There Once Lived A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (translated from the original Russian by Anna Summers)

ThereOnceLivedAGirl“This is what happened…”  Suddenly, we’re transported into a warm, cramped kitchen. We wrap our hands around a mug of coffee, move our faces over the rim and breath in the steam.  Close your eyes for a moment. Then lean forward with eager anticipation.  That is the kind of intimacy Ludmilla Petrushevskaya conjures with just four words.  “This is what happened.”  Her newest short story collection There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself: Love Stories is about what happened to who, where so-and-so ended up, and you will not believe what I heard.  In a way, these are the stories that we tell each other everyday. Only Petrushevskaya’s narrator is telling them to us from the Soviet Moscow.

In reality, life doesn’t stop with a wedding, with a heroic action, or with happy coincidence, as in films, when a certain person misses his boat (Titanic) or, as in this case, when an unmarried woman of thirty-five decades decides to keep the child born of a random tryst with a boy of twenty.

That is where Ludmilla Petrushevskaya was born in 1938.  Events from her life could easily be confused with the plots of her stories.  Cramped, communal apartments; abandonment; hunger; death; poverty; and the constant, daily struggle to survive with soul intact – these are the dioramas she constructs for us out of her own experiences. 

Polina’s life reached its final, happy phase when her aunt died and left Polina an inheritance.

And (as the title tells us) there’s also love, though mostly of the maternal variety.  Despite (or perhaps because of) Petrushevskaya’s familiarity with the hardships of the men and women – mostly women – who she writes about, the stories aren’t depressing.  Just the opposite.  Like all “good” gossip, they contain both irony and the desire to entertain.  The storytellers are devoid of malice, speaking with the sing-song cadence of a nursery rhyme.  And while not all her characters find happiness, I believe they do achieve their fair portion of fulfillment.

At an age when most girls are sensitive to beauty and look for it everywhere, Clarissa was a primitive, absent-minded creature who stared openmouthed at trivial things, like the teacher wiping off the blackboard, and God knows what thoughts ran through her head.

There Once Was A Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, And He Hanged Himself opens with Loving Petrushevskay, an introduction written by the translator Anna Summers.  All stories need to stand on their own merit but having context can rewarding, particularly with this author.  Because many of these stories contain the seed of autobiography.  For a time Petrushevskay and her mother lived under a desk belonging to a madman (who happened to also be her grandfather). Though it’s not central to that story, one of her characters does the same.  That can’t be an isolated occurence.

A mother brought her girl to a sanatorium for sickly children and then left.  I was that girl.

Ludmilla’s 2009 collection of short stories:  There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (which I have not read) was subtitled “a collection of scary fairytales”.  It made the New York Times bestseller list. I wouldn’t be surprised if this book did the same.  Everything about this second collection is designed to engage and entertain… to draw the reader in and keep him.

Now pay attention.  This is what happened…

Publisher:  Penguin Books, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 14 312152 7

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

The Rise of the Short Story – RobAroundBooks

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Rob is a self-proclaimed “literary evangelist” whose website, RobAroundBooks is truly a place of literary worship.  From his castle in Scotland (and with his trusty wolfhound at his feet)* Rob reviews the best of literary fiction, translations, essays and – apropos – short fiction.  Below he shares his love for this oft under-appreciated literary form, his thoughts on why readers might have shied away from short fiction in the recent past and his hopes that short stories will continue to grow in popularity for the foreseeable future.

There’s definitely been an upturn in interest in short fiction in the past year or so and this is heartening, but I think we still have a long way to go before the short story is embraced by the majority, despite it being in my opinion the most accessible literary form we have, in an age where so many other things are vying for our attention.

The problem I think, lies with people having a perception that they can only enjoy an immersive and involving reading experience with longer works of fiction. I appreciate that people like to climb into the skin of characters and walk with them on a long and winding road of a novel, but hidden beneath the surface of a well written short story is as much immersion and involvement as any reader can take, and it’s all wrapped up in a concentrated form, making it all the more potent and intense.

Thankfully, due to advances in technology which are facilitating a wider distribution and exposure to the form (mainly through ereaders, tablets and smartphones etc.), more and more readers are beginning to see the light when it comes to short fiction. They’re realising just how powerful and rewarding short stories can be, and how satisfying it is to able to consume an entire literary creation in a single bite, without having to return to it.

