Book Review: The Book of Havana

“‘What does a woman think about,’ I ask, ‘when she believes nothing and no one can hurt her?'”

So asks one of the male characters in a story from this collection. I pull out this particular quote because many of the stories depict men regarding women only in terms of their own sexual gratification. Acts are, in places, described in vivid detail. The women are ‘taken’, and in ways that they object to, although the writers then portray them as having found it pleasurable. These scenes are a little too close to male fantasy land for my tastes. As anyone who follows my reviews will be aware, I do not wish to encounter graphic sexual imagery in my reading material. I too ponder if women’s thinking would alter if we could be confident of our agency and safety.

Having got that out of the way let’s look at the many positives in this short story collection. It is the latest addition to Comma Press’s A City in Short Fiction series. The ten writers featured belong to different generations so have experienced life in Cuba from different eras.

The book opens with an introduction to the country and its capital city. Over the centuries Cuba has been occupied and had its assets plundered by Spain and, briefly, Britain who introduced slavery as a means of increasing production of goods taken. The wealth generated was then squandered in endless European wars. The revolutionary triumph of 1959 halted international interference although support from the Soviet Union was required following a US embargo. Cuba suffered a lengthy period of deprivation when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989. With the ending of the Castro dynasty hope emerged for a better future for the country and its people, quickly dashed with the arrival of Trump.

All of this has had an an effect on the morale and psychology of the people who must continue to live within deteriorating infrastructure. Tourism is one of the few industries unaffected by events of the last few decades but brings with it comparison and discontent. Many residents wish to leave creating difficult relationships with those who stay. Havana has become a magnet for the country’s disaffected.

The stories in the collection offer

“A textual kaleidoscope of different sensitivities, and multiple observation points, hinting at the many layers and complexities developed by Cuban society over the last 30 years”

It opens with Into Tiny Pieces. Set in 1977, this tale offers a picture of a city where neighbours act as spies for the state and lives are lived in fear. A patriotic couple wish to replace their flag, throwing the old one away before the new one is purchased. Such an act is viewed as rebellion and retribution is threatened. The man blames his wife for the difficulties they now face but fears for her safety if he voices such an opinion. Although offering a thought-provoking portrayal of life in Cuba at that time, the ending felt somewhat abrupt.

Love in the Big City tells of a country boy who travels to Havana with no real plans for how he will survive once there. He meets abject characters, and is complicit in his dissipation.

All Because of that Fucking Spanish Kid is an incredible story about a professional killer employed to plant bombs by the CIA. Inspired by watching The Day of the Jackal the killer feels no remorse for his actions, believing he is relieving his victims of a need to live their unhappy lives. The writing is powerful – this is my favourite in the collection.

The Trinity of Havana portrays the endless bureaucracy that ensures people are employed but little gets done in a bloated state system. A women is trying to register her ownership of the home her family have lived in for generations. The procedures she must follow are endlessly detailed and stymied at every turn.

My Night conflates the dreams a newly graduated student has with his lived reality on a night out with a friend. This and the following two stories require the reader to go with the narrative inside the heads of the male protagonists. A degree of sympathy may be evoked given the limitations of their lives but their two dimensional attitudes towards women irritated this reader.

The List was more to my tastes, exploring the impact of emigration on those left behind. I also enjoyed Of Princesses and Dragons which, although depicting a couple, looks at their wider relationship and expectations.

The final story, You’re Leaving Then, chronicles a break-up that the man is struggling to process. He regards what is happening as a defeat. I felt little sympathy.

These tales provide a picture of life in a country that has endured isolation and hardship. Reading it as a British woman I am aware that the criticisms I make may be a result of failure to empathise with cultural differences and the lack of progress in Cuban personal attitudes as well as opportunity. The writing is authentic and often bold, the protagonists desires and difficulties honestly portrayed. I would have preferred more from a female perspective, how they feel about the way men view them, but the struggles chronicled focus on aspiration in a place where choices are limited and pleasures are sought as a balm. The selfishly portrayed sexual attitudes may be, depressingly, tenable.

One of the aims of this series is to offer the reader a better understanding of a city from the point of view of its residents. In this the book succeeds. Given my reaction to what I have learned I feel no desire to visit Havana. The stories were educative but I found them dispiriting.

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

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Gig Review: The Greenwich Book Festival – The long life of short fiction

From the festival programme:

Are short stories enjoying a renaissance? Did they ever go away? What can they do that novels can’t? And how does it feel to write one that works?

The long life of short fiction brought together three critically acclaimed short story writers, all of whose collections I recommend you read.

Little Island Press publish David Hayden’s Darker With The Lights On which I described in my review as “challenging, vital and eloquent; as unsettling as it is intriguing”.

Influx Books publish Clare Fisher’s How The Light Gets In which I described as “personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.”

Influx Press also publish Eley Williams Republic of Consciousness Prize winning collection Attrib. which I described as offering “much to contemplate alongside the original plot arcs and feats of expression.”

The event was chaired by Sam Jordison, the first of four he ran that I attended. I wondered if he thought I was stalking him.

Eley and Clare each opened by reading from their collections. David treated us to a new, as yet unpublished work. They then got down to the business of discussing the short story which, as was pointed out, the media regularly declares is either disappearing or enjoying a renaissance.

Eley suggested that there is an expectation that short stories are a sideline to novel writing. Yet readers seek out short stories in journals, or read serialised novels, perhaps due to available attention spans. Usually publishers ask for a novel so kudos to Kit and Gary at Influx, currently in the audience, for publishing these.

Clare agreed saying agents have asked for a novel. She started writing what became her collection for a live art festival. She enjoyed the experience so kept writing them. As short stories weren’t what the big publishers were after she approached a small press.

Sam asked Clare if, as a successful novel writer, this required a different process. Clare described writing a novel as like having a long term illness. Short stories are fun to write.

Sam: Do you have any idea where the story will go?

Clare: Yes. I like to plan but also to rebel against that.

David explained that he creates a story world and allows the language to grow within that. He starts with an idea, perhaps a memory or people he knows. He will then rewrite the story. He is nosy, listening for things that become seeds he can grow, craft and develop. Sometimes he throws them away as they are awful.

Eley compared short stories to poetry. They can pivot on a word. There is a sense of ricochet, resonance, a call and response within the text that can be playful. It’s okay to use unfamiliar words so long as they are looked after, rearranged and played with to effect.

Sam asked about the different expectations of what a reader can take.

Clare suggested that those who don’t read so much may not pick up a short story collection. She too mentioned her work as akin to prose poetry and the importance of an image or a word.

David talked of a novel offering immersion, although not all deliver this. A short story requires a rhythm in the composition. It is more noticeable if the author gets this wrong making it overreaching, overfussy, overworked. When they do work though a short story can be amazing, vivid, alive. The reader is left with a huge amount to cope with emotionally. It can be haunting and discomfiting. Not all readers want this.

The audience were invited to ask questions. It was mentioned that Tessa Hadley has said she approaches a novel as a series of short stories. Another writer stated that writing a good short story is harder than writing a novel. What do our three writers think of this?

David said that Tessa is wonderful as a short story writer and as a novelist. His answer was to do whatever gets the words down.

Clare told us that she did sort of the same thing with her novel which made it easier to write. Both forms are hard in different ways. It is easier to finish a short story but not necessarily to ensure it is good enough.

David mentioned that he is still writing a particular short story after eight years. He likes Anne Williams work. She will take many years to write a half page story to get the rhythm right.

Eley told us that she hasn’t yet finished writing a novel.

Clare suggested a novel was just bigger – a marathon rather than a sprint. With any type of writing, every time you think you’ve found an answer it outwits you.

The authors were asked if ordinary life is better represented in short stories.

