Friday, September 24, 2010

The First Person and Other Stories - Ali Smith

A fresh collection of short stories from Ali Smith. The first story was definitely my favourite and looked at the form of short stories set with a cancer patient as the backdrop. There is a new expensive drug that could help lots of women, but as it’s expensive is not readily prescribed by doctors. The other one that really stood out was what happens when a woman is shopping in a supermarket and when she turns back to her trolley there is a toddler in it who calls her Mummy and everyone assumes is hers. I love how she deals with the situation.

I like how most of the stories feel like they could actually have happened in Smith’s real life. She is excellent at blending reality with fantasy. Unfortunately they didn’t grab me as much of some of her other collections and stories so I wouldn’t recommend this for your first dip into Ali Smith’s world.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fragile Things - Neil Gaiman

A collection of short stories, a follow up to Smoke and Mirrors, by acclaimed Fantasy author Neil Gaiman. I won’t go through each story, just the ones that I particularly enjoyed. The first was A Study in Emerald that matches Sherlock Holmes with Cthulhu myths. Everything is twisted around in this excellent detective story. How to talk to Girls at Parties was a fun look at what happens when two human teenagers stumble into a party filled withwomen not quite of this world. Teenage angst with a sci fi twist.

The Problem of Susan is a tale I had often wondered about myself and it was interesting to read Gaiman’s take on what happened to Susan after the events of The Last Battle. She isn’t taken by Aslan as she is too into fashion and make-up. Harlequin Valentine was another dark and fun tale looking at love and is included in a Lisa Snellings-Clark book inspired by her artwork. The final tale is a novella which catches up with Shadow after American Gods finishes. American Gods is my favourite Gaiman book and it was a lot of fun catching up with him again. A strange tale, but one that will stick in my mind for some time to come.

There were a couple of stories I had read before in other collections, but for the most part they were all new to me. I read Smoke and Mirrors about 8 years ago and I don’t remember enjoying it as much as this set. There were a couple I didn’t take to, but overall a fun and freaky read. Everything you would expect from Gaiman.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Elementals - AS Byatt

This was my first collection by AS Byatt. It is a collection of six short stories and it is subtitled "Tales of Fire and Ice". They all have fantasy and fairy tale elements to them although "Cold" is the most traditionally fairy tale. It was also my favourite by far in the book. It follows a princess, the youngest child of the king and queen. She is loved by all but isn't very emotional and is often tired and sleepy. One day it snows and she finally comes alive and discovers one of her ancestors was a woman from the cold north lands. Her father wants her to marry (ideally from the North so she can be happy in the cold), but she chooses a man from the desert hotlands. She travels with him but begins to wane until her husband finds a compromise. It was beautifully told and mixed fantastical with cruel. It will definitely stick with me for a long time to come.

The other stories that stood out were "A Lamia in the Cvennes" and "Christ in the House of Martha and Mary". These were about a man who paints a lamia who lives in his swimming pool but tries to get out of marrying her once the painting is done. Christ is about two models who stood for Velsquez as Martha and Mary and where their lives have taken them since.

Unfortunately I wasn't so keen on the other three in the collection. They were a little dull and dragged. The three I did like more than made up for their lacking and as I said, Cold will stay with me a long time. From doing a search online it looks like this isn't the best introduction to Byatt's writing and I know I will be reading more by her in the future.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Nina Berberova, The Tattered Cloak (1943, 1993)

Cross-posted at Smithereens

When the mood for something Russian strikes, I turn towards Berberova. I know she has been sparsely translated in English, but in France in the 1990s many of her novellas have been republished and have achieved some success. That said, I’m not sure this particular novella was such a good choice. The story of two sisters, Ariadna and Sasha, spans from in the bleak years of the immediate post-revolution in Soviet Moscow until the 1940s in Paris (when the novella has actually been written), but the light doesn’t shine much.

Sasha is the narrator. A younger sister to Ariadna, she hasn’t known anything but the harsh misery her family has been thrown into. In Moscow they live in one room of their former house, sharing a sofa close to the fire. Only an old Countess visits them and tells them tales of the glamorous past. Sasha is the pragmatic one and she prides herself for being good at waiting in line for the scarce food they can get, in this hunger-stricken town. Ariadna is the romantic one, and she falls for bohemian artist Samoilov, and leaves Sasha and their father without turning back. Sasha’s life from then doesn’t get any better, even after they leave for France. She toils as a laundry worker in the Russian emigrant milieu. Even the war with Germany doesn’t change her life so much as Samoilov’s sudden reappearance, 20 years later.

Well, I guess this story should come with a warning, just like a cigarette pack. “Reading This Story Greatly Endangers Your Mood”, “Do Not Use While Depressed”, “Do Not Over-read, Beware of Side-effects”… At least, it’s not long, so the bleak fate of Sasha is not too developed, thank God. Of course, focusing on the other sister would have been even more tragic, if this is even possible, but I have the feeling that Berberova wanted to shun the obvious. Did Ariadna regret leaving Sasha behind? That we will never know.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Junot Diaz, The Pura Principle (NewYorker, March 2010)

Cross-posted at Smithereens

I’ve heard a lot of good about Junot Diaz without having read his (Pulitzer-winning) novel, so when I saw his short story on a recent New Yorker, I thought it was a nice introduction. It’s indeed nothing like I usually read, so I’m clearly out of my comfort zone, but it was nice enough.

