Emma Donoghue, Astray (2012)

Emma Donoghue is one of my favourite writers and I particularly love her historical short fiction.

The stories in Astray are based on fragmentary and marginal historical sources, such as news reports, letters, obituaries, legal records and museum exhibits. The overarching theme is people who are on the move, out of place, in transition physically, emotionally, and psychologically. The book is organised into three sections (‘Departures’, ‘In Transit’, and ‘Arrivals and Aftermaths’), and the characters we meet within them are immigrants and emigrants, drifters, adventurers and runaways.

Each story explores the opportunities and risks of movement and boundary-crossing, what’s gained and what’s lost. An elephant is sold to P.T. Barnum, much to the dismay of his zookeeper. A woman supporting her family through prostitution in mid-Victorian London considers making a fresh start in Canada. An eighteenth-century wife tricks her husband out of his fortune and disappears. Another wife persuades a slave to run away with her. A married couple’s new start in America is blighted by tragedy before they can be reunited. Two young men go prospecting in the gold rush. A frontierswoman drags a prodigal husband home. A child is adopted and sent abroad against her first mother’s will. A seventeenth-century puritan community grapples with accusations of sexual “deviance”. A child soldier is caught up in a campaign of organised rape. The daughter of a businessman in New York discovers that the man she knew as her father once lived as a woman. A lesbian artist contemplates her life as her partner descends into dementia.

I really enjoyed Astray and found the stories fascinating and poignant. Donoghue is an emigrant/immigrant herself, moving from Ireland to Canada to pursue a relationship. The ‘Afterword’, in which she talks about how this experience shaped the book, creates a real sense of empathy and resonance. As with much of her work, there’s a focus on the lives of women and queer people, as well as people who live on the margins and don’t really fit into any normative categories.

*** Just one word of warning: ‘The Hunt’ is a deeply disturbing story about rape and I think it could be extremely triggering for people who’ve experienced sexualised violence

December Acquisitions

We didn’t buy each other any presents this year because we spent our December budget on going away for the holidays. However, any hopes that this decision would result in less stuff entering the house were quickly dashed by the presence of secondhand bookshops in the town where we stayed.

I was very pleased to pick up Elizabeth A. Lynn’s fantasy trilogy, The Chronicles of Tornor (1979 – 80), which I mentioned in my post about her short stories. You’ll often see one of these in secondhand bookshops, but rarely all three together.

Lynn Trilogy

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London Book Buying

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Gay’s the Word is an essential stop for us whenever we visit London. This time around, we picked up Alexis De Veaux’s Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde (2004) in the used section for £5. The used shelves also yielded up a couple of good lesbian short story collections: Anna Livia and Lilian Mohan (eds.) The Pied Piper: Lesbian Feminist Fiction (1989), which contains stories by the likes of Gillian Hanscombe, Patricia Duncker and Mary Dorcey, and Ruthann Robson’s Lambda nominated Eye of a Hurricane (1989).

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Andy bought a new copy of Lolly Willows (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner. This is a novel about a middle-aged spinster who abandons her family responsibilities to become a witch. She also got Ash (2009) by Malinda Lo, which is a lesbian retelling of Cinderella and had the shop assistant raving. Apparently, he’s bought it for all his friends.

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Greg Egan, Luminous (1998)

“the only freedom lies in being this machine, and not another”, Mr Volition.

A sinister genetically-engineered jungle; a super-computer made out of light; a piece of software that could reveal the true nature of consciousness; a religious icon from Chernobyl; a mysterious, deadly new disease; a barrier to protect the foetus in the womb; radical brain surgery that might allow you to choose your own happiness. These are some of the delights and terrors contained within the stories of Greg Egan.

Greg Egan writes hard science fiction. His stories are concerned with the ways in which people respond to scientific advances and, just as importantly, how science shapes the possibilities of human existence.  These are stories about the politics and the ethics of science and its interactions with economics, culture and belief.

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2013 in Science/ Speculative Fiction

Top 5 Novels

I can’t pick an overall favourite because I loved them all for different reasons.

Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)
Despite the objections of her supervisor, Mr Dunworthy, a postgraduate history student called  Kivrin insists on travelling back in time to the fourteenth century. I don’t know how a Medievalist would respond to Willis’s depiction of the period, but not being a Medievalist myself I just enjoyed it as a great story about death which managed to be entertaining and profound at the same time.

Nancy Kress, Steal across the Sky (2009)
Aliens set up a base on the moon and state their intention to atone for a crime committed against humanity by their ancestors.  This is a lovely little novel which takes the question of belief in the afterlife as its starting point. If we could prove the existence of an afterlife, how would this knowledge change us and our world?  I enjoyed it enough to forgive the ‘dead gay best-friend’, even though that’s a trope I particularly loathe.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog (1999)
More time-travelling historians in this charming, delightful, fluffy romance. I would definitely recommend reading Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) beforehand and you’ll have to leave your feminism at the front cover if you want to enjoy it fully.

Nicola Griffiths, Ammonite (1993)
But if you do want some feminist science fiction, look no further than Ammonite. A researcher travels to the mysterious planet called Jeep where a virus wiped out all the male colonists hundreds of years ago.  Somehow the remaining women have found a way to survive and reproduce. This is an intense and profound book about self-discovery.

Kage Baker, In the Garden of Iden (1997)
This is the first in Baker’s popular ‘Company’ series about cyborgs who are employed by a mysterious company to manipulate the past. It’s very funny and deadly serious at the same time.  I can’t wait to read the next one.

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Candas Jane Dorsey, Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988)

The stories in Candas Jane Dorsey’s collection Machine Sex are melancholy and evocative. They are concerned with themes of alienation, displacement, transition and loss, but also with the importance of making connections and the possibilities that may be played out within the limits of our human lives.

The two linked stories, ‘The Prairie Warriors’ and ‘War and Rumours of War’, are set during a moment of transition at the end of old relationships and the beginning of new ones.  As part of a long tradition, a small community gives a young girl to a separatist society of female warriors.  The story is told from the perspectives of the girl and the two women who are sent to collect her. Traumatised, addicted to drugs, hostile and desperately needy, the girl finds herself faced with an entirely new set of values and ways of relating. She must decide whether to let go of her old life and take the risk of connecting with her new companions.  The story features one of the best representations of a disturbed teenager that I’ve ever come across and probably draws on Dorsey’s own life experience as a social worker.  Dorsey also identifies as a queer writer and sexuality is well-handled in her stories.  I especially liked the way ‘Prairie Warriors’ contrasts the sexually abusive patriarchal world of the town with the dynamics of the warrior society in which sexuality is not commodified.

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The 10 short stories that got me into reading science fiction

Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the sofa with my Mum watching re-runs of Dr Who, Blake’s 7 and the original Star Trek.  I’m not sure if she knew I was paying attention, what with Blake’s 7 hardly being suitable viewing for a five year-old.  A few years later I was into Star Trek: The Next Generation and Quantum Leap and would try and get away with staying up late to watch The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits reboots. Then it was The X-Files, Babylon 5 and all the rest of those nineties SF shows.

Considering how much science fiction I watched on television, I was surprisingly slow to start reading the genre.  When I did eventually come to the literature of science fiction, it was through reading short stories and this is a list of the ones that have stayed with me.

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Gardner Dozois (ed.), Best New SF7 (1992)

If the stories in 2008’s Mammoth Book of SF 21 were particularly concerned with death, annihilation and endings, the overarching theme in this collection from 1992 seems to be a questioning of the relationship between concepts of nature and normality.  Some of the best stories collected here look into the ways in which nature, as a concept, is mediated to us through narratives and then go on to interrogate the role played by science in constructing these narratives.

