Great Short Stories of the World

This anthology is one of my dusty bargains from a second hand shop. Its old, and looks it. The hardboard covers are bound in a pale cloth, and stained. Perhaps that’s why, having re-homed it several years ago on a high TBR shelf, its been neglected. If I hadn’t decided to do a little rearranging this week who knows how long it would have remained there.

Once opened, it was too tempting to put back. After all, don’t I frequently claim that one of the advantages of short fiction is that it can be dipped into? Admittedly, this volume is hefty. There are, the cover boasts, one thousand and eight pages, containing one hundred and seventy eight stories ‘drawn from all literatures, ancient and modern’ . I don’t have pockets big enough, and if I had, I suspect that after carting this around I’d develop a limp. So this book is now lodged conveniently on the corner of my desk.

The tattered dust jacket is tucked between the pages, too fragile to be other than a bookmark. It’s thick with promises.

‘This miracle, this triumph of bookmaking… has run to no less than ten editions at the original price of eight shillings and sixpence.

I put the figures into a currency convertor. Eight shillings and sixpence would have been the equivalent of a days wages for a skilled tradesman working in Britain in 1926. I’m trying to decide whether I might pay a sixth of my wages for a book, if I was a skilled tradesman. What kind of reader would that make me, what might my aspirations be?

The opening lines of the preface say:

This collection marks the first attempt to bring together in a single volume a characteristic group of the outstanding examples of the Short Story as it has been practiced by writers of almost every race, from the earliest days of civilization down to the present century. Its purpose is not to shew, by a series of texts chosen on academic grounds, how the form developed, but to bring together the best examples of every form by which men have endeavoured [sic] to entertain and instruct their fellows.

How popular has this collection been? My copy, a 1937 reprint, says that, ‘in response to overwhelming public demand it is reissued, complete and unabridged, at 3s 6d.‘ The currency converter tells me that in today’s terms that would be a drop from the 1926 equivalent price of £60 to £24 in 1937. Sounds like a bargain. But, the 1930s were times of turmoil, and although wages had not gone up, and most foodstuffs had dropped in price, there were high levels of unemployment. I’d love to know who did buy this, and why.

After thinking about the history of The Short Story, the preface becomes more practical.

Of recent years there has been a good deal of theorizing about the Short Story as an art form. A whole literature of theory has come into being in order to explain the work of Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry, as well as to guide the would be writer.

Possibly, then, this is useful research for those trying to break into print.

The preface lays much stress on the theory, history and the processes of critical reading. The editors have aspired to gather together ‘little-known or quite forgotten tales.’

There is an academic approach to the division of the book into sections.

The volume… besides being the first to include examples of stories of practically the entire world, introduces several new writers to English and American readers.

At one time non-fiction books were such a popular household item that salesmen hawked encyclopedias and educational literature from door to door. The New Statesman says, ‘This is a most astonishing venture – a library in itself.

I hope Barret H. Clark and Maxim Lieber would be gratified to know that it’s still succeeding on all fronts, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve just finished The Two Brothers, a tale from Egypt, dated by their estimation, at 1400 BC which was entertaining and intriguing.

6 degrees of separation: from W Somerset Maugham to Rana Dasgupta

This month, the six degrees challenge set by Kate W, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, is to begin with a title that has concluded a previous chain. Last month I finished with Maugham’s short story, A String of Beads.

This is such a very short story that it might seem slight. Should I simply follow the governess? The snag is, that would almost inevitably lead back to the starting point for the chain it came from, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

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As with so many Maugham stories, all this one needs is a second read. There are several lines I could pick up, all tempting. But then, this is a story about story-telling. I’ve chosen the moment when Laura pauses her story so that she can explain it.

“We all laughed. It was of course absurd. We’ve all heard of wives palming off on their husbands as false a string of pearls that was real and expensive. The story is as old as the hills.”

“Thank you,” I said, thinking of a little narrative of my own.

Could the narrator, perhaps, be remembering Maupassant’s short story, The Necklace? At any rate, I was.

My link is in the introduction to the pretty and charming girl who has had no chance of marrying ‘a man of wealth and distinction‘, and so has ‘let herself be married off to a little clerk in the Ministry of Education.’

She suffered endlessly, feeling herself born for every delicacy and luxury. She suffered from the poorness of her house, from its mean walls, worn chairs, and ugly curtains.  All these things, of which other women of her class would not even have been aware, tormented and insulted her.

