What Margaret Atwood, a Pulitzer-prize winner and orange hair dye have in common

(Or which writer does short stories the best?)

Sometimes you read three books- just randomly picking them off the shelf- and in hindsight you realise that they all seem to be spookily similar. This has, in a way, happened with my reading over the last few months, where the number of collections of short stories I have read has been quite high compared to normal! Most writers are known only for their novels, so it was fascinating to see how they performed with the slightly different medium.

First of all, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Stone Mattress

marge

Now, admittedly, I have not read any of her other work, (including, yes, I know, The Handmaid’s Tale), but I saw this book in the local library and decided that I might as well give her a try. Her writing style is very particular: not particularly flowery but her words are crafted in such a way that the writing is still imaginative and emotive.  Indeed, I would not be surprised if an extract from one these stories was featured in an English Literature exam, to the horror of many students searching in vain for the metaphors and allusions.

Atwood’s talent does shine through in the some of the stories, such as Alfinland, which about a fantasy writer who gets lost in a snowstorm and receives guidance from her dead husband. However, other stories just seemed to be, although illuminated by excellent writing, not exactly thrilling. There were some stories in there which just did even not fit into this collection, in terms of tone nor content, like Luxus Naturae and  I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth. The reason why these jarr so much is because in the opening of the collection there are a few interconnected stories, with a minor character from one becoming the protagonist in the other. That inconsistency is not ideal, especially as both of these irrelevant and weaker tales have been published before, so it is not like Atwood had publish them in this collection so that they could be seen by the world.

In terms of handling the short stories as a form: some of the endings fell flat, and it would have been more fun to see larger twists and surprises in there. However, the delivery of the ideas was superb, and therefore, although I would not read another short story collection by Atwood, I will endeavour to take on her longer works. At some point. Maybe.

 

Then I embarked on Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

trigg

There was one stand-out story here, called Click-Clack The Rattlebag. It proves that short stories are one of the best mediums for horror (although the others in Trigger Warning are more just fantasy/ science fiction), because it offers enough time for a premise and a twist, but not enough for time to be “wasted” on fluff, in this context, like character development and world building such as in a novel. It instead cuts straight to the fear, which is what people want from the genre, presumably.

Another highlight was a story about a teenage girl who used orange hair dye which turned her into this angry deity, much to the fear of her family. However, it is told through a questionnaire form, with only the answers revealed, so there are pieces of the narrative which you still have to fill in for yourself. On the other hand, other parts of the collection were not so strong- the poetry to say the least! That seemed to be an indulgent inclusion; as if he was trying to prove that he could write well in both prose and verse, but the real question is…can he? (Um, no.)

The stories do not fit together in any way, and Gaiman does allude to this in the introduction (which is rather drawn out), by saying that these could all be potentially disturbing, and thus all need a “Trigger Warning”. A good excuse to pull together seemingly random stories, none of which were exactly distressing in my mind. It is not that I mind this lack of consistency, but the book does seem a bit contrived because there is no new content in there apart from ONE story. One of them is even about Doctor Who, and another, The Sleeper and the Spindle, is a book in its own right with lovely illustrations by Chris Riddell. It just all seems a bit frantically drawn together, as if the publishers wanted to release another book and so patched together all his old work.

So, the content itself was much more inventive that Atwood, but like the Canadian, the consistency of the quality of the works throughout the collection was patchy, and it was concerning that there was only one previously unpublished story.

Here is, however, a lovely excerpt from “A Calendar of Tales”

I built an igloo out of books in my backyard.

I slept in my igloo made of books. I was getting hungry. I made a hole in the floor, lowered a fishing line and waited until something bit. I pulled it up: a fish made of books – green covered vintage Penguin detective stories. I ate it raw, fearing a fire in my igloo.

When I went outside I observed that someone had covered the whole world with books: pale-covered books, all shades of white and blue and purple. I wandered the ice floes of books.

I saw someone who looked like my wife out there on the ice. She was making a glacier of autobiographies.

