel in his book What are you Reading Mr Harper? and explored in a recent blogpost here.

The Reading Agency report indicates that reading is helpful to all readers in developing and understanding of other people and cultures and thereby helps develop empathy.

Reading helps you understand yourself better

If reading develops empathy, we should not be surprised that reading helps us understand ourselves as well, helps with developing out identities. Fiction, in particular, helps you see the world and yourself in it, in new ways, opens up possibilities.

Reading helps your cognitive functions

This is just another way of saying that reading keeps you mentally active, increases your knowledge, provokes you with conundrums and mysteries, expands your vocabulary, encourages your creativity, helps you become a better writer.

Reading helps you feel better: bibliotherapy

The New Yorker published an article called Can Reading Make you Happy? by Ceridwen Dovey in January 2015. The answer is yes, and you can read the piece here. She had experienced bibliotherapy suggested by one of the authors of The Reading Cure.

223 novel cure coverThe Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is a handbook to keep with your other home cures, according to the writers. This book has a book for every condition, every ailment. Of course I checked up on one or two and selected one or two of their suggestions.

Noisy neighbours – well their dogs? Try some audio books, read by top class readers: Middlemarch by George Eliot read by Juliet Stevenson; The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy, read by Alan Rickman.

Being Seventy-Something? (I’m not, but it’s not far off). Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym; Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Procrastinating? The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Partner snoring? They recommended some soothing books but I’d recommend any book, the edge brought sharply into contact with the shoulder, enough to get them to change their position.

And let’s not forget that books help us relax, calm us, take us far away from our own struggles.


223 Peanuts librarySo if reading is such a good thing, why, oh why, are so many councils closing libraries? (Yes, yes, I know that so-called austerity means difficult choices for councils, pitting beds for old people and holes in the roads against free and available books). We really need to keep on at the people who suggest library cuts. One way is to support National Library Day on Saturday 6th February 2016. Details on the Reading Agency’s website.

Sources for this post

The Impact of Reading for Pleasure and Empowerment, a literature review for The Reading Agency, June 2015. Conducted by BOP Consulting funded by the Peter Sowerby Foundation. Also available from the Reading Agency’s website.

Reading for pleasure builds empathy and improves wellbeing from The Reading Agency (August 2015)

5 Ways Reading Can Improve Your Life by Leila Cruickshank, on Scottish Book Trust website (November 2015)

The Power of Reading from Norah Colvin’s blog in August 2015.

The Reading Cure: and A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Published in 2015 by Canongate. 460pp

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Filed under Books, Learning, Libraries, Reading, Writing

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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Filed under Books, Reading