Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts
Showing posts with label short stories. Show all posts

Monday, August 13, 2018

WITMonth Day 13 | "The Option" | Translate This Book

I never seem to start with the right book. Author Yael Neeman became a bestselling, household name author in 2011, with the novel We Were the Future that details the lives of children coming of age in a Kibbutz (autobiographic, by all accounts). Yet when a collection of her short stories became available a few years later, that was, for some odd reason, the book that I ended up buying and reading. And liking.

It's hard to review short story collections, particularly when those collections were written in another language and I have little with which to describe them. How can I explain that despite my notoriously terrible memory, the first story (which translates to "Barrenness") has lingered with me for literal years? How can I explain that Neeman's writing has an edge to it that is simultaneously brilliantly sharp, but also delightfully light?

I'll say this, briefly: I didn't love all of the stories in The Option (כתובת אש). There were a few that I skimmed through, because they tired me. But even as some of the stories didn't jive well with my personal style, they were all interesting and Neeman managed to avoid that oh-so-frustrating pitfall that many single-author collections have by creating a series of truly distinct stories. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are melancholic, some are whimsically tragic, some are just weird, and some are, yes, forgettable. Overall, though, she creates a truly enjoyable, well-written collection. It makes me want to read We Were the Future as soon as I can get my hands on it, to experience what was supposed to have been my introduction to a talented writer's works. It makes me want to read her latest work, just recently released. I've got what to look forward to.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

WITMonth Day 5 | The Country Road by Regina Ullmann | Brief thoughts

I had tried to read Regina Ullmann's The Country Road (tr. Kurt Beals) once before, about a year ago. The initial title story rather bored me, and I soon found myself drifting away. Like so many of the titles I review here, I set the book aside for a later date, assuming that the problem was me and not the book. As I revisited more and more books from that period of abandonment in recent months, liking several, The Country Road seemed like a good candidate for a renewed effort. Let's see, I thought, how the book fares this time, with a fresh mind.

It turns out I was even less forgiving of the book this time. Because while yes, technically I finished the book, I was bored by just about every short story. (I almost typed "episode", which I think sums up my thoughts on this book rather well.) I ended up skipping over the ends of just about half of the stories. I disliked the writing. I disliked the frames of most of the stories. I disliked the airy conclusions and concepts.

I disliked this book, and I truly was not expecting to. There's a degree to which I'm still not sure what it was about The Country Road that meant that I actively disliked it, rather than just being passively disinterested. This was a book that felt like work, and not the sort of rewarding work that is ultimately worth it. No, The Country Road was the sort of work that you realize, as you're doing it, that you don't want to be doing, there's no reason you should be doing it, and honestly... who even gave this task?

Not to my taste, certainly. Oh well.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

WITMonth Day 17 | Our Dead World by Liliana Colanzi

To be perfectly honest, I was mostly drawn to Liliana Colanzi's Our Dead World (tr. Jessica Sequeira) because of Colanzi origins. As I was compiling my Reading the World list, I struggled to find any titles for Bolivia. Helpful Twitter readers instantly pointed me towards this (then-forthcoming) title, and I immediately added it to my reading lists.

I had a gut feeling before reading this slim short story collection, however, that it wouldn't be entirely to my taste. The summary on the back highlighted the oddness of the stories, but I have found in recent months that I'm less interested in "weird" stories. Or rather, if the stories need to stray off the beaten track, I like to have a sense of cohesion within them and a strong sense of character. Some books do rather well at casting that "weird" spell while remaining grounded in an emotional connection... Our Dead World a little less so, and I left the book feeling generally empty. Not disappointed, exactly, nor especially frustrated. Just feeling like the book hadn't managed to leave any mark on me.

Perhaps this is unfair. Perhaps I simply read the book at the wrong time, over a weekend in which most of my time was spent stressing out about my future and things far beyond my control. Perhaps I simply didn't give the book the space that it deserved. Even so, now as I flip through the stories, I find that only one out of the eight has managed to linger in my memory, less than a week after reading the entire collection. Most of the stories in Our Dead World felt like clever little exercises: curious premises that twisted and spun around, but didn't spend too long on their characters.

But longtime readers of this blog will know that I'm rarely impressed by books of this sort. In fact, this has colored my impression of almost all single-author short story collections that I've read in the past few years. I love short stories as a form, but I often find myself bored or disappointed by collections from the same author. Here, the problem was less an author's uniform style (the "variations on a theme" problem, as I like to call it), but a uniform lack of opportunities for the reader to form emotional connections with the characters. The stories instead are brief, cool, and detached - something I am sure appeals to many readers, but not to me.

Monday, August 7, 2017

WITMonth Day 7 | The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector

Sharp-eyed readers of this blog and my Twitter feed will perhaps raise an eyebrow. "Weren't you reading this over a year ago?" you may ask. The answer is, of course: yes, yes I was. And indeed I am still reading Clarice Lispector's The Complete Stories, a giant tome that could probably last a lifetime. Translated by Katrina Dodson and edited by Benjamin Moser, The Complete Stories is that unique sort of publication that deserves every ounce of praise and recognition that it has received. It's a tremendous collection of varied and brilliant short stories, a remarkable indicator of Lispector's talents as a writer, and just a great read.

Here's what's amazing about The Complete Stories: it can work both ways. Want to read it straight through? Might be a little difficult, but you can certainly read story after story after story. Lispector's writing is sharp and always delightfully descriptive, nailing little emotions and scenes with high precision. Even when it changes style - because you cannot expect 700+ pages of short stories to have the exact same angle, style or perspective - the overall effect remains one of remarkably clean prose. You can also just pick it up in pieces. I read the first third of the book in one sitting, rushing through the stories, and have since been sampling the remainder with a story or two per week, never quite leaving Lispector's world behind, but also avoiding that full immersion I had at first.

Lispector is known for darker and dryer styles, all of which are on display in The Complete Stories. Some of these stories are light, gentle, sweet affairs, but others are creepy or downright terrifying. Lispector often uses a sort of slyly disconcerting style, in which a clearly drawn narrator will suddenly be unsettled, and the reader along with them. Even the stories which I liked less - often ones that were deliberately vague or seemingly scattered - avoid outright discomfort, opting instead for a more subtle sort of reader awareness. Lispector has this way of reminding you that you are reading - her use of language is remarkable in being an inherent character within the stories. It makes me wonder how difficult translating these sorts of works must be.

The Complete Stories also highlights a lot of what I didn't like about the first book by Lispector that I read: The Hour of the Star. I read Lispector's last (short) novel during the first-ever WITMonth, and was fairly disappointed, finding the writing technically interesting but the story almost uncomfortably emotionally dull. My conclusion was, at the time, that perhaps the brevity of The Hour of the Star was the source of the problem. I concluded that it would be best if I read one of Lispector's meatier novels next. Instead, I have found myself exceedingly satisfied by the opposite. In her short stories, Lispector's vagueness can often carry the story in its entirety. Technical exercises (in my experience) work far better as short stories than as novellas or novels. Furthermore, the wide variety between her stories keeps both individual stories and the collection at large from growing too dull.

This review is effectively superfluous. If you are a reader who can tolerate short stories (and I know that there are some readers who loathe the form...), you should read The Complete Stories. It's that simple. This is a truly wonderful collection by a brilliant writer. Go forth and read.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere by Anna Gavalda | Review

I read Anna Gavalda's French Leave way back in 2011, having picked up that slim novella at a Border's going-out-of-business sale (a tragic day for my childhood nostalgia of the bookstore giant, a great day for collecting lots of books for little money). I wasn't all that impressed with the book, to be honest, finding it somewhat boring and fragmented in a not-exactly-enjoyable way. Even so, I would end up buying Gavalda's I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (translated from French by Karen L. Marker) in 2014, during the first-ever WITMonth. And then it languished on my shelves for three years.


The truth is, I Wish Someone Were Waiting for Me Somewhere (hereby shortened to stories or this collection because the title is way too long) is a pretty great book. This short story collection was an exciting shift for me after a series of fairly disappointing single-author collections (in which style kept suffocating innovation or intrigue), largely because it is both delightfully short and wonderfully varied. Gavalda has a distinct enough style in each of the stories, but she plays around with different explorations of similar themes. Most of the stories are written in fairly conversational styles, but they managed to sound different and their topics varied widely enough that it didn't feel like I was rereading the same story again and again (as I had occasionally felt with Gail Hareven's most recent short story collection People Fail).

The stories range from young adult antics, to sexual escapades, to lost loves, to public tragedies, to rape, to anxiety, and more. While some of the stories made me roll my eyes (see: young adult antics), others had me on the edge of my seat, and others still had me crying softly for five minutes after the story ended. Enough of the stories wormed their way into my brain, touching me emotionally in a way that not all short stories are able to. Some just made me laugh.

The conversational, first-person will likely not be to every reader's taste. Neither will the sharp contrast between Gavalda's sly stories and the more emotionally daunting ones. To a certain degree, the uniformity of writing style compensates somewhat for the tone shifts between stories, but there remains an undercurrent of cynicism that seems to pervade every story, like Gavalda is highly aware of how her own voice is mixing with that of her characters. And while I hadn't really enjoyed it with French Leave, the brevity of these stories made sure that nothing got bogged down or too tangled. The stories don't feel especially long, but they're not quite brief either - that sweet spot of being "just right". For readers not opposed to conversational short-storytelling, this one is warmly recommended.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

WITMonth Day 28 | Subtly Worded - Teffi | Review

Short story collections are always a bit problematic. There's a huge difference between collections written as single entities, collections curated from an author's body of work, or collections compiled from different authors (particularly when not written with a specific theme in mind).

Any collection that isn't written ahead of time as a single book often stumbles a bit in my opinion. I have a hard time sticking with the stories, since it often feels like there isn't much of a motivation to read through the collection at once. That was only half true of Teffi's Subtly Worded. On the one hand, Teffi's style is clean and consistent, calmly guiding the reader from one story to another. On the other hand, the stories span so many years that it's a little difficult to read them as one cohesive unit. (I also wasn't entirely clear on how much the translator impacted matters, since while the collection is mostly translated by Anne Marie Jackson and Robert Chandler [from what I could gather...], there were many translators credited and a few stories that felt a bit out of place did in fact turn out to be translated by other translators.)

I'd seen so many positive reviews of Subtly Worded that I came in slightly skeptical as to whether the book would actually be as charming as presented. I'm not sure how I came away. I really enjoyed Teffi's quietly humorous style in some of the stories, and found that the shorter pieces worked really well. But many of the longer stories lost me (particularly the Rasputin story, which was clearly supposed to be a standout sort of tale and most readers seemed to love yet thoroughly bored me).

The collection is sweet in parts, entertaining in others, funny at times and sadly melancholic in others. And it generally flows well. This isn't the sort of collection you start and stop every other story. It's also the sort of collection that makes me confident in Teffi as a writer, and intrigued enough to continue seeking out her works. I'm not sure I loved this collection as much as others, but it was pleasant enough (I really only skipped a few stories) and some of the stories were downright excellent. A pretty good balance for a short story collection, I'd say.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You | Review

There were a lot of things in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You by Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés which made me laugh out loud. The short story collection is not meant to be an especially humorous one, but an underlying snark accompanies a good portion of the writing and some lines were, frankly, far too familiar not to make me laugh. "Arroz con pollo, sin pollo y sin arroz" made me laugh for a solid five minutes, not because the statement is necessarily that humorous on its own, but because we frequently joke in my family about my aunt's "arroz con pollo sin pollo" (and I had not known that arroz con pollo - named as such - was not an exclusively Peruvian dish).

The collection is written with almost deliberate indifference to the notion that the reader might not speak Spanish. It fits the tone - Milanés is telling stories of Cubans and of Cuban-Americans, and at times I found myself thinking that including in text translations would have been intrusive. And the Spanish, while prevalent, is not something you'll feel lost without. And you can probably figure it out from context, even if you don't know Spanish very well.

The truth is, I liked Milanés' writing, but I'm not sure I liked the collection overall. As sharp and pointed as it is in parts, there was a very uniform tone to the stories that made it difficult for me to fully separate them in my mind. Not that they were identical (certainly nowhere near the level of similarity across Kjell Askildsen's short stories, for example...), but there wasn't quite enough separation between the majority. The best stories ended up being those that shifted from the familiar structure - a two paged slip of a story about a gay man suspecting his niece's boyfriend is gay, a story about a Chinese immigrant to Cuba, a story which drastically switches perspectives throughout its 28 or so pages with no fixed loop. These stories lingered just a bit longer in my mind, snagged on something I couldn't quite place.

Milanés broaches a lot of topics in Oye What I'm Gonna Tell You, many of which I found myself not only recognizing and appreciating, but also running through in my head again and again. Most notable was Milanés' almost aggressive focus on race, and colorism, often drawing attentions to features that were more positively viewed (pale skin, slanted eyes, smooth hair). Then there were the more general themes: family, belonging, the immigrant experience... A lot here was quite familiar in the positive sense - a sharp reflection of the world.

And yet I still am not sure that I liked the collection all that much. Some of the stories were deliberately truncated in a way that kept me on edge, others felt dragged out without much justification, and some stories felt utterly dry. Despite the relative shortness of the book, it felt long and tedious far more than it should have. And sharp writing is great only to the point where it can stand alone, and here there was a glossed over uniformity to the entire collection that lessened the effect of the writing. Some of these are certainly stories worth reading, but I'm not sure I would add Milanés to my "must read" list quite yet.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Wayfarer: New Fiction By Korean Women | Review

Before I begin this review, it's important to note that I don't feel particularly qualified in reviewing a short story collection. Short stories by one author - okay, sure, I can handle it. There's a fluidity to those books (or at least, there should be), there's a structure, there's a single underlying style that runs through the stories. With an anthology, however, there's usually very little - the styles, eras, approaches, plots, and even translators may vary. Anthologies are not necessarily meant to be read in a single sitting.

Wayfarer, however, ends up feeling a lot more like a single-author collection than a big anthology. I read it in a single sitting. It was translated by the same team (Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, at it again). There are similar themes of womanhood running through all the stories. And goodness if the collection doesn't feel whole.

Wayfarer comprises of eight stories that look at women from different angles. Most of the stories deal with women's relations with men, in some form or other, but the stories remain firmly about women. A daughter is forced to reconcile with a Communist father she's never met. A journalist struggles with a story about a man who was imprisoned for twenty years and how it relates to her own rebellious past. Mothers deal with children, wives deal with husbands, women deal with the world and try to face it, sometimes more successfully than others.

These stories are largely melancholic, with our women finding few solutions to their problems. The title story (also the final story in the collection) displays this brutally, in a sequence that left me unsettled for a while after I finished it. Some of the stories are outright uncomfortable, but they seem at home with this discomfort, knowing exactly how the reader will respond.

Not all of the stories are necessarily brilliant on their own, and some of them are downright forgettable. But as a collection, the book works fantastically. Depressing as some of the gender dynamics may be in these stories, they present a fascinating portrait of modern Korean women (from 17 years ago, yes, but still). The stories fit together nicely, without any extreme tone-shifts from writer to writer, but clear enough differences between them to make it apparent that these are many different writers.

While the book is no longer in print, and its publisher (Women in Translation - !) seems to no longer exist, I'd recommend reading the collection if you can get your hands on it. I've still not read enough Korean literature to truly gauge different cultural aspects of the stories, but I feel like I'm gaining a better grasp of it with every book I read.

Friday, August 22, 2014

WITMonth Day 22 - Anthologies? More like manthologies

One of the ideas that's cropped up in the comments here for finding new authors has been exploring different anthologies to find new and perhaps more obscure women writers in translation. While this idea at first seemed a little minor to me, I quickly realized that it's actually brilliant - a lot of authors have their short stories translated long before their full-length works are.

I was so very excited. I really, really shouldn't have been.

You see, anthologies largely reflect the literary culture around them. Yes, you can occasionally find a book like Cubana (which I recently stumbled across and picked up at a used bookstore) that is dedicated to women writers in particular, but most anthologies give a broader spread. And most are so, so male.

Here's a quick rundown of the four anthologies I checked out from the library this week:

  1. Contemporary Georgian Fiction - 4 out of 20 stories are by women. 20%, less than the overall translation average
  2. Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories - 9 out of 52 stories are by women. 17%, less than the overall translation average
  3. Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories - 9 out of 35 stories are by women. 26%, just around the average
  4. Chairman Mao Would Not Be Amused: Fiction from Today's China - 5 out of 20. 25%, just below the overall average
I won't pretend that I'm not discovering some old-new writers in these collections, or that because some focus on older literature it may justify the relatively low ratios. I won't pretend that they aren't doing good work for literature overall. I also won't dismiss them entirely, considering the higher male-to-female ratio in other anthologies (though when I say "higher", I mean around 33%...).

However. This is something we need to bear in mind. When we look at translations, we also need to look at short stories and at anthologies and at collections. Until now, I had sort of hoped that these collections would reflect better on translation rates than the current landscape. But it turns out that these collections - including more recently published ones, such as the Georgian collection (from 2012) - mirror the problems found elsewhere, and indeed often give us worse results.

I will continue to use collections and anthologies as a resource, for all writers. But once again we see the problem that led to the very initiation of WITMonth - where are the women writers? We keep searching, and we keep discussing. This is the only solution.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

WITMonth Day 14 - There a Petal Silently Falls | Review

I read Ch'oe Yun's There a Petal Silently Falls (a collection of three fairly not-short stories, tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton) on the basis of a single tweet from Tony (of Tony's Reading List fame) - I saw the tweet, looked up the book, requested it from my library... and three days later I was sitting on the couch and mulling over the book I had just read.

Truthfully, I didn't particularly enjoy There a Petal Silently Falls while reading it, particularly the title story which seriously unnerved me. All three stories are a bit strange, but in surprisingly different ways. "There a Petal Silently Falls" is confusing in its messy, non-linear and ambiguous narrative, "Whisper Yet" felt exceedingly partial to me, as though half the story was missing, and "The Thirteen Scent Flower" (which was easily my favorite of the stories) contained such a strange and frankly fantastic (from fantasy) story and setting that it can't help but be viewed as a little offbeat.

The more I sat and thought about the collection as a whole, the more I began to wonder about what I had missed. Even a quick skim of "There a Petal Silently Falls" revealed a deeper understanding of the story, even if (after reading the afterword) I realized that I was missing fundamental historical context. This missing context suddenly put the story in a whole different category. No longer was it confusing because of poor writing, it was suddenly obvious to me that it was confusing because I lacked the necessary background to fully understand it. This doesn't take away from the fact that I was confused, but it explained how a story so vague could nonetheless get away with employing such a twisted style. Suddenly the baffling point-of-view switches in the story seemed not like a weird post-modern mess, but a fairly brilliant trick.

The same was true of "Whisper Yet". Once I reached the end of the story, I understood that there had been many small clues scattered throughout the shorter story that built up to something fairly meaningful. And yet without the proper context, the story simply felt loose and scattered. This wasn't quite as extreme as "There a Petal Silently Falls" (of course, "Whisper Yet" is significantly shorter...), but there was still just a bit of reader frustration on my part.

It may well be that "The Thirteen Scent Flower" also had some deeper level of context that I didn't pick up on, but honestly I enjoyed the story even without it. Unlike its two predecessors, "The Thirteen Scent Flower" has a bit of an uplifting message, and its characters are oddly endearing. There are certainly darker undertones to the story, but I doggedly refuse to view it as anything other than sweet, because after two grimmer stories, I honestly needed something cheerier. Plus there's a lovely bit of scientist satire there that rings particularly true. Even with its clever social commentary, it manages to be a really enjoyable story.

I didn't get the impression that there's any explicit link between any of these three stories, but I have to admit that they work fairly well as a whole. The stories balance each other's weaknesses - one with stronger messages but weaker characters, another with stronger characters but weaker writing, another with stellar writing but a blurry message... Thematically the three do all touch on modern Korean struggles and society, but in such markedly different ways that I'm hard-pressed to say that the stories are really tied together.

Once I'd thought for a while, I had to concede - yes, there was a lot to appreciate in this collection. It was less forgettable than I thought it was going to be while reading it, and also less "all over the place" (particularly after reading the afterword which - again - provided me with some much-needed context). The writing is interesting, often experimental and different (not always precisely to my liking, but there's no denying that it's very smart, very good writing), and while not all the characters were quite as memorable as others, their stories were. It's not necessarily a book I'd shove into any reader's hands, but it's definitely worth taking a look at. And while her approach isn't necessarily my favorite, Ch'oe's writing is certainly interesting enough to keep me on the lookout for more.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Selected Stories by Kjell Askildsen | Review

I read a collection of Kjell Askildsen's shorts stories (technically novella plus short stories) last year, finding him to be a surprisingly interesting writer. I liked the minimalist style and the book was overall quite successful. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when Dalkey Archive offered to send me an advanced copy of their forthcoming collection of additional stories (imaginatively titled Selected Stories), translated by Seán Kinsella. I happily accepted.

The collection, unlike the previous one I'd read, was entirely comprised of short vignettes, with virtually no stand-out story or extra-long piece that draws away from the others. In fact, the first thing that struck me about all the stories in this collection is how similar they all feel. The themes Askildsen touched upon in Thomas F and the other stories in that collection reappear here in full form. Each story is essentially about an apathetic or unhappy middle-aged man. Each story has some kind of weather or nature related theme. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of chain smoking. A lot of connectors between events that never quite pan out. A lot of innuendo. A lot of general melancholy.

Because of Askildsen's propensity for keeping things very, very simple, it turns out that this short collection ends up lacking a bit of punch. The writing is still clear and sharp and perfectly minute, but I didn't get the same overall clarity that I got with the significantly longer Thomas F. The characters aren't particularly distinguishable one from the other, to the point where I strongly suspect that Askildsen had absolutely no intention of them ever being viewed as anything but the same character in a slightly different variation. The obviously recurring character traits - bursts of sudden unexplained anger or violence, smoking and drinking patterns, treatment of women, and general attitude - all tie together so vividly it's hard to view any of them as anything other than belonging to a single male character Askildsen has in his head. I left the book strongly suspecting that this man is either heavily based on Askildsen himself, or is some sort of manly ideal which he's fascinated with.

Either case, quite frankly, would make him an extraordinarily unsympathetic man, even if he's a talented writer.

I have trouble with collections of this kind. My favorite short story collections generally have some sort of loose binding that make them novel-esque, or they have stories that are so different from each other in tone, content and style that I don't feel as though I'm going down the same path again and again. Askildsen's writing is best taken in small portions, then, not read in one sitting (though I actually read half the stories across a few days, then finished the remaining half in one evening). For fans of minimalist prose, there's really no way to go wrong here. Askildsen may not know how to build characters or spin wildly ornate plots, but he knows how to set a mood (typically an unpleasant one), how to make the reader just uncomfortable enough, and to do all this while scarcely using any words. Talent... but I think I've had enough of it for now.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons | Review

I'm honestly surprised that I'd never heard of Goli Taraghi's The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons (tr. Sara Khalili) before reading it. It's not that I think I know of every new book that's published, but as a longtime book blogger, there's always a bit of awareness of new titles. Particularly titles from more mainstream publishers. The irony of it is that I'm often more aware of literature in translation from smaller publishers than I am from the heavy-hitters, where they seem almost passive in their attitudes despite more newspaper coverage. The fact is that I can't recall having seen any reviews of The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons. Fairly undeserved.

It's been a bit over a month since I read this short story collection, so I won't pretend that all the facts and figures are perfectly aligned in my head. But truthfully, that's less relevant for a book of this sort. Like many short story collections, the plot is not really the point. More important is the clear-headed assessment of a culture, and a culture of emigration.

The fact that most of the stories in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons either revolve around emigration (or return), or some form of outside cultural influence, says quite a bit about the collection as a whole and about the state of Iranian culture. This is not particularly surprising given Taraghi's current status as an expat herself, but there's power to the fact that she continues to write in Farsi. There's meaning to the fact that these stories have such strong themes of coming and going, forming a core that does not dismiss offhand cultural differences between Europe/America and Iran, but also does not entirely embrace them.

One of the nice things about this collection is in its rather excellent balance of pace and story. These are short stories that know how to breathe - nothing is rushed, but no story feels unnecessarily bloated either. One story tells of a dinner party broken up by a raid. There's anxiety running throughout the story, the narrator's tense apprehensions and unease with further complications that result from her arrest. Taraghi's writing conveys this tension without resorting to blunt measures. Everything flows gracefully and smoothly, straight through to the story's end. This makes for a nice change from most novels, and certainly from flash fiction which often ends up missing important story elements.

Though certain themes crop up again, The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons nonetheless relatively succeeds in staying fresh. This is not a collection bogged down by the same story again and again with slight variations; even the most similar stories feel distinct in their characters and settings. Some also sharply deviate from the standard mold, making for an overall bolder, more diverse collection. There's a lot here about human nature, quite a bit about passion and force of will, and sprinkles of love, often in the most roundabout way.

I liked The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons when I really didn't think I would. The stories grow on a reader, and though the writing was a little awkward at times (a fault whose source I'm not sure of - writer or translator...), generally speaking I found myself delving quite deeply into each story. Nothing bombastic happens in any of these stories, nor are they unique for their sparseness. Instead, Taraghi looks at characters (primarily women) in different situations, calmly building the broader world around these characters and ending on just the right note. All in all, a good, balanced collection, deserving of more attention.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Budding Tree | Review

I wanted to write about The Budding Tree the moment I finished reading it, but I got sidetracked by other books. Now, just over a month after finishing it, I feel that I have done the book a clear disservice. Aiko Kitahara's lovely collection of short stories (tr. Ian MacDonald) is a perfect example for why I feel there needs to be more literature in translation. Not only is The Budding Tree brilliant in its portrayals of women attempting to carve out an independent existence for themselves, but it's also a beautifully written book overall, and a fascinating historical fiction account.

The Budding Tree: Six Stories of Love in Edo is not remotely about romance, even as it is about love. This collection of loosely linked stories focuses on six women striving to live their lives in a society that maybe isn't quite ready for their independence yet. Opening with a story about identity and honor, we catch glimpses of the struggles young women had just in living their lives. We see a teacher, a restaurant owner, an artist, a designer, a performer, and a scribe, each one with her own complications (often tangentially linked to one of the previous stories). These are women with men in their lives - often in a romantic context - but the stories are about them, about their struggles, their desires and their hopes.

Ultimately, each of these stories is about women's freedom. In one story, a woman's ex-husband attempts to convince her to return to work in his failing restaurant, which she managed when they were still married. The attempts are marked with threats, both directly from the ex-husband as well as from the loan sharks currently keeping the other restaurant afloat. The story is set against the backdrop of an increasingly volatile economic situation in Edo, with rampant starvation and inflation. It's ultimately both powerful in its portrayal of economic hardship, as well as in its characterization of a woman doing all she can to remain independent in both her work and her personal life.

I should emphasize that no aspect of The Budding Tree tries to portray either men or women as caricatures. The men are not merely bullies in their attempts to dominate women. Nor are they objects of affection, occupying the entirety of the women's lives. Meanwhile, the women are neither portrayed as frivolous for their love, nor are they forced to completely forgo it. These are not "strong female characters" in the traditional sense of the word, but each of them is clearly a well-written woman with her own story to tell.

The writing in The Budding Tree is perfect - a good balance of quietly lyrical, with a clean, crisp tone overall. It's a lovely read - neither too sparse nor overwhelming with sticky prose. Coupled with a very even, calm pacing and a series of stories that are interesting, enjoyable and powerful, The Budding Tree is ultimately a very good book. Nothing here is bombastic, nothing is particularly flashy or attention-grabbing, but all together the result is of a woefully underrated book that deserves to be better known.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Summerhouse, Later | Review

It's a rare thing to enjoy a short story collection without particularly liking any of its actual components. Judith Hermann's Summerhouse, Later essentially falls into this category, though my appreciation of the book was certainly limited and I'm hesitant to recommend it.

Summerhouse, Later comprises of nine short stories, each of which looks rather distantly at a set of damaged, fairly unhappy characters. Despite the distance, however, Hermann manages to bring each character close to the reader, leaving the impression that though there's a certain coldness surrounding everything, we're not entirely disconnected. The distance seems to have much more to do with the story setting than as some sort of accidental flaw on Hermann's part - a coolly calculated move by an author who is in perfect control of her writing.

And so these nine stories take our damaged characters and present them to us at that crucial pivot - the moment when things change. Or rather, the moment when things can change.

This thematic idea is evident from the first story - "The Red Coral Bracelet". The narrator, rather like all the characters in the book, is not particularly likable, nor is she very substantial; meanwhile, nothing really happens in the story. What we get is that shift, a moment in which the status changes and the story gets nudged along its tracks. This might leave a lot of readers cold - the distinct lack of characterization or plot can make these stories feel a bit incomplete or shoddy. But the calm focus on those pivots proves to be an interesting storytelling technique and though I certainly felt empty after reading them, something lingered nonetheless.

Two stories seem to shy away from this model, one successfully and the other not so much. "The End of Something" is easily the weakest, most forgettable story in the collection, mostly made up of a blurry monologue that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with nothing in between - an utterly pointless story.

But the story that immediately precedes it - "Sonja" - manages to do the exact opposite, leading to a significantly more successful story. We get a narrator who is actually sympathetic, or at least as close to sympathetic as a guy in a series of weird relationships and relative ambivalence can be. His baffling relationship with the bizarre Sonja (who is distinctly not a manic pixie dream girl) is both interesting and oddly touching (in a very weird and even somewhat unsettling way), and we also get to see the story from start to finish. I'm not sure I could call it my favorite story from the collection (indeed, I'm not sure any story qualifies for that...), but it certainly stood out in a positive light.

All in all, Summerhouse, Later is a fairly uniform, interesting read. I'd even call it pleasant, were it not for the distinctly dark and rather depressing undertones that occupy the collection from start to finish. As I said earlier, I'm not sure I'd necessarily recommend it nor do I think readers should go out of their way to read it, but if it comes across your radar, it is an interesting book. And I'm definitely curious to see what Hermann does with a full-novel canvas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Review | Too Much Happiness

I'm really beginning to doubt whether or not it was wise to start my literary relationship with Alice Munro through Too Much Happiness. As a collection it is surprisingly strong, but though I recognized an obvious brilliance to Munro's writing (something which is often lacking in Nobel laureates, oddly enough), I didn't feel quite the emotional resonance I was expecting. It'll come, I'm certain - unlike an author like Mo Yan (who will take me a long time to revisit...) or an author like Herta Müller (with her depth and quiet pounding who can only be visited on rare, carefully planned occasions) - I have every intention of reading another of Munro's collections within the coming months.

The stories in Too Much Happiness generally follow the same idea - characters' lives revolving around a before-and-after pivot. These pivots are misleadingly quiet plot points, usually so calmly dealt with they almost lose their whiplash strength. These are not quiet events - divorce and death and children and love - but they lack the grandeur and pomp many other writers would ascribe to them. In "Fiction", the pivot is most strongly felt by a chapter-like division, giving us the set-up and then an entirely different story in the second half. Or the powerful opening story "Dimensions", which has reveals the backstory in bits, then all at once.

With the exception of the titular "Too Much Happiness" (the final story in the collection and by far the weakest - I'll get to it in a moment), each of the stories seemed to strike me like a punch while I was reading them, then leave behind a mildly bitter aftertaste (except "Dimensions", which simply left me speechless and almost physically winded), and then appear remarkably clearly in retrospect. Looking back on the stories a couple weeks later, I'm reminded of the characters and their lives. I'm reminded of Munro's absolutely clean writing. The stories have stuck, even if it seemed for a short time like they might not. They still don't scream, but they've firmly pushed their way to the front. They will not be forgotten so easily.

Weierstrass was last semester 
My main struggle with the collection on the whole comes from the final story - "Too Much Happiness". This, it should seem, would be right up my alley, telling the story of Sophia Kovalevsky, a mathematician in the late 19th century (with extra Weierstrass references!). But it's not. The back cover describes this one as being about Sophia's "yearnings", but if so, her yearnings are decidedly dull. "Too Much Happiness" is too long, too clumsy in its characterizations (namely, its lack of it - the previous story "Wood" managed to make me significantly more emotionally invested in the struggles of its lead than the almost-sprawling-by-comparison "Too Much Happiness". It's a story that seemed hemmed in by its own ambitions of telling a bigger story, but also hindered by a lack of space in which to grow and breathe. The story is also unique in that Munro seems to be experimenting with a different writing style (a bit more old-fashioned, less coolly detached and more dramatically involved). It's a nice idea, but I don't think it worked particularly well within the story, and certainly not within the rest of the collection. Much less as the closing story.

All in all, I liked Too Much Happiness. I wasn't blown away by it (no absolute adoration here) but I appreciated it very much. After hearing so much about Munro's stellar writing, it was a joy to experience it myself, and the multi-layered strength of her stories will stick with me for a while longer. It may not turn out to be Munro's best collection, but Too Much Happiness certainly made me want to read more of her stories... perhaps it wasn't such a bad introduction after all.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Review | Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public

* This review is of the translation from Norwegian into Hebrew. As far as I can tell, the lead story "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" was once translated in a collection of Askildsen's writing but is now out of print.

Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public by Kjell Askildsen is not really a novella - it's a relatively long short story, that in my (quite lovely) slim edition comes padded with two other shorter stories that are similar in tone if not theme. The stories follow these rather disconnected, unappealing older men as they either go about their business or are entangled in certain dramas that gradually grow in magnitude and influence.

The titular Thomas F in the main story has the calmest story of the bunch. This "novella" (but really: it's a short story) is comprised of tiny vignettes that detail minor day-to-day interactions of an old man turned major: a surprise meeting with a daughter, the kindly neighbor coming to help, the landlord's visit, etc. The back of my edition describes each of these "scenes" as "a true literary gem", and that "each sentence contains an entire world". This is not so extreme an exaggeration. In "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public", the stories have a certain clean minimalist clarity to them that few vignettes ever truly achieve. The stories flow seamlessly into one another; I found myself telling myself after each one "After this one I'll go to bed" and then continuing onward anyways.

In all of the stories, the writing is sparse and simple. With surprising restraint, Askildsen manages to sketch out both his characters and their world. The second story in my edition, "Karl Lange" is a bit darker and heavier, but similarly light in terms of writing. The sentences don't ever drag, and they very gently get their message across. The main character in this story (Karl Lange himself) is a translator, and I want to quote from Author's and Translator's recent interview with literary translator Jamie Richards a particular sentence that exactly encompasses the core of the story: "It is not simply the solitary nature of the work that makes translation deadly but the obsessiveness of it—the anxiety of error and the lingering sense of never having finished." This sort of mood and perspective fully defines the story's drama - an accusation, a mounting isolation and increasing obsessive madness. "Karl Lange" may be the weakest of the stories in my collection, but it is hardly bad.

The fact that Askildsen chose to tell stories about fairly unsympathetic men (two nearing the ends of their lives, one in that middle-aged rut) and the fact that each seems to view the world through a decidedly tinted lens makes for interesting if somewhat uncomfortable reading. Askildsen's strong writing is enough to compensate for the rough characterizations (which seem much more like a stylistic choice than any failing on the author's part), and coupled with that excellent minimalism, the stories end up vivid, darkly memorable and enjoyable to read. Though I seem to have exhausted Askildsen's available writings at this time, he is certainly an author I'd like to meet again, and "Thomas F's Last Notes to the Public" is without a doubt a story worth tracking down.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review | Between Friends

Between Friends... between friends
Readers may recall a few months ago I read Amos Oz's The Black Box, saying that I was debating between reading that book and... this one - Between Friends (בין חברים). Reading The Black Box was a thoroughly interesting, but also somewhat uncomfortable feeling. I wanted to recommend the book, but I didn't like it. I was fascinated by it, but I hadn't enjoyed it at all. And I knew that it wasn't like Scenes from Village Life, which I had really enjoyed.

Between Friends is in some ways much more like Scenes from Village Life than The Black Box. This is mostly because of its format - like Oz's earlier book, Between Friends is a collection of short stories about a certain place, where characters appear and reappear throughout, and where the location is more of a main character than anyone else. Scenes from Village Life used a level of distance to tell a story about modern Israeli life; Between Friends goes back in time to the kibbutz of the fifties.

But here Between Friends finds a major similarity with The Black Box. Unlike Scenes from Village Life which had some perfectly crafted stories and characters I immediately felt connected with, Between Friends is filled with utterly unsympathetic characters in frustrating situations. The stories made me feel thoroughly uncomfortable; I honestly didn't want to spend much more time with this kibbutz and its inhabitants. But I did, because despite its rougher edges, Oz's writing is compelling and compulsively engaging. As always, his writing is distinctly "not-beautiful", but... it's worth reading.

The historical setting of this one sets it apart from either of Oz's previous novels that I've read. Between Friends takes advantage of the shadow of the Israeli War of Independence, in regards to the political situation in Israel as well as its socioeconomic situation. Oz uses his foresight as a modern author to play with the concept of the kibbutzim's socialism, through the prophecies of a dedicated founder of the kibbutz, or the hard-line beliefs of one of its prominent members, or the casual acknowledgement of its changing future from its young-generation secretary. Oz uses his distance to gently emphasize the future that is to come, but oddly enough he casts no judgement one way or the other. Oz's voice is usually a dry, almost dead tone behind his characters; this time he seemed even more unresponsive than usual.

I can't help but compare Between Friends to both The Black Box and Scenes from Village Life. In structure, it is similar to the latter; in my tepid but intrigued response to it, it is much more like The Black Box, except I think I got more from The Black Box than I did from Between Friends, which felt a bit like a weak imitation of Scenes from Village Life for me. It can work as an introduction to Oz, certainly, and it's not a bad book by any means. But it's not particularly likable either, as accomplished as it may be. In other words... it's a book by Amos Oz. Difficult to classify, but recommended reading.

-------

Finally, a minor quibble. When I first saw the translated title on the inside cover of the Hebrew edition*, my immediate instinct was to correct what I felt was a bad translation. I hoped it was a temporary title. Now that I realize that Between Friends is indeed the final title, I'll only mention as a side-note that I personally would have translated the title as Among Friends - like many Israeli titles, there's an air of ambiguity to the original Hebrew. But this is entirely irrelevant.

* Hebrew books almost always (always) have an English version of the title inside. This isn't always the actual title once (if) the book is translated into English, but it often is.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Magic on other worlds | Trafalgar

There's a hint of "finally" in my discovery of Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer (translated by Amalia Gladhart). Not just because it's one of the better books I've read this year. Not even because I had to wait a few weeks between reading the first chapter in this book and the rest. Mostly, it's a feeling of finally finding what I'm looking for - high quality, well-written, unique fantastic sci-fi from an interestingly non-Anglo perspective. It's almost as though Gorodischer has tailor-made this novel-in-stories for me. Decades before my birth. And continents away. Well played, Angélica Gorodischer, well played.

If you're looking for information on Trafalgar, you'll be hard pressed to find any on its back cover. Rather than giving hints about the stories found within its pages, the blurb instead aims to set a mood. Relax, it says. Open your mind. Take in something new and different and maybe just a bit unexpected. This might be frustrating for some readers (indeed, I personally found it to be an annoying gimmick-like choice), but it does set the mood fairly well. Because these aren't whip-fast, neck-breaking stories. These aren't swashbuckling sci-fi tales to set your hair on fire. These are coffee-shop stories that happen to take place on other worlds, with other cultures, and other frames of reference.

The first thing of note in Trafalgar is its wonderful clarity. A lot of books (particularly sci-fi) stumble over how to build their world without resorting to bloated, heavy-handed descriptions, but Gorodischer leaps over this hurdle lightly, opting instead for a casually limited scope. Because each story takes place on a different world, and because the stories are being told directly to another character, they remain small and relatively undeveloped. But we don't expect there to be a lot of descriptions of the places, the buildings, the people. That wouldn't be very conversational, would it? By making these actual stories, Gorodischer is able to get away with a crisper, cleaner storytelling style. I loved it.

The stories themselves touch on such a wide array of topics that it's hard to even classify them. Our titular main character, Trafalgar, doesn't seem to find anything wrong with this either. His stories aren't quite adventures, really - he's a businessman, after all. These are just the odd things that sometimes happen on his business trips. We get glimpses of wonders through this very particular filter.

There were two things I kept finding myself comparing Trafalgar to: one with a bemused excitement and one with a fair share of annoyance. The first was related to the way certain phrases and philosophies of the book resembled Star Trek (with a particular resemblance to TNG, which would not exist for another decade as of this book's original publication). In more than one story, Gorodischer touches on themes that often crop up in Star Trek, such as various cultural distinctions and even ideas resembling the Prime Directive. The stories were just light enough to keep me from getting too bogged down in them, but also thoughtful enough to keep me thinking throughout them. Also afterwards.

The third comparison is both the strongest, and the most frustrating. Because, though a much better book, Trafalgar very strongly reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's The Cyberiad, a book I've been struggling with for many, many months. Both are novels in stories, surrounding the somewhat bizarre travels of seemingly ordinary people in outer space (engineers in The Cyberiad, a businessman in Trafalgar), to odd, yet often very human, societies. Superficially, this makes these books extremely similar. Except whereas The Cyberiad is utterly absurd - and seems perfectly aware of this - Trafalgar is subtly whimsical. The Cyberiad drags on and on, while Trafalgar ends quickly and as lightly as it opened. The Cyberiad piles on more and more details; Trafalgar focuses purely on its storytelling.

This, of course, is Trafalgar's major flaw. A book that is so slim and so heavily tilted towards a storytelling form cannot dig quite so deep in other areas. World building is obviously low on Gorodischer's list of priorities in this book, but so is character development. The characters are just that - characters - but they move through their stories comfortably. They didn't feel out-of-place or particularly stiff. They don't necessarily leap from the page, but... it works. Within the context of Trafalgar's storytelling style, it makes sense.

I enjoyed Trafalgar. If it had just a bit more of a firmer impact on me, I might have even said that it was brilliant. But it falls just shy of that claim. Instead it will stand as a wonderful book with a lot of interesting ideas and vividly imagined stories. Easily recommendable.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Wonders of the Invisible World

Wonders of the Invisible World is the fifth book by Patricia McKillip I've read. Truthfully, she's not such a favorite author of mine that it goes without saying that I'd read her new short story collection, but there is nonetheless something about her writing that draws me in again and again, even as some of her books fail to impress me. Wonders of the Invisible World may have been significantly better than some of the other book's I've read by her, but I was not left gushing as many other reviewers have been. The fault lies in a somewhat unexpected realm.

For starters, the eponymous opening story is fairly weak. Openers need to be strong hooks, and all "Wonders of the Invisible World" managed to do was lull me to sleep. The idea behind the story is nice, but overall... meh. The second story, while better, was also decidedly far from the top of the scale, though it did feel a little more like McKillip's standard, smooth-and-eloquent writing style. It really wasn't until the third story, "The Kelpie", that I began to be remotely interested. And "The Kelpie" is really an interesting story, both in the way it portrays art and artists, and the way it steals little bits of a more old-fashioned writing style, to suit the story's own time period.

But once I began to read the collection with more interest, I also began to read more attentively (and as such, more critically). It soon became hard to ignore the imbalances in this collection, not simply in terms of quality or style (more the latter), rather the recurring themes, ideas and even name fragments that McKillip returned to. Water is perhaps the strongest of these themes, featuring rather prominently in no less than four stories. The thing is, I liked the majority of these stories, but clumped together in the same collection... they lost some of their magic. Similarly the fairy-tale like stories. Individually, there are some fine stories in here. But they overshadow each other, leaving each a bit dimmer than what it might have been. Then there's the downside of any short story collection: quite a few of these stories are utterly forgettable. Stories like "Oak Hill", "The Fortune Teller" and "A Gift to Be Simple" simply didn't stick.

Then there's McKillip's writing style itself. In the previous four books I've read, McKillip maintained a very clean, very subtle writing style. She is a master of the contained fantasy, never overwriting what can be said in a few words. Yet I've found that her short fiction seems to lack that perfect balance. I wasn't particularly fond of her novella The Changeling Sea (though I do intend to reread it, to see how much of my opinion was colored by the circumstances under which I read the book...), and now Wonders of the Invisible World has also struck me as containing slightly... messier writing. The writing rarely feels like McKillip's traditional style. When it worked, the result was truly wonderful ("Naming Day", "Jack O'Lantern" and "The Kelpie"), but sometimes it just... didn't.

Ultimately, Wonders of the Invisible World is a pretty good short story collection. If read properly. If read in pieces, not in one sitting. I like the range of stories, I like the range of styles. The repetitive themes weigh down the collection a bit, as do some of the less memorable stories, but on the whole, this is a good choice for a reader looking for fantasy shorts. Though I would recommend some of McKillip's other books well before this one (namely The Alphabet of Thorn, which remains one of the best fantasy novels I've read), Wonders of the Invisible World is a reasonable starting point for readers new to McKillip, and certainly worth reading for long-time fans.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sci-fi shorts

A couple years back, I spent a day scouring Gutenberg for all kinds of free goodies. Specifically, I wanted to see what public domain science fiction and fantasy there was. I soon realized that the copyrights of a lot of old sci-fi magazines had long expired, and that these stories were all freely available. I didn't download all the available stories, obviously, but I downloaded somewhere in the realm of one hundred, opting for those with the silliest and most dramatic titles ("Spies Die Hard!", "Martians Never Die", etc.). It was a fun way to pass an afternoon, but my attention span is exceedingly short and I mostly forgot about the stories and never actually got around to reading them.

I started to fix that recently when I decided to organize my (no-longer-newish) Reader Seshat (a fine heir to Artemis' noble legacy). Now I read a short story once every few nights, writing up a one-line assessment at the end for the sake of my own forgetfulness.

It's an interesting experience for a number of reasons. There's the obvious one: I'm reading old stories. And these are old, mostly pulp stories. This isn't literature at its finest. It's not even sci-fi at its finest. I think it's best described as sci-fi at its mediocre-ist. But the fact that these are typically sub-par stories makes the reading experience that much more interesting. I try to put myself in the shoes of whoever read these stories back in the 30s, or 40s. I see what type of writing style was popular at the time. I see which character cliches appear again and again. It's pretty amazing.

Then there's the entertainment factor. Because a lot of these stories are ridiculous, and I don't think they were necessarily intended to be so silly. But their outdated styles and exaggerated character portrayals make them a lot more laugh-out-loud funny. When taken in small doses, it's actually a whole lot of fun.