Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts tagged ‘short stories’

As keeps happening, this blog has been sorely neglected lately. I don’t want to let it go, but I need to find a way to make it work and keep it going. I’ve never wanted my website to be a landing page with links to my publications – I like writing about books too much, and I like the discussions that still crop up. But I feel scattered these days across several social media outlets and many book conversations are reduced to photos and one-liners. I am as guilty of this as everyone else.

Sigh.

In any case, I am thinking very hard how to keep this book blog running. I find when I am not writing about the books I’ve read, that I forget them all too quickly (I’ve had to comb through various messages and posts to even put this list together).

Here is what I’ve been reading this autumn:

  • Day for Night – Frederick Reiken (a reread)
  • The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark
  • The Plains – Gerald Murnane
  • The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje
  • Push – Sapphire (a reread)
  • The End of the Affair – Graham Greene (a reread)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin
  • The Accidental – Ali Smith
  • Imagine Me Gone – Adam Haslett
  • Over Sea, Under Stone – Susan Cooper (reading the 5book Dark is Rising series with my daughter)
  • The Master of Go – Yasunari Kawabata
  • Kudos – Rachel Cusk

My beloved book group and a novel class I’m teaching this fall have dictated most of these choices, but it’s been a rich reading period nonetheless. I already wrote about a few of these here.

I also read quite a few short stories over the last two months, jumping around between different collections like: David Hayden’s Darker With the Lights On, Shusako Endo’s Stained Glass Elegies, Grace Paley’s Complete Collection, Lispector’s Complete Stories, and What We Do With the Wreckage by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum.

For some strange reason I did not finish Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart, so I’m going back to that right away.  And I know I read something else while traveling through the US in October but I cannot recall what – hence the need to get back to writing, even a little, about each of the books that I read…

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Continuing along with how I set up my December reading (since it lead me to some unexpected places) here are the essays and short stories I plan to read in January. It won’t be one a day, but three a week.

Suggestions are always welcome; I discovered several writers and pieces last month that way so if anyone has a recommendation, I’d love it.

Week 1 Margaret Atwood – “Significant Moments in the Life of my Mother” (from Bluebeard’s Egg)
Clarice Lispector – “Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady” (from Complete Stories)
Gretel Ehrlich – “Spring” (essay, from Antaeus, 1986)
Week 2 Valerie Trueblood – “Finding” (from Search Party)
Jane Hirschfield – “The Myriad Leaves of Words” (from Nine Gates)
Guy Davenport – “The Geography of the Imagination” (from the same)
Week 3 Isak Dinesen – “Sorrow-acre” (from Winter’s Tales)
Joan Didion – “On Keeping a Notebook” (from Slouching Toward Bethlehem)
Lucia Berlin – “Emergency Room Notebook” (from A Manual for Cleaning Women)
Week 4 Phillip Lopate – “Against Joie de Vivre” (From Ploughshares, 1987
Jamaica Kincaid – “The Circling Hand” (From Annie John)
Jean Stafford – “In the zoo” (From Bad Characters)
Week 5  Clarice Lispector – “Love” (from Complete Stories)
 Eudora Welty – “Petrified Man” (from A Curtain of Green)
 Jane Hirshfield – “Poetry & the Mind of Indirection” (from Nine Gates)
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Reading makes me feel alive. Earlier today I looked over the books I’ve read this year and while it was nice to mentally revisit many of them, what I noticed most was how few there actually were and that since November, I hadn’t actually finished a single book. Ali Smith’s Artful is the last book I read start to finish. (It’s excellent, by the way—delicate, clever, surprising.) Overall, I read far fewer books in 2016 compared to other recent years and wish that weren’t so. But there it is.

Luckily, my list of essays and short stories this month has done what I’d hoped it would do—I’m reading again. Indiscriminately, messily, chaotically. All kinds of writers, essays and stories from different decades, even centuries. It’s marvelous and has my brain moving in all sorts of directions. A welcome relief from the news cycle.

I mentioned Anne Carson’s “Kinds of Water” in my last post and I doubt anything else I read this month will compare, but several of the essays/stories have been excellent. Katherine Anne Porter (1890 to 1980) is a discovery. How have I never read her before? Her essay “St. Augustine and the Bullfight” made me laugh out loud (her descriptions of people are a delight) but it also had me cringing (her honesty about the human thrill for violence); I will be looking for more of her work. And “Miss Grief” by Constance Fenimore Woolson (1840 – 1894) was fascinating—two writers, one male, one female, and the dynamic between them. Writerly ambitions, public reception, poverty, etc. It definitely made me curious to read more of her work, of which there is plenty. I found this last story in a collection called Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. An inspiring secondhand bookshop find.

