Sunday, July 27, 2008

Nam Le's The Boat

Nam Le’s book of short stories, The Boat, has an incredible range of settings, situations, and types of characters. The first story is the most traditional, the most stereotypical, perhaps (although this is not to say it’s not a good story), with its main character who is a student in the famous Iowa creative writing program. From there, though, we take off to Colombia and read about 14 year old hitmen (hit children?) and then to New York City, Australia, Japan, Iran, and Vietnam. Le writes about each of these places with admirable ease and assurance, describing them as though he knows the places and the people intimately (leading me to speculate about the author’s life, although I generally try to be more sophisticated than that).

The stories are all action-filled, each one centering on some highly dramatic moment, often a violent one. For example, the story set in Iran tells of political protests and arrests through the lens of two estranged friends trying to understand each other, and the Australia story tells of teenage love, jealousy, bullying, and schoolyard fights. The last story is a harrowing account of Vietnamese “boat people” on a journey that lasted much longer than it should have.

But these stories aren’t simply interesting for their plot; they are wonderfully written as well. Le’s sentences beautifully capture the characters’ exterior world as well as their interior landscapes; they often startle you with a brilliant image or an unexpected observation. At times the writing veers toward stream of consciousness as Le takes you deep into a character’s mind. Here’s a passage that shows how Le writes about action and consciousness all at once:

Finally the storm arrived in force. The remaining light drained out of the hold. Wind screamed through the cracks. She felt the panicked limbs, people clawing for direction, sudden slaps of ice-cold water, the banging and shapeless shouts from the deck above. The whole world reeled. Everywhere the stink of vomit. Her stomach forced up, swashed through her throat. So this was what it was like, she thought, the moment before death.

She closed her eyes, swallowed compulsively; tried to close out the crawling blackness, the howl of the wind. She tried to recall her father’s stories — storms at sea, waves ten, fifteen meters high! — but they rang shallow against what she’d just seen: those dense roaring slabs of water, sky lurching overhead like a puddle being mucked with a stick. She was crammed in by a boatload of human bodies, thinking of her father and becoming overwhelmed, slowly, with loneliness. As much loneliness as fear. Concentrate, she told herself. And she did — forcing herself to concentrate, if not — if she was unable to — on the thought of her family, then on the contact of flesh pressed against her on every side, the human warmth, feeling every square inch of skin against her body and through it the shared consciousness of — what? Death? Fear? Surrender? She stayed in that human cocoon, heaving and rolling, concentrating, until it was over.

How can you read this and not want to know what happens next and also not want to know more about this young person caught in horrible circumstances?

The stories have an interesting metafictional element too. The first story about the creative writing student seems highly autobiographical (particularly as the character shares the author’s name), and in it, the character grapples with the question of whether he should write about Vietnam. Ethnic lit., he is told, is incredibly hot right now, and he could exploit that trend with tales about his father, a victim of the war, and with stories about Vietnamese boat people. A friend tactlessly tells him:

You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans — and New York painters with hemorrhoids.

Interestingly enough, most of the stories his friend lists appear in Le’s book (the lesbian vampire story isn’t there, unfortunately). So the whole collection becomes an exploration of writing and identity. What should a person write about? Should a person write about his or her roots, particularly if that’s what people want to read about and if it’s more likely to get published? Should a person instead explore other worlds?

Le does both of these things, writing about the familiar (he himself was a student in the Iowa program) and writing stories about Vietnam (the first story about personal consequences of the Vietnam War and also the closing story about the boat people) and also writing stories about places and situations that seem remote from him. The book seems to argue that a writer can have it all, can write about his experiences and can stray far from them. And why not?

I admire the way Le uses the opening story to prepare the reader for the rest of the book and the way that story gives it a kind of unity, while at the same time the collection as a whole is incredibly diverse. Added to this unity-in-diversity is a self-awareness I admire, a questioning attitude about the relationship of writers to their material. All-in-all, Le has managed to pull off a pretty wonderful feat with this book.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Natalie, by Anne Enright - Wendy's Review

After reading The Gathering, I was eager to read more work by Anne Enright. So when the 21st Fiction Yahoo group chose Enright’s short story Natalie to read and discuss, I was pleased. I read this story on-line at the New Yorker.

Natalie is narrated by an unnamed teenage protagonist who is laying in bed ruminating on her relationship with her boyfriend (also unnamed), Natalie, Natalie’s boyfriend Billy, and Billy’s mother Mrs. Casey. We learn that the narrator and Natalie have a psuedo-friendship of sorts and that Billy’s mother has ovarian cancer.