When her husband gets tickets for an influential party, she sees the possibility of a triumph. All she needs to complete the new outfit she buys is to borrow a diamond necklace from her rich friend.

This reminds me of an Elizabeth Taylor story, I Live in a World of Make-believe. Mrs Miller is ‘absorbed and entranced‘ by the ‘grandeur‘ of the big house across the road from her. ‘Symbols of all that seemed worth while in life passed and crossed on that gravelled courtyard...’

It is Mrs Miller’s small son who creates the connection, in innocence. After that you’d think she’d be contented, wouldn’t you?

‘I wish we had more books…’

‘Books?’ [Mr Miller] echoed, looking worried at once. ‘What for?’

‘For all those built-in shelves. I’d like to call that room the library.’

Photo by Negative Space on Pexels.com

Discontent is beautiful story material. In Jumping into Bed with Luis Fortuna, the fourth story in my chain, Dilys Rose also explores it.

She’d got herself anchored: house, job, man, kids. The backpack was long gone, she was well and truly stuck.

Like the Maupassant story, our protagonist remains a ‘she’ throughout. This ‘she’ has become focused on a novelist called Luis Fortuna.

She didn’t believe in heroes but still, in spare moments down town, she’d nip into bookshops in search of his latest novel.

The story charts her attempt to compose a letter to Luis, in between her family commitments.

Her husband was put off Luis Fortuna by the trashy titles and lurid covers and she was glad. She had him to herself.

Deborah Moggach’s story, A Real Countrywoman, opens with letters and Christmas cards. The one in the brown envelope comes from the County Council.

‘A two-lane dual carriageway!’ said Edwin. ‘Right past our front door. Thundering pantechnicons!’ This exploded from him like an oath.

While Edwin is horrified, his wife, our nameless narrator, doesn’t quite seem to be on the same page.

When you live in the country you spend your whole time in the car. This was our first Christmas in the country, the first of our new pure life, and I was trying to work up a festive spirit unaided by the crass high-street commercialism that Edwin was so relieved to escape. Me too, of course.

One of the solutions Edwin offers is an underpass. Elsewhere, the local council are putting them in to save colonies of great crested newts, that’s just the kind of ammunition an anti-road campaign needs. Or is it?

That road takes me to my sixth story, Rana Dasgupta’s, The Flyover. Marlboro, a young man who lives, with his mother, ‘on Lagos Island near to the hustle and bustle of Balogun Market‘, has grown next to the arches of a flyover. His oldest brother is in university in India, the second oldest has gone into business with a friend.

Marlboro has no job, and no idea about what he might do, and seems to have no interest in that.

‘Why don’t you tell me who my father was? Marlboro would ask late at night as his mother put up her cerise-toenailed feet that perfectly matched her cerise lipstick and flicked between soap operas, turned up to full volume to cover the scream of the flyover outside.

Instead, she leaves, and he is enticed into working for a protection racket. It’s a very long way away from Somerset Maugham’s dinner party… or is it?

Balogun Market, by Yellowcrunchy – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=63542539

Dreaming of dinner parties.

Is your social life suffering? Are you looking for a solution to Covid lockdown blues? Put aside the commercial and political arguments about the rights and wrongs of the situation; forget Zoom, for a moment, and follow me.

I’ve been inspired by a BBC Radio 4 programme called My Dream Dinner Party. In each episode a host invites a selection of their long-time dead heroes to join them for dinner. The menus have been varied, and occasionally worrying.

Here’s a tip though, in case you are ever invited to feast with Jack Whitehall: stick to liquids and avoid the solids. As a barman, he sounds spot on, but the malfunctions in his kitchen included a cavalier attitude to mould on food.

All of the hosts are skilled conversation starters. This week Shappi Khorsandi invited Maya Angelou, Kenny Everett, Richard Burton, Dr Edith Summerskill and Amy Winehouse to a Persian feast.

‘I’d love to do that,’ I thought. I could create a virtual feast. The technicalities of cutting and splicing sound clips, however, is far beyond my technical abilities.

It only took a little lateral thinking to connect this series to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Top Girls, where Marlene’s dinner guests are real and fictional women from history. No technology necessary.

But, there are so many fascinating historical characters I’d like to meet. Churchill had a purpose, an agenda. I needed to find mine. It didn’t take long, though narrowing that down needed a lot more thought.

I’ve sent my invitations into some fictional worlds. There really are so many characters I’d like to spend time with, but eventually I came up with a theme that helped me to narrow my list down.

Tristram Shandy’s reply arrived first.

Madam, it would be a delight to partake of the fine company and good victuals you describe.

Permit me, as a humble guest, to supplement your table with some choice delicacies that I happen to have at hand. In short, I can supply a fine keg of claret, and several prodigious pies garnished with a ponderous mass of judicious trimmings, richly baked this last sennight.

Madam’s most obedient,

and most devoted,

and most humble servant,

Tristram Shandy.

Dora Chance sent back a very old postcard of Big Ben, with an out of date stamp on it. I paid the extra postage, though she seemed to have written it in khol, and a lot of the words were smudged. In between some of the smeared hieroglyphics I thought I could just make out, ‘Got bubbly, ducky?’ I presume that means she will be appearing, but it’s possible she’s sent me the wrong reply. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed that she hasn’t received a better offer.

Nellie Dean’s reply covered two pages of fullscap, and she’d crossed it. It took me a couple of hours to decipher all of the content. A lot of it was domestic, and seemed to be concerned with Joseph’s refusal to wipe his boots before entering the back kitchen. Though there were also two sides about Cathy and Hareton. It seems they are still billing and cooing like a pair of doves. She finished, ‘You’d never think that they are about to become grandparents. But I believe they can now safely be left in charge, so I’ll be glad to repair to another region for a short time.’

Rebecca de Winter’s reply came in a thick cream-coloured envelope. Inside was a single heavy sheet of mono-graphed notepaper. Her handwriting would have brought a smile to a calligrapher’s face. It said, ‘I should be delighted to accept your kind invitation. With kind regards, R. dW.’

Piscine Molitor Patel phoned me to get directions. “Could you name me a few notable landmarks? I don’t have much faith in technology.”

I promised to meet him at the railway station.

“How will we know each other?”

I told him the station was not so very big that we could make a mistake, but he said he’d learned to take precautions when travelling. “We’ll both wear carnations, and I’ll carry a rolled up beach mat. Who else will be there?”

I told him.

He said, “You don’t expect anyone to believe this, do you?”

“I know,” I said. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

Piscine Molitor by Getfunky Paris – Flickr: Plongée urbex, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Thoughts on the enduring power of Sherlock.

Conan Doyle had his first Sherlock Holmes story, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887. According to the Wikipedia page, neither the public nor publishers were bowled over by it.

For writers with aspirations, such snippets are reassuring. Publication success can take time, and certainly needs patience. For readers, it demonstrates something of the drive behind the pages we readers consume. I don’t need to point out that Conan Doyle didn’t abandon his characters.

Ward, Lock & Co published that first story as a hardback book in July 1888. It sold well enough to deserve a second edition the following year. This did not mean that the ‘cult’ of Sherlock and Watson had properly begun at that point.

It wasn’t until 1891 that the duo began to build a following. That was after they began to appear as a Strand Magazine series.

In Britain, Strand Magazine was one of THE places to be published. The Wikipedia entry for the magazine says that that first issue, of January 1891, sold nearly 300,000 copies.

There’s an interesting fact filled essay about the magazine on The Strand Magazine website. In, The Story of The Strand, Chris Willis explains that:

…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership. The content was a mixture of factual articles, short stories and serials most of which were illustrated to some extent. Despite expense and production difficulties, Newnes aimed at having a picture on every page — a valuable selling point at a time when the arts of photography and process engraving were in their infancy. “A monthly magazine costing sixpence but worth a shilling” was the slogan the publicity-conscious Newnes used to advertise the Strand – which was half the price of most monthlies of the period.

Did you note that fragment of a sentence I started the Willis quote with? ‘…the Strand aimed at a mass market family readership.

In this period, books often came into households as communal items. We should count those 300,000 copies as being read by at least two, rather than one reader, even if we’re just looking at married couples. However, if we assume children, and perhaps a servant or two, the readership for the magazine rises significantly, and we’ve only considered the first few issues.

So popular was this magazine that circulation soon rose to almost 500,000 copies a month, and continued at that rate until well into the 1930s. That’s a lot of audience for stories. I wonder if there’s an equivalent opportunity for new writing today?

Conan Doyle was not the first, and is far from the last, writer to have demonstrated that persistence needs to be a feature of the fiction author’s character. Beyond the necessary dedication to putting time into practicing your craft, is the effort needed to find a way to access an audience.

Marketing may change, but the principles remain the same. It can be useful to think about how much of the fiction that we now see as part of our literary heritage went unrecognised, in the first steps towards publication.

Take heart, writers. Keep crafting: keep grafting.

Incidentally, should you happen to have a copy of that 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual on your shelves, you might like to dust it off and treat it with especial care. There are only eleven known copies, up to now.

Fear of The Maddening Crowds: a classic, re-imagined for our situation.

A continuation of my glimpse into modern-day Wessex.

Chapter 2 Where is that Maddening Crowd? by Thomas Hiding

It was Frannie, who had been barmaid at The Malthouse through the reign of three previous landlords, who figured out the practicalities of re-opening as a take-away. William stood back and watched her carry a table into the doorway, set out the blackboard on the deserted pavement and write in huge letters, Beer, bring your own container.

‘If it doesn’t work, you needn’t pay me,’ she’d said, as if she’d no idea that William had already decided that she wouldn’t fit with his plans for the refurbishment. She’d seen what his Sheffield pub was like when she Googled him, and had gone out to shop for a plain white shirt in the New Year sales. That was three weeks before he arrived for the takeover.

She’d tried it out in the privacy of her bedroom, in the flat above the saloon bar, with the grumble of tv news reports seeping up through the floor boards.

‘Hey, I can rock this,’ she’d thought, as she zipped up the black skirt from the back of the wardrobe. It had to be four or five years since she’d bought it, and she’d worn it only once, for a Halloween fancy dress night. But it was okay, it still fitted.

It was okay, wasn’t it? She’d turned, and turned, before her mirror, knowing that this was a low wattage-bulb illusion. She opened the door to let the light in from the hall, then fetched a lamp, plugged it in by the mirror and took the shade off it.

The stranger in the mirror remained even when she hunted through her makeup box for colours she’d never worn, stuff that should have been thrown away years before. She’d worry about consequences tomorrow. Who knew if it was even true, about the bacteria and infections? She patted and shaded, blended and outlined, then rubbed it off and started again, and again.

Who was she kidding?

The shirt was stained. She’d washed it before taking it, and the skirt, to the charity shop, but there were still smudges of foundation on the collar. Frannie had felt like a reverse shop-lifter as she handed the bagged clothes over.

One thing about books…

A couple of weeks ago Deborah raised a question that I’ve been asking in various ways, most of my life, “how and why do we outgrow books?” More specifically for me, how do I decide when a book has been outgrown?

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In theory, the answer’s easy. Once I learned to read, surely there was no reason for keeping those early readers, the Jane and John stories, or my beginner Ladybird books. Certainly the ones with only a single word on the page were handed on, if they survived.

Books, for me, have always been valuable but portable entertainment. They’ve shared my adventures, and often returned home looking as untidy as I did.

It’s not that I’m generally a hard reader. I try not to break the spines, I’ve never folded corners and always use bookmarks. But still, it’s usually easy to see they’ve been in my possession.

From the beginning, this created a problem. Tattered volumes are not really suitable for offering to another reader, and I knew instinctively that destroying books was wrong. So, the titles I’ve kept finding space for have often been sorry specimens.

Perhaps I could do that still fashionable thing, and blame my parents. If only they’d been stricter, insisting on my discarding things, rather than allowing me to develop what may be (at base) a sentimental attachment to specific objects. It’s lovely being able to hand over responsibility in that way.

Except, there’s a little voice squeaking away with a bothersome question: ‘So, at what age did you become a grown-up, and take responsibility for your own actions?’

Ssh, you contrary other-self. Don’t open that can of worms, it’s far too complicated for a few hundred words on a weekly post.

Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

Instead, I’ll look for another beginning. Perhaps I’ve been driven by my desire to own a library. I think that came in early. Maybe I was born with it. I’m certain I never experienced a private library in the family, or amongst our friends, so where did that idea come from?

Later I read of them in historical novels, but my ambition had been fixed long before that. Was it those old films, repeated on Saturday afternoon tv throughout my childhood years, that seeded an image in my head? I frittered away many of my school age Saturdays watching the kind of period dramas that featured aristocrats and eccentrics drifting in and out of beautiful private libraries. I think Rex Harrison had one, in Dr Dolittle, and again in My Fair Lady.

Aspiration is a wonderful thing, and for a while I did base my collection around a matching set of religious books I’d been given by my grandfather. They looked so charming, and neat, with their black spines and gold lettering. Perhaps it was because they looked so perfect I didn’t open them.

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I owned them for years. Then, one day I had to move house and realised that they no longer belonged. I passed them on.