Yesterday I read James Baldwin’s essay “Fifth Avenue Uptown: A Letter from Harlem.” This comes from his collection published in the early 1960s, and while the essay is devastatingly good, it’s also depressing. I don’t want to be melodramatic, but it feels as though only the specific details he uses to make his point have changed. America is still a deeply divided country and the same tools are used to maintain the affluence of a few at the expense of the many. Reading Baldwin is a pure pleasure, though. His non-fiction is as vibrant and animated as his fiction.

I’m also now reading three different books: Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book (Ivan Morris translation) and Gillian Rose’s Love’s Work. I’m surprised to be reading so much non-fiction as I don’t usually gravitate in this direction, but these three books are wonderful to dip in and out of, and they couldn’t be more different. An example of three books most decidedly NOT speaking to each other, which suits me fine right now.

Skyfaring is a distraction, but an intriguing and entertaining one. A way to look at the world from a different perspective, and one I will never personally experience. Vanhoenacker is a commercial airline pilot with an unmistakable passion for flying. He writes about what it’s like to crisscross the world at such a great height, and he writes gracefully.

The Pillow Book is a brilliant piece of writing. It feels quaint and archaic, because it is, but it is also fragmented and eccentric in a very modern way. Shonagon is wickedly funny in terms of telling stories and relating “court” life, but she’s also quietly attentive to nature, to people, to life. Her lists are a delight:

 

30. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

 

Dried hollyhock. the objects used during the Display of the Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-coloured material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

Her lists of Hateful Things or Depressing Things are genuinely funny. But she also writes about events or meetings, conversations and anecdotes. There is something silly and superficial about her book—in its discussions of court life and good manners and the like—but it has a serious heart and she is wonderfully sharp in her observations, poetic in her approach.

Finally, I will finish Gillian Rose’s collection of essays Love’s Work this evening and write more about it later. It is fierce. I love it.

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Jane Bowles is a writer I have always been meaning to read – her novel Two Serious Ladies has been on my list for years. But I began my silly advent reading plan yesterday with a short story of hers, “A Day in the Open” which is about two prostitutes taken out for a picnic by a wealthy man, Señor Ramirez, and his friend. The story is set in an unnamed country, either somewhere in South America, or maybe in Spain. One of the prostitutes is Mexican (and suffering from what seems to be a terminal illness), and the other one—the hard, crafty one who drinks heavily—is from the unnamed country.

It’s an odd little story, and it feels somehow unpolished—but I find that nowadays so many older works do when compared to the “heavy polishing” of contemporary writing. In that sense, I like the rough bits of it, the lack of perfectly smooth surfaces and the way the ending just kind of falls off and trickles away.

I’ve embarked on this reading list as a way to take a breather from my focus on politics right now, to let my brain enjoy fiction once again, but the story, ironically, mirrored some of what’s going on. The character of Señor Ramirez speaks in the voice of the United State’s current President-Elect. While driving away from the whorehouse, the car passes a new building and he tells them it will be a museum, saying:

“When it opens we are all going to have a big dinner there together. Everyone there will be an old friend of mine. That’s nothing. I can have dinner with fifty people every night of my life.”

I continued reading with a wry smile, and the comparisons continued as this larger-than-life wealthy man drove the women and his friend to a secluded spot. It was both hilarious, and awful.

“Since it is so sunny out, ladies,” said Señor Ramirez, “I am going to walk around in my underpants. I hope that my friend will do the same if he wants to.”

A reminder that buffoons of this type have always existed, but also how they beg to be caricatured. Ramirez is nothing more than a child, and a cowardly one.

In any case, the foursome start drinking, play a game throwing acorns into a hat (the smart prostitute making sure, when Ramirez keeps missing his throw, to purposefully throw hers far off its mark), they all get naked and at some point, Ramirez takes the prostitute with the illness on a walk into the woods and then carries her into the river. It’s in these few scenes, up until the end, that the story pivots and becomes quite interesting.

I keep reading and re-reading this page and a half—looking at the dialogue, at the positioning of the different characters with respect to the reader and to each other—and trying to work it out, but I can’t. Bowles holds an interpretation of the ending just out of reach. I suppose a reader could grab for an easy one, if necessary, but it felt more interesting to me to keep the possibilities open and wonder what Bowles was working toward.

I’ll definitely read Two Serious Ladies at some point, and will look at more of her short stories – there is an interesting texture to her writing that I’d like to see more of, experience in a more sustained way. This was a great introduction to her work.

