literary fiction · review · short stories

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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literary fiction · review · short stories

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.

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Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

literary fiction · review · short stories

Judge Walden: Back in Session, by Peter Murphy

38651108To paraphrase Oliver Wilde, the law is rarely pure and never simple. This is certainly true of the stories in Peter Murphy’s Judge Walden: Back in Session, his second collection of stories to feature the conscientious and thoroughly decent Bermondsey judge. In each story, we see Judge Walden wrestle with tricky points of law and do battle with the civil servants who constantly look for ways to cut costs to get “value for money for the taxpayers.” Best of all, these stories have a gentle humor to them that I think would make a brilliant BBC series.

A couple of favorites from this collection include:

“Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.” The case before the bench in this story involves a market stall seller of vintage goods who is accused of selling bootleg records. The accused maintains that the records are authentic recordings by a local jazz band. The Crown contends that they’re a bad rip off of an American jazz group. There’s a reason why plagiarism and copyright cases are all decided on an individual basis, both in the United States and in Britain. They’re fiendishly complicated and sometimes comes down to the smallest details. The comic turns the case takes reminds me a bit of an actual court case from the US, where musician and songwriter John Fogerty played his songs back to back in the witness stand to convince a jury that he didn’t plagiarize himself.

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A British judge’s wig (Image via Chancery Wigs)

“Mortifying the Flesh.” This story is a little less light hearted than the others in the collection because of the nature of the case. It is the kind of case that the newspapers drool over. A vicar has been accused of using church funds to pay for his sessions with a dominatrix. His defense is that the sessions are a form of devotion, because he’s having someone flagellate him. Even though it’s not as amusing as the other stories, I really liked the tricky points of law that Walden has to think his way though. There are laws that can guide him, but they’re out of date and/or too blunt to use in this particular case. We tend to forget that the courts are where laws are put to the test, to see if they really work and can deliver justice in a nuanced world.

The stories are longer than the usual length expected; they might almost qualify as novelettes (if I knew were the cut off was). Because they’re longer, we get treated to more development of plot and character than we usually get in short stories. In fact, the stories contain enough content, I think, to support a limited run series. There are several scenes that I would love to see performed, especially the ending of “Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.”

I loved the legal issues, the skirmishes with the civil servants, and the humor that threads through these stories. I enjoyed this book so much that I want to go back and read the first collection of Judge Walden stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 October 2018.

literary fiction · review · short stories

The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, by Teresa Solana

39857325Teresa Solana’s collection, The First Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories, is one that rewards readers who have a twisted sense of humor. Peter Bush’s translation preserves every twist of each story, as well as maintains Solana’s sly portraits of characters who are hilariously oblivious to what’s going on around them, ones who are more than willing to eliminate people for the slightest gain, and the ones who are just plain unlucky. I had more fun with this collection than I probably should have.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Son-in-Law.” This story is one of my absolute favorites in the collection. In this story, an elderly mother calmly receives a pair of mossos (the Catalan term for the Barcelona police) in her apartment as they ask about her missing son-in-law. It isn’t long before the mother tips us readers in on what really happened to the man and were he can be found. I love this story because of the mother’s sheer gumption.

“Still Life No. 41.” This story made me laugh the most. It spins out a old joke about modern art—that no one really understands what they’re looking at—and turns it into the scandal of the art world. Here, a young director of a modern art museum laments how her career has been ruined by a mistake anyone could have made (according to her) involving a series of statues by an artist know for his high realism (including smells). After all, she thinks, who would turn down an extra statue by an artist in high demand?

“Happy Families.” The mansion in this story probably is cursed. It’s not just that it’s inhabited by two centuries of ghosts, it’s that everyone who comes into possession of the house is doomed to a short life and a bloody death. In other hands, this story could have been chilling and quintessentially Gothic. In Solana’s hands, however, we have a bunch of ghosts who are choosy about their post-life company. When the house changes hands and they catch wind of a murder plot, the ghosts leap into action.

“Connections.” The later two-thirds or so of The Prehistoric Serial Killer are a collection within a collection. These linked stories share characters that are peripheral in one story but become lead characters in another. The first story in this little series introduces a typically self-absorbed teenager who has the bad luck to witness a murder. In the next, we find out who was murdered and why. The stories after that edge further away from that murder to reveal other crimes. My favorite is the blackly funny story about a woman who commits murder after murder to get away from the one thing she hates the most: opera.

I enjoyed The Prehistoric Serial Killer and Other Stories very much—so much that I hope her other stories and novels are available in translation from Catalan. Solana never does the expected thing and isn’t afraid to play around with topics that others don’t see as fit for comedy. But then, I know I have a warped sense of humor. I would strongly recommend this collection for other readers who are also seeking stories that will make them laugh a little too hard at things they shouldn’t.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

metafiction · review · short stories

Sentimental Tales, by Mikhail Zoshchenko

36906165I am a staunch advocate of New Historicism. This school of thought argues that, in order to understand a text, one has to understand its social, historical, and cultural contexts. I don’t think this has ever been more true than when I read Sentimental Tales, a short story collection by Mikhail Zoshchenko and translated by Boris Dralyuk. This strange and blackly funny collection is written from the perspective of a frustrated writer who doesn’t know how to tell a story that will please himself, his potential readers, and the Soviet Writers’ Union.

After a series of introductions to the collections editions (which reminded me of the opening credits notes in Monty Python and the Holy Grail), our narrator gives us a series of stories that are as much commentary on writing under the Soviet Union as they are portraits of scoundrels. Each story begins with the narrator lamenting his latest problem. Sometimes it’s not being able to write beautiful language to set the scene when lovers are sighing at each other under blooming lilacs. Sometimes it’s not coming up with characters worthy of writing about. Mostly it’s about not being able to write the way the Union wants while also writing in a way that pleases the narrator. I’m glad I at least knew something about the Writers’ Union. It’s possible I would have been so frustrated by what these stories were doing without knowing their context that I would have given up after the first story.

The stories are difficult to summarize—which is odd considering that not a lot happens. Each story in the collection is a portrait of a man who also doesn’t fit in the new order of things. These men who don’t fit aren’t outsiders because of their philosophies; they don’t fit in because they’re scam artists and dreamers. They don’t want much, in general. They want their creature comforts: warmth, food, a decent place to sleep. The wastrels mostly achieve this by marrying and scamming a woman with a steady income. These stories are completely different from anything I’ve read from an early Soviet writer. Zoshchenko’s characters aren’t heroic in any way, shape, or form. They’re not even anti-heroes, as in Babel’s stories.

I found the narrator’s metafictional whining hilarious. Reading the introductions to the stories was like sitting on the writer’s shoulders while he tears his hair out in frustration, before cracking open a bottle of vodka while he tells you half-formed stories about what he has seen lately. I was entertained and intellectually challenged by Sentimental Tales. I would recommend it for readers who like to see inside writers’ processes—especially readers who might want to be writers themselves.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 31 July 2018.

fantasy · horror · metafiction · review · short stories

The Merry Spinster, by Daniel Mallory Ortberg

35035160I’ve been chasing the high of reading Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, ever since I first read it. When I first heard about Daniel Ortberg’s short story collection, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, I hoped that I would find the same sort of disturbing truths that I found in Carter. Ortberg is not Carter, but that’s not a bad thing. Carter’s stories are about sexuality and power. Ortberg’s stories touch on sexuality, but I mostly found explorations of autonomy and the collective. Ortberg took familiar stories and uses them as a vehicle to ask new questions.

Some of the standout stories from this collection are:

“The Merry Spinster” is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist on the ending that I absolutely adore. Folklore is full of stories of self-sacrificing daughters. Women sacrifice their well-being and happiness for foolish parents or to end conflicts, etc. When her financial whiz mother loses and regains the family fortune, Beauty (an ironic nickname here) is asked to pay the price for her mother’s trespassing on Mr. Beale’s property and stealing his roses. Beauty is not happy about this. She is less happy when Mr. Beale starts asking her to marry him. In this version of the story, Beauty will sacrifice only so much. She holds her ground when asked for more.

“The Frog’s Princess” is an unsettling tale set in a land where beautiful people are obliged to others because of their appearance. They don’t belong to themselves. Beautiful people are told to smile, to make other people happy. The king’s daughter (who is written about using “he” pronouns”) runs a foul of this when he loses a golden down a well occupied by a frog. The frog offers him a deal: the frog will return the ball if the daughter keeps the frog with him forever. The daughter never says yes, but the frog retrieves the ball anyway. Even though the daughter never took the deal, he is beholden because someone else acted on his behalf. This story is an uncomfortable look at the thorny issues of implied consent.

“The Rabbit” is probably the most disturbing story in the collection. In this tale, a velveteen rabbit wants to be Real. Only a child can make him Real, so the rabbit takes out his rivals to become a boy’s favorite toy. The original book, The Velveteen Rabbit, was a story about love. This version is parasitic, as the rabbit becomes more Real as his leeches the life out of the boy who loves him. In the end, we’re left to wonder about how far it’s acceptable to go to be self-actualized.

The reaction to The Merry Spinster has been mixed. Some readers have liked it for its boldness with the source material. Other readers have been too weirded out by the stories. I can see their point, but I’m on Team Boldness. Ortberg reinvigorates old stories that ask questions our society desperately needs to have conversations about. I was disturbed, but I enjoyed reading this collection.

 

 

historical fiction · review · short stories

Half Gods, by Akil Kumarasamy

36348067Akil Kumarasamy’s story collection, Half Gods, is, I think, a collection that requires a bit of background reading before readers open its pages—unless readers are familiar with the Indian epic, the MahabharataHalf Gods references the epic in character names, themes of war and exile and sacrifice, and, I’m sure, a lot of other things I missed because I am not familiar with Hinduism and Indian literature. Even without understanding the cultural references, these stories create an affecting portrait of an exiled Sri Lankan family (and their acquaintances) who fell apart when they lost their homeland.

Even though this is a collection, it’s best read as a whole work because the stories are so interconnected. I picked up the book after putting it down for the night and had to co back and re-read the first two stories because of all the call backs. As the stories move back and forth in time, a portrait of the Padmanathan family develops that spans from just before Sri Lanka became independent in 1948 to the present. Each story is either narrated by or focuses on a member of the family or acquaintance who knew the Padmanathan family.

Every character in these stories struggles to cope with loss. The family patriarch is perpetually angry at having to go into exile because he is a Tamil, an ethnic group that was (and possibly still is) oppressed by the Sinhalese majority. His daughter tries her best to be a good wife, but she falls in love with her brother-in-law and loses her marriage. The grandsons feel adrift between their Sri Lankan past and their American present. One of those sons, Karna (named for a character in the Mahabharata), wrestles with his sexuality.

Watching the characters battle internal and external fights creates an opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of an exile. What might it mean to know that you can never go back to a place where people speak your language, understand your world view, and so on? It’s little wonder that most of the characters carry a heavy emotional burden of anger or sorrow that they can’t find a way to put down. I suspect that, if I had read the Mahabharata, this collection would have been more than just a family portrait. Perhaps, the stories might represent an entire diaspora. That said, this is still a unique look at a family dealing with problems most people have never considered before.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.