Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) tr. Ellen Jones

As I mentioned in this recent post, this year I’m reading a selection of contemporary Latin American fiction, thanks to a subscription with Charco Press. The first novella for the year is a collection of interconnected short stories, (reminding me of the Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s excellent collection Revenge) Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes from Guatemala.

A man named Don Henrik is the connection between the stories, and though he is not the centre of any story until the end, through each tale narrated we come to know the hardships he has encountered as he struggled to run his various business ventures, we learn about the equally difficult life path his brother followed, and how that contributed to his father’s financial difficulties. Though it is not focused on in particular, we also know he is a foreigner, we imagine how his may have contributed to the challenges he and his family have encountered.

Don Henrik seems like a man who wants to live an ordinary life, he has the fortitude to create something out of nothing, he is kind, but he lives in a society where men give in to temptation, and are lead astray by a desire, by greed, by revenge, addiction and so always there are situations to be dealt with. He is an entrepreneur, but still learning the ways of men and nature in his adopted country.

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik  bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted icy, cold spring water. But despite being delicate,  they’re completely savage.  They eat meat, even their own.Little cannibals, my Ermina called them.

Photo by The Lazy Artist Gallery on Pexels.com

Set in the Guatemalan countryside and forest, it is a place that appears to offer rest and tranquility and yet is beset with an undercurrent of hostility and violence, infiltrated by merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, father’s desperate to go straight, endangering their daughters and their dog, and the plain stupid, caught in a gullible web of thinking they can make easy money, only to meet premature death.

What begins as one of the most endearing stories, becomes the one that almost prevents me finishing the book, involving the relationship between a young calf and a dog, it’s when men come between them that things turn despicable, I couldn’t help but see the young cow as a metaphor for women, who are the usual targets for such brutality.

Some will relate to its Hemingway-esque style, for me it was a straight forward, easy read, though I began to feel like I was reading a book likely to be enjoyed more by men readers, as it launched quickly into a tale of infidelity, of a man with a loyal wife and daughters distracted by a young shop girl, willing to sacrifice everything for a few moments of pleasure; men arriving with guns intent on teaching a lesson to other men, taking out their violent intent on an innocent animal, the bond between two men, their lives and friendship endangered by their descent into drugs and recklessly pursuing an activity (involving a boat and diving) while under the influence.

Personally, I find I have less and less tolerance for stories that depict women in this way, even if it represents a reality, it becomes tiresome. As a reader, I find I’m looking for a paradigm shift in the way female characters are depicted, something I am sure is coming, as I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

Don Henrik isn’t the cause of any of this, is it bad karma, neglect or naivety, he is often absent, trusting his partners and workers to get on with the job, it is here that cracks form, that others seize their malevolent opportunity. He is a good man, he donated a kidney to his wife, he is tired, he’s found another good woman and just wants peace, but he’s a land owner, there are those who covet what he has, his desire for tranquility in this world he inhabits, observed by so much dysfunction, is an impossible ask.

Ist edition cover, Francisco Tún artwork

In an interview Fuentes is asked about his writing of this book while living outside of Guatemala and revealed his observation and interest, having moved abroad in how people spoke and expressed themselves. He viewed an accent as something like a regions ideology, that we assumed ours to be neutral, but that it revealed much about how the speaker saw the world.

I look at Guatemala, and it’s a tiny country, but one with very talented narrators. And each region of the country tells stories in different ways. The way people tell stories in the mountains is very different from how people in the eastern part of the country tell them, or those living by the coast, or in the city, undoubtedly; I paid attention to that. I was always interested in the conversations taking place between the city and rural areas. Living abroad allowed me to pay attention to these conversations from a different vantage point, and a character like Henrik enabled me to move back and forth between those two worlds.

In his excellent, expansive review, Tom Blake provides a political perspective of Guatemalan and Latin American literature, suggesting that much of it has centred around themes of ‘displacement, disappearance, deracination’ suggesting that Fuentes offered a different view, the view of those who remain. He acknowledged that Fuentes held up a mirror to a masculine world, though went a little far in my opinion in suggesting that ‘the women hold immense, almost supernatural power’.

In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism. Thomas Blake

Rodrigo FuentesConsidered to be one of the most prominent names among the new generation of Guatemalan writers, Rodrigo Fuentes (1984) won the Carátula Central American Short Story Prize (2014) as well as the Juegos Florales of Quetzaltenango Short Story Prize (2008).