Someone tweeted a marvelous idea this morning – an advent reading calendar. I sipped my coffee and let my eyes wander over the slim titles of someone else’s 25-day reading plan, and I knew immediately that I wanted to do the same. My brain has been anchored in politics and final novel edits for a manuscript that is finally in my agent’s capable hands and out of my mind for a while (hooray!), and so a little nudge to get me reading broadly and haphazardly is very welcome. I love reading with a plan and often follow a thread from one book to another, but sometimes it’s nice to cast a wide net and see what that can spark.

The only book I’ve been able to focus on recently is Skyfaring by Mark Vanhoenacker, and it is really lovely, but it’s an escape as well, giving me distance from the planet and very gentle commentary on the human love of height, speed, and flying. It’s a great read but I need more and am not sure where to go.

So here is a list of short stories and essays that I’ve never read, that I have already on my shelves and that I’d like to read over the next 25 days. I’ve deliberately left myself four empty spots* because I’m hoping any of you might give me some suggestions and throw me in wild and varied directions – so what is the best short story or essay you’ve read recently?

* I’ve gotten some wonderful suggestions, but would welcome more…

1 Dec Jane Bowles – A Day in the Open
2 Dec Jane Hirshfield – The World is Large and Full of Noises
3 Dec Phyllis Rose – Tools of Torture: An Essay on Beauty & Pain
4 Dec James Baldwin – Exodus
5 Dec Katherine Anne Porter – St.Augustin and the Bullfight
6 Dec Anne Carson – Kinds of Water
7 Dec Kate Chopin – An Egyptian Cigarette
8 Dec Constance Fenimore Woolson – Miss Grief
9 Dec Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni – The Lives of Strangers
10 Dec Ada Leverson – Suggestion
11 Dec Charles Simic – Reading Philosophy at Night
12 Dec Olive Schreiner – Three Dreams in a Desert
13 Dec Jamaica Kincaid – Figures in the Distance
14 Dec James Baldwin – 5th Ave, Uptown: A Letter from Harlem
15 Dec Geoff Dyer – Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
16 Dec Rebecca Solnit – Two Arrowheads
17 Dec Sherman Alexie – The Toughest Indian in the World
18 Dec Michelle Cliff – Transactions
19 Dec Lucia Berlin – A Manual for Cleaning Women
20 Dec Jan Carson – Settling
21 Dec Eudora Welty – A Sweet Devouring
22 Dec  Anna Kavan – The Brother
23 Dec  Alice Walker – The Flowers
24 Dec
25 Dec

 

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The narrative perspective in Widow (Michelle Latiolais, Bellevue Literary Press) is what strikes at first—a third person close which mostly functions as a kind of gentle wrapping (a shroud or veil is the image that comes to my mind) to what appears to be autobiographical writing. There is this feeling that all of these pieces are actually a first person narrative, and even more, that they are casted retellings of the author’s personal experiences, if not of distinct memories than of the emotional charge of real events but then recreated in new fictional surroundings.

Usually all that matters to me is the way the fiction works, how each piece creates its effect—but part of the effect of Widow involves this tension between fiction and memoir, involves the reader’s awareness that we’re reading an individual’s intensely interior negotiation of a series of events. That awareness is quite spellbinding.

The “event” (which remains almost completely off the page) is the unexpected death of a husband. And the stories alternate their focus between an unnamed “she” (the widow) and an unnamed “young woman” (an earlier self). As the stories connect and are juxtaposed, the collection creates a fuller portrait of a life and a marriage, of the transformation of a young woman into a widow, and what both those labels actually mean.

Most of the stories are quite short and the collection itself finishes out at around 150 pages, but the collection as a whole embodies the notion of intensity that most shorter work should—the stories do not move slowly into their crucial moments but begin at a place where the reader must work somewhat to keep up, and Latiolais’s language is rich in the sense that the vocabulary is elevated and the imagery often sophisticated.

To see what I mean, take a look at the quote I posted the other day from what is probably my favorite story in the collection, “Pink.”

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the collection is Latiolais’s willingness to let the reader remain unsure of meaning and message. This is where her writing reminded me of Christine Schutt, in the way that there are hints but not full resolution, in the way that the created atmosphere often informs the reader’s understanding more than a linear or plotted narrative telling. I love this kind of sideways entrance to the appreciation/understanding of story.

On the whole, this is a beautiful and unique collection. For the most part the stories work splendidly together and there is only one outlier that bears mentioning—the last piece is a first person story/essay that confirms the autobiographical nature of the collection, but it was, at least to me, somewhat unnecessary. The essay in and of itself is strong, but I suppose I preferred the hinting and the tension that the rest of the stories worked around. And the very last fiction piece in Widow is incredibly strong—a layered memory-type piece called “Burqa” about motherhood, about living alone, about letting our children go—and it would have been lovely to simply end with the last lines of this story:

Who was that solo act, that sui generis, that singular who had then hoodwinked entire civilizations with such stunning propaganda? At least she had made art, beauty, a boy’s fine limbs.

Just a quick word on Bellevue Literary Press for anyone unfamiliar with their work. This is an independent press founded by the New York University School of Medicine, and their entire mission is to publish literary fiction that deals with science and medicine in some way. They have a very good-looking fiction catalogue (which I plan on working slowly through) and it includes a novel by Michelle Latiolais called A Proper Knowledge. It also includes a former Necessary Fiction writer-in-residence as well, Tim Horvath, with his collection Understories.

This week at Necessary Fiction I reviewed Tania Hershman’s collection My Mother Was an Upright Piano:

But flash pieces can also work in another direction entirely. They can willfully ignore or resist this idea of “boundaries,” and, in this way, they create a sharp and refined glimmer of a much longer story. But they are more than hints or teasers, they become like a puzzle piece so intricately detailed and formed that it no longer needs the puzzle.

This last example is the kind of fiction that mostly fills Tania Hershman’s My Mother Was an Upright Piano, a collection of 56 short and very short fictions that play across a wide variety of human experience and emotion—loss, irreverence, love relationships, family relationships, grief, anger, curiosity, escape. The diversity of subject on offer in the collection is brilliant, but what really impresses is how Hershman succeeds in establishing longer, more complicated narratives within each short piece. These aren’t incomplete excerpts; the reader doesn’t want or need any of these fictions to go on longer or somehow become another form entirely. But again and again, out of a very short piece, a fuller story blooms.

You can read the full review here.

I have two recent reviews over at Necessary Fiction that I would like to mention here. The first is for Sheldon Lee Compton’s début collection of stories The Same Terrible Storm. Compton is an American writer from Virginia and his stories draw firmly on their Appalachian setting. It is a wonderfully atmospheric collection.

Here is some of what I had to say in my review:

… each story, especially the longer ones, suit this notion of storm—of rage, outburst, eruption, hurricane, all of these definitions and more—in one way or another. Each story has, at its center, its own horrible explosion and Compton’s careful, voice-inflected prose circles these tense moments in a way that feels much like a dance.

The wind skirted across the pond and slid beneath the sill. A spirit breeze spiked with pine needles and some circled the bedroom and took hold of her ribbed waist. She would go to the pond and wait, wait for Pete to return with his hound from hell and Van to join her and for Kent to arrive to the place of his redemption or rest where rooftop clouds would collide, where, like always, not a single drop of rain would touch the cracked marble of her skin.

How wonderful is the alliteration in this section of the titular story—all those s’s, plus that “hound from hell” where another writer might have been content to leave off with hound and sadly lose all the rhythm in the triplet phrasing, and then, finally the switch from the s’s to a series of hard k’s (Kent, collide, like, cracked, skin) that foreshadow the movement of this particular piece from one of soft and hazy experience to a sharp and pointed confrontation, an unexpected blowing up.

You can read the whole review here.

The Same Terrible Storm is published by Foxhead Books, an independent publisher with a very small but impressive catalogue.

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The second review was published today and is for Pia Juul’s fantastic Murder of Halland which came out just earlier this year from Peirene Press. I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Peirene’s publishing program and the novellas–in-translation they select. The Murder of Halland was no exception – it’s a page-turner of the most devious and literary kind.

My review begins like this:

Think of that classical mystery genre set in a small town and which involves the unexpected murder of a prominent citizen. Now think of this genre turned inside out and upside down, where all of your “mystery story” expectations are set up neatly but quickly subverted. This will give you some idea of what to expect from Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland — a fascinating and fun and thoughtful anti-mystery.

You can read the full review here.

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This week at Necessary Fiction, I review a début short story collection from the Irish writer, Mary Costello. I had the pleasure of first reading Costello in an issue of The Stinging Fly, an Irish literary journal, and have now come to really admire her work after reading this entire collection. The book is called The China Factory.

Here is a short except from my review:

Again and again Costello creates stories in which the human connections are both delicate and tender. Stretched thin and raw. Connections that contain an ache. Most of her characters are endowed with an almost painful empathy—attuned to the mysteries of their loved ones and bound to the intricate emotional structures of their own inner landscapes. In “The Patio Man,” a gardener is witness to his boss’s miscarriage and the event, clearly life changing for the woman, is as deeply afflicting for this quiet and watchful man. He is shaken to the core. While never neglecting the woman in the story, Costello actually explores the effects of this man’s empathy to a far greater degree.

I make it very clear in my review how much I enjoyed these stories but I can add a bit of personal anecdote here in this less formal reviewing place. I finished reading The China Factory in a local café, just across the street from my daughter’s daycare. My childcare schedule is somewhat inconvenient and so most Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she goes only for a few hours in the afternoon, I drop her off and head directly across the street to work, so as not to lose any time. In any case, I’m usually reading or writing or translating and I’ve gotten quite good at working in public (which is, I believe, an acquired skill).

Now, I am a seasoned reader. I read all kinds of beautiful and/or difficult literature and although I do engage with it deeply, I usually have no trouble reading anything in public. This was not the case with The China Factory. I re-read “Insomniac,” the second to last story and then blithely read on into “The Sewing Room.” By the time I realized what this quiet story was about, it was too late. I was sobbing. I put the book down, got myself under control and picked it up again. I told myself I could get through it. I took a quick peek around the café, which was about one-third full, and decided to go for it. Before I had turned that last page, the café owner had come over, put a kindly hand on my shoulder and asked me what on earth I was reading. She was visibly disappointed when she saw I was reading in English and wouldn’t get a chance to see for herself, but she quickly re-filled my teapot and hovered until it was clear that I wasn’t going to fall apart.

This all makes for a good story now, but the point I’m trying to make is that it is difficult to do this kind of poignancy nowadays. I admit that my being a relatively new mother made that last story particularly devastating for me—and the fact that it’s only through the support of my husband and family that I can continue working and be a Mom, something that wasn’t, or isn’t, available to many women around the world and so there were/are other, sometimes horrible, choices to be made—but Costello is so restrained in her depiction of these characters and their lives. There is no melodrama. She says it all in the simple handover of an apple from an 18-month-old child to its mother, and how that mother looks at this piece of fruit two days later, and my heart literally broke for these fictional people.

That particular story touched me quite personally and so remains my strongest memory of the collection. But the other stories were all as simple and profound. I cannot recommend this book more highly. Read the entire review here.

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The Spring Issue of Metamorphoses—the journal of the five college faculty seminar on literary translation—includes my translation of Charles Ferdinand Ramuz’s short story, “Phimonette.” It took me several tries to find a home for this unique and sad little story. It is essentially the story of a life lived unhappily, and a sudden frenzied rush to do it again, this time happily, even if that happiness is imagined, even delusional. The title character, Phimonette, is an old woman who has suddenly shown up at a semi-secret dance party in a hay loft on the mountain where the young people of the village like to meet. Phimonette has lost her grip on reality and has imagined herself young again, this time with a fiancé, and so the young villagers tease and laugh at her, although they aren’t mean. However, as the day continues and the group descends from the hillside back into the village and we meet Phimonette’s sister, Angèle (also unmarried, also an old-maid and also very unhappy), it becomes clear that Phimonette’s delusion will have quite sad repercussions.

This kind of story involving two sisters – old maids – is one that Ramuz returns to again and again. It’s clear he was interested in solitude and the nature of sorrow created from loneliness. In “Phimonette” he pushes this idea to the extreme and shows that this lifelong unhappiness has finally caused a rupture. Phimonette is incapable of living with her unhappiness any longer and so she exchanges it for something equally dangerous – insanity. (I can’t help finding the French kinder here – “la folie” seems so much softer than “insanity.”)

Editions Slatkine in Geneva have been slowly producing The Complete Works of CF Ramuz, fully annotated and commented; there will be 30 volumes in total when they finish the series in 2013, including five volumes dedicated to his short stories. It is an enormous undertaking, but the result is spectacular. I have three of the short story volumes (Nouvelles et Morceaux) and it’s from these annotated texts that I’ve based my translations. These annotated volumes are also a wonderful source of information about each piece.

For “Phimonette,” for example, we learn that the story was originally titled, “Mariette” but that Ramuz changed the protagonist’s name for his second draft. The story was written in about one week in September of 1907, and there are five different drafts. It was rejected by a literary journal in Lausanne in October 1907 and was not published in Ramuz’s lifetime. Fun to think that it found a home in another country and language just over a hundred years later!

Here is a link to Metamorphoses.

 

 

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