Archive for the ‘short stories’ Category

ED77D864-4214-48BD-8059-B3D26522E404What usually happens during #germanlitmonth is that piles of recommendations are stored in my wishlist, purchased when I have spare cash and then left to collect dust in the TBR until … who knows when?  This year I decided that I would read and review at least one new-to-me recommendation before the month was out.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be a selection of stories, with surely the longest and quirkiest title of the month, published in 1811!  Yet Johann Peter Hebel’s The Treasure Chest was added to the wishlist after reading The Old Book Appreciator’s review at the beginning of the month.  When Thomas of Mytwostotinki added an endorsement saying it was one of his favourite books ever, I was moved to the purchase stage.  Yet £12.99 seemed quite expensive for a 208-page paperback.  Plus the risk.  Early C19th century moral fables? They might be hard to swallow. So instead I spent 80p on the Penguin Little Black Classic as a 26-story sampler.

Never has so little money been spent on so much pleasure.

These stories were everything that the Old Book Appreciator and Thomas promised.  (And I urge you to go read that review, which puts the whole into context. It would take me weeks to put something so well-crafted together.)  Yes, some of these short stories do have a moral, but they were written by a pastor who understood not to sacrifice the entertainment value of his tales, and a pastor who might have been a little subversive at times – because the bad guys don’t always get their just desserts.

Though some do.  In the ghastly story from which the Little Black Penguin takes its title (and is too long to retype) two murderers are undone when, after killing a travelling butcher for his money, and their own child who witnessed the murder, the butcher’s dog uncovers the corpses.  The conclusion, as Hebel reports it demonstrates a black sense of humour and the twinkle in his eye which can always be glimpsed in his narrative style.

The criminals were taken and brought to court. Six weeks later they were put to death, their villainous corpses bound to the wheel, and even now the crows are saying, “That’s tasty meat, that is!”

Stories, such as Unexpected Reunion (incidentally Kafka’s favourite story) have a more emotional register. A week before their wedding,  a couple are separated forever by a fatal mining accident. 50 years later, the well-preserved body of a young miner is brought to the surface. No one recognises the corpse or even remembers the accident from so long ago. Until his former bride-to-be hobbles up on her crutch. As the only person laying claim to him, she gives him a decent burial. Who can fail to be moved at her parting words?

Sleep well for another day or a week or so longer in your cold wedding bed, and don’t let time weigh heavy on you! I have only a few things left to do, and I shall join you soon, and soon the day will dawn.

In his essay on Hebel contained in A Place in the Country, W G Sebald discusses Hebel’s “vision of a better world designed with the ideals of justice and tolerance in mind.”  Of course, that is a C19th century vision, not necessarily aligned to C21st values. (Though the way I’m feeling right now, I’m not convinced of the latter.  But that is a completely different story.) It is also a vision with biblical precedents – as is to be expected from the pen of a Lutheran pastor.  Some of this can be seen quite clearly in stories such as The Clever Judge, a witty reworking of the Solomonaic judgement, in which the judge is asked to adjudicate, not over two mothers fighting over a child, but a package containing 800 thalers.

032F2B42-563C-4B00-8FB1-2A2D24F48D59In the introduction to The Treasure Chest (because, of course, I have now purchased the Kindle edition to carry around with me on my phone for some cheering company, whenever I have a spare 5 minutes), Hebel’s translator, John Hibberd discusses Hebel’s enduring appeal. Regarding the naturalness of his writing, he says:

It was undoubtedly that secure naturalness that appealed so strongly to Kafka as a contrast to his own abysses of uncertainty. Hebel had no problems deciding what was true and what was right, when it was appropriate to laugh and when to cry, and the modern reader may well, like Kafka, find welcome relief from some of the products of modernism (and its successors) in an author who is eminently accessible, is not ashamed of sentiment, is cheerful and humorous and sane and humane.

Amen to that.

Hebel’s vision is all the more remarkable given the times he lived in.  Tumultuous is the least that can be said of the Napoleonic era in which Hebel’s early hopes that Napoleon would be a harbinger of beneficial change were gradually dashed.  And yet, he retained his sense of humour.