Trout, Belly Up was shortlisted for the 2018 Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez, the most prestigious prize awarded to short-story writers in Latin America. It has been published in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, as well as in France. Rodrigo currently lectures at the College of the Holy Cross in the United States, and lives between Providence and Guatemala. This is his first book to appear in English.

Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.

Further Reading

Jumping Between the Urban and the Rural: An Interview with Rodrigo Fuentes by José García Escobar

Review of Trout Belly Up by Thomas Blake

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The inhabitants of Amgash appear to have invaded the imagination of Elizabeth Strout, not satisfied with being mere peripheral characters in her excellent novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

That book, which was a novel to us, is a memoir to them, one that a few of the characters we encounter in this set of stories will buy and read, one of them even attending a book signing near Chicago and meeting her again many, many years post their shared childhoods.

The characters vary in their kindnesses and quirks, in the opening story Pete, Lucy’s brother, resents his neighbour Tommy’s visits, carried out with heartfelt intention and yet perceived as a kind of torture, so much of what occurs between people is misunderstood due to the lack of communication or misreading of intentions.

In a voice without belligerence, even with a touch of apology to it, he said, “Look Tommy. I’d like it if you didn’t keep coming over here.” Pete’s lips were pale and cracked, and he wet them with his tongue, looking at the ground. For a moment Tommy was not sure  he heard right, but as he started to say “I only-” Pete looked at him fleetingly and said, “You do it to torture me, and I think enough time has gone by now.”

We find out what happened to the pretty Nicely girls, whose mother left the home after a brief affair that went wrong and lived a quiet life of regret nearby for years afterwards. Through Patty, we meet Lucy’s niece Lila, who has never met her Aunt but shares strong opinions of her with Patty, her school guidance counsellor.

Patty said, “That’s a nice name Lila Lane.” The girl said, I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her.”

Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against the desk.

The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us. I never even met her.”

Dottie runs a Bed and Breakfast and the steady churn of customers keeps her busy and entertained with company. Sometimes she meets the wealthy who wish to confide in her, it turns out they can be lonely too.

The next morning at breakfast Shelley did not acknowledge Dottie. Not even a thank you for the whole wheat toast.  Dottie was very surprised;  her eyes watered with the  sudden sting of this. But then she understood. There was an old African proverb Dottie had read one day that said, “After a man eats, he becomes shy.” And Dottie thought of that now with Shelley. Shelley was like the man in the proverb, having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.  She had confided more than she wanted to, and now Dottie was somehow to blame.

In a later story though we become aware of a change, often there’ll be just a passing reference to the character who inhabited the previous story, one that informs us of what followed on, and gives a kind of quiet closure, in this respect it reminds me a lot of Yoko Ogawa’s stories in her collection Revenge, there is that thread that connects the stories, it creates a little frisson of excitement when you spot it.

It is such a pleasure to spend time within the pages of Strout’s imaginary characters, who move from references into fully formed characters with such ease, this collection had me wondering if one of these characters might push in on her and demand a novel too. Tt wouldn’t surprise me – who is in control here, the characters or the author? I have a feeling her characters have a strong will of their own, and that this book was written to try to keep a few of them quiet, so she could move on to the next story that’s no doubt already brewing.

Anything is Possible recently won The Story Prize (for an outstanding work of short fiction) and a cash award of US$20,000. The judges praised the book for its “subtle power,” and described Strout as:

“a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted.”

Today the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced (at midnight), it will be interesting to see if this collection will be nominated, I certainly hope that it will be.

Further Reading:

My Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Review: The Burgess Boys

Buy a copy of one of Elizabeth Strout’s books via BookDepository

Granta 141: Canada – Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Granta 141 Canada

The first Granta journal of 2018, issue number 141 is focused on Canadian literature, whether it’s fiction, memoir, reportage, poetry or photography, each issue combines something of each of those categories, with new writing/work by known and little-known talent, around a common theme.

As guest editor and author of Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Madeleine Thien shares in the opening introduction, (and fellow guest-editor Catherine Leroux, writing in French), their only parameter for submissions was ‘What is being imagined here, now?’

Canada being a land with sixty unique Indigenous language dialects and more than two hundred languages reported as a mother tongue or home language, it was a wide-ranging brief.

Language becomes its own landscape in this issue of Granta. Language falls apart, twists, reformulates, shatters and revives itself. Animal and self, unfinished history, land and waterways, colonisation and dispossession, settlement and refuge – all these nouns are part of the truth of this place.

