Short Story Collections Read Recently
This is the fourth year in a row that I’ve made a concerted effort to read more short stories in the alliterative month of September. (See also my 2016, 2017 and 2018 performances.) Short story collections are often hit and miss for me, and based on a few recent experiences I seem to be prone to DNFing them after two stories – when I’ve had my fill of the style and content. I generally have better luck with linked stories like Olive Kitteridge and its sequel, because they rely on a more limited set of characters and settings, and you often get intriguingly different perspectives on the same situations.
So far this year, I’ve read just five story collections – though that rises to 13 if I count books of linked short stories that are often classed as novels (Barnacle Love, Bottled Goods, Jesus’ Son, The Lager Queen of Minnesota, Olive Kitteridge, Olive, Again, That Time I Loved You and The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards). Twelve is my minimum goal for short story collections in a year – the equivalent of one per month – so I’m pleased to have surpassed that, and will continue to pick up the occasional short story collection as the year goes on.
The first two books I review here were hits with me, while the third disappointed me a bit.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (2014)
Four of these 10 stories first appeared in the London Review of Books, and another four in the Guardian. Most interestingly, the opening story, “Sorry to Disturb,” about a bored housewife trying to write a novel while in Saudi Arabia with her husband in 1983–4, was published in the LRB with the subtitle “A Memoir.” That it’s one of the best few ‘stories’ here doesn’t negate Mantel’s fictional abilities so much as prove her talent for working in the short form.
My other few favorites were the very short ones, about a fatal discovery of adultery, an appalling accident on a holiday in Greece, and a sighting of a dead father on a train. I also enjoyed “How Shall I Know You?” in which an author is invited to give a talk to a literary society. I especially liked the jokey pep talks to self involving references to other authors: “come now, what would Anita Brookner do?” and “for sure A.S. Byatt would have managed it better.” Other topics include children’s horror at disability, colleague secrets at a Harley Street clinic, and a sister’s struggle with anorexia. The title story offers an alternative history in which Thatcher is assassinated by the IRA upon leaving an eye hospital after surgery.
In her stories Mantel reminds me most of Tessa Hadley. It’s high time I read another Mantel novel; most likely that will be the third Thomas Cromwell book, due out next year.
In the Driver’s Seat by Helen Simpson (2005)
I liked this even more than Simpson’s first book, Four Bare Legs in a Bed, which I reviewed last year. The themes include motherhood (starting, in a couple of cases, in one’s early 40s), death versus new beginnings, and how to be optimistic in a world in turmoil. There’s gentle humor and magic to these stories that tempers some of the sadness. I especially liked “The Door,” about a grieving woman looking to restore her sense of security after a home break-in, “The Green Room,” a Christmas Carol riff (one of two Christmas-themed stories here) in which a woman is shown how her negative thoughts and obsession with the past are damaging her, and “Constitutional,” set on a woman’s one-hour circular walk during her lunch break and documenting her thoughts about everything from pregnancy to a nonagenarian friend’s funeral. [The UK title of the collection is Constitutional.]
In two stories, “Every Third Thought” and “If I’m Spared,” a brush with death causes a complete change of outlook – but will it last? “The Year’s Midnight” creates a brief connection between frazzled mums at the swimming pool in the run-up to the holidays. “Up at a Villa” and the title story capture risky moments that blend fear and elation. In “The Tree,” which is funny and cringeworthy all at the same time, a man decides to take revenge on the company that ripped off his forgetful old mother. Prize for the best title goes to “The Phlebotomist’s Love Life,” though it’s the least interesting story of the 11.
(Found in a Little Free Library at the supermarket near my parents’ old house.)
Some favorite lines:
“the inevitable difficulty involved in discovering ourselves to others; the clichés and blindness and inadvertent misrepresentations”
“Always a recipe for depression, Christmas, when complex adults demanded simple joy without effort, a miraculous feast of stingless memory.”
“You shouldn’t be too interested in the past. You yourself now are the embodiment of what you have lived. What’s done is done.”
The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal (2019)
I had sky-high hopes for Stradal’s follow-up after Kitchens of the Great Midwest (it was on my Most Anticipated list for the second half of the year). Theoretically, a novel about three pie-baking, beer-making female members of a Minnesota family should have been terrific. Like Kitchens, this is female-centered, on a foodie theme, set in the Midwest and structured as linked short stories. Here the chapters are all titled after amounts of money; they skip around in time between the 1950s and the present day and between the perspectives of Edith Magnusson, her estranged younger sister Helen Blotz, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana Winter.
Edith and Helen have a rivalry as old as the Bible, based around an inheritance that Helen stole to reopen her husband’s family brewery, instead of sharing it with Edith. Ever since, Edith has had to work minimum-wage jobs at nursing homes and fast food restaurants to make ends meet. When Diana comes to live with her as a teenager, she, too, works hard to contribute to the family, but then gets caught up in a dodgy money-making scheme. It’s in penance for this error that she starts working at a local brewery, but beer soon becomes as much of an obsession for Diana as it once was for her great-aunt Helen.
I had a few problems with the book’s setup: Helen is portrayed as a villain, and never fully sheds that stereotypical designation; meanwhile, Edith is passive and boring, just a bit “wet” (in British slang). Edith and Diana suffer more losses than seems likely or fair, and there are too many coincidences involved in Diana’s transformation into a master brewer. I also found it far-fetched that a brewery would hire her as a 19-year-old and let her practice making many, many batches of lager, all while she’s still underage. None of the characters fully came alive for me, though Diana was the closest. The ending wasn’t as saccharine as I expected, but still left me indifferent. I did like reading about the process of beer-making and flavor development, though, even though I’m not a beer drinker.
Short story DNFs this year (in chronological order):
Mr Wrong by Elizabeth Jane Howard – I read the two shortest stories, “Summer Picnic” and “The Proposition.” The former was pleasantly like Elizabeth Taylor or Tessa Hadley lite; I got zero out of the latter.
I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro – I read the first two stories. “Decomposition,” about a woman’s lover magically becoming a physical as well as emotional weight on her and her marriage, has an interesting structure as well as second-person narration, but I fear the collection as a whole will just be a one-note treatment of a woman’s obsession with her affair.
Multitudes: Eleven Stories by Lucy Caldwell – I read the first two stories. I enjoyed the short opener, “The Ally Ally O,” which describes a desultory ride in the car with mother and sisters with second-person narration and no speech marks. I should have given up on “Thirteen,” though, a tired story of a young teen missing her best friend.
The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind by David Guterson – I read “Angels in the Snow” (last Christmas) and “Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada” (the other week). Both were fine but not particularly memorable; a glance at the rest suggests that they’ll all be about baseball and hunting. If I wanted to read about dudes hunting I’d turn to Ernest Hemingway or David Vann. Nevertheless, I’ll keep this around in case I want to try it again after reading Snow Falling on Cedars this winter.
- Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett – Elegant stories about history, science and human error. Barrett is similar to A.S. Byatt in her style and themes, which are familiar to me from my reading of Archangel. This won a National Book Award in 1996.
- Descent of Man by T. Coraghessan Boyle – Even in this slim volume, there are SO MANY stories, and all so different from each other. Some I love; some are meh. I’m tempted to leave a few unread, though then I can’t count this towards my year total…
- Sum: Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman – A bibliotherapy prescription for reading aloud. My husband and I read a few stories to each other, but I’m going it alone for the rest. This is fairly inventive in the vein of Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, yet I find it repetitive.
See also Laura’s excellent post about her favorite individual short stories.
Are you a short story fan? Read any good ones recently?
I Like Big Books and I Cannot Lie
You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.
~ C. S. Lewis
Here’s to doorstoppers! Books of 500 pages or more [the page count is in brackets for each of the major books listed below] can keep you occupied for entire weeks of a summer – or for just a few days if they’re gripping enough. There’s something delicious about getting wrapped up in an epic story and having no idea where the plot will take you. Doorstoppers are the perfect vacation companions, for instance. I have particularly fond memories of getting lost in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke  on a week’s boating holiday in Norfolk with my in-laws, and of devouring The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber  on a long, queasy ferry ride to France.
I have an MA in Victorian Literature, so I was used to picking up novels that ranged between 600 and 900 pages. Of course, one could argue that the Victorians were wordier than necessary due to weekly deadlines, the space requirements of serialized stories, and the popularity of subsequent “triple-decker” three-volume publication. Still, I think Charles Dickens’s works, certainly, stand the test of time. His David Copperfield [~900] is still my favorite book. I adore his sprawling stories crammed full of major and minor characters. Especially in a book like David Copperfield that spans decades of a character’s life, the sheer length allows you time to get to know the protagonist intimately and feel all his or her struggles and triumphs as if they were your own.
I felt the same about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara , which I recently reviewed for Shiny New Books. Jude St. Francis is a somewhat Dickensian character anyway, for his orphan origins at least, and even though the novel is told in the third person, it is as close a character study as you will find in contemporary literature. I distinctly remember two moments in my reading, one around page 300 and one at 500, when I looked up and thought, “where in the world will this go?!” Even as I approached the end, I couldn’t imagine how Yanagihara would leave things. That, I think, is one mark of a truly masterful storyteller.
Speaking of Dickensian novels, in recent years I’ve read two Victorian pastiches that have an authentically Victorian page count, too: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton  and Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis . The Luminaries, which won the 2013 Booker Prize, has an intricate structure (based on astrological charts) that involves looping back through the same events – making it at least 200 pages too long.
It was somewhat disappointing to read Jarvis’s debut novel in electronic format; without the physical signs of progress – a bookmark advancing through a huge text block – it’s more difficult to feel a sense of achievement. Once again one might argue that the book’s digressive nature makes it longer than necessary. But with such an accomplished debut that addresses pretty much everything ever written or thought about The Pickwick Papers, who could quibble?
John Irving’s novels are Dickensian in their scope as well as their delight in characters’ eccentricities, but fully modern in terms of themes – and sexual explicitness. Along with Dickens, he’s a mutual favorite author for my husband and me, and his A Prayer for Owen Meany  numbers among our collective favorite novels. Most representative of his style are The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.
Here are a handful of other long novels I’ve read and reviewed within the last few years (the rating is below each description):
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  – The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner; set in France and Germany during World War II.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman  – Digressive intellectualizing about race, class and war as they pertain to British immigrants.
The Son by Philipp Meyer  – An old-fashioned Western with hints of Cormac McCarthy.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach  – Baseball is a window onto modern life in this debut novel about homosocial relationships at a small liberal arts college.
“A Discovery of Witches” fantasy trilogy by Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches , Shadow of Night , and The Book of Life  – Thinking girl’s vampire novels, with medieval history and Oxford libraries thrown in.
And here’s the next set of doorstoppers on the docket:
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham  – A Dickensian bildungsroman about a boy with a clubfoot who pursues art, medicine and love.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  – I have little idea of what this is actually about. A boy named Theo, art, loss, drugs and 9/11? Or just call it life in general. I’ve read Tartt’s other two books and was enough of a fan to snatch up a secondhand paperback for £1.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James  (as with A Little Life, the adjective in the title surely must be tongue-in-cheek!) – The starting point is an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the late 1970s, but this is a decades-sweeping look at Jamaican history. I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [1,474!] – A sprawling Indian family saga. Apparently he’s at work on a sequel entitled A Suitable Girl.
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson  – A novel about Charles Darwin and his relationship with Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope  – As the title suggests, this is the final novel in Trollope’s six-book “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. Alas, reading this one requires reading the five previous books, so this is more like a 5,000-page commitment…
Now, a confession: sometimes I avoid long books because they just seem like too much work. It’s sad but true that a Dickens novel takes me infinitely longer to read than a modern novel of similar length. The prose is simply more demanding, there’s no question about it. So if I’m faced with a choice between one 800-page novel that I know could take me months of off-and-on reading and three or four 200–300-page contemporary novels, I’ll opt for the latter every time. Part of this also has to do with meeting my reading goals for the year: when you’re aiming for 250 titles, it makes more sense to read a bunch of short books than a few long ones. I need to get better about balancing quality and quantity.
How do you feel about long books? Do you seek them out or shy away? Comments welcome!