I’d outgrown an idea of symmetry. I no longer wanted to inhabit the kind of library seen in stately homes. I wanted my shelves to be eclectic, fluid spaces, where ideas could lie in ambush. Many of them would be old, perhaps dated, waiting for a moment when I might want to turn to them again.

Some I’d read once, and be sure I’d never want to do that again. But I’ve stopped being certain that I’ve outgrown anything. Life this year has demonstrated, for me, the error of that. In recent months I’ve returned, for comfort, to some of the light thrillers I thought I’d left behind.

I was lucky, having recently had a box full of them passed on to me by a friend. My own copies had been discarded. So, now I’ve developed a ‘holding’ space, a shelf where I stack books that might deserve a second chance.

I’m sorry, Deborah, it seems I’m unable to answer your question. I’m not sure I’ve outgrown any of my books. Even those matching religious volumes were never really given up, as I’ve got at least three bibles which contain the same stories in a much more economical form.

I’m sure I’ll change my mind, one of these days. But for now, I pass that question along: ‘How and why do we outgrow books?’

If you discover the answer, I hope you’ll share it with me.

#6degrees of separation from Henry James to W. Somerset Maugham

As it’s the beginning of the month it’s time for a new ‘Six Degree’ challenge from Kate, at booksaremyfavouriteandbest. I love taking part, but having decided I’ll only join in if I’ve read the set text, I usually find I’m too far behind with my reading. So thank you for going back to the classics, Kate. This month’s starting point is, The Turn of The Screw, by Henry James.

For a long time I avoided reading this one. I hadn’t liked the film or radio versions I’d caught. I assumed it was ‘just’ a pot boiler.

I should have known better. After all, even if this was writing prompted by a desire for the fee, the author was Henry James. Luckily, a couple of years ago I needed to read the novella for a class I was setting up. I soon revised my opinion.

I think of this sort of story as an attractive box that when opened, proves to have another attractive box inside. This one is not just smaller, it is a slightly different shape.

Many stories stop at two layers, but Henry James puts another box inside that. His narrator recounts a story that he heard from a friend, who heard it from the person who experienced it. Where does truth start and end? Can we ever know?

This is a form I love, so I’m going to try and create my links using stories that have other stories embedded in them. And, as we’ve started with a novella, I’m opting to follow a short-form route.

So, my first link is to Joseph Conrad, who was also a master of this kind of misdirection. He used this technique several times. I’m picking his short story, The Tale, for my first link. It begins with two lovers meeting in an unlit room, during war-time. The woman asks the man to tell her a story. He used to have, she tells him, ‘…a sort of art – in the days – the days before the war.’ The story he tells her is a dark exploration of human nature and actions.

Human nature is also at the centre of Charlotte Mew’s story-within-a-story, A White Night. It’s a psychological horror story, written in 1903. Or is this one too all a big lie?

Similar questions arise in Nuns at Luncheon, when Aldous Huxley presents us with a distracting story teller who seems to dominate the tale she tells.

Her long earrings swung and rattled – corpses hanging in chains…

Mr Mulliner, the storyteller P.G. Wodehouse chooses to use in The Reverent Wooing of Archibald, on the other hand, is clearly speaking with authority.

People who enjoyed a merely superficial acquaintance with my nephew Archibald (said Mr Mulliner) were accustomed to set him down as just an ordinary pinheaded young man. It was only when they came to know him better that they discovered their mistake. Then they realized that his pinheadedness, so far from being ordinary, was exceptional.’

Mr Mulliner, the teller who lifts the lid on that second box, disappears while the outside narrator repeats his story. As does Pugh, the story-teller in John Buchan’s 1928 story, The Loathly Opposite. This fifth link in my chain is a beautifully delivered narrative, about the consequences of war and espionage, that didn’t go where I expected. Reading it gave me a new perspective on an author I’d not been used to thinking of as literary.

Laura, the teller of stories in the sixth link of my chain, remains fully on view. Indeed, we share dinner with her and the external narrator of, A String of Beads. It’s a beautifully brief story, delivered almost entirely through dialogue, and once more, we sit in judgement of the participants. Do we share their positions or condemn them?

I can link this 1943 W. Somerset Maugham story back to The Turn of The Screw. Firstly, because both have a woman sharing or confiding a story with a man, and secondly, because a governess is central to both plots. This means I could describe my chain as a short necklace. Or, since it’s one novella and six short stories, maybe a bracelet.

Though perhaps that would spoil the ‘separation’ aspect of the challenge.

