Update

October 22, 2012 § 2 Comments

It’s been a funny old month at Bookist HQ. For starters, circumstances have meant that I’ve only read two books in the last five weeks (and nothing at all for the first two of those). I cannot remember another time of reading so little.

I did fit in a few days to slip back into my fantasy life/alternate reality in London, where I visited two excellently curated bookshops (Foyles on the South Bank and the London Review Bookshop near the British Museum). I bought a small (yes, really) selection of books and decided that this blog has been taking my reading in entirely the wrong direction. Since I started it, I’ve read one book in French and perhaps a couple in translation, instead spending far too much time on prize lists and the like. My only interest that hasn’t suffered is short stories (speaking of which, my review of Miranda Hill’s Sleeping Funny appeared in the National Post last month).

The entire TBR pile is now appealing, with just five books on the top shelf: NW (yes, still), Open City by Teju Cole, Lightning Rods by Helen De Witt, Hawthorn and Child by Keith Ridgway and (rather belatedly) Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse. No more basing my reading on what the local library (which I love, despite being rather far from the average reader it’s buying for) decides to stock, or on prize longlists populated with too much dreary same-old, same-old.

(c) All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content, except comments by others, copyright JC Sutcliffe.

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The Three Rs: Shashi Bhat

October 19, 2012 § 2 Comments

Shashi Bhat’s short fiction has appeared in several journals, including PRISM international, Event, The Threepenny Review, The Missouri Review, and Nimrod International. She was a finalist for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was longlisted for the Journey Prize. Her first novel is forthcoming from Cormorant Books. She received her MFA in fiction from the Johns Hopkins University, and is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Dalhousie University.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?
I knew I wanted to write starting around age 8, after publishing my first poem, “You’re Killing the Ozone.” It appeared in one of those anthologies where they publish every poem they receive and then charge you fifty dollars to buy the book it’s in. I think I rhymed “styrofoam” with “the earth, our home.” But I didn’t think of writing an actual book until I was in grad school for fiction writing and I realized that’s what was expected of us. At that point I’d only written short stories and the idea of a novel seemed far too ambitious.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?
I tend to go through long periods when I don’t write at all and feel really guilty about it, and then I write nonstop for a few weeks. The latter is the best of times, because I walk around feeling as though anything I encounter could appear in my fiction. I’ll walk by a beautiful shrub or a funny-looking dog or anything at all and it’ll go in the story. I like to write in coffee shops; I write in one until I’m finished my coffee and then carry my laptop to a different one for a change of scenery.
Do you type or write?
I write my outlines in a notebook but I type the actual stories.
What do you read while you’re writing?
I re-read favourite short stories – Amy Hempel’s In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Was Buried, Stuart Dybek’s Pet Milk, Ann Beattie’s Snow.
What have you read recently that you really loved?

Over the summer I read Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. It’s magical and poignant and full of food, and narrated by a young person – those are all my favourite elements for a piece of fiction to have.
What are your all-time favourites?

Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories. I read it about a year ago and it is so, so good. I wish I hadn’t read it yet so I could read it again for the first time. She pushes her characters so much further than I expect them to go. She doesn’t mind humiliating her protagonist or being cruel to her or making her act like a jerk occasionally, and still I love the narrator so much. I feel as though I learned a lot from that collection. Other favourites: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Lauren Groff’s Delicate, Edible Birds, Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Ray Bradbury short stories.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

I would write. That’s probably the wrong answer, since it’s so egotistical and self-indulgent. I get a contentment and satisfaction out of creating that I don’t get from anything else.

What’s your third R, and why?

Reality TV. No, just kidding. Rational decision-making.

The Journey Prize 24

October 1, 2012 § 2 Comments

This book was provided by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The Journey Prize anthology often has an identifiable theme. This is probably not surprising, since there are trends in short fiction just as there are trends in everything else, and we can expect jurors to be aware–consciously or not–of the latest fashionable themes. To begin with, the stories no doubt seem fresh in their subject matter; if the jurors later notice a trend, they don’t mention it. Anyway, the winner has often been the one I consider the best-written story out of the group of stories with similar subject matter.

This year, the theme is not so much subject as it is narrator. Of the thirteen stories in the anthology, seven of them are narrated by children or teenagers and three by people in their late teens or early twenties. Can this simply be down to writers thinking they must write what they know? Where are the stories about the very elderly or the baby boomers? The mid-life crisis has taken a back seat to preoccupations with childhood and growing up. If authors take “write what you know” to mean only situations and settings that they have expperience of, rather than just human beings and their motivations and interactions, fiction suffers.

Taking children and adolescents as narrators often tempts writers to use a conversational, chatty style, but this can only work if it’s an illusion rather than a reality. Saying that someone was being “weirder than usual,” for example, is obviously realistic in the sense of being how a teenager might talk about someone, but a teenager narrating a short story needs to find a cleverer way of telling us that information while still preserving the intimacy and naturalness of the voice.

Another current problem in short story writing in particular is writers using what characters do as a shortcut to save them showing us who they are. Like using brand names to precisely anchor fiction in a time and place, this has to be done sparingly, or it is just lazy. Characters have plenty of quirks, opinions or tics so we can all see at first sight who they are. But this only tells the reader who they are in a superficial sense, as if the only information we have about someone has been extracted from the dozen or so interests they’ve listed on Facebook. Taste and viewpoint do not a whole person make.

Those moans aside, four stories stood out. Shashi Bhat’s opener, “Why I Read Beowulf,” is a nicely contained story about a teenager’s fascination with her English teacher. At the same time, it charts her relationships with her best friend and with a man grooming her on the internet. The voice is handled well, crafted to appear like a teenager speaking but with plenty of literary descriptions and punchy observations.

“Barcelona” by Jasmina Odor was the next story that caught my eye. Amanda is depressed and living with her boyfriend and her family in one house, while yearning to return to Barcelona, a place where she felt alive. Odor catches the family dynamics and the stresses of shared living space, and as she moves between narrative viewpoints she pins down the fluidity of people and their emotions. The characters are nuanced and not forced into moral positions; sometimes they are judgemental, and sometimes they are big enough to recognise and overcome their prejudices. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the structure of the story, or more particularly by the balance between the Barcelona and the Canada sections–the story might work better as the beginning of a novel– but it was easy to overlook this problem in a story with such a quietly confident voice.

Eliza Robertson is a talented young writer whose first Journey Prize story was “Ship’s Log” in the 2010 anthology. This year’s entry, “Where Have You Fallen, Have You Fallen?”, is an intriguing short story. It’s oddly hard to say much about this story without spoiling it for the reader, so I won’t give away any of the details. It’s laconic yet lively, and cleverly put together: one to savour.

Finally, the story I would want to win if I was a juror: Alex Pugsley’s “Crisis on Earth-X.” I came close to not getting very far into this one. The title made me think of comics or sci-fi, which put me off, and then on the second page, the sentences “But the day I’m remembering was not winter. The day I’m remembering was one day away from true summer, a Wednesday in late June, one of the longest in the year.” This, coming after a description of the narrator’s uncle coming to live with them–a narrator you might assume, from the opening paragraphs, to be afflicted with a typical (ie not very convincing) cutesy and literature-friendly autism, made me roll my weary eyes. Enough, I thought. Why must there always be the same feel of structure and mood to these memories-of-childhood stories? I wrote illegible notes all over the first few pages complaining about this or that, but gradually, as the story continued, I came to admire it. The characters, given a bit of light and water, blossomed and thrived. One of the great things about the story is how Pugsley conveys the young boy’s physicality and energy (“This meant leaping the bottom three stairs and immediately somersaulting–purely as a means to dissipate the tremendous shock of impact”) without overthinking and overwriting. The story is more successful than many in the same genre because it is bigger in scale and awareness. We don’t need to be told the brands of processed food of the period, for example, because the author can actually incorporate it into the description and the plot. The family is reminiscent of that famous literary rag-taggle bunch, the Glasses, and the writing style doesn’t detract from that impression.

Final mention goes to Trevor Corkum’s “You Were Loved.” The story itself, a tale of a bar hookup interspersed with memories of the narrator’s past, didn’t quite come together cohesively enough for me–the present section being much more vivid and contained, like a shaken bottle of beer, compared to the past’s more scattershot, wistful approach. But Corkum’s sharp and sassy writing–in particular, his descriptions of people and places–is both funny and evocative.

Are you a Journey Prize reader? Which story was your favourite from this year’s anthology?

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