Eley suggested the form was better for moments, for immersing the reader in a single experience or thought. With a novel that might cause a whiplash effect, which some writers such as Ali Smith can manage well.

David mentioned Italo Calvino who wrote fabulist short stories. Also Donald Barthelme whose ordinary tales would break out into the uncomfortable. All stories concentrate attention on reality, a world of feeling.

Clare talked of moments of conflict. Novels require background, incidentals. Stories are joyful to read if well done.

The authors were asked to choose their Desert Island Short Stories.

Eley mentioned Jonathan Gibbs’ on line personal anthologies to which more than fifty writers have now contributed.

Clare chose Lydia Davies as her collection is huge.

David chose Dubliners as it was Bloomsday, then changed his mind to add a massive book of folk tales from which so many other stories stem.

  

And with that we were out of time. This was an interesting event featuring three authors whose stories I have very much enjoyed. I hope that others from the audience visited the bookshop and discovered their work for themselves.

Book Review: How The Light Gets In

“the light’s been here all along, it’s always here, it’s just that you’re not always in a place where you can see it.”

How The Light Gets In, by Clare Fisher, is a collection of short stories that shine a light on individual experiences currently being lived in a UK city. They are fresh and at times mordantly funny. They put the reader inside the heads and hearts of the narrators.

textbook burglar offers a description of the feelings of relief, absence and expropriation following a broken relationship. Many of the stories deal with the disconnect between people, particularly those most cared for.

the thing about sheep conveys the need to understand those close to us, and the difficulty in accepting facets that do not segue with curated perceptions. Family members experience the same events differently.

Protagonists balance their desire to fit in with a crowd, the difficulty of doing so, with the easy option of staying home which can then feel like failure. They work hard and gain achievements that they wish others to acknowledge, watching as lesser accomplishments are remarked upon and celebrated by those around them. It is not unfairness but rather bewilderment, an unanswerable how and why.

Most of the stories are a mere page or two in length yet somehow delve into the complexities and variations of living day to day. Smartphones have become companions, the desire to have comments acknowledged online as necessary as to be noticed and accepted elsewhere.

how to talk about potholes looks at the relationship between parents and their grown up children, the concerns and difficulty of communication.

“we do care about our dad and we want to know: does he eat? Does he sleep? Does he feel a part of human life? Does he have hopes and plans for the future? But he will only reply by treating us to a slide show of that week’s most unusual potholes.”

Parents of young children remember how they once lived dangerously, indulged in escapades that they cannot now share.

Although dealing with a contained world these stories are broad in scope, mindful and searingly honest. They question norms and get below the surface. Even the most ordinary lives are coping with a myriad of complications.

This is a young, modern voice that delves deep into the heart of lived experiences in a contemporary city, exposing truths admitted to only in the deepest recesses of thought and feeling. The stories are personal, prolific and visceral. Relatable, readable and recommended.

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

Book Review: Dazzling the Gods

Dazzling the Gods, by Tom Vowler, is a collection of sixteen short stories. These are followed by Acknowledgements that offer a tantalising glimpse of plotlines that cry out to be expanded, which the author suggests is exactly where some of his tales have come from. He writes in rich, evocative prose and is not averse to commenting on his fellow writers and their craft. His observations on this, and the other themes he explores, are incisive.

In Lucca: Last Days of a Marriage, where the protagonist, who is an editor, contemplates the book he has been tasked with completing following the death of its author, he writes:

“What struck him most when he first read Pollex was that he could write, really write; so many books he edited were conceptually and structurally and tonally strong, would sell in significant number, but which neglected the music of a sentence, its ability to be affective rather than merely expository. Abstract instead of just literal. Pollex, he felt, troubled his sentences into existence, cared for them as one might a prized possession, or one’s child. He was a stylist who, until Lucca at any rate, knew when to get out of a sentence, knew when lyricism became onanism.”