Take Ian R. Macleod’s ‘Grownups’, which is one of the most unsettling science fiction stories I’ve ever read. Its world looks a lot like ours, but it’s different in one crucial way; in order to become a “grown up”, all adolescents must undergo a terrifying and painful maturation process.  Once they have grown up, they can get married and have children. Each marriage includes not just a man and a woman, but a third person, known as an “uncle”, and it is the uncle who bears the children.  Two of the young people decide that they don’t want to grow-up and attempt to avoid the process altogether.  Macleod manipulates our assumptions masterfully in this story and the ending packs one heck of a punch.  It’s an allegory about the terrors of growing up, but I think it’s also about childbirth, a painful and dangerous experience that’s considered natural in our society, but which might look horrific and terrifying to an alien with a different reproductive process.  And how often do adults respond to their daughters’ fears about childbirth by telling them they’ll understand when they grow up? I’ll never forget it.

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Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories (1948)

Ever since I finished reading The Lottery & Other Stories I’ve been trying to articulate the effect this collection had on me. It’s easy enough to appreciate Shirley Jackson as a superb writer who had absolute control of her material, but when it comes to discussing the content of the stories, I find myself struggling because they seem to say so much and I always end up with more questions than answers.  If I had to try and sum it up, I suppose I’d say these stories explore the high price attached to the modern western construction the “self” as something that must be constantly defended against the “others” it attempts to exclude and deny.

Jackson is very much a gothic writer and one trope that appears in a lot of the stories, and is often associated with the gothic, is that of “the double”.  Her use of doubling produces a sense of what Sigmund Freud would call “the uncanny”, the deeply unsettling feeling that something which should have remained secret and hidden has come to light. Like seeing yourself reflected in a distorted mirror, the uncanny double makes the familiar world appear disturbingly strange. In ‘The Renegade’, we find a middle-class housewife doubled with her “chicken killing” dog. The doubling of woman and dog reflects her position in the family in an unsettling light, but in so doing makes the horror of that position finally visible. Meanwhile, in the story ‘Charles’, the doubling of a supposedly perfect child with his monstrous other shatters his parents’ illusions. Adult denial about the nature of children is a theme in several of the stories. My favourite use of doubling occurs in the chilling story ‘Of Course’ in which a family is confronted with some alarming new neighbours. But this new family is (of course), an uncanny mirror held up to the supposedly “normal” family, the flipside of the deadly, conventional, suburban lifestyle that the story’s protagonist is herself living. The neighbours are horrifying because they are not really so very different.

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Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction 21 (2008)

This is my first encounter with the acclaimed Mammoth Book of Best New SF and I can see why its editor has won so many awards over the years. The stories selected here are of consistently high quality and offer a balanced collection of new and established writers.

On the downside, the content of issue 21 is dominated by white, male authors (25 men to 8 women) and you can see that in 2008, women writers and writers of colour were not getting the same level of attention as white, male writers. As far as I could tell (without looking everyone up) there are only two writers of colour included in this anthology! On a somewhat more positive note, the stories do feature a lot of female protagonists (16 of the 25 stories) which does at least suggest that male writers are starting to consider women as being worth writing about, which is something.

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Ursula K Le Guin, ‘The Wind’s Twelve Quarters’ (1975)

The Wind’s Twelve Quarters is Le Guin’s most famous collection, bringing together short stories published between 1962 and 1974 in various magazines.  It’s a wide-ranging collection that really showcases Le Guin’s talents and each story is prefaced with an  illuminating and humerous short commentary from the author.

For fans, such as me, it’s lovely to read stories that engage with her other works.  The opening story, ‘Semeley’s Necklace’, is recognisable as the prologue to one her of first novels, Rocannon’s World.  ‘April in Paris’ (the first story she got paid for) is a sweet, funny little piece about an accident of time travel bringing together a bunch of misfits, and also seems to be set in the Hainish Universe.  ‘The Word of Unbinding’ and ‘The Rule of Names’ are set in early versions of Earthsea, the first of which has trolls in it, and the second features a wizard  who isn’t quite what he appears to be. ‘Winter’s King’ revisits the world of The Left Hand of Darkness and in this story Le Guin (partly in response to critiques from feminists) changes the pronouns used to describe her androgynous Gethenians from the masculine to the feminine. This has an interesting effect on the way their society comes across to the reader. The Nebula Award winning ‘The Day Before the Revolution’ tells of the final days of Leia Odo, the woman whose political theories made possible the anarchist colony of Anarres in The Dispossessed.

There are two powerful allegories about science, ‘The Masters’ which is set on a future Earth where the study of mathematics and physics is forbidden, and ‘The Stars Below’ in which an astronomer pursued by some kind of inquisition is forced to hide out in a mine.

There are also some classic stand-alone science fiction stories which involve space ships and missions to other planets and, which like the best science fiction, also ask big questions.  ‘Nine Lives’ is ostensibly about cloning, but reaches into philosophical territory, asking questions about identity and the nature of interpersonal relationships.  ‘Vaster than Empires and more Slow’ tells the story of a mismatched crew of people on a mission to a planet far out on the edge of the galaxy where they find themselves at the mercy of a vast empathic life form that does nothing but transmit its terror at their arrival back to them. It’s a story about facing the fear of the other.  ‘The Field of Vision’ is a story that takes on the nature of God.

Then there are some that are kind of unclassifiable.  ‘The Direction of the Road’ is a story about relativity told from the perspective of a tree – have you ever thought about how people and cars must appear to a tree standing by the side of the road?  ‘Things’ is one of Le Guin’s psychomyths, a dark tale set in an apparently dying world looking at how people face death and the giving up of ‘things’.  ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ is a haunting allegory about the ways in which we rationalise the horrific abuses that underpin our society. It deservedly won the Hugo Award for best short story in 1973.

This is essential reading for fans of Le Guin’s writing, but probably isn’t the best place to start for new readers – for that I’d recommend one of the novels.

M. R. James, Count Magnus and Other Stories (1904)

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and died in 1936.  He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity at Cambridge University, but is now remembered for the ghost stories that he started writing in the 1890s as a hobby and an amusement for his friends and students. They are still considered to be among the most terrifying stories ever written.

My mother loves M. R James, so I’ve been aware of him for about as long as I can remember and have read his collected stories through at least three times. I recently acquired Penguin’s new 2 volume annotated edition of the stories and decided to give them a re-read.

Reading an M. R James ghost story goes something like this: a repressed, middle-aged male scholar/antiquarian goes delving around in something he probably shouldn’t. The story bumbles along pleasantly enough for quite a few pages, then something a bit creepy happens, then something a bit more creepy happens, and then oh. my. God. Aaaargh!

James is very influenced by the great Victorian, Anglo-Irish writer of gothic and supernatural tales, Sheridan Le Fanu.  His stories have a similarly elegant, understated use of language and a gradual sense of slow-building terror.  But James exceeds even Le Fanu as an absolute master of ‘the uncanny‘, that is, the sense that something that should have remained repressed has come to light.  He draws on the Gothic tradition in basing his stories on an eruption of the past into the present in such a way as to defamiliarise the present.  He works a lot with defamiliarisation, the feeling that something’s a bit off with the world: a picture that seems to have a figure where it didn’t before, a room that looks smaller at night than it does by day, a figure in the distance that isn’t moving quite right:

There was something about its motion that made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters.  It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the waters edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, p, 91.

His ghosts are material creatures; they threaten and sometimes manage to touch, grab, injure and even kill his protagonists.

Count Magnus and Other Stories contains fifteen of his most famous stories.  I would say that the best ones are ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Number 13’, the famous ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’, and ‘Casting the Runes’.   These stories are about as good ghost stories as have ever been written, but almost all of the tales collected here contain moments of brilliance.  ‘Count Magnus’, a story which I thought one of his weaker ones, gave me a nightmare after reading it, and ‘The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral’ manages to make the simple line, ‘There is no kitchen cat’, pants-wettingly scary.

In terms of more serious critical issues, from a feminist perspective there is the lack of women in the stories.  In fact there are more women in the stories than I remembered, but it’s the way they’re positioned that makes them seem absent.  There are also class issues as many of the stories show a disdain for working-class people.  Some hint at very dark meanings; reading ‘Lost Hearts’ again, a tale about a man who harms children to service his selfish desires, this time I saw in it a repressed story about paedophilia.  It’s not that I think James intended that meaning, but the language of the text can produce it for us now.

James is not really spring or summer reading so I probably won’t get around to the second volume The Haunted Dolls House and Other Stories until the autumn now.

Bessie Head, The Collector of Treasures and Other Botswana Village Tales (1977)

Bessie Head had a traumatic life. She was born in South Africa in 1937, the illegitimate daughter of a black woman and a white man. She was put into foster care as a child.  Her marriage ended in divorce; she lived as a refugee in Botswana for years and died at the young age of 49.  But she put her difficult experiences to good use in her fiction and became one of Africa’s best known women writers.

The stories in The Collector of Treasures seem simple on the surface – the language direct and uncluttered – but when you start to think about them, you find that their meaning is complex and elusive.  They tend to start and end abruptly, throwing you into and out of the characters’ lives, leaving you to make up your own mind without offering much sense of direction or resolution from the author.  It feels like you’re visiting with these people and being given a glimpse of their lives, but the visit leaves you with a strong impression that we can never really know why people do the things they do.

The stories are full of tensions between men and women, tradition and modernity, communal gift economy and capitalism, and between different religious beliefs.  A lot of them depict the breakdown of older communal ways of life in the face of encroaching capitalist, western values and the impact this shift has on people, especially woman.  ‘Jacob: The Story of a Faith-Healing Priest’ is a particularly good example which brings out these themes and which is critical of both traditional and new ways of living.  ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Snapshots of a Wedding’ are other stories that offer a perspective on this conflict.  ‘The Wind and a Boy’ is a profoundly sad story in which the senseless death of a boy at the hands of a member of the new rich civil servant class symbolises the death of a whole way of being and relating.

You can imagine that Head based her work on stories that she heard from local people in Botswana.  The tragic tale ‘Looking for the Rain God’ feels like a semi-mythical story that comes out of a community’s real experience.  Figures like Galethebege, the devout Christian woman who marries a man who adheres to Setswana religious tradition, and Mma-Moompati, the ‘village saint’, who finally undoes herself by mistreating her daughter-in-law also feel like they have their roots in real village characters.  And one of Head’s strengths as a writer is her creation of vivid characters.

My favourite is the title story, ‘The Collector of Treasures’, which is about a woman who has a difficult life and murders her husband, but who somehow always manages to find moments of happiness (treasures) in the pain. The story seems to sum up the attitude of compassion, the (not always happy) sense of acceptance of life as it is, and of people as they are in all their complexity, that characterises Head’s work.

I’ll be interested to read one of her novels.

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a late nineteenth-century American writer.  Her stories are  set mostly in New England and deal with the lives of ordinary people, especially women.  The Revolt of Mother and Other Stories contains eight of her best known works spanning twenty years of her career.

The impression I was left with after reading the stories was ambivalence: ambivalence about the place of women under patriarchy, about female sexuality and about relationships between men and women.  This ambivalence is often played out in Freeman’s work through the doubling of a passive, self-effacing, devoted woman, with another woman, who is aggressive, demanding and determined to ‘do for herself’ in life.  ‘Gentian’ and ‘The Selfishness of Amelia Lamkin’ both feature sisters, one married and subservient to her man, and the other, who is an assertive, independent spinster.  The question underlying the latter story is whether Amelia has actually damaged her family through her self-sacrificing behaviour.  In ‘One Good Time’ we have a trembling, weepy mother and her assertive daughter, and in ‘The Butterfly’, a devoted daughter with a mother who we never see, but whose questionable sexuality haunts the story.  The title story, ‘The Revolt of Mother’ is probably the most straightforward in its joining of these two female positions in the figure of a farmer’s wife, who after years of devoted submission to her husband finally insists that he fulfil his promise to give her the one thing she’s ever asked him for, a new house.  In almost all the other stories, though, there is a splitting of female subjectivity into different figures.

In two of the stories, ‘A New England Nun’ and ‘Old Woman Magoun’, this ambivalence and sense of splitting becomes positively sinister.  In the first story, gentle Louisa has waited 15 years for her fiancée to return from making his fortune overseas, only to find that when he does come to claim her, she doesn’t want him disrupting her perfectly ordered life of embroidery, cream teas and distilling essences.  Louisa’s double, however, is not another woman, but an old yellow dog chained up in the overgrown part of her garden.  This dog once bit somebody and Louisa is afraid that if she marries Joe, it will get loose and go on the rampage through the village.  There is something terrible about this uncanny canine symbol of repressed female sexuality (or perhaps, of the way female sexuality has been viewed).

‘Old Woman Magoun’ is another haunting story about a grandmother (one of Freeman’s assertive angry women) who takes drastic measures to prevent her sweet, innocent granddaughter coming under the influence of her father, who the grandmother believes wants only to sexually corrupt the girl.  Is this the tale of a loving grandmother forced to an extreme act to save her granddaughter, or is it something worse, a story about a power struggle between a man and a woman over the body of a child in which both adults are actually cruel abusers?

Most of the stories can be read from more than one perspective: is Amelia Lambkin a self-sacrificing wife and mother, or is she actually the power in her family controlling everyone through rendering them helpless? Is the daughter in ‘The Butterfly’ right to choose her father over her mother? Is the wife in ‘Gentian’ right to return at the end to the husband who has dominated her entire life? These stories present no easy answers and ultimately the women who people them remain oddly resistant and elusive.

Brilliant stories that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading.  My only complaint is that they didn’t include the eerie Gothic story ‘Luella Miller’ which goes even further, presenting passive femininity as parasitic, even vampiric.

UPDATE: Further reading, Luella Miller: A Marxist Feminist Vampire Story

Harlan Ellison (ed.) Dangerous Visions (1967)

Dangerous Visions is an anthology of speculative short fiction published in 1967.

This book is often described as “ground breaking” and I’ve been meaning to read it for a long time. I’m a bit surprised to report that it disappointed me. I expected the stories to be dated by now and I was prepared for the general tone to be dudely – there are only three female authors represented. I also found the quality more uneven than I expected; plus too many of the stories were turn-offs for various reasons.

I wasn’t expecting quite such a broad definition of ‘science fiction’.  Quite a few of these stories would be just as comfortably placed in horror anthologies.  J. G. Ballard’s ‘The Recognition’, for instance, is a good story, but I can’t really see what defines it as science fiction as opposed to horror. Howard Rodman’s ‘The Man who Went to the Moon Twice’ could fit happily in a realist anthology. The high level of horror probably isn’t surprising when you think that the Vietnam War was going on at the time of publication and I guess the point of this anthology was to blur the boundaries between “serious literature” and science fiction.

The stories I disliked the most are the ones written in a super-clever, self-aware, satirical 1960s style (Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Riders of the Purple Wage’, for example; brilliance, or pretentious twaddle?).  This is a style of writing that you probably either love or hate.  It leaves me cold and there are several which I didn’t read past the first page for this reason.  I also dislike heavy-handed religious allegories (Del Ray’s ‘Evensong’, Knight’s ‘Shall the Dust Praise Thee’), and then there are the overly-long stories that just didn’t deliver at the end.  I’m sorry to say, these include Philip K Dick’s ‘Faith of our Fathers’, and Theodore Sturgeon’s painfully dull post-summer of love, hippie utopia, the last third of which is basically a sermon on the joys of incest.

Another gripe has to do with Harlan Ellison’s dude-arrific, back-slapping introductions to each story. These quickly became irritating and conveyed the distinct impression that his editorial policy consisted of inviting his drinking buddies to submit stories.  All the witty anecdotes, in-jokes and name dropping really got on my nerves.  And if I read the phrase “muscular writing” one more time … I mean, here’s an example of Ellison attempting to introduce a female author’s story:

But when you read Sonja Dorman you don’t think about the muscularity of male writing. You read it as written by a woman, but there is no pretence.  There is no attempt to emulate the particular strengths of male writing. It is purely female reasoning and attack, but it is strong. A special kind of tensile strength. It is what is meant by something turned out by a potent woman. It is the kind of writing only a woman can do.

Gosh, it’s such a mystery that feminism re-emerged around the same time in the late 1960s isn’t it?!

However, there are some very good stories which are still well worth reading. The stories by the three women authors are all interesting.  Miriam Allen deFord’s ‘The Malley System’ is brilliantly chilling, Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Sex and/or Mr Morrison’ is a classic and probably one of the most ground breaking stories in the anthology. Dorman’s ‘Go Go Go said the bird’ is an effective proto-feminist piece which can now easily be read as an allegory about patriarchy.  I suppose my favourite science fiction stories are usually the ones that do allegory well.  Frederick Pohl’s ‘The Day after the Day the Martians Came’ is a very upsetting but very good take on racism and slavery.  Harlan Ellison’s own ‘The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World’ takes consumer culture to hideous extremes and while Ellison’s introductions annoyed me, I have to admit that he’s a good science fiction writer.  ‘Lord Randy my Son’ uses religion in an interesting way.  James Cross’s ‘The Doll House’ is another good take on greed and consumerism, while John T. Sladek’s ‘The Happy Breed’ questions the implications of our desire to be ‘happy’ and has creepy machines taking over the world.  The final story, Samuel R. Delaney’s ‘Aye, and Gomorrah’ stands out as pushing the imaginative envelope and already suggests a great writer in the making.

The illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon accompanying each story are excellent.

All in all, it’s a mixed bag. I think that your enjoyment of this anthology will very much depend on what types of science fiction writing you like to read. If you’re not keen on horror, I’d give it a wide berth and it’s probably not one for the casual reader who isn’t already interested in the genre.

A three book round-up

Three books I read recently. All good.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Lavinia (2009)

Just when you think Le Guin is unlikely to produce another novel, she goes and does just that.  Lavinia is a lovely and moving re-imagination of Virgil’s Aeneid told from the point of view of a very minor character, Lavinia, the Trojan hero Aeneas’s last wife from whom the founders of Rome descended (according to the myth).  It’s a well-researched and clever recreation of Bronze Age culture and the writing is so good it just carries you along.  I’ve never read the Aeneid and I think Le Guin’s now convinced me to give it a go.

Michele Roberts, Playing Sardines (2002)

18 sensuous short stories, mainly about women who like to enjoy life, especially the joys of food and sex.   My favourite story is ‘Monsieur Mallarme Changes Names’ which is about how the french poet Mallarme beat his writing block by taking on the identity of Stephanie Mallarme, his transgender identity becoming a source of creativity.  ‘Playing Sardines’, ‘No Hands’, ‘Lists’ and ‘A Bodice Rips’ were other favourites.  She’s very good at writing twists into the ends of her stories.  I would say that three of the stories don’t work in this collection and Roberts is at her weakest when she tries to be overtly satirical: ‘The Cookery Lesson’ and ‘Blathering Frights’ come across as superficial  and I don’t think they fit.  I didn’t like ‘Just one more Saturday Night’ either, which is a surprisingly mean-spirited story about amateur women writers.  But overall, this is a very enjoyable collection in which Roberts manages to deal with serious issues without being grim or depressing.

Alice Munro, Open Secrets (1994)

I didn’t think this blog needed yet another long Alice Munro review and everything I’ve said in the previous ones applies here.  It’s excellent yadda yadda yadda.   This collection plays to a lot of her strengths.  There’s the affirmation of female sexual desire in ‘The Albanian Virgin’, the giving of voice to marginalised and silenced women in ‘A Wilderness Station’, the celebration of eccentric women in ‘A Real Life’ and ‘Spaceships have Landed’, and sinister violence and cruelty in ‘Vandals’ and ‘Open Secrets’.

Alice Walker, In Love and Trouble (1984)

In Love and Trouble contains thirteen haunting stories about the inner lives of black women in which Alice Walker sets out to undermine black female literary stereotypes.   It’s a powerful and, at times, horrifying collection with persistent themes of cruelty, betrayal, mutilation, vengeance and death.

‘Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?’ tells the story of an aspiring female writer who goes mad after being betrayed by the male lover who steals her work and publishes it under his own name.  The stolen story, which is about a woman who loses her leg in an accident caused by her neglectful husband and who then hangs herself, seems to be a metaphor for the mutilation and destruction of black female creativity within a racist, patriarchal world.

‘Her Sweet Jerome’ is a horrible story about a working-class black woman who marries a teacher.  He neglects her and she becomes obsessed with discovering the identity of the ‘other woman’, only to discover that he hasn’t betrayed her for a woman at all, but rather for a revolutionary politics that she doesn’t understand. So she burns his books and sets fire to herself in the process in an ending symbolic of the self-immolation that was her devotion to a cruel and arrogant man.

One of the most horrific, and yet poetic stories, is ‘The Child who Favoured Daughter’, in which a father mutilates his daughter when he finds out that she has a white lover.  The ending is going to stay with me for a long time.

‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’ (based on Alice Walker’s mother’s experiences during the depression), is a tremendous story about an old black woman who attempts to use voodoo to get revenge on the white woman whose mean refusal to give her food stamps resulted in the deaths of her children.  The story makes the point that guilt itself is the real curse on the white woman; it’s the guilt that makes the voodoo work.

In ‘Strong Horse Tea’, a desperate woman with a dying child is forced to fall back on the folk medicine she’s rejected when she realises that her requests for a doctor have gone ignored. And in ‘The Flowers’ a little girl loses her innocence when she comes across the bones of a lynched man, stepping (in a sickening moment) ‘smack into his eyes’.

I think my favourite story is ‘Everyday Use’.  A poor female sharecropper has two adult daughters. The oldest has left home, gone to university, got involved in the civil rights movement, visited Africa and changed her name.  The youngest has been terribly scarred (more mutilation) both physically and psychologically by a fire that burnt down their house when she was a child.  One day, the older sister comes to visit with her smart boyfriend and demands two handmade family quilts that the mother had been saving for her younger daughter’s marriage.  The older sister argues that the younger girl shouldn’t have them because she’ll only put them to ‘everyday use’ when they should really be displayed on a wall. The mother finally stands up to her daughter and insists on giving the quilts to the younger one — an action that heals their damaged relationship. The two daughters are doubles and the story can be interpreted in various ways.  Is the burned, scarred girl the damaged part of the self that’s been left behind by the educated, fashionable sister?  Do the quilts represent the heritage that woman like the older sister (who got out and got educated) must leave behind? Perhaps the loss of the ‘quilts’ is the price of getting out? It’s interesting to note that Walker herself was scarred in a childhood accident and felt that she was hideously ugly, but that she also got out, got an education and became involved in feminism and civil rights. In a sense, I think that she’s both women in this story and seems to be making peace with the scared, scarred, shy part of herself.

After so much intense, painful stuff, the collection ends with a gentle, moving story called ‘To Hell with Dying’ about a woman’s sense of responsibility for Mr Sweet, the old drunken neighbour who played with her as a child.  She had the job of reviving him whenever he took it upon himself to die, but her magic can’t work forever.

It’s well worth reading this collection alongside Walker’s non-fiction book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (1984) where she gives a lot of background to these stories in her essays about her upbringing as the daughter of poor sharecropping farmers, the suppression of black female creativity, the need for black women writers to challenge myths and stereotypes, and the writers that influenced her work — Flannery O’ Connor, Jean Toomer and Zora Neale Hurston in particular.

Alice Munro, Runaway (2004)

This is generally proclaimed as the collection that finally got Munro the recognition she deserves as a writer – winning the very important Man Booker International Prize in 2009.  Everything I’ve said in previous posts (here and here) about Munro applies here so I won’t repeat myself.  This is an excellent collection.

The stories are about women trying to get away from things – conventions, expectations, marriages, families, memories, pasts, futures – women trying to break free in some way.  But of course, breaking free of one situation has consequences and can lead you into another trap, as the main character in the title story discovers.

The opening story, ‘Runaway’, is followed by three interlinked stories about a woman called Juliet; they move from her chance meeting with the man she ends up living with, to her difficult relationship with her parents, to the disappearance of her adult daughter.  I found the last of the three stories, ‘Silence’, very disturbing, probably because I can’t deal with loss myself and the possibility of someone I love vanishing from my life without any explanation (leaving me to wonder why) is one of my worst nightmares.

‘Trespassers’ is a tremendous story about a child who begins to suspect she’s adopted, only to find an even darker secret lurking in her family.  The representation of the feckless, privileged, hippy parents and the damage they’ve done is very sharp in this story.

‘Tricks’ is another great story.  It’s about a woman who treats herself to a Shakespeare play once a year to get away from her humdrum life.  On one of these trips, she meets a man with whom she forms a connection.  She agrees to come back the following year and he asks her to wear the same green dress.  This one is about how the random cruelty of fate can shape lives.

At the centre of the final story, ‘Powers’, is a woman called Tessa who seems to have psychic abilities.  Her fate is sealed by the desire of those around her to not only believe in her powers but also to make use of them to their own advantage.

The cover of my edition also provides me with an excuse to link to this interesting article by Lionel Shriver: I write a nasty book. And they want a girly cover on itRunaway is a collection of pretty nasty, challenging stories, mainly about how people end up misunderstanding and hurting each other, but what do we have on the cover?  A conventionally attractive woman in a floral print dress toying with a flower?!

A short post about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Four Ways to Forgiveness (1996)

I’m not going to say much about Four Ways to Forgiveness because if you already like Le Guin you’ll probably enjoy it, whereas if you don’t, it isn’t going to convert you.

Here we have four interlinked stories set in Le Guin’s Hainish universe.  Werel is a slave-owning oligarchy.  Its colony planet, Yeowe, has recently undergone a revolution ousting the owner class and sending them packing back to their home world.  It looks like Werel will soon go the same way as Yeowe.

The stories in the book are those of people who live through this period in the history of the two planets.  An older woman, named Yoss, has retired to seclusion only to find an unexpected new focus in life when she meets a dishonoured ex-leader of the slave revolution who has betrayed his people.  A young envoy of the Ekumen and her reserved Werelian guard come to understand each other when they are both kidnapped by revolutionaries on Werel. Another Envoy, named Havzhiva, finds a home on Yeowe and a purpose in the fight for women’s rights that has taken the place of revolution.  Finally, Havzhiva’s partner, Rakem, tells her life story from her birth into slavery on Werel to her eventual freedom and self-fulfilment on Yeowe.

This is definitely one of Le Guin’s more overtly feminist books and is filled with the usual high quality writing, detailed world building and interesting characters.

Don’t start here if you’re new to the Hainish Universe, though; start with The Left Hand of Darkness and Worlds of Exile and Illusion

Alice Munro, Carried Away: A Selection of Stories (2006)

I’ve been getting more interested in Alice Munro since reading one of her short stories in The Penguin Book of International Stories by Women and following it up with her 1998 collection, The Love of a Good Woman.

This collection covers the period 1968 to 2004 and the earlier, more autobiographical stories, while solid and interesting, are not as good as her later work, though the first story in the collection, ‘Royal Beatings’, is a great look at the family.  For me, the collection really picks up at ‘The Progress of Love’, which is a tremendous story about memory.  I noticed that a lot of the stories are about attempts to reconstruct women’s lives, usually by a narrator who wants to put the story to some kind of use in her own life.  In ‘The Friend of my Youth’, the narrator tries to reconstruct the story of a woman called Flora Grieves who appears to have been done-down her entire life, but Flora determinedly resists her attempts to confirm the story.  ‘Meneseteung’ is another story reconstructing a woman’s life, this time that of a late nineteenth-century female poet’; it’s a lot weirder and darker, pointing to the historical silence that often falls over such women’s lives.   In ‘The Albanian Virgin’, the narrator comes to terms with her own sexual desires through reconstructing the story of an eccentric English woman and her strange Albanian husband.  ‘Vandals’ is a sinister and suggestive story about a young woman who takes it upon herself to destroy the house of the neighbours who appeared to befriend her when she was a child – make of it what you will.   ‘Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage’ is an awesome story about actions having unexpected consequences.

Munro has tremendous insight into women’s lives, especially into the constraints that shape our lives.  In Munro’s stories people make constrained choices and those choices have (often unforeseen) consequences.   She isn’t judgemental, seeming to understand that people generally try and do their best with the hand they’re dealt in life.   But she’s a great writer because she’s prepared to go there, to take an unflinching look at the randomness and cruelty of life. Despite the often dark themes (even the underlying sense of horror) I find that a high proportion of her stories give me that ‘Ah yes’ moment when a writer manages to get to the root of some kind of experience.

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1886)

A woman writer returns to Maine in search of isolation.   She stays in a New England fishing village where she gets to know some of the local characters … and that’s about it really.  The Country of the Pointed Firs offers nothing resembling a plot, but Sarah Orne Jewett wasn’t interested in plots; she was interested in characterization and in describing a dying way of life, both of which she does beautifully.

The small self-sufficient fishing community depends upon close relationships between its members. At first it might seem that Jewett idealises the way of life (Mrs Todd’s mother is just a little too good to be true), but there’s a lot of darkness in the stories too.  Captain Littlepage believes he’s visited a city between this world and the next, Poor Joanna becomes a recluse to atone for what she believes to be an unforgivable sin, and in ‘A Long Shore’ the narrator visits a grieving fisherman.  Even her landlady, jolly Mrs Todd, harbours a broken heart because she wasn’t allowed to marry the man she loved.

Jewett was born in 1849 and published her first story when she was 19.  The Country of the Pointed First made her reputation. From 1881 she lived with another writer, Annie Fields, in a Boston Marriage.

From a feminist perspective, The Country of the Pointed Firs is interesting for its attention to the voices of women and the details of their lives.  Jewett is one of those writers who attracts that kind of coy, “Yes, we know she lived for most of her life with another woman in a Boston marriage, but we can’t possibly know if they had a sexual relationship, so we can’t possibly speculate about her sexual orientation” comment from critics.  However, I like to think that we can reasonably claim her for the team.   The narrator is striking for her assertion of her identity as a writer and refusal to define herself in relation to men.   She is mainly interested in other women and has total faith in their capabilities and while she’s sympathetic to men, she’s not in any way awed by them.

A nice read for an afternoon.

Ursula K Le Guin, The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2002)

This seems to be Ursula Le Guin’s sex book, with a large proportion of the stories exploring the complicated and varied social relationships people might form in order to try and manage sex.  In The Birthday of the World she really gets to grips with the contention, underlying most of her work, that sexual norms are socially constructed, rather than natural, and that sexuality should be experienced as a continuum.  Basically, if you already like her more political, allegorical work, you’ll probably like the stories collected here, which almost all feature the detailed world-building and characterisation that are her strong points as a science fiction writer.

Most of the stories take place in what she calls her “universe with holes at the elbows”:

Honest and earnest people, calling it the Hainish Universe, have tried to plot its history onto Time Lines. I call it the Ekumen, and I say it’s hopeless. Its Time Line is like something the kitten pulled out of the knitting basket, and its history consists largely of gaps.

I really enjoyed ‘Coming of Age in Karhide’ which revisits the planet of The Left Hand of Darkness where everyone lives as an androgyne except during their sexual cycle, “kemmer”, when they are able to choose male or female sex.  As Le Guin says in the introduction: ‘This time I didn’t have a damned plot. I could ask questions. I could see how the sex works. I could finally get into a kemmerhouse. I could really have fun”.  Indeed.

The second story, ‘The Matter of Seggri’, is probably my favourite. On the planet of Seggri women vastly outnumber men.  As a result, a segregated society has developed in which men are forced to live in “castles”, allowed only to compete in games and service women sexually in the “fuckeries”.  They have all of the privilege and none of the power.  The story is made up of documents which reconstruct the history of Seggri and the gradual emergence of a male rights movement.  It’s obvious what she’s getting at here, but it’s very well done and a moving story which draws powerful attention to what’s been done to women in our own society.  For some reason, it’s all the more powerful when you see it from the other side.

The stories ‘Unchosen Love’ and ‘Mountain Ways’ both take place in a society divided into two moieties where all marriages involve four people leading to all manner of interesting complications.

‘Solitude’ is a story about a girl brought up on a planet in which aloneness is valued above all else. She decides to remain there rather than return to the social world of Hain, at the cost of her relationships with her family. Le Guin says she wanted to write a story about introverts.

‘Old Music and the Slave Women’ looks at a slave revolt on a planet through the eyes of a handful of people caught up in it, and ‘The Birthday of the World’ recounts the decline of a radically different civilization.

The final story, ‘Paradise Lost’, is quite brilliant, but made me wish that she’d extended it to novel length. It is the story of a generational ship moving through space on its way to a planet where its inhabitants hope to create a colony.  There’s so much potential here – a self-enclosed world containing people of different ethnicities, with each generation moving further and further away from Earth, losing touch with history, reinterpreting the meaning of their journey.  Will the planet be inhabitable?  After such a long period of institutionalisation, will they be in any condition to colonise it if they do ever get there?  Over time, a new religion arises which radically questions the purpose of their journey, coming into conflict with those who stay faithful to the original objective.  I’m not one of those people who says they don’t like short stories because they always want them to turn into novels, but I have to make an exception in this case.

All in all, a good read for Le Guin fans, but probably not the best place to start if you’re new to her work, in which case I’d recommend The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed or the Earthsea Quartet.

Kate Chopin, The Awakening and Selected Stories (1899)

In 1899 Kate Chopin published The Awakening, the story of Edna Pontellier, a young wife and mother who falls in love with another man and “awakes” to the possibility of a new life of erotic and spiritual freedom.  The outrage with which it was greeted by critics destroyed Chopin’s reputation as a writer.

The Awakening is very much a fin de siècle novel; it’s shot through with a sense of change and instability, and a profound questioning of conventions, especially conventional morality.  For Chopin, marriage represents a moral and spiritual dead-end in which women cannot thrive because it necessarily involves men imposing their wills upon them.  Edna Pontellier is only able to come into her own as a creative person when she decides to leave her marriage, become independent and pursue her relationship with her lover, Robert Lebrun.  It’s also interesting that the only woman who is represented as completely free and fully creative is the coded lesbian, Mademoiselle Reisz.

I loved The Awakening.  I think it’s a very mature work full of emotional truth.  Edna is not a particularly “nice” woman; she’s a complex person with conflicting emotions and drives.  As Susan Gilbert notes in the introduction to my edition, Chopin uses careful changes of style to enact the changes that occur within Edna – the text loosens and becomes more experimental as Edna moves through her sensual and emotional journey, and we move with her, drawn into her internal world.  It contains an incredibly vivid and familiar description of what it feels like to fall in love for the first time.  Chopin also cleverly rewrites “the fall”.  Instead of falling into degradation, Edna is buoyed up by her experience, awakened and renewed; paradise is glimpsed, but only glimpsed as a possibility, never achieved, because this is still the nineteenth century and Edna’s actions lead to a tragic conclusion, not because of her weakness, but because of the weakness of others. The end of the story is a kick in the stomach.

The rest of the stories collected here with The Awakening are extremely good and tend to cover similar themes around conflicts between the needs of women and the conventions of society.  ‘Desiree’s Baby’ is a shattering story about racism. ‘The Story of an Hour’ takes another look at marriage as a kind of prison for women – Chopin’s husbands are never abusive; it’s not abuse that makes marriage awful in her stories, the problem is the construct of marriage itself. ‘Lilacs’ contains heavy lesbian undertones in the story of the love relationship between a nun and a “fallen woman.” Chopin explores her belief in sexual fulfilment as a female birthright in the linked stories ‘At the ‘Cadian Ball’ and ‘The Storm’.

My only difficulty with reading these stories is the high number of horrible endings.  Like The Awakening, the short stories also tend to deliver a sting in the tail, and I actually started to feel anxious as I approached the last few pages of each story.  ‘Elizabeth Stock’s One Story’, for instance, is just draining in its exploration of the effects of male corruption on one woman.

Still, I’d highly recommend The Awakening to anyone interested in women’s writing and the history of feminist literature.

A short post about Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood (or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer) (1983)

My immediate reaction to this collection was to feel stunned by the breadth of Tanith Lee’s imagination.  As rewritings of fairy stories go, I’m also very impressed by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, but I prefer Lee’s versions, not least because she goes beyond the sexual readings privileged by Carter.

In Red as Blood Lee retells nine fairytales: the Pied Piper of Hamlyn (Paid Piper), Snow White (Red as Blood), Sleeping Beauty (Thorns), Cinderella (When the Clock Strikes), Rapunzel (The Golden Rope), The Frog Princess (The Princess and her Future), Red Riding Hood (Wolfland), The White Duck (Black as Ink), Beauty and the Beast (Beauty). She sets them in specific time periods from the last century B.C. to the far in the future.

Each story turns the original folk tale on its head, drawing out its darkest and creepiest implications.  Most are told from a female point of view. The Pied Piper is a god, Snow White is more frightening than her stepmother, Sleeping Beauty can never truly awake, Cinderella is a vengeful witch, Rapunzel’s prince is Satan himself, the Frog Prince is a monster, Grandma is a werewolf, and “the beast” is an alien from another world.  .

The only story I didn’t enjoy was ‘Black as Ink’, which just didn’t draw me in, possibly because I’m not familiar with the original.   The rest were great and my favourite was the last one, ‘Beauty’, in which Lee plays to one of her storytelling strengths, exploring a case of unconventional love.

Alice Munro, The Love of a Good Woman (1998)

What is “love”? And what is a “good woman”? Alice Munro’s collection, The Love of a Good Woman, offers eight ambivalent stories which imply that “Love” is not something that can be pinned down and the concept of a “good woman” is oppressive at best.

Munro is a Canadian writer often hailed as one of the best short story writers of recent times.   I first read her work in The Penguin Book of International Stories by Women.  That story really impressed me, but it took me a while to dig up a collection because Munro is not widely read in the UK.

The quality of Munro’s writing is extremely good and I would recommend her work to anyone who wants to learn about the art of the short story.  There is something unsettling about her style. I think it’s the way that she very subtly undermines her statements with qualifiers.  One of the most impressive qualities of her writing is her ability to keep you guessing; I couldn’t predict the course of any of the stories in this collection.

All of the stories centre on themes of motherhood, daughterhood, marriage and family.  In ‘The Love of a Good Woman’ a nurse and local “saint” must decide whether or not to reveal the identity of a murderer.  In ‘Jakarta’, an old man visits his ex-wife’s former best friend in the hope of understanding why his wife left him all those years ago.  In ‘Cortes Island’ a woman looks back to the early days of her own marriage and tells as much as she can of the sinister story underlying the marriage of her neurotic neighbour.  ‘Save the Reaper’ is a terrifying story about a grandmother who encounters something which totally undermines her safe existence.  ‘The Children Stay’ is about a marriage which appears fine on the surface, but has gone rotten underneath.   In ‘Rich as Stink’ a little girl’s attempt to make sense of confusing adult relationships results in a terrible accident.  ‘Before the Change’ is the most gruesome story with a graphic description of a backstreet abortion.  ‘My Mother’s Dream’ is possibly my favourite in the collection: it’s about a woman’s difficult acceptance of her role as a mother and its representation of the desperate position of her unmarried sisters-in-law is also very astute.

These are bleak stories, but one of their great strengths lies in Munro’s ability to get under the skin of ordinary people and pull out the deep emotional significance of apparently inconsequential events.

Irvin D. Yalom, Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy (1989)

Though these tales of psychotherapy abound with the words patient and therapist, do not be misled by such terms: these are everyman, everywoman stories.  Patienthood is ubiquitous; the assumption of the label is largely arbitrary and often dependent more on cultural, educational and economic factors than on the severity of pathology. Since therapists, no less than patients, must confront these givens of existence, the professional posture of disinterested objectivity, so necessary to scientific method, is inappropriate.  We psychotherapists simply cannot cluck with sympathy and exhort patients to struggle resolutely with their problems.  We cannot say to them you and your problems, because our life, our existence, will always be riveted to death, love to loss, freedom to fear, and growth to separation. We are, all of us, in this together (14).

By the end of the ‘Prologue’ I already knew that I was in the company of a writer who was going to stay with me long after I finished reading the book.  Irvin D. Yalom is a renowned psychiatrist and existentialist psychotherapist who works at Stanford University.  Existentialist psychotherapy is one of the less well known strands in comparison to psychodynamic, person-centred and cognitive  behavourial approaches.  It is concerned with the “existence pain” that comes from our awareness of the inevitability of death, the terrors of freedom, our ultimate aloneness and the absence of any obvious meaning to life.  It is interested in finding meaning in what we do.

I’m not an existentialist and have no intention of training as a therapist in this particular tradition. Yalom also does quite a few things in therapy that I disagree with and hope I would never do if I was a therapist.  But I found his book profoundly moving as well as interesting.  In this world of “self-help” books and “positive thinking” in which we’re constantly bombarded with techniques we can use to make our lives better, happier, more profitable etc, it was so refreshing to read a book by a therapist that doesn’t propose any easy answers or quick fixes and acknowledges the fact that life is difficult and often painful, and that therapy does not necessarily cure everything.  Yalom depicts therapy as a deeply uncertain process in which two people work towards change. He assumes that change is the goal of therapy, but that the change which results may not be the one hoped for or anticipated by either party.

As a therapist Yalom is totally open to and engaged with his clients. Existentialist therapy does not accept the power relationship assumed in traditional psychoanalyses which sets up the therapist as the expert who interprets the words of the patient.  He is at times disturbingly honest about his own emotional reactions to his patients, but this honesty enacts his argument that the therapist is not superior to the patient.  He is also very revealing about the workings of transference, counter-transference and projection and how these dynamics can be put to constructive use in the therapeutic relationship.  Yalom often has to overcome his own prejudices in order to help his clients.

The client’s stories are fascinating.  Among them there’s Thelma, a 70 year-old woman with an all-consuming love obsession (Yalom totally botches her therapy too).  Carlos is dying of terminal cancer and believes that every woman he meets is irresistibly attracted to him.  Betty forces Yalom to confront all his prejudices about fat people.  Penny neglects her living sons because her favoured daughter died.  Marge suddenly manifests a completely different personality during therapy.  Marvin is an apparently boring and uptight accountant who has the most amazing dreams.  It is also interesting that the clients who present with the worst problems tend to do the best in their therapy.

Ultimately the stories affirm the incredible complexity and courage of people while demystifying psychotherapy and representing it as a deeply human encounter.

Susan Hill (ed) The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories (1990)

 

For a start, the title of this book is misleading.  It should read, The Penguin Collection of Susan Hill’s Favourite Modern Short Stories by Women because Hill’s criteria for inclusion of a story is the fact that she likes it: “I have compiled a collection of stories of the kind I most like reading” (ix). She justifies this methodology by claiming that most editors do the same thing; they’re just less upfront about it.

I am not entirely convinced.  Don’t get me wrong, the stories in this anthology are very high quality in terms of the standard of writing on show, but her method of selection does allow her to avoid some political issues.  For instance, all the stories are by white women, every single one; so we could alter the title again and call it The Penguin Collection of Susan Hill’s Favourite Modern Stories by White Women.

I thought that at least four of the stories were problematic in terms of the representation of race.  Elizabeth Taylor’s ‘The Devastating Boys’, Muriel Spark’s ‘The Black Madonna’, Shena Mackay’s ‘Slaves to the Mushroom’ and Margaret Drabble’s ‘Hassan’s Tower’ all use characters of colour to advance stories about white people, implicitly positioning the white reader as the subject of the anthology and the reader of colour as ‘other.’  I don’t object to the inclusion of these stories on principle, but I think a good editor should have made more effort to balance out the collection and include an equal number of stories by women of colour.  As it is, I feel that only a certain kind of woman’s voice is being represented in this anthology and it has a slightly chilly feel as a result – middle-class, cool, distanced, highly educated, and a little vicious.  When I try and visualise these authors I see them sitting at their antique roll-top desks writing with scalpels.

In terms of other limitations, most of the stories are concerned with middle-class experience and the three stories that hint at lesbianism (Sara Maitland’s ‘A Fall from Grace’, Georgina Hammick’s ‘The Tulip Plate’ and Rose Tremain’s ‘The New People’) do so indirectly as a means to talk about other things.

I should also warn you, Susan Hill likes sad stories, the grimmer the better it seems. Some of these stories are very upsetting.  For instance, Caroline Blackwood’s ‘Addy’ about a woman who goes out to a revolting dinner party, rather than look after her faithful old dying dog, is extremely painful to read.

My favourite stories included Sylvia Townsend Warner’s ‘A Love Match’ which is a very tender, sweet story about brother-sister incest, of all things.  No, I’m not kidding.  Warner links the incestuous relationship to the trauma of war and it’s really about people surviving the unimaginable.

Irish author Edna O’ Brien’s ‘Savages’ is a tremendous story about the fate of a feisty woman who just doesn’t fit into her community and refuses to play by the rules. Mabel’s desperation is horrifying, but understandable.

A.S Byatt’s ‘The July Ghost’ is a great story about bereavement (the loss of child). It has no resolution because there is no resolution to such experiences.  Other stories about bereavement are Rose Macaulay’s ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’ and Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Visitor’.

One of the best stories in the anthology is Fay Weldon’s ‘Weekend’ which is stunning and a bit painful to read for those of us who come from a British middle-class background. It is an evisceration of the self-satisfied middle-class lifestyle and shows up the horrors beneath the facade. It’s also a very feminist story about the myriad ways in which this kind of value system can turn into a deadly trap for women.

Unsurprisingly, in an anthology of predominantly middle-class twentieth century writers, the horrors of marriage feature quite highly.  Margaret Drabble’s ‘Hassan’s Tower’ is about a marriage going rotten before the couple get home from the honeymoon. Angela Huth’s ‘The Weighing Up’ and Jane Gardam’s ‘Stone Trees’ are about female self-deception in relation to husbands.

Ok, so it’s not a well balanced anthology in terms of race, class or sexual orientation, and the title feels dishonest as a result, but it does contain some high quality writing and I think it’s worth a read if you’re interested in the short story as a form.  There are a lot of ideas here for the budding short story writer.

Henry James, Selected Tales (1879-1908)

It took me TWO YEARS to finish the Selected Tales of Henry James.  All went fairly well at first, but at some point around two thirds of the way through, my bookmark got stuck.  No matter how much I read, it never seemed to move any further … until, one day, it was over.

Henry James is divisive: people seem to either love or hate him. His style is notoriously convoluted and wordy, and on the surface his stories often appear to be about nothing in particular – things that never happened, relationships that didn’t transpire and secrets that are never revealed. Despite these issues and the length of time it took me to read this book, I still place myself more on the love end of the continuum.  I’ve also read The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square, The Turn of the Screw and some of this other ‘ghost’ stories.

The tales in this collection follow a chronological order from 1879 – 1908 and they do get more opaque as they go, but read together I think they give you a better sense of what Henry James is all about.  “Nothing” happens in his stories because he’s mainly concerned with psychological states, with the ways in which our lives can be dominated by that which never happened, that which remains secret, and by ideas, hopes and dreams rather than reality.  In ‘The Lesson of the Master’, for instance, a young writer allows his life to be ruled by the hope that he will learn something important from an older writer, only to learn a very different lesson to the one he had hoped for.  ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ has a similar theme. In ‘The Best in the Jungle’, a man’s entire life is thwarted by his feeling that one day ‘something’ important is going to happen, so he lives in a perpetual state of anticipation and loses everything as a result.

James is very interested in the dangers of interpretation, particularly of interpreting signs wrongly. In ‘Daisy Miller’ a young woman dies because the people around her read her behaviour wrongly; she does nothing, but that doesn’t matter because it’s interpretation that matters in James’s world. The same theme appears in the late story ‘Julia Bride’, in which another young woman’s life path is decided by the way people read her behaviour and speak about what they think they see. James is also very aware of the sexual double-standard in his stories about women.

It is not only action that has far-reaching consequences in James; it is thought and speech.  In ‘The Pupil’, a tutor plays with the feelings of his young pupil without any real thought as to the effect he may be having on the boy, until it is too late. The boy, meanwhile, has committed two classic Jamesian errors: reading too much into the signs and placing all his hope in one person who isn’t really what he seems. James is just as interested in the consequences of non-action – how what we don’t do affects other people.  What guilt does the narrator of Daisy Miller bear for just watching events unfold and not standing up for her when he could?  Is John Marcher responsible for the death of May Bertram, the woman who loved him all the years while he waited for “something” to happen?

It is not surprising that so many of the tales are uncanny psychological ‘ghost’ stories since James is so interested in the ways in which the repressed makes itself felt in our lives as a kind of ‘haunting’.  The late story, ‘The Jolly Corner’, brings these themes together in a man who is haunted by the ghost of his alternative life, the life he might have lived had he made different choices. He becomes obsessed with this ‘ghost’ and desperate to meet it, but when he does, the alien identity he encounters horrifies him and he finally begins to appreciate his life for what it is and live in the present.

The introduction by John Lyon is annoying – almost as convoluted in style as James and rather “harrumph harrumph, how dare these so-called queer theorists read homosexual meaning into these stories, harrumph.”  It’s actually pretty hard not to read homosexual meaning into James when his stories are so full of the unsayable, of the consequences of living with secrets, and of course, of relationships between men. I’m firmly on Eve Sedgwick’s side in thinking that James has something particularly interesting to say about ‘the closet’.

Worth reading if you’re interested in James, late nineteenth-century literature, or if you want to see what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick was talking about in Epistemology of the Closet.

Martin H Greenberg (ed.) New Stories from the Twilight Zone (1991)

Oh, the mild disappointment of discovering that a book you thought was amazing when you were 16 isn’t all that groundbreaking after all. New Stories from the Twilight Zone “blew my mind” when I was a teenager and got me interested in science fiction. I loved the TV show too, but didn’t get to watch it very often because it was always on after midnight.

The stories collected here were all used to create scripts for the 1985 Twilight Zone series. The earliest was written in 1953 and the latest in 1988. In other respects it’s a limited collection because almost all of the authors are white and male.  Still, with contributions from the likes of Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Theodore Sturgeon and Richard Matheson, there’s a lot to like here.

Reading it for the second time, I was struck my just how many of the stories are about religion. In Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘The Star’, a Jesuit priest and astronomer is confronted with the discovery that the star above Bethlehem was created by a supernova that wiped out an entire civilization on another planet. In Joe Haldeman’s ‘I of Newton’ a Mathematician must trick a demon out of taking his soul. Greg Bear’s ‘Dead Run’ follows the adventures of a trucker who runs damned souls to Hell. In ‘Yesterday was Monday’, a man accidently goes behind the scenes of our reality to find that human beings are nothing more than actors in an elaborate play directed by God for the entertainment of unknown parties.

When the stories are not about religion they have a strongly moral bent.  Harlan Ellison’s ‘Shatterday’ considers what might happen if a bad man’s conscience became manifest and locked him out of his apartment. The other two Ellison stories in the collection are also morality tales. William F. Wu’s ‘Wong’s Lost and Found Emporium’ is a warning against losing the things that are truly important to us. Meanwhile in ‘Button Button’ Richard Matheson addresses the old question of temptation.

I would say the best stores are Clarke’s ‘The Star’, Sturgeon’s ‘A Saucer of Loneliness’, which is lyrical and mysterious, and Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Burning Man.’ When I was 16 ‘The Burning Man’ terrified me and I’ve never forgotten it.  A boy and his aunt take a trip to the beach.  They pick up a hitchhiker who frightens them, so they throw him out of the car. On the way back they pick up another hitchhiker, this time a young boy; then their car breaks down and the boy in the backseat starts to repeat the man’s strange talk.  I don’t know what it’s about, but it is creepy.

All in all, it’s not as awesome (and much more pulpy) than I remembered, but it’s still a strong collection which won’t be taking a trip to the charity shop anytime soon.

Kate Figes (ed), The Penguin Book of International Women’s Stories (1996)

I started reading this collection a couple of years ago, but it got sidelined so I went back to the beginning and started again. It’s the kind of strong collection you expect from Penguin, but it’s a heavy read because a lot of the stories are grim. I was particularly impressed by the following:

  • Alice Walker (USA) ‘Nineteen Fifty-Five’. This is about the relationship between a black female blues singer and the young white rock n’ roll star who covers one of her songs.
  • Alice Munro (Canada), ‘A Wilderness Station’. Where has Alice Munroe been all of my life? This story about pioneer life is wonderful. Munroe seems to have a way of making you completely wrapped up in the lives of ordinary people.
  • Sandra Cisneros (Mexico), ‘Woman Hollering Creek’. Cisneros is another writer I must read more of.
  • Bessie Head (Botswana), ‘Jacob: the Story of a Faith-healing Priest’. This story is strange, offering no explanations and ending suddenly, but is uplifting at the same time.
  • Anita Desai (India), ‘Games at Twilight’. This is a fantastic evocation of childhood.
  • Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), ‘Blue Water Man’.  This writer has an amazing style.
  • Janet Frame (New Zealand), ‘The Reservoir’. This is another story about childhood and is masterful in its use of symbolism. She takes you on the journey with the children as they face the fears represented in ‘the reservoir.’
  • Alison Lurie (USA), ‘Fat People’.  I really liked this take on the almost hallucinatory state that can result from dieting.
  • Bi Shumin (China), ‘Broken Transformers’, which is a great story about morality and the relationship between a mother and her son.

A good book for getting a taste of writers we don’t often hear about in the UK.