Apart from Leroux’s introduction, all the work is either in English or has been translated from English, however all work in translation is available to read on Granta.com in the original French.

It features writers such as Margaret Atwood, Lisa Moore (her novel February reviewed here), Alexander McLeod, Krista Foss, Naomi Fontaine, Kim Fu, Anosh Irani, Paul Seesequasis, Anakana SchofieldJohanna Skibsrud,  and many more…

I’m reviewing here the first story and may share other’s with you as I select randomly from the journal over the coming months.

Mangilaluk’s Highway

The opening story is a mix of reportage and a retelling of the story of Mangilaluk Bernard Andreason, who when he was 11 years old, slipped out of the Inuvik residential boarding school he’d been sent to, along with two friends Jack and Dennis, to avoid being punished for stealing a pack of cigarettes, and spotting newly hung power lines, decided to follow them home to Tuktoyaktuk.

Nadim Roberts writes about Bernard’s journey in the present, interspersed with narrative reports on his own visit to Tuk in June 2017, forty-five years after Dennis, Jack and Bernard began walking that 140 kilometre stretch home. Robert’s by contrast, completes the journey from Inuvik to Tuk in thirty minutes by plane.

He tells of successive attempts by the government to build a road across the Arctic Circle, to facilitate oil and gas exploration and a stretch of highway that would connect Inuvik to Tuk.

 From the plane I could see occasional glimpses of a new, near-finished road. This was the long awaited Inuvik-Tul all-season highway that would open in a few months.

Chief Mangilaluk

We learn that Tuk was a town founded by survivors from Kitigaaryuit, an Inuit settlement, that in 1902, after contact with whalers was cursed with a measles epidemic which drastically decimated their population. One young man, Mangilaluk, departed and went looking for a new place to live. His choice, a site on the edge of a harbour, would become what is now known as Tuk. He became chief and is still talked of today. Some believed he was a shaman who could shape shift into a polar bear.

In July 1961, two decades after he died, Mangilaluk’s granddaughter Alice Felix, was eight months pregnant. While home alone one evening, she heard a knock on the door. She wasn’t sure if she was awake or dreaming when the door swung open. A three-metre-tall polar bear stood in the doorway. It walked up to her, put its snowshoe-sized paw on her pregnant belly, and began to speak: ‘If it’s a boy, you name it after me.’

The story reminded me immediately of Doris Pilkington Garimara’s Rabbit Proof Fence, a tale of indigenous Aboriginal children removed from their parents (following an Australian government edict in 1931, black aboriginal children and children of mixed marriages were gathered up by whites and taken to settlements to be assimilated) and put in  a boarding school. The three girls in this true story followed a fence built to keep rabbits out of farming land, knowing that it passed close to their home.

Before 1955, fewer than 15 per cent of school-aged Inuit were enrolled in residential schools. Most children still lived on the land with their families, learning traditional skills and knowledge.

By 1964, more than 75 per cent of Inuit children attended residential schools. Their values, language and customs were supplanted overnight by a culture that saw itself as benevolent and superior, and saw the Inuit as primitive beings in need of sophistication.

Nadim Roberts interweaves Bernard’s story, his grandfather’s story and the current issues facing indigenous and local people in the region, in an evocative portrayal of one boy/man’s courage against the odds to make something better of his chance at survival.

Nadim Roberts Source: Author Provided

It’s an excellent piece of writing and combination of narrative and reportage, bringing attention to this one man’s story and the plight of both his people and the environment in which they live.

You can read Nadim’s story for free at Granta, just click on the link below:

Mangilaluk’s Highway by Nadim Roberts

Nadim Roberts is a journalist from Vancouver whose work has been published in Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Globe and Mail.

Further examples of his work can be viewed on his website NadimRoberts.com

Have you read any recommended works by any of the authors mentioned or others featured in Granta 141?

Top Reads 2015

If you’ve noticed a lack of reviews recently, please know it’s not from a lack of interest, time or reading, just a temporary technical problem, not yet resolved but should be by mid January.

So, 2015 was a bumper reading year, I surpassed my book a week ambition and actually read 65 books from 26 different countries, a third of what I read was translated from another language, something I seek out in my interest to experience literature and storytelling from within other cultures and not only by those who have access to the English language.

I will create a separate post to talk more about my impressions and attractions of reading outside the main literary cultures and the cultures and landscapes that keep drawing me back for more.

As with previous years, I’ll share my one Outstanding Read and the Top 5 Fiction and Non-Fiction reads, with a few special mentions.

Outstanding Read of 2015

Autobiography MotherThe Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid My first read of the long-established author Jamaica Kincaid (Antigua) and it moved me like no other book had since last years outstanding read, Jennifer Clement’s Prayers for the Stolen.

This is a novel about a young woman growing up without a mother, abandoned for a time by her father and looking back at her life and the thoughts, reactions she had back then, using all the senses.

It is a kind of awakening, a visceral account that is insightful and squeamish both. It was for me too, the beginning of a season of Caribbean reads that were one of the major reading highlights of the year, soon after this I read three books by Maryse Condè (Guadeloupe), Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuba, Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory (Haiti) all of which were 5 star reads.

Top Fiction

Click on the title below to read the review.

1.  The Wall,  Marlen Haushofer a riveting story of one womans survival in the aftermath of a catastrophic event, with only a few animals for companions. A lost classic that was revived years after the death of the writer and one that had me spellbound until the end.

2. The Yellow Rain, Julio Llamazares set in an almost abandoned village in the Spanish Pyrenees, this is a haunting, elegiac account of one man who refused to leave and was witness to the degradation of all that man had contributed as nature reclaimed what was left. Captivating in the way it is written, you will want to slow read it, brief yet unforgettable.

3. Dreaming in Cuban, Cristina Garcia spanning three generations of women from Cuba, told from their differing perspectives, particularly the grandmother who is rooted in her country and culture, it explores separation, identity, the strong bonds of family and the weight of expectation. How these women survive their circumstances. Just brilliant and part of a great collection of literature from the region.

4. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley well it started with listening to the BBC audio broadcasts for learners of English, followed by watching a relayed broadcast of Benedict Cumberbatch in the London National Theatre adaptation, which was brilliant, to finally reading the work itself. I was a little hesitant, old classics aren’t really my thing, but I loved reading Frankenstein and couldn’t help but admire the tremendous achievement of Mary Shelley in creating it. Made all the more fabulous by having seen how it continues to inspire creative direction in the 21st century.

5. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt, Tracy Farr I didn’t read a lot of newly published works in 2015, but this one was a standout read for me, I was quickly drawn into the world of Lena Gaunt, an Australian theremin player who was born in Asia and had a few life changing experiences from her encounters there, who lived without much parental guidance or supervision, and developed her musical talents amid an eclectic group of artistic friends, had one true love and faced certain tragedy, all of which is brought to life after a recital she gave in her eighties attracted the attentions of a filmmaker. All the more interesting, for it being inspired by a true legend.

Top Non-Fiction

1. Unbowed: Autobiography of Wangari Maathai the truly inspiring story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, the work she did, the challenges overcome that gave her a top education and the will to make a real difference, particularly for the lives of women in her country. She empowered others and created enduring projects and movements for all.

2. Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson first in a nature inspired trilogy about the sea and her inhabitants, brought to life in a creative narrative, as seen from the perspective of three sea creatures, part one, the edge of the sea shows the habitat from the point of view of a female sanderling bird, she names Silverbar, part two, the Gulls way, is dedicated to the open sea and navigated by Scomber, the mackerel, and finally part three, river and sea, we follow Anguilla the eel as he travels from his coastal river pool downstream towards the sea and that deep instinctual pull towards the abyss.

3. Tales of the Heart: Stories from my Childhood, Maryse Condé essays, vignettes of childhood, recommended as the place to start in reading the work of this talented and enthralling writer from Guadeloupe. Loved it and was quick to follow-up with Victoire, My Mothers Mother, a book she says is true, though sold as a novel by her publishers due to the tendency of her research subjects to rely on oral stories to pass on their history. Brilliantly told, as she delves into the unknown life of her grandmother to better know and her own mother who died when she was 14.

4. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot (review to come) the background story to the global presence and utilisation of the immortal HeLa human tissue cells, that were discovered to be unique in that they never died, continued to replicate and could be used to do all manner of tests for disease and drugs and how cells respond, something of a revolution for medical science.

HeLa were the initials of the person from whom the samples were taken, as was the procedure at the time. But who was HeLa and what did she or her family have to say about these extraordinary developments thanks to the cells of one woman? Rebecca Skloot spent 10 years researching the life of Henrietta Lacks and the subject of the HeLa cells to bring this extraordinary narrative.

5. Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed these are letters from the columnist Sugar, who it turned out was Cheryl Strayed, author of the book Wild about her solo journey to trek the Pacific West trail in her twenties.

These letters are written when she is in her forties and though still young, has lived multiple lives and had more than her share of extreme and dysfunctional experiences, from which to draw her own brand of wisdom. It’s a pick up at will kind of book, but her confrontational yet compassionate style is refreshing and thought-provoking, her ability to be very clear on her opinion and advice, without being judgmental.

Special Mentions

Outstanding Debut – Our Endless Numbered Days Claire Fuller

Excellent Classic – The Enchanted April, Elizabeth von Arnim

Most Uplifting Read – Antoine Laurain’s The Red Notebook and The President’s Hat

Most Disturbing Read – Agaat by Marlene Van Niekerk

Most Disappointing Read – The Waves , Virginia Woolf

Foster by Claire Keegan

Foster‘Early on a Sunday, after first Mass at Clonegal, my father, instead of taking me home, drives deep into Wexford towards the coast where my mother’s people came from.’

She wears light, worn clothing and brings nothing with her. The girl is left with the Kinsella family, the father returns to her mother, soon to give birth again. There is no goodbye or word of when he might return. This is Ireland. Remember Nora Webster and all that is unspoken?

So begins Claire Keegan’s long, short story Foster, a vivid telling of the period following a girl being fostered into a family in rural Ireland. In the stranger’s home she finds an atmosphere unlike that which she is used to, one she enjoys and becomes used to, though always there is the presence of that feeling that it might soon all be taken from her.

‘When I follow the woman back inside, I want her to say something, to put my mind at ease. Instead, she clears the table, picks up the sharp knife and stands in the light under the window, washing the blade under the running tap.’

Seen and heard from the perspective of the girl, we learn the circumstances of both families that led to this situation. They fall into a regular routine, life settles in this new family and nothing appears to happen to destroy the ease with which the girl has come to know.

There is a strange atmosphere throughout the book, it is the anticipation of something, we, like the girl, are wondering and waiting for it to happen. For she seems like the pawn on the chess board, her parents on one side having handed her over, the foster parents on the other having received her. Each move, every event that is outside the daily routine, ignites in the girl heightened powers of observation, developing an acute awareness of even the most subtle changes in those around her.

‘Kinsella looks at me and smiles a hard kind of a smile then looks over to the window ledge where a sparrow has come down to perch and readjust her wings. The little bird seems uneasy – as though she can scent the cat, who sometimes sits there. Kinsella’s eyes are not quite still in his head. It’s as though there’s a big piece of trouble stretching itself out in the back of his mind. He toes the leg of a chair and looks over at me.’

Author, Claire Keegan

Author, Claire Keegan

A touching and yet eerie telling of a story that begs to be read and reread, the writing is exquisite in its depiction and ability to create a taut atmosphere without significant plot, it showcases an author with an immense talent for the short story and makes the reader want more.

Claire Keegan is an Irish writer highly regarded for her award-winning short stories, she has published two collections Antarctica (1999) and Walk the Blue Fields (2007) which I have read excellent reviews of.

Have you read any of Claire Keegan’s work?

Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize for Literature

Alice MunroShe was a favourite to win the prize, but appears not to have been aware of being nominated, no doubt she has been enjoying her retirement from writing fiction announced earlier this year.

Alice Munro is the 13th women to have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, news to which according to the Guardian, she is said to have responded “Can this be possible? Really? It seems dreadful there’s only 13 of us.”

Not just a resounding win for a short but growing list of women writers finally being recognised, but a victory for readers and writers of the short story, Munroe’s strength and preference.

Could it be a sign that the short story is making a comeback? It is something I wonder about in one of my very first blog posts entitled Why People Don’t Read Short Stories which is a tribute to the form and a reminder of the joy short story collections can bring.

short stories

Alice Munro

aliceBorn: July 10 1931, Wingham, Ontario, Canada

Educated: 1949-51 University of Western Ontario

Books:     1968 Dance of the Happy Shades

1971 Lives of Girls and Women

1974 Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You

1978 Who Do You Think You Are?

1983 The Moons of Jupiter

1986 The Progress of Love

1990 Friend of My Youth

1994 Open Secrets

1996 Selected Stories

1998 The Love of a Good Woman

2001 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

2004 Runaway

2006 The View from Castle Rock

2009 Too Much Happiness

2012 Dear Life

Further Reading:

Feature Article Alice Munro: Riches of a double life, the Master of the contemporary Short Story, Guardian 2003

Shoes Hair Nails, Fragments of the Whole

In October 2012 a pair of Marie Antoinette silk slippers were put up for auction on the anniversary of her execution.

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

Marie Antoinette silk slippers

I knew about it because I use BBC News texts rewritten for learning purposes to teach English to mature French students; it keeps the lessons interesting and relevant, no more “Brian is in the kitchen” or “Michelle is at the swimming pool”, now we can introduce rich new vocabulary such as guillotine, opulent, goes under the hammer, scaffold, artefacts and tyranny and more importantly, improve competence and confidence in the art of conversation and communication.

Knowing that the author Deborah Batterman had written a collection of short stories with Shoes in the title, I tweeted her a link to the Marie Antoinette story. She offered me a copy of her book and though I warned her shoes, hair and nails weren’t my thing, if she was willing to risk sending me her book, I’d read it. While I was keen to read the stories, I admit that I hesitated at the Cinderella type image on the cover, which may explain why in my reading, I began to rename the stories as I went, partly to help remember them, but also to reclaim them and give them the credit I believe they deserve.

Shoes Hair NailsThe stories are like vignettes, fragments, captured moments in time and life that feel familiar, even if the experiences are not what we know. Because in reading we inhabit the character and Batterman has a cathartic way of writing that puts us in the shoes of her protagonist, we understand implicitly what it was like to be there and to live through that experience.

She articulates instinctive, feminine sensitivities, fears, and concerns we will all recognise and yet struggle to put into words ourselves, and why bother when one can sit back with this gentle, funny and considerate collection of stories which take us to those places without the struggle to explain ourselves and may even help us feel better about facing similar issues.

Here is a glimpse into a few of the stories:

Vegas or as I think of it Last Trip to Vegas – Not wishing to acknowledge, even less to accept that Norman is at the stage where he needs care other what he can provide himself, his son Kevin takes him and the family off for a weekend trip to Las Vegas, hoping that the familiar experience will reignite those no longer charging cells in his decrepid body and somehow turn back the clock.

“Kevin argues with the doctors, reminds them of studies showing how physical stimulation helps not only the body, but the mind too. He knows Norman cannot live with us, refuses to think of any alternative. Except this one. He will take his father to Las Vegas, the place he loved more than any place on earth. The place that bombards the senses every which way you turn, every hour of the day… If the body has memory, Kevin reasons, this is the place to bring it back.”

It’s an entertaining trip and not on account of the expected offering of the casino city. It’s like Norman’s last stand and he has a whale of a time, as his family come to the realisation that they have up until now been avoiding. That there is no going back, the body is not a machine we can put in reverse, or slow motion, or pause. I loved this story and think it would make a better movie than that one about those three blokes who go to Vegas – and anyone experiencing mixed emotions with their parents going through the ageing process will appreciate the laughs and the stark realities of this tale.

kittens learningCrazy Charlotte – I think of this story as The Innocents, about a girl who wants to befriend a family living outside accepted social circles, who are the subject of gossip. She is intrigued by them all, Charlotte the mother is unlike anyone she has ever met and wants to give her children a broader education even if that means occasionally keeping them at home so they can visit an exhibition or see the birth of kittens. Charlotte isn’t crazy, but she allows one little girl to see the world through different eyes.

Nails, I think of as The Unfortunate Inheritance and it is appropriate that it also features in the title, because it is a deeply memorable story that reads like a novel and one that I could easily have kept turning the pages for and delved even deeper into all those characters with their Shimmering Reds or Deathless Velvet or whatever it was they wore on their nails, the references to nails actually reminded me a little of that “Where’s Wally?” character, the way they turned up in the most unlikely places, with regular consistency.

The protagonist moves on from a relationship and into an apartment on the 8th floor, already populated by complex, interconnected characters, whose lives and jealousies and pasts we begin to learn something of. Everyone arrives or is already ensconced with their baggage, physical and emotional, created or inherited, a stray dog, a piano, memories of a previous relationship, a past job. And sometimes an inheritance doesn’t make life any easier at all, in fact it can be lethal.

Deer Crossing2In Defensive Driving or as I recall it, Lesson 1 : The Many Effects of Deer, a woman and her husband find themselves in a random group of people, some of whom are there for similar reasons to their own, others because they have no choice. Regardless of their reasons, they all bring their many perceptions, which will be altered significantly by what occurs in lesson 1.

An inspiring collection of stories I recommend.  And even though I said I’m not into shoes, this post inspired me to seek out another book I’m going to revisit and share with you soon, more about shoes as art and inspiration, coming soon…

The Honey Thief Stories and Recipes by Najaf Mazari, Robert Hillman

I requested The Honey Thief to read because it appeared to offer a unique insight into a culture we know little about and about which we see and read far too much negative press.

The Honey ThiefThe book promised an alternative perspective, not because the author had lived an extra-ordinary life, but because as part of his upbringing he and others like him listened to these stories passed down and sometimes relived from one generation to the next. They are not about war, oppression, the Taliban, terrorists or western women living in a foreign culture, they are about sharing the wisdom and perspective of a people who have only experiences to share, wisdom to offer and guidance as their intent.

Sometimes stories are all that is left to be passed on to the younger generation and we are fortunate to be given this glimpse into these gifts of an ancient culture and tradition.

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan ex wikipedia

Najaf Mazari was born in Afghanistan, though he only refers to his homeland as that since he left it, because before anything he is Hazara, one of the many peoples of that vast and mountainous tract of land surrounded by six countries, Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran and inhabited by more than 14 ethnic groups, separated socially and geographically.

Rather than an affinity with what we casually call Afghanistan, his loyalties are to his people and the area they have inhabited for at least 800 years, Hazarajat, although due to its’ long history of domination, they have often fled their spiritual home for the sanctuary of the mountains or other lands. But loyalty remains deep within them all, no matter where they find themselves.

Living as a refugee in Australia, Mazari with the aid of his friend Robert Hillman, shares these stories that are part of the fabric of Hazara life, stories of an oral tradition, keeping their bonds and culture alive, giving them courage and hope to continue to endure the many challenges that will face them, from family expectations to foreign visitors, to facing an enemy and offering forgiveness.

snow leopardThey know the mountains and rocks are loyal and must be respected, they read the wind and interpret the moon and understand that wars can last 100 years. We see their relationship to the mountains in the poignant story The Snow Leopard, where a visiting English photographer wishes to track and photograph the elusive creature. His first visit is unsuccessful, no one will guide him to those dangerous parts of the mountain where it is believed the snow leopard resides, as there is more than just the mountain to fear. On his second visit, he finds a guide and though unsuccessful, their journey is filled with insight, learning and a renewed respect for the mountain.

The stories share something of the way the Hazara see the world and the story The Honey Thief  brilliantly encapsulates their relationship with nature, animal life and shows how good can sometimes come from bad. The narrator shares with a boy how he became a beekeeper, caught red-handed stealing the honey, his captor observing that he wasn’t stung – thus finding his future apprentice.

Similarly this boy, whose grandfather is a wise man whom the villagers consult daily, discovers that even wise men have something to learn from young boys who like to ask lots of questions in The Wolf is the Most Intelligent of Creatures and learns that what might appear to be ill advice may in fact be the correct advice to give. This story, the very first, is sure to immediately challenge your own perceptions, something I adore in travel and delight in finding in a great tale.

Almost like fables and yet not, because all of these stories, while offering the seduction of a fable, are rooted in a realism that convinces the reader they tell of lives actually lived and not conjured up or given magical powers, a device that the common fable sometimes utilises.

The author Najaf Mazari

The narrator Najaf Mazari

And when the stories finish, we discover perhaps the greatest gift of all, one that can be referred back to and shared at home ourselves, a small collection of mouth-watering recipes with names and ingredients like Lamb Qorma, Sabzi Gosht, (lamb with spinach), Kofta Nakhod (beef & chickpeas), Boulanee (like Cornish pasties) and Chelo Nakhod (chicken & chickpea stew); surely living proof of the richness and diversity of their culinary culture and the trade that has passed between these boundaries of peoples for hundreds of years.

If you are interested in learning more, or considering reading the book, I highly recommend checking out these two excellent reviews:

  • Richard Marcus at BlogCritics – a beautiful, sensitive and concise review, how he packs so much into so few words, I’m still trying to figure out.
  • Elise Bauer at Simply Recipes – check out this short but flavoursome review and the recipe with pictures, she not only read the book, but cooked that first recipe with astounding success!

