Elephant by Raymond Carver

I’d never read Raymond Carver before Elephant, but fell in love with his minimalist approach in this collection featuring the final seven stories he wrote. Carver’s language is deceptively simple, and sunk its claws into me unlike any writer I’ve read in years. I finished Elephant and immediately wanted to devour more; promptly ordered in his other collections, which I’ll sprinkle into my reading throughout the year.

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Review: She Is Haunted by Paige Clarke

Paige Clarke’s “She Is Haunted” is an exceptional collection of short stories that blend speculative fiction with everyday adversities and traumas. They entertain, challenge and move: sometimes devastatingly, sometimes satirically, and always inventively. They excavate themes of mortality, grief, loss, and identity. 

In the opener, “Elizabeth Kubler-Ross,” a mother bargains with God to keep her unborn child. In my favourite of the 18 stories, “Gwendolyn Wakes,” we meet a super-efficient worker at a government department that provides relationship advice via surveys, who turns out to be as fallible as the rest of us when it comes to relationships. 

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Review: Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

When she approaches a table of strangers she mistakenly assumes have crashed her friend’s birthday party in “White Women LOL,” the first of three stories in Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Help Yourself,” Jill is aware she is “trying harder than usual — harder than she would have with a group of white people — to seem friendly and diplomatic.” Her motivations for dispelling the group are honest, her methodology rather more questionable, and the situation devolves into a cataclysmic misunderstanding. Her tense exchange with the group is recorded, and proves incendiary online, establishing her as the latest pin-up of white privilege, which is a label Jill marinates over, recollecting every interaction she’s ever had with a black person as she tries to establish her place on the spectrum of racism, much to the chagrin of her blasé husband, who’s dismissive of her plan for redemption, which involves finding the missing shih tzu of a local black celebrity.

In “Creative Differences,” a young photographer named Melissa wrestles with art and commerce, deliberating over the compromises she must make to achieve her ultimate goal. A while back her series on black pre-schoolers went viral, and now a producer from Wichita is shooting a documentary on American creativity, and Melissa is one of its subjects. The opportunity offers great exposure, but Melissa is adamant brushing her teeth on camera — as mandated in her contract  — is a seismic concession, and a devastating blow to her artistic integrity.

“Great literature was never written by a beautiful woman,” Ruthie heard more than one in her postgrad creative writing course. Many years later, now a bestselling author of women’s fiction, and the narrator of “Show, Don’t Tell,” she reminisces on her anxieties clashing with the gallingly indestructible  entitlement and elitism of her male cohorts.

The women at the centre of Sittenfeld’s stories are navigating their aspirations alongside society’s expectations, complications and inequalities. These bite-sized snapshots of their lives offer nuanced commentary on the complexities of gender politics, race and commercialism. I just wish the collection was heftier.

ISBN: 9780857527479
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 96
Published: 29th September 2020

Review: Pure Hollywood by Christine Schutt

As a reader, I don’t want to work too hard. I can’t stand obliqueness. I want a writer to tell their story precisely and lucidly. If I can’t easily extrapolate character motivations, their emotions, or what is happening to them, I begin to feel like I’m treading water in a churning sea of esotericism. Which is how I felt about Christine Schutt’s collection of stories, “Pure Hollywood.” As aesthetically pleasing as her writing is —with a laser-like, poetic focus on sound and imagery, Schutt concocts immaculately bejewelled sentences — there is an evasiveness to her writing that renders its powers inert. Rather than feeling fulfilled, this collection hollowed me out.

I realise, of course, this is a reflection of my taste rather than Schutt’s literary powers. The eleven stories on offer in “Pure Hollywood” are thematically linked by their snapshots of familial dysfunction, loss, and grief. They vary in length, some shredded to micro-fiction level. My favourite, or at least the most impactful (and certainly most haunting) is “The Hedges,” about an unhappy couple vacationing with their sick and cranky toddler, in which Schutt masterfully foreshadows an incident that occurs in the climactic paragraph. The titular novella is a standout too, detailing the complicated fallout of the death of a woman’s much older husband, specifically as it relates to her step-children and her brother.

I am keen to read one of Schutt’s novels, if only to determine whether it’s the brevity of the tales in “Pure Hollywood” or her style I found so prohibitive. Perhaps to enjoy these stories one requires a level of intense concentration I’m incapable of. Whatever the reason, few of these stories connected with me on any level at all.

ISBN: 9780802127617
ISBN-10: 0802127614
Audience: General
Format: Hardcover
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 144
Published: 13th March 2018

Review: Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

Originally a 2020 release, the publication of “Smokehouse” has been pushed back to 2021

“Smokehouse,” Melissa Manning’s superb debut collection of intertwined short stories, takes a novel’s worth of emotional density, strips away all the fat, and crushes what’s left into ten masterfully poignant tales. Two titular pieces (that would comprise an amazing novella all on their own) bookend eight vignettes set mostly in southern Tasmania.

Hollywood has engendered a cinematic scope to the life-changing moments that shape our lives, but “Smokehouse” evocates these turning points in far more realistic and subtle fashion. The characters in each of Manning’s stories endure a transformative experience. For Nora, in “Smokehouse: Part One” it’s her husband’s decision to move their family to the coastal town of Kettering, on the D’Entrecasteaux Channel opposite Bruny Island. Dissatisfied with the trajectory of her life, and disenfranchised by her marriage, it is here she meets Ollie, and begins a relationship that obliterates the life she had. “Smokehouse: Part Two” explores this relationship many years later, as a neurodegenerative disease unthreads the happy tapestry they’ve knitted together.   

In “Nao,” the death of a Japanese woman’s adoptive mother resurrects her childhood memories, and unlocks long-concealed grief and trauma. In “Faal,” Gurj arrives at a restaurant for his blind date “carrying the wight of low expectations.” Before the night is over, Graham has leaned across the table and kissed Gurj full on the lips, sealing their fate. And on it goes, Manning delicately and affectingly memorializing the manner in which the places we live and the people we meet shape our destinies.

Manning demonstrates unerring control of her craft. The length of the stories in this collection varies, but their richness does not.

Format: Paperback
Publication: 30 Mar 2021
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
ISBN: 9780702263026

Review: Strange Weather by Joe Hill

9781473221185Joe Hill follows up his brilliant epic The Fireman (one of my favourite books last year) with a collection of four novellas guaranteed to enthrall, and in one particular case, utterly chill its readers.

Strange Weather highlights a terrifying truth: real world terrors far outweigh the horrific manifestations of our nightmares. Three of the stories in this collection, linked thematically by diverse weather phenomena affecting their worlds, demonstrate Hill’s peerless imagination and uncanny ability to make the impossible scary as hell, chill the blood of his readers, and make their hearts race with fear. In Rain, a blissful Colorado day turns into Hell on Earth when needles begin pouring from the sky in place of rain. In Snapshot, an elderly neighbour warns a young boy about “the Polaroid Man” whose camera seems to be stealing memories. In Aloft, instead of rocketing through sky and clouds, a sky-diver find himself stranded on an alien cloud on which his memories and desires come to life in ephemeral form.

But it’s the second short story, Loaded, that proves the most resonant and disturbing, and oddly enough, free of any semblance of paranormal trappings. It’s real, and its terrifying. Recounting his almost-palpable disgust for America’s gun laws, Hill’s tale  recounts a decade-long history of gun violence and racism and domestic abuse in a Florida town through the actions of a mall cop. It’s an utterly creepy, horrific story, and its ending made my stomach lurch. It’s Joe Hill writing at the peak of his powers.

The four novellas that comprise Strange Weather are dark, unpredictable, and altogether entertaining. After the gargantuan The Fireman and NOS4A2, it’s a treat seeing Hill excel at the shorter form.

ISBN: 9781473221185
Format: Paperback (232mm x 154mm x 32mm)
Pages: 448
Imprint: Gollancz
Publisher: Orion Publishing Co
Publish Date: 31-Oct-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

9781911215370I’m a late Murakami convert. My first sample of his work – 2014’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – inspired a marathon of Murkami madness over the next eighteenth, solidifying my adoration of his imagination and his spare, unadorned prose. It lead to the devout proclamation:  whatever Haruki Murakami writes, I will read. So when Men Without Women arrived in store, there was no pause for deliberation: I slapped my money down on the counter and slipped my copy of the short story collection into my bag. There was no doubt in my mind: my commute over the next couple of days would be a delight.

In the seven stories that comprise this collection, Murakami explores themes of adultery, friendship, alienation and sex through the perspective of emotionally isolated men. Perhaps they’re struggling in the aftermath of a faded love, unable to cope with their subsequent loneliness; perhaps they are men who’ve never experienced love, but are desperate for its touch; or men who are in love, but fear its loss, and how its annulment might ruin their lives. The women in these tales are never fully realised, almost entirely eponymous. They serve as potential saviours, or narrative devices, to demonstrate the stuntedness of the male protagonists.