Reading for a good cause.

If there’s one thing I suspect that all bookworms have experienced, it’s the shocked expressions of the uninitiated when they see our bookshelves. Then the question, ‘Why?’ is asked, in one form or another.

It was many years before I understood that most of the people who asked were not going to be convinced by any answer I could give. Sometimes, when I knew someone well, I’d turn the question round, and say, ‘Why don’t you?’ Just to share that sense of defeat.

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The word hoarding has drifted back into focus in the UK this week. I’ve never thought of myself in that way, but I was brought up in a household where the well stocked pantries and larders of my parents and grandparents were considered, stores.

Often these were constructed seasonally. It began with things gathered from the garden and the hedgerows, and was supplemented with bought tinned and dried goods. Such activities were traditions, based on anecdotes, or experiences of: rationing, heavy weather, economic uncertainties… times when shopping would not be an option.

I’m reminded of that this week, as friends who are venturing into supermarkets report that shelves are once more being cleared of some stock. Need I mention toilet rolls?

I’m curious about the quantity of goods that count as a hoard. Perhaps there’s a specific number of tins or bottles beyond which we should not go. I can see how the extremes fit this, those pictures of bunkers with industrial shelving, for instance. But for the rest of us, how do we know whether our shelves are sensibly, rather than excessively stocked?

When it comes to books, I can hold my hand up and say I’m a story-hoarder, banking up food-for-the-mind for the future. There’s only one room in this house without bookshelves.

And then there’s my shed. I mean office, of course, and whoever heard of having an office that wasn’t designed around the tools for one’s trade?

Maybe, when we are again able to invite people in, and someone’s eyes widen as they look at my walls of books, they’ll understand them in the light of these times.

Meanwhile, my blogging friend Ann Burnett has drawn my attention to an interesting new way to buy books and donate money to a good cause, an on-line ‘auction of signed books and items donated by celebrated Authors and Illustrators from around the world‘ called ‘Children in Read. Proceeds go to the BBC charity, Children in Need. There are, as of Sunday morning 573 interesting lots to chose from, divided into 25 categories.

My book buying, over the last six months, has been based on tracking down specific titles, and my random reading from my TBRs has made a little space. So, it was good to browse a virtual bookshelf, and put on a bid or two. I got that lovely feeling that comes from mitigating having indulged myself by supporting a charity.

Am I a hoarder?’

Let me quote Miss Piggy, ‘Who, moi?’

On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Observation and isolation.

Have we become more observant since lockdown?

That’s one of the claims I keep hearing in the media. The evidence offered is that many of us have been getting a lot closer to the natural environment. In Britain, it is said, more people are going for walks, cycling and gardening than ever before.

The sudden loss of mechanical noises certainly allowed nature’s voice to be heard more clearly, and like many people, I’ve been fascinated to see the range of creatures reclaiming spaces they are usually pushed out of by crowds of humans. Internationally, my favourite photo, so far, has been a dolphin swimming into pristine waters in Venice. True or not, that image is now embedded in my mind. But the wonder of what’s on our own doorstep is not easily dismissed.

Ah, climate change, my favourite band-wagon. ‘Surely,’ hope says, ‘now that we’ve seen how quickly the damage we cause can be turned around, we’re going to make some changes.’ That was certainly the supposition of the interviewee on a radio programme, early in the week.

Meanwhile, this talk of our improved powers of observation has set me thinking. Some of my favourite pieces of poetry and prose depend on an adept use of detail.

Take Wuthering Heights, for instance. Emily Bronte conveys setting and climate in a sentence.

Pure bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

Later, when Cathy is raving, she pulls feathers from her pillow and identifies the birds they came from: turkeys ducks, pigeons, moorcocks and lapwings. These are what are called ‘telling’ detail. They not only demonstrate the state of Cathy’s mind, they provide a glimpse back to her childhood. They link to a specific moment when she and Heathcliff were roaming the moors together.

Emily Bronte, I feel confident in asserting, didn’t just take note of her environment, she thought about it. We know that she, too, spent a lot of time walking.

You might say that she practiced isolation. How did that work? I think it provided thinking time, and that’s the other way I read this statement about our powers of observation. Many of us have been forced to stop rushing after a busy schedule, and maybe for the first time, have given extra time to noticing our home environment.

In Emily Bronte’s case, doing this resulted in a piece of fiction that has endured for one hundred and seventy two years. No pressure, of course, but I do like to think there will be more than one positive outcome from this strange moment we’re living through.