Note: This book was provided by the publisher Viking, a member of the Penguin Group US, in return for an honest review.

A Winter Book by Tove Jansson

Too many days have passed in a fog and even this is hard to write, because I had already written and lost it, so peeking out from the blur of la grippe (flu), I hope I find the inspiration that assisted me first time round.

A Winter BookI came across a review for Tove Jansson’s A Winter Book after spending an evening reading Katie Metcalfe’s sublime poetry here.

Metcalfe is a young contemporary poet from Teesside, in the North of England, who churns out poetry at an astonishing rate and has an abundant talent for getting to the heart of it, all of it, any of it, whatever it is she chooses to write about in that heart-felt way that only poetry can do.

Inspired by the Arctic and snowy landscapes, it was no wonder a book like Jansson’s would appeal to her. And something about it appealed to me too, a collection of tales to read in winter, semi-autobiographical bite sized vignettes of another creative spirit.

The Moomin Family

Tove Jansson (1914-2001) was not known to me, but will be known to many as she was the author of the children’s fantasy Moomin books. The Moomins are a family of pale, rotund trolls with large snouts, resembling hippopotamuses. Sniff, Snufkin, Moominmamma, Moominpapa and more, they live in Moominvalley in the forests of Finland and have lots of adventures.

Jansson was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature in 1966.

Her first collection of stories for adults The Summer Book was published in 1972, and this more recent collection spans her writing career, like seaside keepsakes gathered over the years. I now have The Summer Book, but shall make that a seasonal read as well.

The daughter of creative parents, her father a sculptor and her mother an illustrator, Jansson’s own imagination has been given full rein and it comes out in her first stories, which are told from the perspective of a girl, whom I am sure was the author herself. In fact all through the book, I was left more with a feeling of reading non-fiction than anything else. This selection draws from five collections presenting the best of her short fiction.

In one story entitled Snow, she writes of a girl and her mother being snowed in, the light slowly disappearing as the windows are covered up and expresses her delight in having escaped the outside world, warm in the safe and secure presence of her cheerful mother.

“..we have gone into hibernation. Nobody can get in any longer and no one can get out!”

I looked carefully at her and understood that we were saved. At last we were absolutely safe and protected. This menacing snow had hidden us inside in the warmth for ever and we didn’t have to worry a bit about what went on there outside.

Jansson spent every summer living and working on a tiny island off the coast of Finland, returning to Helsinki for the more difficult months and clearly spent many summers in boats and on the island during her childhood. Another memorable story was The Boat and Me, she is given her first boat at twelve-years-old and wastes no time in asserting her new-found independence, taking the boat out along the coast to look at her favourite spots from another perspective, with little regard for the hours that pass by or the hearts that might be fretting.

I go slowly, hugging the shore, into each creek and out round each headland; I mustn’t miss anything out because it’s a ritual. Now I’m about to see my territory from the sea for the first time, that’s important.

I pulled up the anchor-stone and rowed straight out into the path of the moon. Of course the moon’s path is lovely as a picture in calm weather, but when it’s rough, it’s even more beautiful, all splinters and flakes from precious stones like sailing through a sea set with diamonds.

And at that very moment Dad turned up…

Tove SquirrelBut my favourite story has to be the one that follows, in a section entitled Travelling Light, signifying the latter years, where annoyance is more likely the emotion of choice to greet uninvited guests in place of the enthusiasm or delight of her more youthful years. Even when that guest is an island-hopping squirrel.

Either I am incredibly gullible or this story will teach you something new about the intelligence of squirrels, as a reader I was right there with squirrel and hoping for the best, while Jansson was lining up his escape options, ill inclined to do anything to encourage the lonesome animal to stay.

She didn’t care about squirrels, or fly fishermen, or anyone, but just let herself slip down into a great disappointment and admit she was disappointed. ‘How can this be possible?’ she thought frankly. ‘How can I be so angry that they’ve come at all and then so dreadfully disappointed that they haven’t landed?’

Not just a quiet, honest collection of stories, but containing wonderful black and white photos that add to the atmosphere the author evokes and make us feel the heaviness and significance of that final story, Taking Leave, the last visit, when the nets have become too heavy to pull, the boat too difficult to handle, the sea too unpredictable for two aging women. It is with a quiet sadness but knowledge that many happy hours were spent, that we turn the last page on that final visit.