The short story is certainly regaining the popularity it once had, and publishers are cottoning on to this, but there still exists much hesitancy. Thankfully, there are a few brave souls out there leading the way (in the UK – Bloomsbury, Salt Publishing and the Bristol Review of Books, for instance), and what with literary awards such as the Costa Book Awards picking up on the interest, the picture just keeps getting rosier.

I adore short fiction for all the reasons I’ve stated above, but mainly because I think it’s the purest and most glorious of literary forms. There are certainly plenty of masters out there that one could read in order to get an education on this (such as Anton Chekhov and Guy de Maupassant who explore every aspect of the human condition, through to contemporaries such as Simon Van Booy and Alexander MacLeod who are breathtaking in their ability to paint incredible pictures with words), but an absolute favourite of mine is Kevin Barry and his riotous collection, There Are Little Kingdoms. In my mind there is no better short story writer alive today, and with this collection Barry offers a taste of a marginal side of Ireland that one is unlikely to forget. Alternately, if one is looking for a more general survey on the short story, then one can’t go far wrong in picking up a copy of the Oxford Book of Short Stories, edited by the late, great V.S. Pritchett.

Rob’s recommendations:  There Are Little Kingdoms by Kevin Barry & The Oxford Book of Short Stories edited by V.S. Pritchett.  Rob has a whole section of his site dedicated to Short Fiction, where you can read more of his short story reviews and recommendations.

Thank you Rob for sharing your thoughts and adding to our TBR piles!

*Rob has repeatedly (and patiently) explained to me via Twitter that he does not live in a castle.  Nor does he own a wolfhound.  And yet the dream lives!  You, too, can follow Rob (who does live in Scotland) on Twitter @RobAroundBooks

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Coming Soon – The Rise of the Short Story

TheRISEoftheShortStoryDostoevsky.  F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Italo Calvino. Borges. Joyce.  Salinger. Pynchon. Oates.  What do all these authors have in common?  Every one of them is a phenomenal short story writer.  There was a time during the early 20th century when young authors built their reputations on the pages of  periodicals like Harper’s, The Saturday Evening Post, and The New Yorker.  And then things got a little quiet.

The last few years, though, has seen a resurgence of interest in this oft under-appreciated literary form.

Beginning this Friday and running for the entire month of February, BookSexy Review will feature The Rise of the Short Story – a series dedicated to discussing and exploring this short story renaissance.

To that end I’ve invited some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’ve come back into vogue, and to leave us with some recommendations (of course!).

See you on Friday!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Monkey Business (new writing from japan) – volume 01 / 2011

If you know me, then you probably know of my obsession with podcasts.  The latest and greatest being the Three Percent Podcast, hosted by Chad Post from Open Letter Books and Tom Roberge from New Directions.  I couldn’t give you a reason why I like listening to these guys – other than the great recommendations for translated lit and their knowledge of random (and frightening) facts:  such as the Power Rangers have been around for at least 13 seasons (actually 19).   Chad’s baseball enthusiasm cracks me up, Tom comes off as a bit of a misanthrope which I find even funnier.  Together they’re just a great team. I encourage you to listen to them.

One excellent recommendation they made was the Japanese literary magazine Monkey Business.  The title comes from an old Chuck Berry song.  It’s an editorial collaboration between Motoyuki Shibata (editor of the Japanese edition) and Ted Goossen (who translates of 9 of the 14 stories collected in Volume 01).  You can purchase a copy through A Public Space ‘s website.

I think for most readers the immediate draw will be a 2008 interview with Haruki Murakami, conducted by the Japanese novelist Hideo Furukawa.  But the short stories, poetry and haikus – many involving monkeys – will hook the adventurous reader.  These Japanese authors are incredibly visceral, both in their subject matter and descriptions.  Squeamish beware!  Some of the plots border on the bizarre.  Monsters, deformities, mythology and horror are all par for the course.

What I enjoyed most was style in which the stories are told, which is entirely different from anything I’m used to.  They made me think in new ways (if that makes sense?).  I imagine repeat readings will uncover ideas and points I’d missed the first go around.

As I said, Volume 1 is still available.  Volume 2 (I believe) will be out Spring, 2012.  If you’re looking for an overview of or a quick introduction to Japanese literature… or just something out of the norm… Monkey Business is a good place to start.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Guadalajara by Quim Monzó (translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush)

Quim Monzó’s  (a Catalan author)  book, Guadalajara, contains 14 short stories – divided into five parts and grouped according to common themes. Unusual care seems to have been taken in considering the order they are arranged in.  It’s a stunning collection – and one of my favorite books of 2011.

The comparisons that immediately come to mind are Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. All three collections contain densely written stories, with plots constructed around abstract ideas rather than narrative action. All three authors write clear, almost elegant, sentences and tell their stories in formal, polite tones. But Monzó’s writing  also reminds me of the (unlikely) American author: John Cheever. Cheever, whose stories unfold slowly.  His carefully crafted plots begin in one place or with one idea, but morph and evolve into somewhere (something) entirely unexpected.  The classic Cheever example being The Swimmer, in which our perception of the main character changes in harmony with the landscape he travels through.

Another trait that Cheever & Monzó share is their fondness of what my high school English teacher liked to call “little epiphanies” –  subtle and startling moments of revelation – ideas that overtake the story and its reader.  Think of them as a refined, thinking-man’s version of the now ubiquitous plot twist.

Guadalajara opens with a stand alone tale about a boy who refuses to take part in a gruesome family tradition.  When a child reaches the age of nine the ring finger on his/her left hand is cut off.  What begins as a standard (if somewhat macabre) coming of age story, Family Life becomes more tangled as the consequences and repercussions of the boy’s decision ripple out. It is one of the few times Monzó sticks with a traditional story structure, one with an easily identifiable beginning, middle and end.  But even here, the final line starts to unravel the logic.

She is pretty and has a lovely smile and a lock of brown hair that hides half of her face, the way some women hide a glass eye.

The next group of stories will be familiar to most readers.  Old favorites which have been revised and reinvented.  Outside the Gates of Troy presents an alternative version of the fall of Troy  – one in which  the Trojans leave the wooden horse outside the city gates  with the Greeks trapped, slowly dying, inside.  Gregor is The Metamorphosis turned inside out, the cockroach becoming a teenage boy.  A Hunger and Thirst for Justice transforms the legend of Robin Hood into an indictment against the redistribution of wealth.

Parts 3 & 4 contain my personal favorites from the collection.  In these, Monzó’s characters travel in a series of continuous loops, always returning to the beginning – constantly reinventing and revising the future (the premise of this section is anticipated by its predecessor). Like the Ouroboros: the serpent that eats its own tail – these stories enact seemingly endless cycles of renewal & re-creation.

And so, a man & woman (Life Is So Short) tentatively start & finish a relationship while trapped in an elevator.  They’re rescued and we believe the story is over, only to watch as it begins again.

In The Power of Words we meet three men: one man who only talks to himself, one who refuses to speak unless he has something valid to say and a third who speaks continuously for the sheer enjoyment of hearing his own voice.  The brilliance of this particularly story is in the way the author seamlessly transitions from the thoughts of one man into those of another.  Monzó controls his readers’ perspectives like a camera man, panning from one character to another, zooming in & out. Each character makes an observation about the next, until he cycles through them all and returns to the first. 

Centripetal Force, the only story in Part 4, is the most Borges-like.  It is the literary equivalent of an M.C. Escher drawing.

In Guadalajara’s final stories Monzó focuses on individuals: a test taker, a forgetful prophet & his son, citizens caught up in a war and a reader.  They are all nameless, often genderless, perhaps even archetypal – the next logical step in the evolution of the characters whose stories we’ve already read.  They exist and act in closed systems, traveling in continuous circuits.  They differ in that they are shown (or discover) escapes – trap doors built into the narrative.  In the last, called simply Books a “passionate reader” attempts to choose a book from the four that sit on his table.  He dissects each option, weighs its merits and discusses how it came into his possession.  He picks each one up in turn, reads a few pages, puts it back down and attempts to decide which one to read through.  It’s an internal conversation any bibliophile will recognize.  The choice that he makes (or, doesn’t make) is the perfect denouement to this intricately and exquisitely crafted collection of stories.

Publisher:  Open Letter, New York. (2011)
ISBN:  978 1 9348 2419 1

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine