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Category Archive for 'Short Stories'

#1 on my list of Favorites for 2015! Powerful, climactic moments, both physical and emotional, pervade these stories, which are dramatic and thought-provoking in their emphasis on the various ways of looking at traumatic incidents while recognizing that there are always unknowns that creep into the reality of such events. The title novella is a classic, and three additional stories of varying lengths add to this unforgettable collection about points of view and the impossibility of ever knowing for sure what the essence of reality really is and why its interpretation differs among people who have participated in the same events but come to different conclusions. The stories come alive through McCann’s matchless ability to describe places and recreate lives through dialogue.

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Hilary Mantel has never hesitated to say exactly what she means, and her descriptive abilities leave no room for doubt about exactly why she believes as she does. Though she is praised for her elegant turns of phrase when those are appropriate, she is equally skilled at stating, in no uncertain terms, her opinions about less elegant subjects. When Mantel’s recent short story collection, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was first published in September, 2014, Mantel found herself on the front News page of the London Daily Mail, having done the unthinkable by imagining a story in which a man with Irish ties decides to assassinate the then-Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher had died only a year before the story was published, and the public and many politicians were outraged by this story. Mantel held her ground, telling the Guardian in 2014 that she “feels boiling detestation” for Thatcher and considers her an “antifeminist psychological transvestite who did long-standing damage to the UK.” In comparison to these remarks, the short story of “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” feels almost tame, however dark or ill-advised it may have been. Death, marriage, infidelity, psychiatric ailments, the writing life, book clubs, and issues of adolescence, among other themes dominate these stories, but Mantel writes with a rapier in her hand, often turning a seemingly innocent scene into a scene of dark twists and sometimes ironic humor.

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Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin. Marra is not writing a political history, however. Instead, he concentrates on the ordinary people who live in three different parts of the former Soviet Union during this time period, recreating the atmosphere of everyday life during this period, with all its fears and privations. In the later sections of the book, especially in the story “The Grozny Tourist Bureau, his sense of satire and dark humor rise to the fore, showing the absurdities which the main characters themselves recognize as they are determined to rebrand Chechnya, the most devastated city on earth, as “the Dubai of the Caucasus.” Equally important in this story, however, are the stories of some characters whose future the reader comes to care about. Set in Russia during the period that begins after the death of Lenin, the earliest stories show the strict Communist Party rule, its control of all aspects of life and thinking, and the country’s economic hardships under Josef Stalin. Later stories make references to Nikita Krushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, and Mikhail Gorbachev, the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, and the rise of Boris Yeltsin and his successor, Vladimir Putin.

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Swedish author Per Petterson dedicates the ten short stories of Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes (1987) to his own father in his first published book, creating a lovely and loving portrait of a father, his young son, and a few other members of their family as they go about their everyday lives in 1960s Sweden. Main character Arvid, who will go on to star in some later books by Petterson, is six years old in the collection’s opening story, growing to the age of ten by its conclusion, a hypersensitive child who notices and cares about the family around him even as he is also aware of how much he depends on them. Arvid’s unique point of view, his life, and his reactions to events in these stories, though perhaps more emotional than what most other children his age experience, are nevertheless so plausible and filled with heart that one cannot help believing that many of the happenings here were real and that the stories are somewhat autobiographical. Seeming to breathe on their own, they need very little exposition to work their magic and draw in the reader, to whom they feel somehow familiar, no matter how the time, setting, and action may differ from our own. A very small book, with very short stories, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes carries a disproportionately large impact, a debut which clearly presages the enormous success this author would eventually have in the literary world.

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Irony is too mild a word to describe the twists, surprises, and reversals which bring this book so wildly alive that it is almost impossible to believe the book is not written by a contemporary author. The characters, each of whom is beautifully delineated and brought to life within the limited context of a particular place and imagined time, not only feel real but reflect the universal concerns of human beings around the world, regardless of class or culture. Originally published in 1935-36, the book is as witty, relevant – and, in places, even darkly humorous – as any recent book I can think of, and the novella, from which the book gets its title, and the two stories, with all the imagery they conjure up, constantly reinforce the impression that the author is smirking in the background as we read. Though readers often characterize Japanese literary fiction as being restrained and refined, Tanizaki’s exuberance bursts those bounds and challenges stereotypes, both in tone and in subject matter. In the three stories in this book, he focuses on ordinary people, not aristocrats, trying to get by as well as they can, a focus which allows the author to use colloquial language and write about earthy and sometimes inelegant subjects.

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