I’ll leave you with the final story in “How A Ghastly Story …”.  It’s always good to end on a laugh, whatever the circumstances. And this is a particularly good way to end the 2017 edition of German Literature Month.

The Safest Path – translated by Nicholas Jacob.

Now and then someone drunk has the occasional notion or good idea, as a fellow did one day who didn’t take his usual path home from town but walked straight into the stream running alongside it instead. There he met a good man ready to offer a hand to a fellow, even a drunk one, in trouble. “My good friend,” said the man, “haven’t you noticed you’re in the water? The footpath’s over here.”  He too, replied the drinker, generally found it best to use the path, but explained that this time he had had one too many. “And that’s just why I want to help you out of the stream,” said the good man. “And that’s just why I want to stay in it,” replied the drinker.  “Because if I walk in the stream and I fall, I fall on to the path, but if I fell when walking on the path, I’d fall into the stream.”  And that’s what he said, tapping his forehead with his index finger, as if to show that he still knew a thing or two that might not have occurred to anyone else, despite being a bit the worse for wear.


Footnote:  Another unplanned read for me this #germanlitmonth, which saw me – at last – break my Sebald duck!


Read Full Post »

The Moth flew into my orbit – like so many other things in my reading life – via the Edinburgh Book Festival.  In 2014 the founder of the Moth, George Dawes Green introduced a sucession of speakers to tell true 6-minute stories of seminal moments in their lives. I  don’t remember who spoke that night, but I did come home with a copy of The Moth: This is a True Story because I enjoyed what I heard and wanted to read more.

Roll forward 3 years and those true stories are still unread on the TBR when the second volume The Moth: All These Wonders is published.  It is time for the moth to emerge from its chrysalis …..

… and I have been well and truly “mothed”.  What was I waiting for? Although the upside to not having read the first volume all those years ago, is that I had 100 short stories to accompany me as I flitted around on my travels this summer.  These books were perfect for reading in those short pauses that occur when waiting for trains, having a quick coffee break, etc, etc.  But I frequently found that I could not put them down and the 2 or 3 stories in one sitting often became 10 or 12.

First established in New York in 1997, Moth live story-telling evenings have now become a global phenomenon with their own podcast for mothaholics.  The stories in the books are, you could say, the best of.  They are diverse and fascinating vignettes spanning the gamut of human experience from all walks of life; descriptions of pivotal moments and experiences that inspired the human to become the person they are today, or experiences that are so unique that only the teller could tell them.

For example:

From The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories

  • An astronaut describes undertaking a repair to the Hubble Space Telescope.  As he watches the earth from his spacewalking perspective, he has never felt so alone – basically, because no-one has figured out how to repair this thing.
  • A homeless black girl takes a job providing terminal care for a dying white man.  She discovers a Klansman’s uniform hanging by his bed ….
  • A victim of attempted murder describes life after the attempt for those without health insurance in America. “And let me tell you, when you start your day with two homicide detectives explaining what happened the night before, it’s downhill from there.” 

From The Moth: All These Wonders

  • An African boy has an unexpected advantage when paintballing.  He is drawing on his past experience as a child soldier.
  • A writer describes the moment she realised that her own freedom should not be taken for granted and that the experiences of prior generations should be recorded for posterity.  The resulting book is Wild Swans.
  • The founder of the Moth- George Dawes Green – describes leaving home at the age of 15 to live in a mausoleum with a hobo.

i’m not going to pretend that all of the stories are fascinating – there are some meh moments – but collectively they form two addictive and mesmerising reads.  As I was reading book one, I thought, this cannot be improved.  Surely we have a front-runner for my book of the year.  Which remained the case until I chanced upon Tim Fitzhigham rowing across the English Channel in a Victorian bathtub midway through book two.   At which point I howled with laughter. Literally. Howled, guffawed, snorted, cried. Uncontrollably. In public. I swear you could hear sighs of relief in the Hamburg ice-cream parlour when a certain anonymous mad English woman left the premises. 😂


Read Full Post »


Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it,  I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.

