Book Review: The Beauties

The Beauties, by Anton Chekhov (translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater), is a collection of thirteen, freshly translated short stories, presented in a beautifully bound edition of this esteemed writer’s work. The book is slightly smaller than a standard paperback with a textured cover, french flaps and clear print on quality paper. It is an ideal size and weight to carry and to hold. I mention these physical attributes as they are notably pleasing – fitting given the title.

The stories inside offer the reader insight into why Chekhov is considered one of the greatest writers of short fiction. They also provide a window into the mindset of the Russian people before mass industrialisation. There is cruelty and hypocrisy but also desire and a search for meaning. The private lives the characters live, their thoughts and aspirations, are timelessly relevent.

The collection opens with The Beauties, in which a schoolboy is travelling with his grandfather across the dusty steppe in summer, pausing for rest and refreshment at the home of a land worker. Here the boy meets a young woman whose unconventional beauty moves him, not with desire but a kind of sad longing that draws him, and the other men in the vicinity, to observe her every move. Several years later the boy, now a student, has a similar experience at a railway station. The imagery places the reader alongside the narrator as he recounts the feelings engendered by these encounters, the melancholy they create.

The Man In A Box tells the tale of a teacher whose habitual behaviour is regarded as odd by his aquaintances. When an additional teacher is sent to the village, bringing with him an unmarried sister, a plan is hatched.

“What a lot of things get done out of pure boredom, in the provinces – unnecessary, pointless things! […] I mean, why did we have to marry off Belikov all of a sudden, when you couldn’t even imagine him married?”

A Day In The Country depicts beauty in its knowledge and descriptions of plant and animal life. This contrasts with the harshness of the lives of the poor, who still manage small kindnesses. The man portrayed is unusual within this collection in not being entirely self-absorbed. He notices those in need and gives without fuss.

Several of the stories explore the temptations their married protagonists succumb to, even those who claim to regard their spouses with some affection. Being admired anew changes how both men and women view their families, the excitement of ardent attention proving hard to resist.

Marriage is presented in several stories as a restrictive burden, love as a feeling that is unlikely to last. In About Love parents try to trick a young suitor into accepting their daughter as his wife. In Grief a long married husband is fighting his way through a blizzard to get his wife to a doctor, driven by guilt and duty more than compassion. The beating of wives is commonplace. The casual cruelty meted out to animals upsetting to read.

The Bet is about man’s greed and egotism. During a drink fuelled debate, a wealthy banker challenges a young lawyer to endure fifteen years of solitary confinement in exchange for a hefty reward. Both men learn difficult truths about themselves as this time progresses. Their knowledge is unlikely to be put to use.

The final story, The Kiss, tells of an unassuming army officer who has no experience with women, and the effect on him of an accidental kiss. His outlook changes despite circumstances remaining the same. Hope is shown to be a powerful force.

The writing throughout is precise, almost simplistic, yet the insights offered have abiding depth. Few of the characters are wholly likeable yet they arouse a degree of empathy. These are snapshots of flawed humanity viewed through a studied, concise lens. They were a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Advertisements

Book Review: Selected Stories

This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.

Selected Stories is a collection of twelve short stories written in spare, understated prose that resonates with poignancy and perception. Many are set in or link back to the same small corner of Gaeilge speaking north-west Ireland. Time frames differ but the characters harbour familiar hopes, joys and despairs. These are tales of small yet complex lives as lived inside individual’s heads where experiences are curated to fit personal ideals. Resulting disappointments or absurdities are sympathetically rendered. There are few surprises as the plots develop but portrayals are replete with insight.

The collection opens with ‘Blood and Water’ which explores a family’s treatment of an aunt, regarded as odd yet fortunate to have been born in a time and place that accepted atypical behaviour without need for scientific labels or state sanctioned treatment. There are kindnesses and cruelties dealt. Neglect is passive if selfish, discomfortingly familiar.
Family and how members regard each other’s behaviours is a recurring theme. Duty visits assuage guilt more than helping the afflicted. Those who leave are expected to desire a return, their reasoning regarded as insignificant. The difficulty of understanding other’s feelings shines through.

In ‘The Pale Gold of Alaska’ two sisters travel to America to take up positions as housemaids. The younger decides en route that she will marry instead. Particular challenges of tying one’s life to another are deftly depicted. The sisters believe they have each made the better choice and must thereafter continue to convince themselves.

‘The Day Elvis Presley Died’ explores a relationship between an Irish and an American student on holiday with his parents. The first shine of lust has worn away revealing still unacknowledged differences.

“She heard him, and understood what he was saying. But she went on imagining another story for herself”

‘The Banana Boat’ is also set during a holiday and explores the precariousness of life and randomness of death. It is told from the point of view of a mother trying to involve her teenage boys in family activities, which could too easily go awry.

The latter stories in the collection revolve around writers and their literary world. They explore the value of the craft, the possibility of originality, and how quality can or should be measured.

‘Literary Lunch’ offers an acerbic look at those who select the recipients of grants and prizes. There is sycophancy and favouritism alongside the desire for recognition. Those continually passed over become increasingly venomous. The consequences of revenge are ironically dealt with in the following tale.

‘The Coast of Wales’ provides a fine conclusion, dealing as it does with the impact of a death. Despite the morbid setting and subject matter it is an uplifting read.

Any Cop?: These stories are richly satisfying with a voice that is distinctly Irish yet universally relevant. It is fluent, effective storytelling.

Jackie Law

Book Review: Attrib.

Attrib. (and other stories), by Eley Williams, is a collection of seventeen short stories exploring the difficulties inherent in human communication. The author wields her prose with sensory precision. Her words and the silences between convey both the beauty and the grotesque nature of relationships. They reveal the distance between internal thought processes and their articulation.

Each tale captures a moment and the attendant waterfall of words cascading inside a protagonist’s head. These include simple observations, tangential dreams and unspoken aspirations. The difficulty of conveying even a fraction of understanding demonstrates the limitations of dialogue. A hand held, a kiss or a silence can say more than many words.

The collection opens with The Alphabet in which the narrator is slowly losing their vocabulary due to aphasia. As time passes their abilities deteriorate despite concerted efforts to slow degeneration. The telling is both poignant and piercing.

Swatch presents two young boys sitting in a cramped cupboard during a game of hide and seek. Peter considers objects through a lens coloured by the paints his father utilises. Stuart’s interests as they wait to be found are more prosaic.

I enjoyed Smote for the anguish of the narrator over whether or not to attempt a simple action, the consequences of which they chew on fiercely before having the decision taken from them. I will not pretend to understand all references made, as was the case with several stories, but the undercurrents still resonated.

Birdsong makes a recurring appearance, as does the complexity of lovers’ relationships and their misunderstandings. In And Back Again the protagonist ponders the possibility of proving their devotion by acting out the lyrics of a song despite being told clearly by the object of their affections how ridiculous they would consider such a gesture. The question hovers, who any romantic deed benefits the most.

Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef had me Googling to see if this grotesque practice had any basis in reality. I was distressed to find it did. Also distressing, for similar reasons, was Spines. Although an excellent study of the compromises made in order to maintain relationships the unnecessary and casual cruelty to small creatures had me in tears.

Platform considers a stranger inadvertently captured in a photograph during a moment missed by the narrator at the time due to their own concerns. It is a reminder that the whole world turns wherever we are with our own lives.

These stories offer much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression. The moments of quiet brutality left me raw with their honesty, but this was a worthwhile read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.

Book Review: The Late Season

The Late Season, by Stephen Hines, is a collection of twelve short stories that ooze atmosphere and an air of dislocation whilst also being intimate and revealing. They explore the isolation and detachment of everyday life across contemporary North America. There is an earthy reality to the settings and characters that is in contrast to the shiny veneers presented on TV. The depth of the storytelling is impressive, especially given the succinctness of each tale.

The book opens with the eponymous the late season in which a salesman has outstayed his welcome at a remote motel. He does little with his days other than swim in the ice-encrusted pool and quietly drink from a flask, allowing time to pass him by. The couple in charge of the accommodation wish to close up for the winter but are reluctant to face the potential unpleasantness of evicting their quiet guest. Their young daughter regards the salesman, and his effect on her parents, with curiosity and fear.

honeymoon introduces a couple and their daughter who have suffered a series of family bereavements. On vacation the wife takes her daughter out on a boat and fails to return. As friends and neighbours help to search for them, the husband stands apart playing out possible future scenarios in his head. His mistake is in subsequently sharing these inner meanderings; some thoughts are best left unsaid.

Inner monologues from several of the characters reveal how socially unacceptable the workings of the mind can at times be. They also enable the reader to empathise with those society avoids engaging with due to their inability to fit within acceptable bounds of normalcy.

in early February tells of the death of a young boy’s mother who had been severely overweight. Adult attempts at offering support and comfort are misunderstood causing the child further consternation. The boy hears what is being said but misconstrues intention. It is a reminder that children and grown ups speak the same words but interpret differently.

the book cellar is set in a downtown bookshop where a young employee is struggling to appear as casually confident as he wishes in order to appear attractive to his boss. She is kind but more tolerant than interested in his attentions. His unrequited love, which he continues to feed with her every small gesture, threatens to bring down the carefully constructed social acceptability of his day to day existence.

Death, poverty and social dislocation are pivotal in many of the tales yet this is not a dour collection. The characters are confronting conventional issues and moving forwards, not necessarily to anything better but to the next stage in their lives. This movement offers the prospect of change even if it is not yet realised. The ordinary can feel extraordinary to the individual dealing with their personal concerns.

An impressive debut that introduces an author bringing to life people overlooked and less than ideal. The weak-willed and vulnerable are portrayed with sympathy and perceptiveness. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Tangerine Press.

Book Review: 2084

2084 is an anthology of fifteen short stories specially commissioned by the publisher, Unsung Stories, and supported by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It offers

“15 predictions of the world, 67 years in the future.”

The authors have created a variety of dystopian societies that it is distressingly easy to believe could come to be.

In each of the stories technological innovation has created a shift in the way people live, not necessarily for the better. Monitoring of everyday activity by the state and for entertainment is widely regarded as expedient. An elite retain control and breed fear in the proletariat as a means of suppression. These stories bring up to date the underlying message behind the book’s inspiration, 1984 by George Orwell. As the editor, George Sandison, writes

“There are warnings in this book – we would do well to heed them.”

The first story, Babylon by Dave Hutchinson, takes as its theme immigration. The protagonist, Da’uud, is seeking to gain entry into a Europe that has

“encysted itself behind concentric borders and buffer zones, the better to protect itself and its citizens from the likes of him.”

Da’uud carries with him a device, developed by and then stolen from North Korea. The chilling purpose of this is a powerful reminder of ingrained prejudice, all too obvious today.

Here Comes The Flood by Desirina Boskovich is set in a sealed city on the American coast that is struggling to remain functional. Climate Change has resulted in more displaced people than the authorities are willing to accept so these DisPers are kept outside, abandoned to die. Those inside are entertained by publicly broadcast trials of the elderly who are blamed for the current situation.

“Did he buy goods shipped halfway across the world? […] Never a moment’s consideration for future generations as he enjoyed the spoils, savoured the loot: the belching, farting jet planes; the human greed-machines on their hoard of ill-gotten treasures, their water gulping industry, their cheap plastic trash. Did he own a vehicle? Yes? Disgusting.”

Despite the bleak prospects for the city, young couples still apply to the population lottery for permission to procreate.

Glitterati by Oliver Langmead offers the perspective of one of future society’s elite. Its protagonist’s raison d’être is to be seen. Simone spends his days keeping abreast of current fashions, the most important part of his working day being his arrival at the office where he may walk the red carpet, be photographed and applauded. He deplores the lives of those unfashionables he catches sight of on his daily commute.

“The uglies. The unwashed, unmanicured masses. […] It pained him to see them down there, milling around without the first idea of how dreadful they appeared; how their untrained aesthetic snses were so underdeveloped that they could barely comprehend their own hideousnesses. To think they did actual labour! […] It was unfathomable that people existed like that.”

When Simone mistakenly wears the wrong colour for a day he worries that he will suffer demotion. Instead he finds himself trend-setting, which brings new pressures to bear.

The Infinite Eye by JP Smythe looks at life from the viewpoint of an illegal, living in a camp and looking for work. He applies to a start-up which pulls together surveillance from traffic cameras, drones, security systems, photos and videos shot by tourists. The developers had intended to use AI but were concerned about handing over control. Instead they plug people into their network to observe and act as needed.

“You’ll be eyes for the cameras, for the drones. Assisting the police in catching people, finding crimes that are happening or going to happen, apprehending illegals.”

“Inhabit this camera, and watch, the software told me. Wait until there is something worth paying attention to. Then switch to a drone, follow the incident.”

The man is good at this job, but the violation he cannot observe is the one that involves himself.

Several of the stories explore a world where a new generation of robotic helpers become sentient, where there is an overlap between man and machine. The use of AI in electromechanical devices is imagined in many forms: workers, warriors, children. Abilities are enhanced whilst numbing the senses that may balk at required actions.

Shooting An Episode by Christopher Priest offers these enhancements in the form of armour, the numbing a collective conditioning. The population in this story are kept entertained by constantly running reality shows which they may interact with, affecting outcomes. That real people die goes unregarded, those at the sharp end generously compensated to do whatever it takes to increase ratings. The protagonist may be sickened but if they do not do their job someone else will. The demands of the players for action dictates the form of this evolving reality.

March, April, May by Malcolm Devlin looks at a ubiquitous social media, The Space, where individuals’ feeds are personalised and curated by algorithms. Certain behaviour by users is expected, negativity disapproved. One friend in a group refuses to conform.

“April used The Space as she damn well pleased. At least, she did until she disappeared.”

There is discussion about where she may have gone, who she really was, if indeed she existed. There is disquiet about the role played by The Space, but this is laughed away.

“It’s only The Space, we say. The idea is preposterous. It would be like rebelling against a kitchen appliance.”

Nobody really knows what happens to those who contravene the terms of service. It is not a subject for discourse, negativity being unwelcome on The Space.

Each of these stories builds on topics raised today, playing out possibilities in disquieting directions. Ways of living may have moved on but attitudes have not changed.

The writing throughout is excellent, each tale darkly compelling. A collection that deserves to be widely read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Unsung Stories. 

Book Review: Karate Chop

Karate Chop, by Dorthe Nors (translated by Martin Aitken), is a collection of fifteen stories exploring ordinary people and situations they encounter, with incisive wit and perception. The Danish author has been shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This is a rebound edition of a selection of their shorter works.

The snapshots of life offered up are varied, as are the protagonists. All are recognisable and relateable. There is a cogency, a poignancy to the prose. An undercurrent of isolation and the frailty of human interactions pervades.

The Buddhist tells of a man whose job requires him to write speeches for a government minister. When his wife leaves him he decides that he will turn to Buddhism, thereby gaining insight from the pain. He no longer wishes to spread lies so writes an article for a national newspaper exposing the deceits in which he has been complicit. He harbours delusions of grandeur believing his actions, inspired by Buddhist teachings, could change the world. As time passes he becomes increasingly selective in following his ideals. The circle turns.

The Winter Garden is narrated by a young boy caught between divorcing parents. Wanting to please, he lives first with his mother then his father, feeling distanced when they introduce new partners who have their own children. The special regard he felt for each parent is stripped away when he realises he is not uniquely valued. Opinions, once sought, lose their impact.

The Big Tomato offers a story of hope amongst displaced people. This is a gentle tale of burgeoning friendships and appreciation of kindnesses shared.

Duckling is narrated by a young girl facing the hypocrisy of her caring but opinionated father.

“Dad had his boxes and he put things away in them, even things that contradicted each other.”

The smooth surface of family life relies on much being left unsaid.

Female Killers shares the private thoughts of a husband when alone late at night, his wife in bed. The reader may decide if, as no action results, his musings are harmless or grotesque.

Flight is a tale of loss told by a wife whose husband has left her. In trying to deny the hurt she feels, an emptiness is created. Moving on from a situation when change was not desired proves challenging.

The Heron is set in a park and offers glimpses of those passing through. Of note are approaching mothers pushing their baby carriages with intent.

“They always come in flocks, great flocks of mothers, and they stir up bad feelings in one another.”

The storyteller suspects that the stony mothers regard him as they would a sickly heron he has observed – tired and sallow, often in the way. He thinks of showing kindness to their babies but recognises the impossibility of such behaviour given the mothers’ demeanour.

She Frequented Cemeteries tells of a love story that is insular, perhaps unrequited. The protagonist is nevertheless contented but has no wish to share her new formed feelings with friends. She suspects they may demand that she regard her valued happiness differently. As in so many areas, the unusual is treated with suspicion.

These stories are concise, just a few pages each in length. They offer circumstances and concepts that the reader may then interpret. There is much to ponder in the difficulties being faced. An empathetic, rewarding little read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: Don’t Cry

This post was written for and originally published on Bookmunch

Don’t Cry is a collection of ten short stories that explore the complexity of human interactions and the concerns these cause. It took me some time to connect with the voices of the narrators. The serrated edge of the prose in the first three tales grated as the subject of sex was granted seemingly unnecessary importance within the context of each plot. Although character driven I struggled to empathise with the varied casts being created. Their predicaments evoked desolation and lacked the percipience to draw me in.

By the fourth story, ‘The Agonized Face’, the prose began to resonate. A reread was required to fully appreciate but I could now enjoy the warp and weft of the author’s words. I had found that important reader connection with her style. ‘Mirrorball’ impressed for its experimental approach to the differing impacts of a one night stand on a boy and a girl. The souls taken and discarded neatly encapsulate the nuance of sexual encounters and their lasting significance, however casually approached. ‘Today I’m Yours’ explores the relationship between an author and an editor over many years as they move in and out of each other’s lives. Early in her career the author ‘fantasized about the social identity that might be mine if the book were to succeed’. The story follows the creation and maintenance of this identity, and how it changes the private person underneath.

“Sometimes it seemed to me an empty life, but that wasn’t really true. It wasn’t empty; it was more that the people and events in it were difficult to put together in any way that felt whole.”

‘The Little Boy’ looks at family and their loss of connection over time. It opens with an elderly mother returning from a visit to her grown up daughter. She thinks through her changing relationship with each of her children, feeling sanguine about where they are with each other now despite obvious irritations. In an airport waiting room she observes a young mother’s negative reaction to her child’s lively behaviour and attempts to offer understanding. She has experience of lasting resentments growing from such minutiae.

The stories present the underlying loneliness of never being fully understood alongside both sympathetic and caustic internal reactions to others. War veterans recognise the difficulties faced by fellow survivors yet judge harshly their observed behaviours. Prejudices remain despite understanding the personal cost of conflict of all kinds

The final story, ‘Don’t Cry’, is set in Ethiopia where two middle aged American women wish to adopt a child. Themes of privilege, guilt and grief run alongside the violence of poverty. Moments of hopelessness are transformed into anecdotal entertainment when subsequently recounted. There is an expectation that pain will be internalised, that to cry is to make a fuss when always someone else is worse off.

Any Cop?: Despite my initial antipathy, these stories were enjoyed for their varied and succinct insights. The author offers a jagged understanding of life powerfully presented within contexts that affirm the stoicism of survival.

 

Jackie Law