Review 1863: Not the End of the World

I was fairly sure I had read everything by Kate Atkinson, but I couldn’t remember Not the End of the World. So, I decided to revisit it.

This collection of stories is a relatively early book. Some of the stories are apocalyptic or macabre, some have an element of magical realism, some are whimsical, some capture a moment in ordinary life. Although the stories stand alone, some of them are linked by recurring characters or by more subtle means. I suspect, if you were very attentive, you could find many links. For example, in the first story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” the two have a conversation about wedding favors that is repeated in “Wedding Favors” between two different characters. And is the accident driven past by a character in one story the one that kills another character in another story?

Atkinson’s prose is, as always, witty and vivid. I found a few of the characters, like the battling teenage siblings in “Dissonance,” irritating but realistic. On the other hand, a boy who looks like a fish turns out to be the son of Triton. A bold girl removes a cloak from an old lady and the old lady disintegrates. A dead woman tries to get back her life. An adopted alley cat grows bigger and bigger and bigger.

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Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1779: Sudden Traveler

I enjoyed Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, so I was looking forward to reading her Sudden Traveler for my James Tait Black project. I sometimes have an uneasy relationship with short stories, though.

This thin book is a collection of seven stories. Some of them are slices of life, but others are more fantastic.

In “M,” a woman who was raped as a child transforms into a powerful creature that disposes of men who prey on the helpless.

In “The Woman the Book Read,” a man spots a woman he knew as a little girl on the beach in Turkey. He remembers how much he cared for her when he was engaged to her mother.

In “The Grotesques,” Dilly witnesses the humiliation of a local drunk.

“Who Pays” is quite mystical. Set in the Middle East, it is about village women who figure out a way to circumvent another war.

In “Orton,” a woman decides to disable her pacemaker in the town of her childhood.

“Sudden Traveler” is about a young mother burying her own mother.

I found some of the stories perplexing and “Live That You May Live” is one of them. It’s about a mother telling a terrifying story to her little girl.

The Wolf Border

Slipping

Nocturnes

Review 1758: Too Good To Be True

In looking for more to read by Ann Cleeves, I wasn’t aware that I had ordered something between a short story and a novella, packaged under the name of Quick Reads. This little volume cost almost as much as a regular paperback and took about a half hour to read.

At the request of his ex-wife Sarah, Jimmy Perez travels to the border town of Stonebridge. Here a young teacher, Anna Blackwell, has been found dead, an apparent suicide. Sarah is concerned because the village rumor mill is alleging that her husband Tom was having an affair with Anna. Sarah hasn’t helped the situation by heading a drive to remove her from her position.

When Jimmy investigates the crime scene, he finds some evidence to indicate that Anna may have been murdered. Also, a mysterious stranger seems to be following him.

I am not really a fan of mystery short stories, because I enjoy all the things that the short story in that genre has little time for, character development, atmosphere, and so on. As it turns out, the motive for this murder seems unbelievably flimsy. I don’t think I’ll be purchasing any more of these Quick Reads.

White Nights

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Review 1552: The Beadworkers

The Beadworkers is a collection of short stories but also some poems and a play about the experience of American indigenous peoples in the Northwest, past and present. These works provide insight into religion, thinking, and beliefs of these peoples. Most of the stories are set in Oregon.

Many of the stories center around feasts. The first entries, a poem called “Feast I” and a story called “Feast II,” are about the importance of water. “Feast III” is about Mae, a woman who has decided to become a migrant laborer after the death of her husband.

“The News of the Day” is set in 19th century Boston, where Charles and his roommate are studying. On the same day, they receive news of family deaths, Marcel’s father from illness in Paris, Charles’s family in a battle of the Indian Wars.

In “Fish Wars,” set in the 1970’s, a schoolgirl fears her parents are getting a divorce. In actuality, her father is fishing and getting arrested for it in hopes of winning rights to fish in ancestral waters.

One of my favorites was “Beading Lesson,” in which an aunt instructs her niece in how to make beaded earrings, all the while mildly regretting that her sister, the girl’s mother, never learned to bead. In “wIndin!” an artistic young woman designs a Native American version of monopoly and tells about her relationship with Trevor, a Yakama gay man. Another favorite is “Katydid,” about the relationship between two young women, one who has abandoned her family because of their brutality, the other who has been abandoned by them.

Many of the stories evoke a sense of loss, as in “Falling Crows,” about the family’s reaction to a young man returned maimed from war, but most of them end in affirmation of some kind.

These stories are powerful and sparely written. Except for the final play, a reworking of “Antigone,” I really enjoyed them.

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Review 1548: Daddy: Stories

The description of Daddy says that its stories explore the balance of power between the sexes. I did not find that to be the theme of every story, although it is for some. The book does explore the psyche of some unlikable people, many of whom are privileged and belong to show business or to the edges of the business. This is a world I’m not much interested in, so I felt little connection to these stories.

In “What Can You Do with a General,” John, who used to have anger issues, struggles to connect with his grown children over the holidays. In “Los Angeles,” Alice, a sales girl for a small store that plays up sexy women in the dress of its employees and its decor, begins selling her own underwear to men. In “Menlo Park,” Ben, who was fired from his job in disgrace, runs into trouble again while editing the autobiography of a controlling millionaire. In “Son of Friedman,” a once-famous director attends the opening of his son’s abysmal film with his old best friend, a still-famous actor. In “Nanny,” Kayla deals with the fall-out of having been caught having an affair with her married employer, a movie star.

link to NetgalleyAnd so on. I can see that the stated theme works for most of these stories except “Son of Friedman,” which, as with some other stories, is about the relationship between fathers and children. I found this collection disappointing after Cline’s excellent novel, The Girls.

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Review 1531: The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham

I picked up this collection of gothic stories from the library so that I could read one of them, “The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” for the 1920 Club. Then I decided to read the rest of this beautifully presented book.

It’s hard for me to know what to say about it, because this type of gothic horror story, which used to appear in such magazines as Weird Tales, is just not my thing. On the other hand, it is almost definitely for people who like this genre. I prefer my scary stories to be about things that could happen or about ghosts, but Lovecraft is clearly drawn to grotesque creatures, dark family histories of the most freakish, and ancient rituals and beliefs become reality.

That he was deeply knowledgeable in the latter and often based his stories in actual locations or history is attested to by the many annotations and pictures in the margins of this book. That his writing is heavily dependent on description, some of it highly florid, is also certain. He loves using adjectives and adverbs, many of them unlikely, such as describing ruins as “hideously ancient.” In fact, he seems to have a fascination and repugnance for old things, both at the same time—or at least his narrators do.

The earlier stories are very short, only a couple of pages, while the later ones get longer and longer, so that I finished about half of the book but more than 3/4 of the stories.

Some of the more notable stories are “The Shunned House,” based on an actual house in Providence, in which the inhabitants seem to die off; “The Rats in the Walls,” combining a haunted house story with one of his favorite themes of a dark, hidden family history; and “The Outsider,” about a being who discovers he lives in a crypt. One of the stories, “Ex Oblivione,” described as a prose poem, I was unable to finish, but the rest were entertaining enough, just not my thing.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her café when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1496: #1920Club: The Doom That Came to Sarnath

“The Doom That Came to Sarnath,” which I read for the 1920 Club, was my introduction to H. P. Lovecraft, whom I’ve read about for years. Based on this one story, I can’t really say much about Lovecraft’s work, but I intend to read all of the book it came in, The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft: Beyond Arkham.

The short story is written in archaic language that is supposed to remind us, and does, of old stories and legends. It tells how men came to live near the ancient city of Ib, occupied by green, voiceless beings with bulging eyes, and destroyed the city and all its inhabitants, and how its sea green idol disappeared. There the men founded the city of Sarnath.

Later, the city becomes wealthy and so beautiful that people from other cities visit it. But doom was foretold with the original actions of the men, and on the city’s thousandth anniversary . . . . Well, I won’t tell.

I get the impression just from the notes on this annotated edition that Lovecraft invented whole worlds that he returned to in other stories. The story is atmospheric but very short and not particularly scary or disturbing.

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