It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so.   Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and  began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.

Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes.  What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of  bearings within the first couple of paragraphs.  No flailing around wondering, who, what, when?  For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life.  Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects,  situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be.  As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.

The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story  Things Look Different in The Light  for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter?  In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita.    The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears.  Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In  other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time:  The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults;  Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day

They needed light so that their hair would shine and  heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.

Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.

This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.

He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.

He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?

Each reader will have their own favourites here.  I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me.  Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme.  My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both.  Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all?  Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed.  Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review.  Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age.  So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy.  These stories are as good a starting point as any.


Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu.  I had a blast!

Next stop: Africa

Read Full Post »

It was love at first sight – truly.

The book stood out from the others on the bookshop shelf in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar.


The word play in the title made me laugh (you only need to change one letter (s to b) in the German to get to the saying live and let live).  The jacket illustration made me laugh as well. I knew I could recreate it.  And so I did, once I had reclaimed my reading sofa from the unruly TBR.


But the clincher was when I flicked through and discovered the book-culling poem by Eugen Roth.  What other treasures was I going to discover?

As it turned out a great many because Daniel Kampa’s selection of prose and poetry about the joys and frustrations of readers, writers, booksellers and critics is inspired.   The renowned Nikolaus Heidelbach has also illustrated the book, and those illustrations are as quirky as some of the pieces.  Sometimes they match the text, oftentimes they do not. But they do form a couples of series: the first of human readers,  the second the  imaginary animal reader.  Heidelback obviously has a high opinion of the cat’s intelligence, whilst he feels the canine to be a less sophisticated beast. (Grrrr.)


The reading itself consists of 51 pieces of prose and poetry from authors around the world.  Old favourites (Böll, Chekhov, Zweig) plus many, many more I had not read  before.  So in addition to introducing me to German authors (Mascha Kaleko, Joachim Ringelnatz,  Eugen Roth, Kurt Tucholsky)  I have also read the following for the first time: Chilean Pablo Neruda’s Ode to the Book (II), Czech Jaroslav Hasek being very mischievous at a book group, French Marcel Proust spending a day reading and Italian Italo Calvino putting his protagonist reader through hell on a beach!  The English-speaking literary world is also represented with pieces from Nathanael Hawthorne, A A Milne, Flann O’Brien, Henry David Thoreau.

As I was reading, I kept wishing that the book was in English, so that I could quote extensively here.  As it is, I’ve found two of my favourite pieces online: A A Milne on his library, which has made me less worried about the shall-we-call it random nature of my book piles; and Flann O’Brien’s satirical piece on  book-handling services for the rich, whose pristine libraries need to look a little more used.

I was reading the book throughout January. A slower pace than is usual for me, not because of the German – there was only one piece that made my brain ache – Karl Schimper’s poem Ein Leser.  Rather I kept taking diversions.  So an extract from Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop sent me to the shelves to read the whole thing as well as the prequel Parnassus on Wheels. Then last night I made a beeline for Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, because, after the piece noted above, I needed another fix.

Lesen und Lesen Lassen is a 5-star delight from the first page to the last. (In fact, that pithy little 4-line epigram from Goethe on the final page deserves 6 stars!) I expect I shall refer to this anthology time and again – particularly when I need a pick-me-up.  Plus there are the reading trails it has opened up.  In addition to those already taken, I used January’s purchase allowance on 2 books that I can no longer live without: Eugen Roth’s Menschlich/Merely Human and Flann O’Brien’s Best of Myles.

Read Full Post »

I haven’t revealed my books of the year in gradual fashion before, but when I started compiling the list for 2016, I realised that I still have a goodly number to review.  (Reviewing falling victim to time constraints at literary festival time.) So I shall spend this week putting that right, starting with the short story collection of the year, the hysterically funny read of the year and the best first liner of the year. Contender for my book of the year? Most definitely, although I have yet to make my final decision. (It is a close run thing.)

imageLet’s roll back to the first line of the first story in American Housewife, entitled What I Do All Day.

Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster.

It tells you all you need to know about the housewives in this collection.  These ladies are sassy, full of attitude, and not at all ashamed of their status in life. In fact, you could say they are rich housewives on steroids!  As Ellis said at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August, “I became a housewife, and realised it was a really good gig.” Taking inspiration from the author, none of her creations want out of their lot in life, and why should they? The home is their castle, and let no-one mistake this, they are the queens of their castles and they will do anything, and I mean anything, to defend them.

In fact, The Wainscoting War is a literal turf war over the decor in the common hallway. When Angela Chastain-Peters moves in, she decides she would like to remodel the hall and advises her new neighbour of such in her first email, ostensibly a thank-you note for a welcome gift. In actuality an opening salvo in the war for dominance. Well how would you interpret the following?

Hi neighbour! Thank you for the welcome gift basket you lefy outside our apartment door. My husband  and I don’t eat pineapples … But we appreciate the gesture.  We gave the pineapples to the super, who said he’d ask his wife to ask you for your recipe for pineapple-glazed ham.  Apparently you make one every Easter that makes the elevator shaft smell like a barbeque. WOW!

The resulting battle between neighbours is laid bare in the email trail that follows.  Petty and catty as it may be, there is a deadly intent in Angela Chastain-Peters that is not to be thwarted.

I’ll mention just one more story in detail, otherwise I’ll find myself re-reading the whole book. In Hello! Welcome to Book Club, a new member is welcomed by the hostess, Mary Beth. The name is a pseudonym, a book club name. At first, this seems like a quaint idea, but as Mary-Beth introduces the other members and their reading tastes, something darker and altogether more desperate emerges. For Mary-Beth is as indiscreet as they come revealing the histories and secrets of each woman.  It’s a one-way conversation. To give you a flavour

Marjorie loves celebrity memoirs. She likes to have Book Club read about beautiful people who remain beautiful people despite life’s little challenges such as bankruptcy, infidelity, alcoholism, and infertility.

You’ve had three out of four of these challenges, haven’t you, dear?

That turns out to be true and not having experienced the 4th is the reason for the new recruit’s initiation into Book Group, because she is there to serve a purpose ….

Contemporary culture such as celebrity reality TV and child beauty pageants are pilloried.  Ellis’s satire is as ruthless as that of her narrators. Laugh out loud funny in places and yet merciless in revealing the darker edges and emptiness beneath exterior surfaces. Other stories (Southern Lady Code and How to be a Grown-Ass Lady) are lists, comprised entirely of tweets from the author’s twitter account @whatidoallday. The final story is one of a writer battling writer’s block.  Interestingly this is something Ellis has struggled with herself.  She has said that becoming a housewife helped her find her voice.  Who would have thought that the 4-letter words I hate – dust, wash, iron – could be such fertile ground for the imagination?


Helen Ellis at EIBF 21.08.2016

Read Full Post »

Translated from Dutch by Richard Hujing


Bottle-dungeon St Andrew’s Castle

One of the most chilling things I have ever seen is the bottle dungeon at St Andrew’s Castle in Fife.  Impossible to capture in a photo without a very wide-angled lens (as you can see on the right), but imagine this.  There is a hole in the ground with a 30-ft fall to the rocky bottom. It is pitch black and you are about to be thrown into it, knowing that even if you survive your inevitable injuries, you will never come out alive because there will be no food or water provision.  Your fate is to die in pain of hunger and thirst surrounded by the dead and dying who have preceded you.

imageI had nightmarish visions about what that must be like, and so, when I came to Bel Campo’s story in the recently released Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories, I was amazed to find those nightmares on paper.

The story begins as the unnamed warrior is cast into the dark pit, not knowing what awaits him there.  Man-eating animals perhaps?  As his eyes accustom to the gloom, he discovers he is in a human pit full of vanquished peoples, in various states of decay.  Noone is moving, noone is speaking.  Each man is resignedly undergoing the decline of the body.

What is there left to do, except to cling to life for as long as possible, as an act of independence against the conquering nation?  To reminisce on the sweetness of life, before it was darkened by war and ethnic cleansing.

That was the stuff of my nightmares but Bel Campo had even more horrific things in store.  For our prisoner’s enemies are not content with allowing their prisoners a dignified death.  Deeper humiliations await.  They wish to further divide and conquer, to reduce their prisoners to the level of animals, to strip them of all vestiges of humanity.  This they do by staging what I can only describe as a diabolical banquet. No further details here, but I was reminded of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights as I read ever more wide-eyed.  The temptations of the flesh leading only to death and damnation for both conquerors and conquered ….

… and yet, in the midst of this hell, the unnamed protagonist manages to find a kind of grace in the form of true love. What a twist!

Belcampo’s story is as vivid and visual as a painting, and it is a shame that this is the only story of his that I can find in English.  An admirer of E T A Hoffman, this nom-de-plume is taken from one of Hoffmann’s characters, which suggests that there is is a fantastically gothic oeuvre just waiting to be discovered by Hoffmann’s many English-reading fans.  If only someone would translate it.

Read Full Post »

Let the first review of the year be of the first book read.

January the First is inseparable from the Strauss concert and an accompanying glass of bubbly because, if ever my name surfaces during the draw for (affordable) tickets to the real thing, I would definitely be drinking champagne in the Wiener Musikverein. In the meantime, while I fantasise, it was music, champagne and accompanying reading material all the way a couple of days ago ….


I knew that this selection of 17 short stories from Austria was in good hands (translator – Deborah Holmes, editor Helen Constantine) when I saw it bookended by my favourite Arthur Schnitzler. Which is not to say that there is any lack of quantity in the stories from other contributors.  Established names from the past such as Joseph Roth, Adalbert Stifter, Ingeborg Bachmann and Veza Canetti are all present, alongside contemporary authors: Friedericke Mayröcker, Alexander Kluge, Dimitri Dinev, Christine Nöstlinger, Eva Menasse and Doron Rabinovici.

Of the 14 authors I had previously read 4, so this volume also served as an introduction to a wider range of Austrian writing.

There  isn’t space here to summarise all every story, but I will quickly list my three favourites.  I’m leaving Schnitzler out of this – he has an unfair advantage.  In no particular order, apart from ladies first.

Oh my eyes – Ingeborg Bachmann
Partially sighted Miranda is forever forgetting (aka refusing)  to wear her glasses.  Her physical eyes may be failing but there’s nothing wrong with her intuition.  Which does not bode well for her romance with Stasi.

This was my first encounter with Bachmann.  It won’t be my last.

Spas Sleeps – Dimitri Dinev
Set in 2001, Spas is a refugee from Bulgaria wanting to make a life for himself in Vienna.  He isn’t the first and, as events in 2016, are proving, he won’t be the last.  He is seeking the Holy Grail of work, but, even in 2001, this is difficult, if not impossible, for unskilled labour.  Fortunately for Spas, he teams up with a former school acquaintance.  They weren’t friends then, but circumstances now are to render them inseparable.  This is life on the periphery of city living; a hard and oftimes desperate experience.

The Prater – Adalbert Stifter
Perhaps the best matched story  for the would-be tourist – Stifter’s stroll through the Prater on May Day is a reminder of the delights that await and a warning to avoid the overcrowded areas like the plague on a public holiday. And he was writing in 1841!

Holmes organises the anthology not chronologically but geographically starting from the outskirts coming into the centre before returning to the outskirts. This emphasises underlying themes  – life on the periphery for example  – but also demonstrates a city undergoing change through the ages. So Dimev’s story of C21st refugees sits very close to Stifter’s C19th walk through the Prater.  We pass by famous landmarks, even at one point eating ice-cream with Lenin in the café Demel.

We don’t, however, eat chocolate cake in the Hotel Sacher, an experience I now have such a yearning to repeat. This might actually be doable in 2016,  as I now discover it’s cheaper to fly from Edinburgh to Vienna than to travel by train to London ….

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »