Tom Hanks, short stories.

This week I’ve been reading the seventeen stories in Uncommon Type, by Tom Hanks. I’ve been curious about what kind of writer he might be ever since reading a selection of the mixed reviews he picked up when it was published in 2017. Obviously, not curious enough, because I didn’t buy it. But a couple of weeks ago Mike offered to lend me his copy.

I’ve just finished it, so this is my mixed review:

Top of my likes is Alan Bean Plus Four. It was published in The New Yorker in 2014, and you can still read it online. It begins:

Travelling to the moon was way less complicated this year than it was back in 1969, as the four of us proved, not that anyone gives a whoop. 

The Starry Night, 1889, Vincent van Gogh

The style is light, the concept is fun, and there’s enough confidence about the technical details to convince me that in some Heath-Robinson manner, the narrator, Steve, MDash and Anna do construct a rocket, in the narrator’s back-yard.

We’d have no Mission Control to boss us around, so I ripped out all the Comm. I replaced every bolt, screw, hinge, clip, and connector with duct tape (three bucks a roll at Home Depot). 

I like science fiction, and I like absurd. I also like economy – it’s not just the thriftyness of the duct tape I’m referring to, this story wasted no words on backstory. I wonder if one of the reasons for that was because it picked up characters from an earlier story, Three Exhausting Weeks.

This was the opening story. I liked the characters, once I’d got into the story, but I found it a slow, slightly confusing, start.

Day 1

Anna said there was only one place to find a meaningful gift for MDash – the Antique Warehouse, not so much a place for old treasures as a permanent swap meet in what used to be the Lux Theatre.

MDash, it turns out is Mohammed Dayax-Abdo, who is ‘about to become a naturalized U.S. citizen…’ I’m still not clear about the definition of a ‘swap meet‘. I began to feel it wasn’t necessary to, which might suggest that segment could have been cut. However, the narration does reflect the narrator’s personality.

Understand that Anna and I have known each other since high school… We didn’t date, but hung out in the same crowd, and liked each other. After a few years of college, and a few more of taking care of my mom, I got my licence and pretended to make a living in real estate for a while.

He’s a chatty, laid-back, drifting kind of guy. He’s not daft, he’s been to college, remember. But not ambitious either, so I allowed for the odd sideways ramble.

Anna, on the other hand, has a ‘keen eye for the smallest of details and left no stones unturned, uninspected, unrecorded, or unreplaced if they needed replacing.’

By page three, I’d warmed to them both, and become intrigued by their contrasts. I wasn’t skipping past words, I’d tuned-in to the delivery style, and stayed with them for the full three weeks. The outcome wasn’t a surprise, but that’s fine. It felt true, and I was glad to have shared their journey.

With the third story about these four characters, Steve Wong is Perfect, I did skim lines and even paragraphs. Maybe it was just too much detail about bowling – though I didn’t have a problem with that when I watched The Big Labowski.

Top of my dislikes, were the four Hank Fiset stories. They were set out as newspaper feature pieces. Hank being a journalist who is struggling with modern life. Everything about them seemed cliched. One of them includes a section that Hank writes on his phone to demonstrate how predictive texting will affect the way he writes, surely that’s a very old joke, now.

I also failed to stay with Stay With Us, which is a short movie script. It opens with a complicated collage of scene-setting shots, and a montage of character names, some famous. Maybe, if it had been filmed, I’d be writing a rave review: on paper, I was soon confused and lost.

Overall, I did like the collection. The stories are not high-literature, but most of them have a clear dramatic arc, strong characterisation and include some lovely moments.

I thought the idea of using typewriters as a means to link the stories together was fun. In some it’s central, in others it’s a throw-away line. At times I forgot they were significant, even though they were central to the plot.

Will I be buying my own copy? Well no. Interesting as they were, and I am glad I’ve read them, I think once was enough.

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I’d like to recommend V.S. Pritchett

book cover pritchettVictor Sawden Pritchett (or VSP, as he preferred to be known) was a prolific British writer,born in 1900, he died in 1997.  For fifty years of the twentieth century he produced stories, and he was popular.

Yes but, you might say, he’s writing about life an awfully long while ago. Why bother? There are lots of modern stories to choose from.

Well, it’s useful to see how things have changed, or not changed, in lived lives, and the way words are used.  VSP once said:

“I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.  I shall be sorry to die, but the notion of seeing life celebrated from day to day is so wonderful that I can’t see the point of believing anything else.”

Of all the advice given out by writers, one of the few things they agree on is that writers should read.  Many list VSP amongst their favourite authors.  To find out why, you could look at critical discussions explaining what he did, and even how, but before you do that, track down one of his stories and see if the magic touches you.

You might start with, ‘The Voice’. It’s set during the London blitz, and begins:

A message came from the rescue party, who straightened up and leant on their spades in the rubble. The policeman said to the crowd: ‘Everyone keep quiet for five minutes. No talking, please.  They’re trying to hear where he is.’

The silent crowd raised their faces and looked across the ropes to the church which, now it was destroyed, broke the line of the street like a decayed tooth.

Soon singing is heard, from below the rubble.

‘That’s Mr Morgan all right,’ the warden said. ‘He could sing.  He got silver medals for it.’

The Reverend Frank Lewis frowned.

‘Gold, I shouldn’t wonder,’ said Mr Lewis dryly.  Now he knew Morgan was alive, he said: ‘What the devil’s he doing in there? How did he get in? I locked up at eight o’clock last night myself.’

Lewis was a wiry, middle-aged man, but the white dust on his hair and his eyelashes, and the way he kept licking the dust off his dry lips, moving his jaws all the time, gave him the monkeyish, testy and suspicious air of an old man.  He had been up all night on rescue work in the raid and he was tired out.  The last straw was to find the church had gone and that Morgan, the so-called Reverend Morgan, was buried under it.

It’s not the last straw though, this is only the beginning.  Eudora Welty said:

‘Any Pritchett story is all of it alight and busy at once, like a well-going fire. Wasteless and at the same time well-fed, it shoots up in flame from its own spark like a poem or a magic trick, self-consuming, with nothing left over. He is one of the great pleasure-givers in our language’

It’s as good a definition as any I’ve seen.

The scandal of it, Lewis was thinking.  Must he sing so loud, must he advertise himself?  I locked up myself last night.  How the devil did he get in? And he really meant: How did the devil get in?

More to the point, will he get out, and what will happen along the way?

Only connect.

Harriet phoned.  ‘I’m afraid we’re losing one of the group.  She said she’d read three of the stories, and they were just too depressing.  Are there any cheery ones in the anthology?’

K. by Lajos Csaki‘Well,’ said Vickie.  ‘It depends what you mean by cheery. There are several comedies.’

‘She says she doesn’t like P.G.Woodhouse.’

‘Okay,’ said Vickie.  ‘Has she tried…hmm, what sort of thing do you think she’s looking for?’

‘I don’t really… something up-beat, I suppose. I had a quick look through myself, but, well, I see what she means, in a way.  They’re not what I expected.  Are there any happy endings?’

‘Ah, I see what you mean now.  One or two, certainly.  Maybe more, depending on your point-of-view.  They’re not exactly about the endings, though… Hello, Harriet?  Are you there?’

telephone girl‘Yes, yes, still here.  Surely the ending’s important?’

‘Oh yes.  It’s important, very important.  But so is the beginning, and the middle… and mostly, the bit that comes after you’ve read it and thought about it for a while.  That might be the most important part of all.’

‘Really?’

‘Definitely.  After that happens you might decide to go back and read it again.’

‘Might I?’

‘I hope so.’

‘But will I like it?’

‘Good question.’

 

*Top photograph: K. by Lajos Csáki

The Siren & Other Strange Tales: Six Supernatural Stories by Sheila Williams.

the siren 2Are you looking for something new to read?  Here’s an interesting selection of approaches to the supernatural that is well worth a look at, easily downloaded from Amazon.

There are a variety of geographical and historical settings.  My favourite is the title story, The Siren, a North-East coast of England story, vividly told.  I swear I felt the draft of that wind, despite sitting in warm sunshine on the other side of the country.

Sometimes, it’s good to dance with things that defeat rational explanation, and how better to do that than in fiction?  That’s just what Sheila Williams has done.  How do I know?  Because I’ve read her blog.  Click ‘This‘ and you can too.

We don’t often get the chance to see where a writer’s inspiration came from.  This glimpse provides a few clues about how you can use what you know to write what you don’t know.  I like that.

the siren

Discovered: Pietro Grossi, writer.

fist-by-pietro-grossiI begin with a big THANK YOU to Fiona, who passed Fists on to me.  Fists being a book of three stories by the Italian writer, Pietro Grossi.  Not, I hasten to add, in the original language, but in a translation by Howard Curtis.

Having just finished the final story, I feel I’ve been to Italy.  Not skimming across the surfaces that tourism offers, you understand, I’ve experienced the world as lived by three Italian men, and it wasn’t what I expected.

Yes it was macho, there was boxing, there were horses and blood-letting, but there was also variety and insights.  I found passages I wished I had written.  Look at this, ‘He was like a Greek statue in motion, with the same rigid still perfection.’

I wasn’t sure which centuries all three stories were describing.  Horses might have been in the last one, or maybe the one before that.  It didn’t matter, I was in that valley accepting that the most technological innovation mentioned was a shotgun.

In these versions of Italy the women were mostly shadowy, even when exerting power.  Seen from a male perspective, maternal influences are questionable, maybe a challenge.  Yet, in the absence of a mother, what happens to two small boys and their father?  What kind of men will the boys turn into?

Reading Boxing, reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.  Despite the fact that I know only as much about either football or boxing as any media savvy person absorbs by accident, I read every jargon-laden word of both texts.  Why?  I think it was the enthusiasm of the narrators, who not only hooked me, they swept me along with them.  I’m still not a fan of either sport, but I’d be happy to read both again. Besides, don’t make the mistake of imagining either story is entirely about sport, both are character driven.

Here are the opening lines of Grossi’s short story:

Let’s get this straight: I really liked the whole boxing thing.

I don’t know what it was, whether it was the sense of security or the awareness that I was doing something the way it should be done.  Maybe both, maybe also the terrific feeling that there was a place where I had what it takes, where I could fight on equal terms.

It quickly becomes apparent that our narrator is a nerdy adolescent boy.

One day, I told my mother I hated the piano.  Music was fundamental, she said, it gave you discipline.  Discipline.  Why discipline?  I was the most disciplined child in the world.  I was so disciplined, I’d almost vanished from the face of the earth.

Before you start guessing about the significance of this domineering mother, read this segment:

Six months later, I was dancing in that ring like a ballerina and scattering straight lefts like summer hailstones.  It was undeniable: even though no one had ever seen a boxer with a more unsuitable body, it was as if I was born to be up there.  And since I’d started training, my piano playing had improved, too, and I was even starting to like that bastard Beethoven.

fists-by-pietro-grossiAt this point there are forty-one pages of story still to be told.  They’re full of incident, detail, character development and introspection.   I forgot I was reading until I turned the last page and found myself musing over the last line.  I put the book down, feeling a little lost, now that I had to leave ‘the dancer’ behind.  I needn’t have worried, as you can probably tell, I think he’s staying with me for a while yet.

Before I pass this book on to it’s next reader, I may revisit those three stories.  Meanwhile, I’ve added Pietro Grossi to my list of authors to look out for.  If you haven’t come across him before, maybe he’s someone for you to look out for too.

 

 

The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

I’m sitting at the front of the class, with my notes and my presentation, throwing out leading questions on the two short stories we’ve read for our homework.  Sounds like school, but this is adult education.  We’re in the church hall, on a sunny Autumn morning, by choice.

DSCF8020My paperback copy of The Oxford Book of English Short Stories, edited by Antonia Byatt, is battered, but still holding together.  It’s a working copy, with a continually shifting fringe of post-its.  The terse notes on them have, here and there, strayed onto the pages.  You’ll have gathered that, as an object, this book is no longer a thing of beauty.

As a source book for a reading group though, this anthology is a joy.  The stories provide a taste of how short story ideas changed during the twentieth century, and they’re a challenge.

Half of my class, at least, are not sure about either of the two stories I set them to read for this discussion.  ‘He didn’t keep to the point,’ says Jean.  Several of the group nod, and Geoff adds that he’s not sure what’s going on with the ending.

You might wonder why people would choose to read stories that they don’t ‘get’: some kind of torture, perhaps?

Well, it is a stretching exercise, but I hope that’s for pleasure rather than feeling they’re on a rack.

The reason for choosing this anthology is that it contains a wide range of carefully constructed stories, each open to more than one interpretation.  Readers have to be active.  I like to think of us as detectives, gathering clues.

We’re never sure where any story will take us.   There are twists in tone and plot, and tricks in the language to be watched for.  We look for patterns. One person’s interpretation of what those clues mean is as valid as any other.  What happens in a reading group is that we sift through as many ideas as we can so that each of us can take away ideas that suit us.

The amazing thing is, although I’ve read the whole collection several times now, when I go back to them, they’re never quite the way I remember them.  Then I take them to a new group, and they always provide me with something I haven’t thought of.

Where do these understandings come from?  Our lives and experiences are reflected in our readings as well as our writings.

Isn’t that magical?  Imagine creating something able to achieve that kind of connection.    It’s no wonder my classes set my mind buzzing, and that I leave them feeling that I’ve come closer to discovering some of the secrets of story.

 

Embracing the absurd.

I’ve just picked up on a challenge laid down for me a month ago, and read some of the absurdist stories of Daniil Kharms.   Thanks Mike, what a find, and how have I missed him before?

Literature is my favourite form of travel.  Think of the efficiency.  No hours on the road, or waiting around for connections.  Step between the lines of a story and I’m away.  The infernal combustion engines might transport us across the geographical world, but I’ve just travelled back in time, and got dunked into Russian culture.  No tourist destinations for me.

OldWomanLucieJansch

photo by Lucy Jansch

These Kharm stories read in a flash, resonate for hours.  They’re ridiculous, funny and dark.  Death slices through the lines of plot, taking out central character after central character.  The early twentieth century Russian landscape is grim, even bitter.  ‘Good people are not capable of getting a good foothold in life,‘  concludes Kharms, in his 1936 story, The Things.  I sense layers of suggestion, of anger, behind the flying dogs and missing legs, the drunken binges and vanishing brothers.  Like dreams, they sketch scenes, distort reality, break the rules.

These characters and their deeds twist my understanding of the world,  my sense of self and reality.  It’s brave, risk-taking writing, and I can’t predict the outcome of any piece.  They stop.

I think on, and see that sometimes writers need to be brave, and leap.

Clout Theatre 2013

Clout Theatre, 2013.   How a Man Crumbled.

 

 

 

 

 

Appreciating Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.

I heard Phil Jupitus talking about paintings to Susan Calman on Radio 4 this week.  Amongst other sensible and intriguing things, he said that there are some paintings he just has to stand and study, because the details ‘have made me laugh out loud with how brilliant they are.’

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

Cat & Lobster, by Picasso

It struck a chord with me, because I’ve been having a similar experience reading Elizabeth Taylor’s short stories.  Have I just been lucky in picking out the best of her writing from amongst the Complete Short Stories volume that we’re using for the reading group class?  Because so far, they’re providing masses of material for discussion.

Take The Letter-writers, which we discussed this week.  It’s about two people who, after ten years of exchanging letters, are meeting for the first time. Most assessments of the story will include the fact of Taylor’s letters to Robert Liddell, another novelist.

‘The correspondence between Elizabeth and me, begun in the autumn of 1948, was to become increasingly frequent and intimate, and it lasted to within a month of Elizabeth’s death, when she was no longer able to hold a pen.’

He lived in Cairo, Alexandria and then Athens, and it has been suggested that this story is a fictionalized account of their first meeting.

The Letter-writers was first published in 1958, and portrays a rural spinster living a quiet, contained life.  You could read it as that and enjoy the details of characterisation:

For years, Emily had looked into mirrors only to see if her hair were tidy or her petticoat showing below her dress.  This morning, she tried to take herself by surprise, to see herself as a stranger might, but failed.

and the descriptions,

The heat unsteadied the air, light shimmered and glanced off leaves and telegraph wires and the flag on the church tower spreading out in a small breeze, then dropping, wavered against the sky, as if it were flapping under water.

However, if you work on the assumption that this is a carefully constructed story, and therefore every word has been deliberately chosen, then you have to look again at how the narration is operating.

Is it just the air that is unsteadied?  Why does the light ‘glance’ off the leaves and telegraph wires?  When I attack the text with my highlighter, tracing patterns, clues within the text, I begin to see an alternative, contrary reading.  I’m reading now from a new perspective, asking myself, why would it be a crisis for Emily to meet, ‘the person she knew best in all the world’?

The theory I’m shaping suggests something beautifully, elegantly, clever.  Can a writer really create something so subtle that it can have multiple, even contradictory meanings?

Consider how Taylor describes Emily’s approach to writing.

Emily, smiling to herself as she passed by, had thoughts so delightful that she began to tidy them into sentences to put in a letter to Edmund.

If you carry the idea of this apparently simple description on into the story, Edmund will tell us how carefully Emily ‘tidies’ her words:

In Emily’s letters, Mrs Waterlow had been funny; but she was not in real life and he wondered how Emily could suffer so much, before transforming it.

Words then are not simple tools.  Writers, like painters, arrange the details of the world they are portraying.  They decide which perspective to show us, arrange the light and shade, and order the components to create a specific effect.  Nothing in a good painting is chance, it is designed.  So I ask myself, was Taylor also transforming some thing, with her story about writing?

At first he thought her a novelist manqué, then he realized that letter-writing is an art by itself, a different kind of skill, though with perhaps a similar motive – and one at which Englishwomen have excelled.

 

 

Reassessing my relationship with W. Somerset Maugham

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

Maugham, by Graham Sutherland, 1949

I admit now, that despite his long-time home on my bookshelf, it took a discussion with a reading group to push me onto opening my two volumes of W. Somerset Maugham stories.  It’s not that they were on the shelf as decoration, but there have always been so many other authors, well recommended, that I wanted to read.

In a way, I’m glad that was so.  If I’d picked them up casually, would I have read them carefully?  Because despite the fact that I’ve seen some great film versions of his novels, I had preconceived ideas about his writing.  His short stories, I understood, were…well…old-fashioned, and horror of horrors, commercial.

I think I might have missed the point without an agenda attached to my reading. Instead, because we’re going to be discussing two of his stories this week, I’ve looked more closely at what’s going on.

You know what? They are ‘ripping yarns’, but they’ve also got layers of other meanings embedded in them.  There are subtleties in the way the narration works.  So although I can see how his words could be misread as promoting colonialism, I read the opposite message, and more…

What he has, in abundance, is entertainment value.  The two stories we deconstructed in the previous reading session went down a storm, and I’m expecting these will too.

I might love the brevity of the modernist style stories, but many of my students see them as difficult, and often struggle with the idea of open endings.  I understood that Maugham belonged to the Maupassant school of story telling, but he’s not so simple to pin down.  The French influences are there, but so too is Chekov, and it shows.  The stories I’ve read so far, despite having a beginning, middle and end, are not closed.

I’m left with the feeling that these characters moved on into new stories, and are about to behave just as badly in a fresh setting.

 

 

Dubliners

 

A-Birds-Eye-View-Of-Dublin-.jpgI’ve been preparing for the new class starting this week, ‘Meet the Dubliners‘.  Written more than a hundred years ago, these are individual short stories, yet read together they provide a portrait of Dublin city in early 1900, and are sometimes thought of as a novel.

41Nz+xOlieL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Whoa-there though, did I just suggest you could think of Dubliners as a novel?  Hesitantly, I say yes.

Why am I hesitant?  Because I believe that to get the most from literary short stories like Dubliners, we need to approach them as we do literary poetry. For me, that’s a slower read than I tend to give to novels.

It’s a single process too.  I don’t want to move onto the next piece of writing (or chapter) until I’ve had chance to immerse myself in the words.

My favorite sorts of poems and stories aren’t just capable of being re-read, they respond to it.  When I revisit them they give up an additional layer of meaning that I couldn’t have picked up without spending more time absorbing the meanings embedded between the lines and in the multiple interpretations our language is capable of providing.

So why suggest Dubliners could be read like a novel?  Well Joyce designed a reading order for us to follow, and taken together, the stories deliver a coded pattern to be unraveled.  A surprising number of critics do liken this to reading a novel.

Yet it is a collection of short stories.  The proof of this is that any one of the sections will stand a lone reading, and two of them, Araby, and The Dead, have been included in a variety of anthologies.

So, does it matter whether we call this a novel or a story collection?

I think that’s one of the questions I’m going to be asking the reading group.