Shiny New Books: Janice Galloway and the IFFP

A new issue of Shiny New Books went up earlier this month, so this is a quick post to tell you about two pieces of mine…

JellyfishThe first is a review of Jellyfish, the new short story collection by Janice Galloway:

[Jellyfish] takes as its starting point an observation by David Lodge: “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life’s the other way round.” The twelve stories in Jellyfish don’t disprove Lodge exactly, but they do approach the topics of sex and parenthood – or, to take a more general view, heightened moments of feeling and the longer-term experience of living – from a variety of angles, bringing more nuance to the straightforward opposition of Lodge’s statement…

The full review is here.

You can also read my report on the IFFP ceremony, which includes photographs by my fellow shadow judge Julianne Pachico. On that subject, there’s also an article by Tony Malone on the IFFP shadow jury. As it turns out, this year’s IFFP was also the last, as it is now being merged into the reformatted Man Booker International Prize. I’m sure we’ll still be shadowing, though.

Adam Roberts, Saint Rebor (2014)

SaintStrange Horizons have my review of Saint Rebor, the latest short story collection from Adam Roberts (published as part of Newcon Press’s Imaginings series). I wanted to say a few words on my approach to this review, because it grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the other reviews that were out there.

Saint Rebor itself hadn’t garnered much commentary at the time I was putting together my review, but the book’s opening story, ‘What Did Tessimond Tell You?’, had several reviews following its appearance in a year’s-best anthology . The story is about a scientist who discovers why the members of her project team are quitting even though they’re on the verge of winning the Nobel. Generally, the reviews I read revolved around the plausibility of the science, and didn’t go much further than that.

This approach wouldn’t do for me because I had a very different sense of what was interesting about the story. To me, the issue of scientific plausibility was simply not important in terms of what Roberts was actually doing – in my experience of his fiction, it rarely is. I wanted to write a review that offered a different way of looking at the stories in Saint Rebor.

I was a little daunted by the prospect: Roberts’s style can be dense and allusive, and I know that his references are often beyond my own sphere of experience. I may well not have been the best person to engage with what I saw in Roberts’s stories – but it looked as though if I didn’t, no one else would, and I felt strongly that it needed to be done. (This, incidentally, is one of the impulses behind book blogging: that you feel something has to be said about a book, and nobody else is saying it.)

So I have a review which focuses in on a few of Saint Rebor‘s stories  and (taking a cue from Roberts’s introduction) attempts to examine how – on the structural and linguistic levels – they exploit the tensions between ‘science’ and ‘fiction’. I hope you find it interesting.

Stuart Evers, Your Father Sends His Love (2015)

father

Dean and Rachel had married at twenty; their lack of other sexual experiences a shock to others. As their friends’ relationships became soured and twisted, hoarse from shouting and bitter from drink, Dean and Rachel’s home was a constant: a clam place to hide, a sofa on which to sleep, a place of caring and safety. When later they managed to secure a mortgage on a two-up, two-down, Dean and Rachel’s more infrequent guests swapped the sofa for their own room and bed.

By their early thirties, Dean and Rachel’s relationship had become underscored by a quiet yet growing sense of trauma. The friends who’d crashed their sofa got married and Dean and Rachel went to their weddings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa had children, and Dean and Rachel went to their naming parties and christenings. The friends who’d crashed their sofa asked them to be godparents and Dean and Rachel politely declined. The IVF was an expensive joke.

This is a passage from ‘Frequencies’, a short story in Stuart Evers’ new collection Your Father Sends His Love, which I’ve reviewed for We Love This Book.

White Hunger and Dorthe Nors

Aki Ollikainen, White Hunger (2012)
Transalted from the Finnish by Emily Jeremiah and Fleur Jeremiah (2015)

White Hunger

The theme for Peirene Press’s 2015 books is ‘Chance Encounters’, and chance is particularly brutal their first selection of the year. Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is set in 1867, when Finland was beset by famine, the last naturally caused famine in Europe. In the prologue, we glimpse farming couple Marja dn Juhani gathering what meagre food they can, and engaging in mutual masturbation rather than risk bringing another child into these dire circumstances. The next time we meet them, Juhani is starving to death, and Marja and her two children leave their home behind in search of… well, whatever they can find. Their survival is dependent on the goodwill of strangers who are themselves in hardship – and goodwill can only go so far.

Alongside Marja’s family, we meet other characters, this time based in the town – an unnamed senator with plans for a railway; and the doctor Teo, who discusses solutions to the famine with his brother over a game of chess, and exchanges his medical expertise for favours from prostitutes. In many ways, these characters are the inverse of Marja: they are largely shielded from the famine while she is caught up in it; their lives may be geographically contained, but they can see a larger picture; Marja and children move through an expansive landscape, but don’t really know where they are.

I was really struck by how much White Hunger encompasses in such a small space; it feels like the story of a nation in microcosm. The journey of Marja’s family could be the story of many other families across Finland at that time; the Senator and his plans may be seen as representing the inevitable march of the future. Emily and Fleur Jeremiah’s translation underlines the starkness of what is a strong start to Peirene’s year. With Ollikainen’s second novel shortly to be published in Finnish, I hope we see an English translation before too long.

Elsewhere:

***

Dorthe Nors, Karate Chop (2008)
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken (2014)

Dorthe Nors, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2013)
Translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra (2015)

Nors

Pushkin Press are introducing the Danish writer Dorthe Nors to UK audiences with two books bound head-to-tail in a single volume. It’s a nice idea: not only is it an attractive format, it also shows us more than one side to Nors’s work. The first side is the short story collection Karate Chop; and these are very short, sharp stories indeed – fifteen over the course of eighty pages. Each is a miniature character study, often (perhaps paradoxically) oblique and precise at the same time – oblique in that Nors’s characters tend to be hiding something from themselves or the outside world; precise in the details that nonetheless come to light.

So, for example, in ‘The Buddhist’, we meet a government official who becomes a Buddhist because everyone knows Buddhists are good people; stretches the truth to become president of an aid charity (all in the name of goodness, you understand); and generally twists his own rhetoric in the manner of Joe from Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods. In ‘Do You Know Jussi?’, a girl waiting for a text from her boyfriend while watching a TV show about families being reunited, anything to avoid admitting that she knows the text isn’t coming. The collection’s harrowing title story depicts a woman who refuses to acknowledge where the blame in her abusive relationship lies (“It was quite unacceptable of him, yet at the same time her not listening to what he told her was suspicious”). Martin Aitken captures in his translation a similar sense of the unspoken as he did with Pia Juul’s The Murder of Halland, to similar unsettling effect.

Sharing the bill with Karate Chop is a novella, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. Minna is a composer whose partner, Lars, has broken up with her – and, yes, she’s also lost her rehearsal space. Her search for a replacement is not just about finding a physical space for practising music, but also a mental space for sorting through her life.

The form of this novella is very striking: a list of fairly straightforward declarative sentences, such as:

Minna calls Lars.

Minna calls Lars until he picks up the phone.

Minna and Lars have discussed this before.

Lars has a cousin.

The cousin’s name is Tim.

Tim knows of a rehearsal space in Kastrup.

Quoting like this can give you a sense of the repetition and rhythm, but not the cumulative effect: the unstoppable flow of incantatory sentences that drives Minna forward on her personal journey – whilst also suggesting that a quiet space is going to prove elusive. It’s a superb piece of translation by Misha Hoekstra, the sort that makes me wish I could read Danish, just to experience the music that the original must surely possess. Still, I have the music of the English version to enjoy.

The author bio tells me that Nors has written four novels in addition to these books. Once again, I can only look forward eagerly to being able to read them in future.

Elsewhere:

  • Read Nors’s story ‘The Heron‘ from Karate Chop
  • …or an extract from Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
  • Interview with Nors at Bookanista.
  • John Self reviews the book for the Guardian.

A weekend of novellas (contents may not be as advertised)

After my run of reading novellas last month, I decided to do the same again. Except some of these definitely aren’t noevllas, and I didn’t read them all at the weekend. Anyway…

KaufmanAndrew Kaufman, All My Friends Are Superheroes (2003)

This was Kaufman’s first book, and the delightful imagination that he put to such great effect in books like Born Weird is on display here, too. It’s the story of Tom, an ordinary guy who married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But trouble soon came calling: on the couple’s wedding day, Hypno, the Perfectionist’s ex, hypnotised her into thinking that Tom was invisible; now she’s flying to Vancouver to begin a new life, and Tom needs to find a way to make her see him. Kaufman’s novella is peppered with vignettes of superheroes whose powers are often based on personality traits (such as the Frog-Kisser, who can ‘transform geeks into winners’ but then loses her attraction to them; or Mr Opportunity, who knocks on doors but is rarely answered). The rest of the book has the same charming mixture of the quirkily fantastical and a heart of everyday (but is it really?) emotion.

George Szirtes, Uncle Zoltán: fragments (2014)

This pamphlet from the Belgium-based publisher MIEL is a collection of bon mots from the titular Uncle Zoltán; these are by turns whimsical, fantastical, and absurd. For example:

We had a tiled stove with wings. Occasionally it would squwak and hover a foot or so off the ground, said Uncle Zoltán.

Always pack three umbrellas, one for heavy rain, one for light rain, and one for no rain, said Uncle Zoltán. A dry umbrella is consoling.

So many of these delightful snippets send the imagination off into a sideways world where all the strangeness makes sense; one also starts to imagine what kind of character Uncle Zoltán might be, built up indirectly from the fragments of reported speech. I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, because Uncle Zoltán is very much a book that lives in the reading.

Levy

Deborah Levy, An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell (1990)

Newly reissued by And Other Stories as an attractive little hardback, this is a poem: a dialogue between an angel and an accountant, which evokes the push and pull of the mundane and the transcendent, the heat of desire and a quieter contentment. Rather like Uncle Zoltán, Levy’s book encourages you to focus in on the language (and even, in this case, the arrangement of words on the page). AS much as I enjoyed it, though, I find it difficult to separate out a quote from An Amorous Discourse. Here’s a video (hosted by the Irish Times) of Levy reading from it instead

WhiteleyAliya Whiteley, The Beauty (2014)

Aliya Whiteley can usually be relied upon for engaging stories with a dark twist, and The Beauty (published by Unsung Stories) is no exception. It focuses on a group of men living in a time when the female population has died out (the cause is unspecified) and the details of geography and history have become hazy; the Group relies on its storyteller Nate to retain the memory of what matters. One day, strange fungus begins to appear on the graves of the Group’s women, growing into silent, faceless female figures dubbed ‘the Beauty.’ What follows is a story that leaves the reader’s thoughts and sympathies in flux – on the one hand, there’s the moral issue of how the men treat the Beauty; on the other is the question of whether the Beauty themselves are benign. The vagueness of time and place, and the starkness of the Group’s world, only add to that sense of uncertainty.

Johnson

Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2002)

I got a very enthusiastic reaction on Twitter when I mentioned that I had this lined up to read; though I perhaps wouldn’t quite go that far myself, it’s certainly very good. Train Dreams moves back and forth through the life of Robert Grainier, a labourer born in 1889 who would go on to witness enormous change in the twentieth century. Johnson evokes the raw nature of life and landscape in Grainier’s American West; and includes memorable glimpses of others’ personal tragedies, such as that of Kootenai Bob, the old Native American who got drunk for the first (and last) time, then went to lie down on the rail track. The fragmented structure of Train Dreams serves to underline the essential; nature of Grainier’s life: unstable but enduring, haunted by the past but always with a future around the corner, for good or ill.

BarkerA,L. Barker, Lost Journey (1992)

This is one of four ghost stories which have been published in new individual editions by Galley Beggar Press. I have to admit that I’d never heard of A.L. Barker prior to reading Lost Journey, but this story was such fun that I’ll have to seek out more of her work. Barker’s narrator spots two striking figures in the street: an old woman with no legs, who travels around in an orange box on wheels; and her beautiful companion, who pushes her. Led by his libido, the narrator falls in with them; the old woman, Gerda Charles, turns out to be four hundred years old, and searching for a way to die. There’s a wry glee to this story; much of its energy comes from watching the narrator being strung along by forces outside his control, and seeing just where he’ll end up.

 

Alex Dally MacFarlane (ed.), Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) – Vector review

The following review appears in Vector issue 277 (Autumn 2014).

AliensAs Alex Dally MacFarlane notes in her introduction to this anthology, the concept of extra-terrestrial life raises questions which have been a perennial source of fascination for writers: “What will we encounter? Will we be able to encounter it at all?” And, of course, since alien life remains undiscovered, it becomes a blank canvas that writers can fill however they wish. In Aliens: Recent Encounters, MacFarlane has assembled thirty-two recent tales (the earliest are from 2002) which take a variety of approaches to the subject.

In ‘Sun Dogs‘, Brooke Bolander imagines Laika on her involuntary mission in space, where she meets some strange fiery dog-creatures who can give her whatever she wants, which the humans (whom Laika calls “whitecoats”) never could or would. ‘Sun Dogs’ is very much a story that stands or falls on its ability to create and sustain a convincing narrative viewpoint for Laika. Happily, it succeeds: Bolander’s third-person narration is a combination of persuasively non-human terminology and perception (“The world through the window is black and empty, marked with tiny faraway gleams that might be the eyes of unknown animals”), and detail that emphasises instinct and feeling. The ending, too, is satisfying, because in retrospect it fits right in.

The Four Generations of Chang E‘ by Zen Cho is a drily humorous tale of diaspora experience. We begin as Chang E has won a lottery to leave Earth for the moon, which has been colonised by aliens. We then follow three successive generations of her daughters (also named Chang E) as they react to, and are changed by, the world in which they find themselves: from wanting to fit in with the Moonites, through to a point where Earth is itself an alien place. There are some sharp lines, especially around attitudes to the native moon rabbits, which are discovered to be sentient (“The entire hall smelled of rabbit food. You worried other people would smell it on you.”); but the complex emotions of the ending are perhaps most powerful of all.

Interestingly inverting the idea of encounter, Genevieve Valentine’s ‘Carthago Delenda Est‘ is set four hundred years after a message was picked up from a planet in the Oort cloud, which caused any number of worlds to send delegations. The ambassadors have been cloned and reincarnated ever since, waiting for the unknown alien to show up. There’s a nicely wry tone to Valentine’s writing (on the number of delegates: “You wonder how amazing the message must be, to get them all up off their asses”), which fits in with the rather absurd nature of what she’s depicting: a whole existence created, entire lives lived, for an event that might never happen.

Though some reach into the depths of space, other stories in the anthology remain earthbound. For example, ‘Lambing Season‘ by Molly Gloss is a resolutely – almost stiflingly – down-to-earth tale of encounter. Delia spends six months of the year tending her flock of sheep on the mountain, with only her two dogs for company. This year, a strange craft falls from the sky; Delia investigates, and comes across a person who looks rather like a dog. Then she goes back to her sheep. Gloss’s prose evokes the vastness of the landscape that Delia inhabits, and the hard nature of her farming life; the focus on the quotidian rather than the extraordinary gives ‘Lambing Season’ a highly distinctive feel.

Courtney, the narrator of Elizabeth Bear’s ‘The Death of Terrestrial Radio’ grew up feeling estranged from other people, but with a yearning to talk to aliens. Eventually, they talked to us – or rather they transmitted a jumble of old Earth broadcasts back at us. Courtney is the astronomer who pinpointed the source of the ‘Echoes’, but it’s not so much a cause for celebration as for rueing the impossible distances that must be crossed in the universe. She reflects: “I can’t decide if knowing they were out there and that they reached out in friendship with a map and the sound of their voices, is worse than imagining they were never there at all.” All the vistas of space fall back into the story of a woman facing up to the possibility that her life’s work may have been for nothing.

There’s a bitter irony to the title of Nisi Shawl’s ‘Honorary Earthling‘, an irony which is only underlined by its inclusion in an alien-themed anthology. The story takes the form of monologues by various African American characters, who are all either talking to – or are themselves – a figure from urban legend, such as a phantom hitchhiker or doppelganger; these are then paired with related extracts of ‘found’ reportage. As a whole, these monologues show just how much their narrators – and others like them – still feel that they’re treated as outsiders (“Aren’t we lucky Seattle lets dogs ride the bus? I don’t think they’d understand if someone were to tell them they couldn’t”). Besides being a fine piece of work, ‘Honorary Earthling’ illustrates just how widely this anthology ranges.

Ken Liu’s ‘The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species‘ is, as its title suggests, a tour how various alien races pass on their knowledge to each other. There’s some wonderfully evocative imagery here, as Liu imagines radically contrasting modes of existence: from mechanical creatures whose experience becomes etched into their stone brains by shifting channels of water, to beings of energy who see the vast structures of the universe as books to be read. That diversity of life is echoed in all the different kinds of stories in MacFarlane’s anthology.

Best European Fiction 2015: Rudan and Petrescu

BestEuroVedrana Rudan, ‘My Granddaughter’s Name Is Anita’
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

A woman lies in bed, unmoved by the attentions of her husband. He tries to pleasure her by stimulating different parts of her body, but none of it works; instead, the woman dreams about things she does enjoy – mostly shopping and clothes:

My head is in the closet. I am sniffing my blouses. I count them. Forty-three colorful babes watch me merrily. White, green, red, pink, pale green, the color of water, black. I even have one the color of dirt. A big, dull, dark-brown blouse. I don’t dare take it out of the closet because it is a gift from my husband. When he gave it to me, I thought, God, you know nothing about me. A dark-brown blouse. A mound of dirt by a freshly dug grave.

Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation is full of such choppy rhythms that evoke the narrator’s restlessness, but also her raw emotions – desire and repulsion. Her feelings about clothes may be genuine, or magnified by the dream state; either way, they’re a sign that she’s uncertain about her life and herself. She clings on to material things that aren’t actually real, but shies away from sensations that are.

The title of Vedrana Rudan’s story stands out because it’s a seemingly throwaway line that has nothing much to do with the main story. But it opens up an entirely new context in which to view the narrator: as a grandmother, someone with ties beyond the immediate sphere of her marriage (which is all we really see in Rudan’s tale). The story illustrates that even the simplest-seeming moments can reveal emotional complexity, and may show just one facet of a life among many.

Răzvan Petrescu, ‘G-text’
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Well, this must have been fun/interesting/challenging/frustrating to translate: a monologue full of long, rambling sentences, with plenty of G-sounds. For example:

[…]I hated the open air grills, and the claws of the griffon that fluttered above us on odd-numbered days, I hated the glaring lies, the gladioli, the unquestioned chacun à son gout that was always questioned, but not Simon and Garfunkel, and Gogol, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Sartre’s gagging in Nausea was crushingly minor compared with the apocalyptic work of my nausea.

It’s a fabulous piece of translation by Alistair Ian Blyth. The Gs wax and wane, but the voice of Răzvan Petrescu’s narrator is always there: angry at the past and Ceaucescu’s regime – the music that was banned, the trams that didn’t run, and much more besides – a voice that feels as though it has been waiting for a chance to speak, and seizes the moment with an unstoppable torrent of words