Category Archives: short stories

The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror by Mallory Ortberg

The Merry Spinster

Title: The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror
Author: Mallory Ortberg
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-1250113429
Genre: Short Stories
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Fairy Tales were never meant for children, I suppose. Over the years, and along the way, they became for children. No wonder there are so many retellings and translations of the true fairy tales from different regions of the world, in order to maintain them for what they were: sinister. “The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror” by Mallory Ortberg is one such book of dark and playful stories based on classic folk and fairy tales, each one told with a twist of feminism, gender fluidity (at least from what I could make out for some of them) and more.

This is not a parody on fairy tales. This is what I thought when I picked it up but it turned out to be way ahead and progressive than that. Mallory not only understands these fairy tales in great detail and with an amazing insight, but she also is aware that cultures, time, and tellers shape the story and hence her stories do not at any time seem jaded. Moreover, her stories seem more real, given the times we live in and rightly so. Again, might I add: not meant for children.

I cannot even discuss these stories without giving away anything, so I will not. What I will say though is that “A Thankless Child” is one story that has stuck in my mind (a retelling of Cinderella if you please) and a very strange one at that. What I loved is that Ortberg is not here to shock you.

The stories are to break stereotypes, to get away from the prejudice and bias we create and above all to be able to think and feel the way you want to. There is also a sense of humour which is evident in the retelling of The Beauty and the Beast. I could go on and on about this one, but all I must say is that you just have to read this collection of stories.

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Beautiful Days: Stories by Joyce Carol Oates

Beautiful Days Title: Beautiful Days: Stories
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Publisher: Ecco, HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0062795786
Genre: Short-Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

You just don’t read a book by Joyce Carol Oates. You experience it like no other. You soak in the words, till their brutality cuts you deep and then you use the same words to be work as balm and heal those wounds. That is the beauty of the writing of Joyce Carol Oates, it just doesn’t let you be and at the same time you feel so distant from it after you are done reading it. Only to realize that you will go back to it at some point.

I discovered the writing of Oates on Oprah Winfrey Show when she picked “We Were the Mulvaneys”. That was in early 2000s I think and since then I have not stopped reading Oates’ writing. I cannot thank Oprah Winfrey enough for this.

“Beautiful Days” is a new collection (well, some of them have been published earlier) by the American master of story-telling. Let me just start by saying that Joyce Carol Oates’ characters are so broken that you might find it very hard to relate to them and yet as the story progresses, you start seeing them around you.

“Fleuve Bleu” examines an adulterous relationship and how the people involved in it are overcome by guilt, heartbreak, love, passion and sometimes plain apathy. This was one of my favourite in the collection, only because of the way Oates describes it all – the anger, the frustration of being together and sometimes not being together, of letting go, of having let go and its consequences. While on the other hand in “Big Burnt” a professor cunningly manipulates a woman, who is in love with him. The pathos, the helplessness and moreover the humour (sardonic but there) of being played by someone shines through superbly in this story.

So, I realized one thing while reading this collection, which is, you cannot take sides when it comes to reading any Oates’ story or book. She doesn’t let you take sides. Maybe that is the intention after all. “Undocumented Alien” however made me take sides. I had to. I was so involved in it, that there was nothing else to do. The story is about a young African student enrolled in an American university who is suddenly stripped of his student visa and that’s when all complications begin.

These are just some of the stories that I have loved, but I cannot possibly go on about all of them. The idea is that Oates’ writing only grows better with time (if that can ever happen). There is no best time to start reading her. You just have to start. Perhaps start reading her short stories. Oates’ landscapes are also quite brutal. It is almost that they match the characters’ lives, inner turmoil and sense of irresponsibility (sometimes). Her characters are careless, also callous, and often don’t know what they want or know quite well what they do not want. They strive, they fight demons and sometimes emerge victorious. Most times, they are only human.

 

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments by Ann Quin

The Unmapped Country Title: The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments
Author: Ann Quin
Publisher: And Other Stories
ISBN: 978-1911508144
Genre: Short Stories, Non-Fiction, Fragments
Pages: 178
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I think my heart skips a beat when I discover a new author. The same happened when I heard of Ann Quin and there was something about her that drew me instantly to wanting to read her. Ann Quin’s work is unlike anything I have read before. I know this is said of a lot of writers in this time and age, but in the case of Quin it couldn’t hold truer. If you are in the mood to read something experimental, mind-boggling and also the kind of writing that makes you emotional, then please read “The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments” by Ann Quin.

Quin does not only break form in her stories and fragments but also goes over the edge in terms of plot. Her writing leaves you with this heaviness in the soul and is ironically also liberating. For instance, here I was reading, the titular incomplete novel (almost 50 pages or so) and I found myself crying and strangely enough smiling (since the story is that of a psychiatric collapse set in an institution quite similar to the ones Quin attended in her troubled years). Her skills of telling a story are crackling and this is a good place to start.

There are then staccato pieces in the book: “Never Trust a Man Who Bathes with His Fingernails” and “Ghostworm” – which are also very vague and make sense when read over and over again. Quin’s pieces are like wine I suppose or an exotic cuisine that one grows to like or love or not. There cannot be in-between emotion when it comes to her writing (or so I think).

There is this sense of unease, this constant shuffling from one reality to another that all-pervades this collection of stories and fragments. Reading this collection reminded me of the urgency of Virginia Woolf, the resplendency of Elizabeth Bowen and the sense of loneliness of Katherine Mansfield. Not that I am comparing (because really Quin cannot be compared), I am just providing a reference or two. All said and done, I know for one that I will be looking out for more of her works (she left this world too soon) and cherish what she had to offer.

Vampire in Love: Stories by Enrique Vila-Matas. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas Title: Vampire in Love: Stories
Author: Enrique Vila-Matas
Translated by Margarey Jull Costa
Publisher: Speaking Tiger
ISBN: 978-9386338822
Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories
Pages: 272
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I love long-winding stories, so much to the point that if the author rambles sometimes, I am okay with that as well. Maybe that is also because of the style of the writer. There is something to it which doesn’t let go of the reader. Enrique Vila-Matas is one such writer whose works have always eluded me – left me hanging for more and made me not want to make sense of them as well – because the stories and books he has written are enough. He is one of those authors who should just keep writing. Nothing else really matters. Maybe I am praising him too highly, but don’t go by what I am saying. Read him. No matter place to start than his short stories and this collection titled, “Vampire in Love” is just what the doctor prescribed.

“Vampire in Love” is a collection of stories that are mostly absurd but also fantastical and profound. It takes a lot of time to get into this collection, but once you do, it will have you by your throat and not let go. Vila-Matas creates a world within each story that can be books in itself but it is best when it isn’t. When the stories leave you wanting more and you don’t get it.

The stories are a ​matter of fact and to the point, so don’t be alarmed if your imagination isn’t soaring boundless. The thing to remember is the craft and the emotion each story will generate (because that it will). From empathizing with an effeminate barber who falls in love with an innocent choirboy to a lonely ophthalmologist, Vila-Matas’ characters are regular people and yet they aren’t. “Vampire in Love” is a collection which isn’t for all and yet I would urge you to read it, only to test your boundaries as a reader.

Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fresh Complaint Title: Fresh Complaint: Stories
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374203061
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Jeffrey Eugenides’ writing has come a long way. Who am I to judge that? His ardent fan. One of his ardent fans, who could not get enough of The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex or The Marriage Plot (weakest among the three and yet, I loved it to bits). One of his fans who cannot stop raving about his new book “Fresh Complaint”, a collection of short stories that shows family love, discovery of the self, adolescence, identity and what it means to be American (well, not all the time) through ten stunning stories (two of them which I found to be off, but loved them nonetheless).

I have also always believed that writing short stories is way more difficult than the novel. Short stories have to be taut. You cannot take liberties with time and space as you would in a novel and that makes them even more difficult when it comes to engaging with readers. In Eugenides’ stories we meet people who are broken, who are whole, who go through life in a daze and some who think they have it all under control and stumble only to realize that this isn’t the life they wanted anyway.

My favourite stories in this collection are “Baster” – which is funny and yet so tragic and also “Air Mail” – which is about Mitchell whose story was left hanging in The Marriage Plot and this story somewhat gives it closure. “Complainers”, the first story in the collection is about dementia, old age and above all of the beautiful friendship two women share over the years. And last but not the least, I absolutely could not get enough of the title story. “Fresh Complaint” is a story that could very well have been a novel. It is the story of a high school student whose wish to escape her immigrant family has consequences on a British physicists’ life beyond repair.

Characters in this collection are not kind all the time. They are just human. Eugenides allows his characters to make their mistakes, live their dreams and see regrets for what they are. He takes you to uncomfortable places and is not apologetic about it. These stories date from 1989 to 2017, out of which eight were previously published (I hadn’t read any). “Fresh Complaint” is a collection of stories that are real, insightful and dark, allowing characters to hide, to be seen and not without some humour as well.