The young narrator is a Dominican-American high school student, Yunior, whose smart-ass, streetwise big brother Rafa has cancer. Through him we get a glimpse of the family’s life after they all “landed on cancer planet”. The little brother gets high a lot, the mother finds solace in religion (which in Diaz colourful language becomes:” she went so over-the-top Jesucristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy.”) and the elder brother still pretends to be the same ghetto tough guy he used to be. But his illness changes him too: he tries a serious (read: dull) job in a shop, and when he gets to ill to continue, brings home an illegal Dominican immigrant girl named Pura, whom he seems to fall seriously in love with, to his family’s dismay. Is Pura in it just for the green card? Rafa’s mother thinks so and gets really mean with her, even as Pura tries hard to be the ideal daughter-in-law. But is she really so naïve?

The whole fun of the story is in the ghetto Spanglish language. I really can't tell if it’s realistic, but it flows nicely and the images are both funny and effective. At times it sounds like a rhythmic rap poem, and at times it’s just a teenager trying to get to terms with terrible family events. The brother relationship is nicely done too, reminding me (somehow) of Ethan Canin (which is quite a stretch, given than Canin mainly “does” white suburban middle-class, I guess). I’m not sure I’m ready for a whole book-length of Dominican slang, but it was indeed a revelation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Mavis Gallant, Across the Bridge (1992)

Cross-posted at Smithereens

Is it a bad omen to start a challenge (Kate’s revival of the Short Story Challenge) with a book I am not really enthusiastic about? At any case, this long-due discovery of Mavis Gallant is quite a surprise. I knew that she wrote short stories about France and Paris, but somehow I’d thought she was writing about the 1930s bohemia, Montparnasse etc.. I’d pictured her a bit like a female Hemingway and Henry Miller perhaps. Prejudices…

I was not expecting at all her portrait of the French bourgeoisie of the 1960s, 1980s and even more recent (it’s sometimes difficult to know precisely because her stories are timeless). And how well does she picture them! Conservative, stingy, cowards, stuck in their habits and blind to the society changes, because the most important thing is to remain “respectable”… Her characters are difficult to love, but strangely compelling and difficult to forget afterwards.

The title story is about Sylvie, a shy girl in the 1960s, whose parents have arranged a marriage to a relative and business partner, who rebels in a very meek and mild way, by getting infatuated in someone just as bland as her first fiancé. Thinking that things are serious, the mother throws the wedding invitations out into the Seine, but when she demands proofs that the other man has proposed to her daughter (as she has insinuated), there is none. The family loses face, scrambles to win back the first fiancé again, and the girl somehow concedes that she might start loving this man.

It’s difficult for me to come to terms with this portrayal of French society. But I can’t deny that it’s (was) also true! I guess I’m having a “Pride and Prejudice” moment. I can’t believe that a Canadian woman saw through the superficial aspects of the rancid Parisian bourgeoisie so well, a bit like Gide (Yes, Gallant has to be compared with big names!)

In another story, a petit-bourgeois woman writes to a Portuguese woman who had sublet a room in her flat more than ten years ago, shared the family life for a while, before she disappeared after an abortion and made it “big” as a TV actress. Of course, a classic story would have the Portuguese tenant as the main character, with her ambition, own secrets and tragedies. But the focus on the stingy landlady and how she consistently misunderstood the girl and projected her small life on her is revealing of this collection’s voice. Gallant use sidelong glances into small worlds that she paints with delicate brushes.

There are also stories about Eastern Europeans intellectuals and refugees in Paris, living in memories of a faded world. It was quite delicate and moving, but the timeless context made it difficult for me to relate, especially as later on, I realized they were supposed to live in the post-1989 world!

The first few stories in the collection are linked and tell the story of 3 generations of a French Canadian family in Montreal. I loved the first one best, set in 1933, when the widowed mother instructs her 2 daughters never to tell that she had to work as a seamstress. They must instead say that their mother “was clever with her hands”.

The last story, “The Fenton Child”, also departs from the rest of the collection. The teenaged heroin, Nora Abott, has to take care of a new-born baby for a few hours while a hushed drama unfolds in the background. I’d have loved to see more of this tone, because Nora was a lot more bright and active than the rest of the characters.

All in all, after a bumpy start, I’d like to try other stories by Mavis Gallant, now that I better know what to expect. Have a nice weekend everyone!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Six Easy Pieces by Walter Mosley

This collection of short stories features the Easy Rawlins character. Each chapter involves a case that he solves. While the chapters are sequential, each story is written in such a way that they don't depend on one another.

As a big Rawlins fan, I was not disappointed by this collection. I enjoyed how each story unfolded. While the stories didn't depend on each other, they came together to paint a full picture. The downside for me was how he had to repeat details each time.

In essence, Easy has created a "normal" life for himself. He has a job as head custodian of a school, a live in girlfriend, and two adopted children. But he is haunted by the death of his best friend and is drawn in to cases while trying to answer some questions for himself.