Although the title suggests this will be a story about Natalie, instead Natalie becomes the conduit for the narrator to reach a conclusion about life and death, and human connections. Natalie’s view of the world is that people are unconnected - they live or die independent of their relationships with each other. The narrator has a more idealistic view of the world. She resists the idea of ultimately being alone and searches for connections with others. Eventually, Natalies influence seems to shift the narrator’s viewpoint:

We are not connected. Because this is what Natalie is saying, isn’t it? That we are alone. -From Natalie-

Enright is skilled at capturing the voice of her narrator and convincing the reader we are indeed inside the head of a teenager. Despite her adept writing, Enright’s short story did not resonate with me. In the end, I felt a complete disconnect with the characters. Given the underlying theme of the story, perhaps this was Enright’s intention…but it didn’t work for me.

I must admit to needing help to work this short story out…and for that I thank the very astute readers at the 21st Fiction Yahoo group. I’d recommend the story as a thought provoking read which will stimulate group discussion. But, if you are just looking for an enjoyable short story, you could probably skip this one.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Stories by Anton Chekhov

I loved reading Chekhov's stories. I read a volume of them, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, as well as "The Kiss," which was recommended and unfortunately wasn't included in the volume translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky.

My favorite stories tended to be the shorter ones that focused on one character or one couple. They each had a sad, poignant ending, and yet I loved the beauty in them. Chekhov didn't try to say too much in each story, and I finished each one with a sigh, wanting to let my emotions simmer before I went on to the next story. Many of them reminded me that life is challenging and full of depressing things, and yet we all still go on day by day. Explaining Chekhov in those words makes his stories sound depressing, and they were in a sense, but overall, they were beautiful at the same time.

The Student by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov's "The Student" is the perfect story.

Decide for yourself by reading it at Project Gutenberg (1,500 words) or listening to it at LibriVox (10 minutes). Note that I read a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Here are some elements that make it perfect for me.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Susanna Clarke

A collection of eight short stories by Susanna Clarke with illustrations by Charles Vess. I had read two of them before in some of the Adult Fairy Tale Anthologies collected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. The easiest thing is to go through the stories briefly one by one.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu - Three ladies, Mrs Fields, Miss Tobais and Miss Cassandra Parbringer forma close friendship and begin using magic. Jonathan Strange is the brother-in-law to Mr Woodhope who hopes to marry Miss Parbringer until Mr Strange discovers her use of magic and arranges for him to be relocated. At one point in the story two of the ladies turn themselves into owls to eat two men who they have turned into mice. A fun story looking at female magicians in the male orientated society of Strange and Norrell.

On Lickerish Hill - Set in East Anglia in the 17th centuary when the distinctions between superstition and science were blurred. Elements of Rumplestiltskin are seen in this tale told by Miranda Sownestron. One of the tales I had read previously.

Mrs Mabb - Venetia is set to marry Captain Fox, but on her return from Manchester she finds him gone to live with the mysterious Mrs Mabb. Venetia goes to her house in a number of different ways to see that he is ok and well. Each time she loses consciousness and wakes up back in her bed with no memory of events and various unexplained injuries. Eventually she bests Mrs Mabb and wins back her love. Echos of Tam Lin with her fighting a fairy woman for her love.

The Duke of Wellington misplaces his horse - Set in the world of Stardust written by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess. The Duke of Wellington visits the villiage of Wall and annoys the folk living there so they lure his horse across the border. He follows and finds a beautiful woman sewing scenes from his life as far forward as his death. He is able to change his future by unpicking the stitches and sewing himself a new destiny.

Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower - A rendering of "Midwife to the Fairies" found in English, Irish, Scots and Breton variations. Also includes other fairy tale themes of a girl who was stolen away to suckle a fairy baby, the seeing eye, the fairy house in the woods etc. An interesting tale of fairy and magic told in journal and letter form. This was the other tale I had read previously.

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge was built in Thoresby - A fun tale looking at the friendship between human David Montefore and fairy Tom Brightwind. Also discussed is the relationship between fairy parents and grandparents and their children. The issue of Tom and a human woman having a child together is disguised by him helping the town by building a bridge in Thoresby by fairy magic.

Antickes and Frets - Mary Queen of Scots has been imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth who she is trying to kill and gain her throne. She is trying to use enchanted embriodary to reach her goals. To explain this I noted down a quote: "In the light of the moon and bare winter branches appeared to her now like great, black stitches sewn across the window-like stitches sewn across the castle, across the Queen [Mary] herself. In her terror she thought her eyes were stitched up, her throat closed with black stitches; her fingers were sewn together so that her hands were become useless, ugly flaps."

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal burner - Bears similarities to other stories where a great ruler is outwitted by one of his humblest subjects. After changing the Charcoal Burners pig into a slamon, the charcoal burner exacts revenge on John Uskglass without knowing who he is by speaking to various saints. John returnes eating his melted cheese and ruining his wood before a saint looses John's tongue forcing him to reveal many secrets that should have remained hidden. Everything is returned to normal by John in apologies to the charcoal burner, he also gives him a second pig and leaves most confused!

I really enjoyed this collection, especially Antickes and Frets and The Ladies of Grace Adieu which were the most interesting stories. Quite a short collection with longer stories than I have read in previous anthologies. It was great to revisit the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and I hope there will be more installments in the future. I also look forward toseeing what she will write next.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Short Stories and Raymond Carver's Cathedral

I have posted a very brief review of Raymond Carver's Cathedral on my blog 51 Stories, relating this to a brief commentary by Susan Hill on Short Stories:

Findings & Impressions

"It's not my business, I suppose, but I thought you were her doctor. I wouldn't have woken you. It said Dr. Sean so I thought we'd better call you."
"Well, I'm her radiologist."
"I see," says Ed, looking puzzled. "Like you take her x-rays?"

Stellar Kim's short story Findings & Impressions begins with an x-ray evaluation and ends with an unlikely friendship. Sean Miller meets Alicia Straninsky when she arrives to pick up the results of her recent mammogram. Sean is taken by surprise that a patient is questioning the results before receiving them from the doctor. Even though Sean has a hard time remembering names and faces, he hasn't forgotten what he wrote in her evaluation: breast cancer. A couple weeks later the couple run into one another as Alicia is leaving the hospital after her first radiation treatment. Sean offers her a ride home and they soon begin a routine of rides home after treatment which includes drives to the harbor, occasional hot dogs, and guarded conversations.

"Don't talk like that," I say, and Alicia looks at me with some expectation. "Don't ever think that again. You're beautiful," I add after a while. The way her face opens up, the way Alicia's eyes become liquid, suddenly make even the possibility of her disappearance unbearable. I think, maybe I've never realized the possible permutations of beauty.

However, Sean has a hard time becoming Alicia's friend due to a past loss of his own. When Nick, Sean's young son, meets Alicia and wants to see more of her, Sean withdraws from the friendship. Alicia says she understands and moves forward in her fight for life. Then one night Sean receives a phone call from Ed. And then one summer afternoon he receives a second call and, later, a special request.

I very much enjoyed the short story Findings & Impressions. Its presentation was unique, the characters seemed very true to life, and the message about the fear of moving on was written in a gentle and realistic manner. Which character to pin my hopes on was a difficult decision and changed often as the story unfolded. And I definitely enjoyed the twist at the end.

"Findings & Impressions" by Stellar Kim (from The Iowa Review) from The Best American Short Stories 2007 edited by Stephen King with Heidi Pitlor

Friday, July 11, 2008

Katha: Short Stories by Indian Women (Short Stories by Women from Around the World)

Katha: Short Stories by Indian Women (Short Stories by Women from Around the World) edited by Urvashi Butalia.

While this collection of short stories is not the one I've chosen for this challenge - see my list here - I picked it up in my local library to read the other day and have to recommend it to you all.

It's a wonderful collection of stories, reflecting the diverse culture and experiences of Indian women, as well as Indian folk lore. The book spans over half a century, and reflects many languages and cultures.
A lovely collection.

I've now started reading Povidky: Short Stories by Czech Women (Short Stories by Women from Around the World) by Daniela Hodrova, Kveta Legatova, Nancy Hawker, and David Short , another in this collection of Short Stories from Women Around the World.

Thanks to this challenge I've rediscovered my love of short stories. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Rebecca's Short Story List

I am at the beginning of my own little challenge on my blog Rebecca Reads in which I’m going to read the following classic short stories:
  • Anton Chekhov
    • “The Kiss”
    • “The Student”
    • “The Lady with the Dog”
  • Guy de Maupassant
    • “Madame Tellier’s Establishment”
    • “The Horla”
  • Ernest Hemingway
    • “Hills Like White Elephants”
    • “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen”
    • “The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
    • “A Sea Change”
  • Flannery O’Connor
    • “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
    • “Good Country People”
    • “A View of the Woods”
  • Vladimir Nabokov
    • “The Vane Sisters”
  • Jorge Luis Borges
    • “Tlön, Ugbar, Orbis Tertius”
  • Tommaso Landolfi
    • “Gogol’s Wife”
  • Italo Calvino
    • Invisible Cities

While that is only eight writers, I’ll either come here and post about the particular story or about the entire collection (depending on how much I liked those stories, I may or may not read more by the author). I'll try to visit at least ten times before the end of the year!

Anyway, there’s my list, and I’ll be back soon to tell you about Chekhov (so far I’m liking his stories very much!).