Many of the stories are searing, their subjects’ suffering a backdrop that requires no further exposition. The reader is trusted to understand, perhaps to empathise. The plots play out how life goes on.

An Arrangement portrays a marriage where a husband’s illness has rendered him largely bedridden. They have agreed that the wife may occasionally seek solace elsewhere, the husband understanding her sacrifice and trying to be generous. Their pain is palpable as each tries to tamp down selfish needs. The suffering caused by chronic, debilitating illness has many aspects affecting all involved.

 Fly, Icarus, Fly opens with two young brothers who are with friends planning to steal birds’ eggs from nests, the casual cruelty to living creatures and boyish jostling for acceptance within a group all too real. When an accident puts paid to the afternoon’s wicked entertainment there remains the question of the cruelties inflicted on people, why the life of one creature is held sacrosanct when others are so thoughtlessly, or sometimes compassionately, terminated.

Certain of the stories are shocking, again without need for explication. Scene Forty-Seven is timely in out #metoo era – a director attempting to garner attention whatever the cost to his actors.

At the Musée dOrsay also explores the direction certain artists take, their need to shock to gain notice, and the complicity of those who support them. The privileged polish their vanities, their wish to be regarded as cultured, included in a rarefied world and at the cutting edge. This leads them to wax lyrical about grotesques, imagining them somehow worthy. It is their own standing they care about. In this story they take old friends along in an attempt to impress. Their hollowness is recognised yet set aside rather than being called out, the shocking truth denied in an attempt to avoid admitting connivance.

The Offspring Badge is a mix of mordant honesty and self-recriminatory poignancy. A recently divorced woman visits her first love in what appears to be his perfect, family home. Their history is significant given how their subsequent lives have played. Within the careful charade of politeness are the woman’s unspoken, caustic observations. Her lover has thrived while she has not. Her reason for visiting appears more flagellation than friendly curiosity.

Undertow is a story of survival. From an almost derelict house a man watches as a woman enters the sea and is dragged under. He rushes to her aid. There remains the unspoken question of why he did so when life remains harsh and challenging. Unlike many of the tales in the collection, this is one of hope rather than stoicism.

Short stories offer snapshots of lives and each of these are largely recognisable. There are elements of the surreal in places, such as the conclusion of Upgrade. Mostly though these tales are representative of man in his many inglorious attempts to shine. The redolent prose, imaginative portrayals and sympathetic rendering make them well worth reading.

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

Book Review: The Book of Riga

The Book of Riga is a collection of ten short stories written by Latvian authors and set in the country’s capital city. It opens with a history of the region written by a former president. As I am unfamiliar with the background and local culture, such information was of interest, although at times I still struggled to place each of the stories within the time-frame intended.

The authors write with a distinctive, Baltic voice yet their themes are universal. They explore the frustration protagonists feel at family, particularly the older generation with their undeviating demands and expectations.

In The Girl Who Cut My Hair a group of young people indulge in what they consider meaningful discussions whilst polishing their personal vanities and youthful if frivolous preoccupations.

“We were virgins with condoms in our handbags.
Our parents had not read either Freud or Henry Miller, absolutely not.
We were always at the ready – what if life should suddenly start?”

Westside Garden revolves around a place once owned by a wealthy family, now subdivided but still housing an elderly relic of that era. The events narrated differ between the lived experience and what is recalled with the benefit of hindsight and shared reminiscences. Sexual encounters are described as a sometimes necessary irritant. The women are still expected to adhere to a standard of presentation and behaviour.

“don’t fool around with slacks and bobbed haircuts, but act like a real woman.”

In The Birds of Kipsala Island, new build homes in the city housing young families and professionals are evocatively described

“like lockers in a gym changing room”

Within the changes imposed on the historic city, a creative community seek out places were they may indulge their conceits together. Self defined artists and intellectuals eventually realise

“no one in real life is as happy, as witty, or as capable of making sound judgements, as characters in fiction.”

The Shakes is set in an office where a successful businessman observes an increase in street demonstrations and tries to see into the future using history and detailed reasoning. In trying to draw his assistant into his endeavour he risks being seen as unhinged. She too feels something out of kilter in the air but prefers to perpetuate, while she can, the comfort of accepted roles and routines.

A White Jacket With Gold Buttons offers a picture of a writer’s hubris yet sensitivity to criticism, particularly from a rival he refuses to rate.

“Writing is, in a sense, close to psychoanalysis: the power of the written word comes exactly from the fact that an author spits out his most hidden feelings, without the shiny veneer that comes from pretending.”

The collection finishes with a supernatural tale, The Night Shift, that could be a metaphor for the realities of life, and inevitability of death.

The writing throughout presents with a distinctive cadence that is somewhat mordant yet arresting in the themes explored and characters developed. The city shines through as a beguiling survivor of its history, adapting whilst retaining its hold on certain citizens and visitors. I had never before considered visiting Riga. After reading this collection, I am tempted.

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

Book Review: Mayhem and Death

Mayhem & Death, by Helen McClory, is a collection of short stories, of varying length, from a writer whose bio informs us, ‘There is a moor and a cold sea in her heart.’ Her writing reflects this. It is rich in imagery, powerful and shadowed. Deep within the bowels of her carefully chosen words, reflections of the ordinary are made dark, lonely, threatening. However inspiring the view on the surface of an individual’s life may be, under McClory’s piercing gaze its desolate depths are revealed.

Yet these stories are deliciously compelling, an antidote for those who baulk at the recent trend for ‘Up Lit’, who wish to challenge their fears in our troubled times rather than escape them. Whilst offering a hat tip to the macabre in places, this collection revels in the living. Told with a scent of folklore in style, the tales remain vividly contemporary.

Automaton Town is one of the more surreal stories. The setting evokes a large country house – lawns, ballroom, servants. A model of a town is purchased, transported with some difficulty and set up for viewing. A key winds the mechanism and its components start to move. The resident family, riveted in their plush chairs, soon recognise the lives being modelled as actions and truths that generally go unnoticed are exhibited for all to see.

Such inventive thinking threads its way through many of the tales. In A Voice Spoke to Me at Night the narrator encounters a figure from the past and ponders why they have been chosen for this visitation. Their life is mundane, at times lonely, but largely nondescript. What is revealed is the generally unacknowledged determination of individuals to continue, however pointless daily life can at times appear. The tale is wistful yet retains a spirit of optimism.

Elements of the prose are akin to poetry and many of the stories allow for a degree of interpretation. The Expectation of a Job Well Done could be a metaphor for the sacrifices required to attain desired achievements, and how these will transform the subject. The protagonist willingly follows the instructions he is given, performing to an audience who remain indifferent to the damage he inflicts on himself. By the end he has become ‘other than he had been in all his days thus far’. It is not clear if these changes will be considered an improvement.

A favourite story of mine was The Romantic Comedy which opens with ‘You want the wrong things.’ The protagonist is the epitome of every heroine of romantic films, now determined to no longer acquiesce to her assigned role.

No more smiling on cue. No more men standing too close explaining how to exist, believing, if left to your own devices, you’d not quite manage such a feat.

She rides her horse away from the ‘town of unacknowledged debasement’ where she is regarded by a man who offers roses and then feels anger at her decision to choose autonomy.

Another tale I particularly enjoyed was Take Care, I Love You. This transcribes a section from the Wikipedia article on the Fermi Paradox and answers each point as though it were a questionnaire about the everyday. Somehow this innovative structure works, offering snapshots of how alienating modern living can be. It is poignant yet wryly amusing.

The collection finishes with a longer work, picking up on characters from the opening story. Powdered Milk imagines an experimental, deep water station that has been set up to study how a group of people would survive long term if cut off from everyone else, as would happen on a long space flight. Initially the carefully selected volunteers have internet access and regular supply drops. When these cease they are entirely on their own, not knowing if this cutoff has been planned, if it is a failure in the technology, or if there has been some cataclysmic event above. Thus they cannot be sure if their situation will ever change, if this is it until death. As a study in the purpose of hope, the need for a possibility of change, I found this story fascinating.

The themes and their presentation throughout are full, rich and impressive in scope and inventive thinking. There is a degree of experimentation but each tale remains accessible. This is a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

Book Review: Hollow Shores

Hollow Shores, by Gary Budden, is a collection of twenty-one short stories interlinked by people who, for a time at least, inhabit a stretch of the Kent coastline known as the Hollow Shore. The characters weave in and out of each other’s lives creating ripples whose effects are rarely understood by those involved. The place is walked through, escaped from and returned to. The stories are works of fiction but, as several of the offerings explore, although based on fact so are an individual’s memories.

The collection opens with Breakdown. On a cold, dark night a long distance lorry driver has a frightening encounter in the Black Forest of Germany. The reality of the experience is the effect it has more than the actuality of what is seen. The memory survives through the telling, the passing on to others who then appropriate the tale for themselves. Family history comes alive when it is retold, each version reflecting what is needed at that time by the narrator.

Saltmarsh presents the coastline through the eyes of a returner from London, who is walking the shoreline to meet an old friend. He is seeing the place afresh as he reflects on the direction his life has taken. His journey is not the seven mile hike but rather his ruminations along the way.

Further stories tell of a beached whale; of largely disregarded people who have become landmarks; of the spaces most will pass by without seeing. There are histories being made in the peripheries of each life lived.

Up and Coming expands on this theme. The protagonist is in a bar with friends waiting to attend a gig, observing those around him, realising that this moment will soon be a part of his past. He mourns the loss of a much loved venue, envies the young people who still have such memories to make. The author captures the judgements being silently made when others act in ways that differ from an individuals valued ideals. Impressions are often flawed, people’s intentions misunderstood. Despite time spent together few truly listen to what is being said, or seek out meaning behind silences. Later in life, when what was happening back then is discussed, there is surprise at what was missed despite being there.

The protagonists in these stories are mainly middle-aged so have awareness of time passing by. There is an undercurrent of regret, a longing for what can now feel out of reach. Relationships flounder as needs are neglected or missed.

Key characters recur in many of the stories set in different times and places. Told from varying points of view the reader gets to know these people, although in snapshots rather than fully developed, much like meeting old friends.

The writing is perceptive and pithy. From the title story:

“Julie left on Christmas Day. Married for three years, together for five. Upped and left with the gravy and roast potatoes still steaming on our clean new flooring, uneaten evidence of the final argument. What a waste of food.”

In this story the protagonist chats to a local drunk who comments about passersby, ‘They didn’t listen’ – who does? Eventually he must move back to his childhood bedroom, live with his Telegraph reading parents, listen to his mother update him on people he has no interest in. Yet he discovers that the town he was so desperate to escape from as a teenager now has a certain appeal.

The idea that people are rarely known even by loved ones is taken a step further in Mission Drift which features a man infiltrating a group of suspected activists by living amongst them undercover. Despite being a married father, he lives with one of the group and has a child with her. He wonders how many others are living like him, if he knows them without knowing.

I loved the language and mood of this book, the essence of life captured alongside the sense of place. From The Wrecking Days:

“The name came later, as we retrofitted chunks of our lives and tied them up with clever titles. We were underachievers with verbal flair, lyrical flourishes and a sharp wit, packaging our time into neat parcels. The wrecking days are, for most of us at least, safely compartmentalised, sitting in a past as unrecoverable as the eroding waterline of a home I haven’t visited in years.”

People inevitably change over time and so do places, but what is remembered is as fictional as perceptions of the present day. These stories succinctly capture the importance of life’s mundanities. They are incisive, intriguing and impressively affecting.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, dead ink.