Murakami’s prose is as delectable as ever, though it only serves to highlight the bleakness of most of these stories. Men Without Women is eminently readable, and rife with the author’s recurrent motifs, but lacks the sparkle, if not the general potency, of his other short stories. Of course, readers’ mileage may vary. One thing’s for certain: these are stories that beg for discussion. Add this one to your reading group list.

ISBN: 9781911215370
Format: Hardback (222mm x 144mm x 25mm)
Pages: 240
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 9-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom

Review: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

9780241287972Anything is Possible is a luminous collection of short stories tied to Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton,  which told the story of a hospitalised novelist — the titular Lucy — coming to terms with her destitute childhood during evasive conversations with her estranged mother. It was a delectably quiet, understated, but powerful novella; one of those books you read, and enjoy, but only fully appreciate once you’ve let it marinate.

Anything is Possible is kind of, but not exactly, a sequel to My Name is Lucy Barton. It is set in and around Lucy’s hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and indeed, she features as a main character in one of the stories. But this book has more of a connection to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge than My Name is Lucy Barton, in that is comprised of distinct, but interconnected short stories, each of which delves into the minutiae of small-town life.

The book focuses on the complexities, ambiguities and vulnerabilities of everyday people. As with any collection of short stories, some are more resonant than others. Sister — featuring Lucy Barton, her sister Vicky, and brother Pete — is worth the cover price alone (even for those who’ve not read My Name is Lucy Barton); so too the final story, Gift, which stars the Barton’s second cousin Abel. Really, they’re all gems, each of the nine stories demonstrating Strout’s incredible gift. Her understated prose cuts through to the core brilliantly.

ISBN: 9780241287972
Format: Hardback (198mm x 129mm x mm)
Pages: 280
Imprint: Viking
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
Publish Date: 4-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom


Review: The Martini Shot (& Other Stories) by George Pelecanos

Martini ShotThe Martini Shot features eight compelling portraits of lives touched by, and in some cases embedded in, crime. George Pelecanos provides unflinching insight into the cognizant and inadvertent decisions and actions that can derail lives, and shift a person from the straight-and-narrow to a darker path. There are no heroes and villains in this collection: just people, reacting to their circumstances in various ways, and suffering (or succeeding) because of it.

The Confidential Informant involves a street-wise kid and his twisted desire to make his father proud. The plan he hatches to claim a $1,000 reward for information regarding a recent murder has devastating consequences; but the kid’s quest for redemption in the eyes of his father makes for enthralling reading, and proves to be one of the collection’s best. Chosen chronicles the lives of a Greek-American couple and their adopted trio of sons, the youngest of who is Sepro Lucas (who will of course be familiar to veteran Pelenacos readers). It provides fascinating insight into character’s backstory, but doesn’t add anything vital to the Lucas mythos. Despite the lack of action and a real narrative thrust, it’s a highly entertaining sojourn into the past.

String Music offers parallel narratives: Tonio Harris, who has made an enemy of some very bad people, and Sergeant Peters who makes it his business to protect the kid. It’s a snapshot of life on the street, revealing the harsh, gritty reality of both sides of the law; essentially, Pelecanos doing what he does best.

When You’re Hungry shifts locales, set in Brazil, where an alleged murder victim has been sighted and a crack insurance investigator is dispatched to provide confirmation. Along the way he makes some misinformed alliances, and suddenly this simple job in this apparent paradise takes a darker turn. One of my favourites, Miss Mary’s Room, again sees Pelecanos spotlighting life on the street, and the ruthlessness required to survive. The narrator’s callous attitude towards the intended murder of his friend is chilling; so too his final words. Plastic Paddy, meanwhile, recalls the dangers a group of friends faced while smoking dope in their youth, and how meaningless that time of their lives was.

The Dead Their Eyes Implore Us dips into the world of Nick Stefanos (a Pelecanos regular) and stars an immigrant who struggles to build a meaningful life in America; a task made even harder when he takes it upon himself to enact vengeance on the person who killed his friend.

The title novella, The Martini Shot, sees a TV writer / producer, Vic, tracking down the men who killed his gaffer – a drug dealer (albeit an amiable one). Pelecanos clearly utilizes knowledge garnered from his time on The Wire and producing his own independent films, using lingo most of us aren’t be familiar with. It’s a solid story, but is padded in comparison to the other stories, and lacks that special something because of this.

The seven short stories, plus novella, are a tour de force from George Pelecanos. For new readers, a satisfactory introduction to his work; for long-time readers, an enjoyable appetizer until his next full-length release.