“I thought you left me,” I said to her. “I thought you left me alone.”

She said nothing, and I realized she was only a shadow of a shadow

 

And lastly- the Pulitzer prize winner, Jennifer Egan, with her work,  A Visit From the Goon Squad

gg

I am losing respect for the Pulitzer committee at this point, because this book held a queasy amount of attraction. As in, the characters were vaguely unlikeable and certainly unrelatable. The most lauded point of the book was the “Powerpoint journal” that Ally had for the segment about her. This girl is 12, and so the presentation of her thoughts in Fishbone Analysis, Cause-Effect and Bubble Charts form do seem a bit, again, contrived and ridiculous, especially considering how incongruous the form is to the content.

It is clear to see perhaps why the Pulitzer committee found the book attractive, but then again it does seem too… frivolous, perhaps, for the context of the award. It seems very similar in a way to Less, which also won the Pulitzer recently, and was touted as being the first comic novel to win the Pulitzer. And whilst Egan’s novel is not comic, it is not outstanding in the conventional literary sense, either. Maybe the overarching theme of misspent lives gives it more credit, as well as the unusual emphasis placed on sibling, rather than marital, relationships throughout. That is not to say that I do not think that the book is not well-written: it most certainly is. It is just that for an international award the tone was a bit too icy, and the characters a bit too inflexible.

The form of the short story was well-utilised here, though, because it did what Margaret Atwood had only partially achieved. Each character was a protagonist in one story, and then a secondary character in another, and each segment is told at a different point in time: one details how a publicist struggles with her the failure of business, and mentions her desire to fund Lulu’s (her daughter) education. Then another story is of Lulu as an adult, where she has a more active role in the narrative. The only problem is that one is unable to develop any meaningful relationship with any of the characters, because each chapter/ story is only a few pages long, and also since many of the characters are not likeable. And not even in an anti-hero way: more like, well you deserve everything that is coming for you because you are consistently pretentious/ obnoxious etc.. It is also not clear what Egan is trying to achieve because the stories themselves do not have the typical “story arc”, with a surprise/ pay-off at the end, and yet they do not work cohesively to form a larger narrative. As in, one of the chapters could be missing, and you would not notice when reading the novel through.

It is hard to say, therefore, given the many flaws that each collection has, if one author can really be touted the “best” short story writer. To give one author this title would suggest that their work possessed a standard much higher than the others. But, sadly, they are all too problematic in their own way to be crowned. So the short-story crown shall remain with me indefinitely, until I find a worthy author.

kate tempest, let them eat chaos

let them not eat these words,

or chaos indeed. Everyone has herds

of things which tides against them, and have no time for this little

book of pretentious spittle

to contend with their sanity,

the banal profanity

of constant rhymes

about the faults of our times.

 

What can we learn from:

All that is meaningless rules
And we have learned nothing from history.

 

To blame the culture around social media

and the swamping, endless wikipedia

with words that are short

and make my face contort:

behold a lack of art

and  heart.

A stereotype is not fun

Before I was an adult, I was a
little wreck,
pedding whatever I could get
my grubby mitts on.

Ketamine for breakfast,
bad girls for drinking with

“This poem was written to be read aloud”

Is she aware that this is not allowed

on public transport, or in coffee shop

that a-one-eye-look from a cyclops

will come my way if I do?

She knew, she knew, she knew

and made this is little caveat

for the well-wishing diplomat

to lean on,  when faced with her endless

repetition, which makes surely her friendless.

 

A stereotype is not fun

I hate to think I’ll make it to seventy,
potentially
seventy-five,
And realize I’ve never been alive,
and spend the rest of my days
regretting,
wishing I could be
forgetting.

Fight Club had done this already, a cinematic vision

with artistic precision,

to discuss what is now a mere cliché

and very passé

especially the sickening form

words stuck all over the page, forlorn,

seemingly irrelevant for the spoken word,

something which should not to be read

or evidently, heard.

 

We die.
So others can be born.

We age
so others can be young.

The point of life is live.
Love if you can. Then pass it on. 

How refreshing, how new

no, how I wish I knew,

all these things

before reading a book which used old ideas

and stereotypes for its wings.

 

 

 

 

to the lighthouse// january

He smiled the most exquisite smile, veiled by memory, tinged by dreams.

                  It hard to grapple with something that does not exist: nothing, no bones, to tie the language together

And all the lives we ever lived and all the lives to be are full of trees
and changing leaves

                 In our world full of pictures and pages, each curated to our little personal dreams, it is hard to be beautiful, and but it is even harder to make sense, and have authenticity tumble through your work.

 Bitter and black, halfway down, in the darkness, in the shaft which ran from the sunlight to the depths, perhaps a tear formed; a tear fell; the waves swayed this way and that, received it, and were at rest.

             Where is it, where is it? Are we built from a lust for life, or from a fear of death: is that your dusky illumination.

Could it be, even for elderly people, that this was life?–startling, unexpected, unknown?

            What shines through the ink, is an enthusiasm for language and the twisting of words, so devoid from the other works which pseudo-intellectuals have branded their favourite, champagne literates, illerates.

The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare

           Were you a millennial, pre-emptive? Indeed, bubbling with ideas and hopes and knowledge and just wanting to be understood, the ideas larger than people’s capacity for understanding. Or was your ego larger than the need for the words to be pared down to be understood.

So that is marriage, Lily thought, a man and a woman looking at a girl throwing a ball

            If I craved a string of quotes, with no meaning in context to each other except for the overwhelming existential sadness they all made me feel, I would go somewhere else: literature was not borne for this.

Or maybe it was.

Well, we must wait for the future to show.

Did a genocide almost happen in England? (And other gems from Anglo-Saxon History)

Haters will say that Anglo-Saxons are dull because they were simply bearded men, with nothing but pillaging and unaesthetic mud huts to their name. Haters would therefore be wrong. Here are some of the most interesting things I’ve learnt from my reading of The Anglo-Saxon Age by John Blair, The Anglo-Saxons by James Campbell and Anglo-Saxon England by David Brown.

  1. The mains gods in Anglo-Saxon society were Tiw, Woden and Thor. Tiw was the god of war, swordplay and the sky, whilst Woden was the chief of all the Anglo-Saxon gods and Thor was the god of sky and thunder. (Marvel, anyone?) These gods were honoured especially in place names- Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, as well as a few places like Tuesley in Surrey, Wednesbury in Staffs and Thursley in Surrey.
  2. The word Welshman has a root in slavery, becomes it comes from “wealh” which means slave. So the place “Walton” could either mean the place of the Welsh/Britons, or the place of slaves.
  3. Kings never stayed in power for too long. It is crucial to remember that at that time there were many simultaneously ruling kings in England, because England as a unified place did not exist and was more like a mixture of different smaller kingdoms. Anyway, even kings of smaller areas were not in power for very long. and this was because soldiers were attracted to kings by gifts: but gifts depended on the wealth of the kings which in turn relies upon power and conquest. If a battle is lost, then all the soldiers could switch sides so that they could receive gifts from another king. So power and authority was very fluid in the seventh century.
  4. In the eighth and ninth century, wealthy landowners would build monasteries on their estates to enjoy the tax advantages. Essentially, taxes would have to be paid to a church in order to maintain them, but if you already had a monastery on your land then these could be evaded. This evasion was so prolific that a famous monk, Bede, complained about these “fronts” in his book.
  5. King Alfred devoted the last ten years of life to reviving literacy and learning in his society. He was the only English king, even before Henry VIII, who wrote books. That is impressive. Good old Alfred even learnt Latin, and being the kindly man he was, translated texts into English for his subjects’ benefit alone. He also organised the first compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is basically the main source we have for nearly all events in that era, from early Anglo-Saxon life to the Norman Conquest.
  6. One could see how strong royal power was by their coinage. There were decrees issued by Aethelstan between 924 and 939 which ordered that throughout the land there should be a single type of coin, with the same sort of weight and consistency. This is key because it illustrates the consistency of their rule -if they were overthrown then something new would have been introduced- in a time where the turn-over of kings was high!
  7. In 1002, Æthelred and his council ordered a massacre of all Danes living in England. These Danes were living happily in the Danelaw, but of course their presence was unwanted by an English ruler because of the threat of a revolution they posed. However, the law ordering a genocide could not have been enforced, as it is thought that up to a 1/3 of all people in the time were Danish. It does however suggest that there were anti-Danish sentiments at the time, and it is clear that this suggestion of a massacre, whatever came of it irrelevant, did prompt King Swein to invade England (and promptly rule it) a year later.
  8. Churches in the eleventh century are vastly different to today. Back then, they were owned by the lords who built them, whose purpose was determined by a tenurial rather than pastoral manner. The church’s main function was not exactly religion, but to serve “the needs of the lord, his household, and tenants” (Blair).
  9. Anglo-Saxons did not learn to read and write until after the spread of Christianity, when Augustine came to England in AD 597.
  10. Most people were buried with their spear and shield. Swords were found for one in ten graves, and many had no weapons at all. Weapons were found however, were appropriate to their class, and were therefore symbols of wealth, not constant warfare.
  11. Anglo-Saxon houses had hollows in them for storage. 
  12. In the seventh century there was a mass conversion to christianity- first observed with royal families. Christian kings were buried in churches: the first one was Aethelbert of Kent in 616 in St Martin’s Chapel at St Peter. Lesser folk, however, were buried outside churches.
  13. People buried coins when they feared they would lose them. Therefore when lots of coins were buried at a particular time (because nothing like safes existed back then), it signalled that a raid was going on. However sometimes these people died during such attacks, and therefore their coins remain buried, as they are found today.
  14. -by is the danish word for village, i.e Grimsby is Grimr’s village. Hybrid names like Grmis-ton is Grimr’s village, with a Danish personal name (Grmis) and an English word (-ton, for village).
  15. Edward the Elder tried to stop the black market! He wanted all exchanges to be carried out in a port in the witness of a reeve (royal official) so that the sale of stolen property could be hindered, stolen property being mainly cattle.

hello, hello, hello

A foreign number in the corner of magazines and computer screens: 2019. In many ways, it simply marks the cumulation of days. On the other hand, the dawning of a new year symbolises the attempts that many now make to become a better person. The metric for self-improvement is, of course, individual, and in many cases the decision to abandon resolutions can be as difficult to embrace as elaborately planned (if unsuccessful) workout regimes. This is due to societal pressure to find faults within oneself, and hurriedly erase them before anyone notices, even when you have no current qualms with your lifestyle.

But what lies ahead for this little blog? What about this little world we live in, indeed, with such a great capacity for harbouring both incredible acts of kindness, and evil? The answer to the former, and almost certainly the latter, is that although we all have some idea -hopes even- nobody really knows. We have managed to survive another year without nuclear war, but with the threat always looming somewhere in the ink of newspages, it serves as a sobering reminder that life should be not taken too seriously. I could make various promises about how often I will post, or how many books I will read this year, but instead an organic approach to posting seems more appropriate. Book review blogs do not make for internet sensations, anyway, and as much of my reading is leaning towards those necessitated by academic commitments, rather than by personal preference, this blog may become a spot for the chronicling these various textbook activities more than anything else. Whilst this will be undoubtedly useful to me, the interest in this for others remains to be seen. However I will also continue with my Winter Challenge, and embark upon various discursive essays, as well as the slaughtering of various classics (To the Lighthouse, you are next) but the general tone may become more… dusty.

So: hello, hello, hello 2019. I hope you feel welcome, and will forgive me if at times I seem distant, or boring, if ineffectual. Then again, politicians act this way, and they seem to be ruling to the country. Maybe this isn’t such a bad approach, then.