Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth

As Liz and John move out of focus
Into an amorous mist, let's shift
Our lens, Dear Reader, to a locus
An hour south along that rift
That unnerves half of California:
Not just the crusty cohorts born here
But all who earn their bread and salt
Along the San Andreas fault.
Commerce and learning, manufacture
And government proceed above,
And nature's loveliness, and love;
Beneath them lies the hideous fracture,
Author of the convulsive shocks
That rip the hills and split the rocks.

I have a suspicion that Vikram Seth's verse novel The Golden Gate was conceived when the author realized that you could rhyme the words "Reagan" and "Onegin."  It owes much to each of those figures, one real, one literary: It's the story of a group of yuppie friends in 1980's California, navigating sex and love at the onset of the Silicon Valley tech boom, but it's written in what are known as "Onegin stanzas," the poetic form popularized by Pushkin's verse novel Eugene Onegin.  Onegin stanzas are sonnets with a characteristic rhyming scheme, but in tetrameter, not pentameter, and as such they tend to sound closer to clipped doggerel than flowing Shakespearean lines.  Seth tries to use their inherent goofiness to his advantage:

He thinks back to his days at college,
To Phil, to Berkeley friends, to nights
When the pursuit of grades and knowledge
Foundered in beery jokes and flights.
Eheu fugaces... Silcon Valley
Lures to ambition's ulcer alley
Young graduates with siren screams
Of power and wealth beyond their dreams,
Ejects the lax, and drives the driven,
Burning their candles at both ends.
Thus files take precedence over friends,
Labor is lauded, leisure riven.
John kneels bareheaded and unshod
Before the Chip, a jealous God.

But as often as the form is light and jaunty, it's clunky and broken.  Seth is liberal with the accents, which is fine, but I often found myself stumbling over simple phrases because they bring the rhythm of the stanza to a screeching halt.  ("Not just the crusty cohorts born here" is one example.)

That would be forgivable if the story were a little more interesting, I think.  The Golden Gate focuses on a group of friends: the uptight John, who falls in love with Liz, whose brother Ed carries on an affair with John's friend Phil, with John's friend and ex-girlfriend Jan thrown in for good measure.  (You may notice that all of these characters have verse-friendly monosyllabic names.)  The verses keep the characters at arms' length, perhaps because of the verbal contortions that it forces them into which make them sound distinctly non-human.  But even in plain language, their lives are incredibly banal, and it is difficult to become invested in the details of their relationships.  The best of the novel's several storylines is the one between Phil, a divorcee, and Ed, a devout Christian whose feelings for Phil are in conflict with his religion.  Seth does a good job of making Ed sympathetic and likeable, and treats his religious convictions honestly and respectfully, even as we see things from Phil's perspective.

The novel begrudgingly earns some poetic affect at the end when (SPOILER ALERT), John and Jan resume their romantic affections for each other only to have Jan die suddenly in a car crash.  Though there's no reason to really embrace the relationship between John and Jan, Seth strikes some profound insights into love and grief:

...the grief gnawing
His mind as, day by day, withdrawing
From every thought but those that bring
Her life to life, he tries to wring
Meaning from things that have no meaning,
And scrapes at rusted words that yield
Few glints of insight.  The dark field
Has little gold for all his gleaning.
He haunts the past, but with no gain
Of certainty to ease the pain.

It is no coincidence that these late stanzas seem the most carefully written, and metrically exact.  I didn't love this book, and I'm not sure if the ending made it worthwhile or not, but you have to respect the ambitiousness of the attempt.  In the middle of the book, Seth breaks the fourth wall to explain the reasoning behind the novel's form:

The truth is, I can't justify it.
But as no shroud of critical terms
Can save my corpse from boring worms,
I may as well have fun and try it.
If it works, good; and if not, well,
A theory won't postpone its knell.

It didn't really work for me.  But hey--we all die someday!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

If she intended to tidy up life at Cold Comfort, she would find herself opposed at every turn by the influence of Aunt Ada.  Flora was sure that this would be so.  Persons of Aunt Ada's temperament were not fond of a tidy life.  Storms were what they liked; plenty of rows, and doors being slammed, and jaws sticking out, and faces white with fury, and faces brooding in corners, faces making unnecessary fuss at breakfast, and plenty of opportunities for gorgeous emotional wallowings, and partings forever, and misunderstandings, and spyings, and, above all, managing and intriguing.  Oh, they did enjoy themselves!  They were the sort that went trampling all over your pet stamps collection, or whatever it was, and then spent the rest of their lives atoning for it.  But you would rather have had your stamp collection.

Stella Gibbons' Cold Comfort Farm was one of this year's pleasant surprises for me: a genuinely funny satire that, while not particularly profound, succeeds by lampooning the pretensions of much more self-serious novels.  Its heroine, Flora Poste, finds herself needing a new place to live, so she accepts the invitation of her distant cousin Judith Starkadder to live at their rural farm, Cold Comfort.  Judith claims that her family owes Flora for something that happened long ago between the Starkadders and Flora's father, but she won't say what it is, though she won't refrain from alluding to it mysteriously.

Flora, accustomed to life in London, vows to turn Cold Comfort Farm into a model of tidiness and efficiency, and to improve the lives of everyone who lives there.  It turns out not to be easy.  She buys the octogenarian servant, Adam, a little mop with which to clean the dishes, rather than "cletterin'" them--which involves scraping the food from them with a tree branch.  But he's so taken with the gift that he hangs the mop on the wall, too fine an object to be soiled with work, and goes on cletterin'.  In addition to Adam, there are Seth, the "wild" son who spends his days seducing women; Elfine, who runs freely around the woods like a sprite; and Amos, who spends his days telling his family how they'll all burn in hell.  And most of all, Flora must deal with Ada, the matriarch of the family, who hasn't left her room in decades yet somehow still rules the family with an iron fist.

Cold Comfort Farm is a satire, I understand, of several popular novels of Gibbons' contemporaries which depicted the gothic aspect of the English countryside.  It was funny enough to me without knowing any of those books, but it seemed to set its sites on Thomas Hardy, too, and his fetish for Wessex dialect:

After another minute Reuben brought forth the following sentence:

'I ha' scranleted two hundred furrows come five o'clock down i' the bute.'

It was a difficult remark, Flora felt, to which to reply.  Was it a complaint?  If so, one might say, 'My dear, how too sickening for you!'  But then, it might be a boast, in which case the correct reply would be 'Attaboy!' or more simply, 'Come, that's capital.'  Weakly she fell back on the comparatively safe remark: 

'Did you?' in a bright, interested voice.

She saw at once that she had said the wrong thing.  Reuben's eyebrows came down and his jaw came out.  Horrors!  He thought she was doubting hisword!

'Aye, I did, tu.  Two hundred.  Two hundred from Ticklepenny's Corner down to Nettle Flitch.  Aye, wi'out hand to aid me.  Could you ha' done that?"

Scranleting, like cletterin', and like the sukebind that grows throughout the countryside, is a completely made up thing.  These made-up Hardyisms were probably my favorite part of the novel, which satirizes the way Gibbons' contemporaries devoured these country narratives without really having any idea what was going on in them.

In the end, Cold Comfort Farm stands firmly for the superiority of London precision and neatness over the mysterious, brooding countryside.  True to the comedic form, everything turns out all right in the end, thanks to Flora's machinations, and there's never really any sense of conflict or danger.  But for a novel in which Flora draws back the curtains to let light in to the old, musty farm, that seems appropriate.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Spire by William Golding

But to work now in the narrowing spire was to be lifted a further stage from the earth.  It was a beginning, not an end.  The lines of the tower drew together downwards now, so that the whole thing was not massively based, but an arrow shot into the earth, with, up here, an ungainly butt.  The perceptible swaying was no longer soul-clutching as it had been, to the men who lived in the air; but there was in the rhythmic heaviness and lightness a kind of drain, not so much on the muscles as on the spirit.  Jocelin learnt how the strain built up, so that after a time you would find you had held your breath, and clutched at something with frozen violence.  Then you would let this breath out in a gasp, and be easy for a while, until the strain built itself up once more.  But there was an advantage in working so high, three hundred feet up.  When the wind blew, you could not hear the pillars singing, though you could think of them down there; four needles stuck in the earth, holding up this world of wood and stone.

The young dean of an old cathedral, Jocelin, has a vision: God demands that he builds a spire on top of the cathedral that will be a massive symbol of his glory.  Jocelin sets to work, but the vision is not so easily accomplished: the cathedral, it seems, has not been built on a foundation but on the bare earth, and as it grows higher and higher, it threatens to topple and destroy the very church it is meant to adorn.  Jocelin demands that those around him--his subordinates, the workers, the churchgoers--retain their faith in the vision:

"...It's senseless, you think.  It frightens us, and it's unreasonable.  But then--since when did God ask the chosen ones to be reasonable?  They call this Jocelin's Folly, don't they?"

"I've heard it called so."

"The net isn't mine, Roger, and the folly isn't mine.  It's God's Folly.  Even in the old days H never asked men to do what was reasonable.  Men can do that for themselves.  They can buy and sell, heal and govern.  But then out of some deep place comes the command to do what makes no sense at all--to build a ship on dry land; to sit among the dunghills; to marry a whore; to set their son on the altar of sacrifice.  Then, if men have faith, a new thing comes."

But as another priest notes, "The solid earth is against us."  What Jocelin believes is vision and faith quickly are revealed as blindness and delusion.  The angel that he believes stands at his back turns out to be the onset of tuberculosis.  The lust he feels for one of his parishioners, Lady Pangall, is repressed and repurposed as priestly care and love.  In fact, few books are as clear in making the statement that religious belief is a kind of self-fooling as this one; even modernists seem to have a good deal of regard for the spiritual impulse.  Jocelin, on the other hand, is merely a fool.

And his foolishness is destructive.  At the end of the novel, a procession comes from Westminster bearing, he thinks, a holy nail from the True Cross to adorn his cathedral.  Instead, he finds that he has been put on trial, because in order to build the spire, he has ceased to carry out the basic functions of the cathedral--worship, mass, charity.  No one remains but the workers, hundreds of feet in the air, and the empty church whose pillars "sing" under the strain of the spire.

This is the third of Golding's novels that I've read, after Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin.  I found that, here, like in those novels, nothing really lived up to the intriguing promise.  Golding's prose is often obscure--a lot of ambiguous pronouns--and while that doesn't always bother me, I never get the sense that there's something worthwhile behind the obscurantism.  At the end, Jocelin takes ill and the prose becomes increasingly matched to the fever dreams of tuberculosis.  What happens to the spire is never clear--does it fall?  Does it stand?  And that is, I'm sure, on purpose.  But what happens to Jocelin wasn't clear to me either.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

YA Party: And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, The Carnival at Bray by Jessie Ann Foley, Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalu, Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

My school radically changed our summer reading list which means that I am reading radically this summer. One of my grades has a list that is all Printz Award Winners, so I 
thought I would just do a quick group review for these quick reads. (They are in order from my least to most favorite.) 

Coffee. Coffee morning, noon, and night. 

My Words stand by as Witness
Collected and in line - 
America is dying
One Girl at a Time. 

It does not have to define who Emily is, was, or will be. 

The opening of this novel has Emily Beam, a junior in high school, arriving at the Amherst School for Girls boarding school in the middle of the year. We find out very quickly that she had to leave her old one-school town because her boyfriend killed himself in front of her in the school library. It is a short book about a young woman trying to process the things that have happened to her, and very few things happen besides making vague friendships, getting into small amounts of trouble, and writing poetry to try to help process. 

It has some interesting aspects (it is non-linear - we get parts of her current life interspersed with parts of her former life in a way that feels stream-of-consciousness; Emily is inspired by Emily Dickinson to write poetry and those poems end each chapter; facts about Emily Dickinson are conveyed); however, it falls short of good. 

The third person narrator works in present tense which is doubly problematic: the stream-of-consciousness just doesn't work in the third person, and the flashbacks don't really work in the present tense. The present feels too Dick sees Jane (There are rumors the day Emily Beam arrives at the Amherst School for Girls...Emily announces to the tall, curly-haired blonde standing by the window that she's come from Boston...Emily takes off her rubber-soled Mary Janes...) with the flashbacks jumping in a little abruptly (before ASG, Emily had wanted nothing more than to be loved by a boy...But here at ASG, she is surrounded by girls more self-assured than she). In spite of the above quote, Emily the character is completely defined by the two major life events that happen to her (boyfriend committing suicide and spoiler I won't reveal), and so there is very little HER to connect with and very little plot to be interested in. 

"Bootlegs totally defeat the purpose of going to a show. They take away from the preciousness of the lived experience. It happened. You were there for it. And now it's your responsibility to remember it, not to try and re-create it all the time by listening to some shittily recorded attempt at preservation...Everything that ever happens to you only happens once, so you better never stop paying attention." 

In the years ahead, Maggie promised herself, wherever I go and whatever happens, I only want, once and forever, to be really known to someone. 

The Carnival at Bray may be more for younger teachers than it is for their students. It takes place in 1993 and mentions the following bands: Smashing Pumpkins, The Clash, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Nine Inch Nails, Sex Pistols, Soundgarden, Urge Overkill, Dinosaur Jr, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Liz Phair, Oasis. I spent a lot of time listening to Exile in Guyville and I still LOATHE people who try to record songs at I am basically the perfect audience for this book.
it also features my favorite candy which is easy to find in Europe and hard to find in America
Maggie and her sister Ronnie are uprooted from their American life (with her favorite uncle and grama) when her mom (who goes through boyfriends the way I go through Crunchies) decides to marry a man and move her family to his hometown in Ireland. I was immediately sympathetic for Maggie who is often forced to be the grownup and caretaker in her family because of her mom's immaturity and bad decision making (at their going away party, her mom gets so drunk she vomits on the bar floor: Maggie let go of her mother's shoulder then, her rage replaced not exactly with pity, but with such a tired disgust with her whole pathetic family that she gave up.) She is lonely in Ireland and has trouble adjusting to all-girl-private-school life. After failing to make girl friends at school, she befriends the oldest citizen of Bray and continues a long-distance friendship with her uncle who took her to a life changing Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's a totally typical YA novel: romance, friendship, family drama, etc, but the setting and cast make it utterly charming.

It also included Uncle Kevin's Reading Recommendations to Keep Young Nieces Off the Streets with categories that include Just Because Your Teacher Assigned It Doesn't Mean It Sucks (Slaughterhouse Five, The Great Gatsby, The Odyssey, Shakespeare, A Streetcar Named Desire) with a footnote that cautions: Try to pay as little attention as possible in class when studying these works. Otherwise, there is a good chance that your teacher will ruin them for you by systemically strangling them of all life and beauty with one-hundred-question multiple choice tests and worksheets on identifying symbolism. The greatest enemy of literature is the high school English teacher. While I hope that I am not personally the greatest enemy of literature, I certainly have known teachers who are.

The only reason you think you've got morals is because you don't need money the way regular people do. 

Shipbreaker was a definite top pick (and it was universally loved by my students who picked it as well). The novel takes place in the future where there are Category 6 hurricanes and the environmental catastrophes of the world has lead to an even greater wealth-divide in America where the poor are illiterate and starving and living in shacks while the rich are mega rich sailing on ultra fast clipper ships that have sails tall enough to use jetstreams for travel. Nailer is a shipbreaker working on crew that is closer than family for a megacorporation to dismantle old abandoned oil tankers for recyclable parts. Nailer works Light Crew which means he crawls through ducts to try to bring back copper and other light materials. Nailer's dad is a meth addicted drunk abuser who makes money by fighting people to death for entertainment. Nailer's real family is his crewmate Pima. The Call To Action of the novel is after a Category 6 hurricane, Nailer and Pima find a crashed clipper ship with enough walkable wealth to change their lives. As they ransack the ship bagging silver, they find a barely living rich girl while they are trying to cut her swollen fingers to get the gold rings off of them.

It's sci-fi with genetically modified halfmen and people selling their organs for money, it's post-apocalyptic with poverty and destruction all over Nailer's life, it's romance (the rich girl is pretty, of course), it's survival, it's adventure, and it's really really good. The class-consciousness is probably the most interesting part for me as a reader. Nailer compares Pima and the Rich Girl in this scene:
Two girls, two different lives. Pima dark, strong, and scarred, tattooed with light crew information and lucky symbols; crop-haired, hard muscled, and sharply alive. This other one, a far lighter brown, untouched by sun, with long black flowing hair, and movements all smooth and soft, polished and precise, her face and bare arms unmarred by abuse or stray wiring or chemical burns. Two girls, two different lives, two different bits of luck.
It's also incredibly illuminating to see that America's post-apocalyptic future problems are many people's real life problems today (in both America and abroad):

          "You need antibiotics," she said. 
          "This smells awful." Pima shook her head. "We don't have those here."
          "What do you do when you're sick?
          "Nailer grinned weakly. "Let the Fates decide."

Paolo Bacigalupi has an adult novel that just came out called the Water Knife which I'm very interested in (much of it takes place in Las Vegas - it is about the future when water runs out and the United States has water refugees to deal with) and there is also a companion novel to Shipbreaker from the perspective of one of the halfmen featured that I am also planning on reading. I would heartily recommend this to anyone who is interested in sci-fi or adventure YA.

This novel is so so good, but it's also so so hard to talk about without giving anything away. If a person were looking for one YA novel to read, I would absolutely pick this one. It is a WWII historical fiction about two girls who are best friends - one is a pilot, one is a spy. As the pilot is delivering the spy on the mission, the plane crashes and they're separated. The novel opens with the capture of the spy by Nazis and the novel is her confession. It's a heavy novel with indirect references to violence/torture, but it's also incredibly funny and charming. The plot, characterization, and writing are fantastic. The fact that it features two spitfire girl best friends who are doing amazing things makes it even more awesome.
          It's like being in love, discovering your best friend. 

Innocence by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chiara and Salvatore quarrelled, but no successfully as they made love.  Chiara had no gift for quarrelling at all and could scarcely understand how it was done, nor, really, had Salvatore, since his argument was with himself and he was therefore bound to lose.  When they had torn up the grey dress together in the hotel they had hardly known whether they were for or against each other.  When Salvatore's temper rose Chiara become not frightened but reckless, as when driving through the city's traffic.  They knew each other, to be honest, so little, and had so few memories in common (the concert, the limonaia, the wedding) that they had to use them both for attack and defence.  They loved each other to the point of pain and could hardly bear to separate each morning.  The bed was on the narrow side so that it was impossible to lie for very long back to back or six inches of hostility apart.  This led to truces or reconciliations of a kind, rather too easily made...

Salvatore and Chiara never quarrelled twice on the same subject.  Each battle, as it closed, was recorded in their memories, as in an elementary history book.  In these books you usually get three or four causes of hostilities given, and afterwards three or four results, which have to be learned by heart.  It must have been eight weeks or more before there was any kid of dispute between them in public.

Chiara Ridolfi is the daughter of a Tuscan Count, whose noble family is not quite as wealthy as it once was.  Salvatore Rossi is a no-nonsense doctor, brought up in poverty in the south of Italy.  These two meet, only briefly, at a piano concert, but afterwards neither can stop thinking of the other.  After a strange and abortive courtship, which consists mostly of creepy stalking, they get married, only half understanding each other.  In another novel, this might be a recipe for disaster, or tragedy, but Fitzgerald is optimistic about human beings' abilities to reach out from the social bubbles in which they are born in live.

The novel opens with an account of the Ridolfi family, whose estate Ricordanza ("remembrance," appopriately) is still flanked by a pair of stone midgets that represent Chiara's little-person ancestors:

With great difficulty and many enquiries the Ridolfi followed up reported instances of midget families, so that by the time she was six their only child had a retinue suitable to her position, a tiny governess, a tiny doctor, a tiny notary, and so forth, all to size.  The child never went out, and was confident that the world consisted of people less than 1.3 metres high.  To amuse her, a dwarf (not a midget) was sent for from Valmarana, but without success.  She pitied him, because she thought that he must suffer knowing that, as a dwarf, he was different from anyone else at Ricordanza.  Then, in trying harder and harder to make her laugh, he fell and cracked his head, which made the little girl cry so bitterly that he had to be sent away.

Like the midget Contessa, both Chiara and Salvatore have difficulty engaging with those beyond their own small universes, but their infatuation for each other compels them to new worlds.  Chiara is young, unsure, and somewhat insulated by her class.  Salvatore is formed by the indignity of his childhood poverty, and the memory of his father's ardent Communism.  There is a great scene in which the young Salvatore visits the Italian Communist leader Gramsci, whom his father idolizes, during the last days of the dehabilitating illness that eventually killed Gramsci:

Salvatore knew by now the question he ought to put... He was quite well used to being told to put questions, as well as answering them, in the presence of a school inspector.  That was simply a matter of knowing what was wanted.  The more important these men were, the easier it was to reply.  ne of them had told the whole class to remains tanding and to answer the question in the first liens of the Fascist Chorus of Youth: "Duce, Duce, when the time comes, who will not know how to die for you?"  Impossible to go wrong there.  But Salvatore had also half-absorbed from the long droning evenings in the passage room, and form what they had earnestly tried to explain to him, the concerns of his father and Sannazzaro.  Suppose he tried: "Comrade Gramsci, sir, when the time comes, who will not want liberty?"

Courage.  But the words he had formed in his mind suddenly made themselves scarce, and still wanting and intending to say something quite different he asked loudly: "Why are you bleeding?"

Salvatore's experience seeing his father's idol disintegrate taught him to be beyond both sentiment and politics, and to cling to what is rational.  This is what makes him a great doctor, but also an irascible person, and unable to relate easily to other people:

"I've been told she has an aunt, an eccentric, possibly of unsound mind.  Don't you think that Chiara should be forcibly separated from her?"

"You can't expect me to have an opinion.  But if she has an aunt, I suppose it's natural that this young woman should be fond of her."

"Natural!  It's not natural, Nature is something quite else.  Do you think that a horse, or a pigeon, is fond of its aunt?  Could it recognise its aunt as such?"

"Perhaps not, but in ordinary human society..."

"So you're trying once again to distinguish us from the rest of animal creation," cried Salvatore in tones of angry satisfaction.  "You renounce behaviorism.  Is that what I'm to understand?"

Salvatore's a terrific, completely realized character, in a book full of them.  I'm consistently impressed by Fitzgerald's ability to draw vivid, human characters, even at the edges of the novel: Chiara's brash English friend Barney, her taciturn cousin Chiara, the servant, Bernardino, who is under the impression that he is the actual owner of the Ridolfi estate.  Fitzgerald is good at creating the impression that, rather than dictating the actions of her characters, she simply makes them and then lets them loose, and the plot results organically from their human interactions.

I realized after finishing this novel that there are only two novels by Fitzgerald, who didn't start writing fiction until she was in her sixties, that I haven't read.  That makes me deeply sad.  Every time I finish one of her books I want to find another, and read it immediately, but I think in this case I need to practice the virtue of delayed gratification.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

I have been trying to read The Goldfinch since Randy read it in August of last year, but the novel is a steep 771 pages which was too long to try to squeeze in while my school year was beginning. My school made it a summer reading option for one of my grade levels, so as this year finished up I decided to unwrap it. I did so without having read Randy's review, but I also remembered that around that time last year we were really focused on the question: what makes a great novel? My answer included the idea that "over and over a lifetime, a person can read it and get something different from it" which means I can't squarely put The Goldfinch in the Great Novel category, but I do look forward to reading it in a decade or so and seeing if it stands up to my test. I think it will and hope it does. 

(Semi-spoiler alert? I am only giving away what happens in the first 50 pages, which is less than 1% of this tome). 

The novel opens with a character in an Amsterdam hotel room indicating that his life has somehow gone awry after the death of his mother: "though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or congenial life. Her death the dividing mark: Before and After." Right here at the beginning, I've already become a little smitten with Ms. Tartt and her ability to take a character in a wholly unique scenario but express that characters feelings in a way that they are universal for the reader - we all have Before and Afters in our lives, even if the dividing line isn't the death of a parent. It then becomes apparent that the Amsterdam hotel is the start of a frame story, and we are taken to the day his mother dies. 

Theo, a teenager in New York, killing time with his mom before his expulsion hearing. They are in a museum so his mother, the art historian, can see The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius.

In Gallery 23 are people who will be connected together forever. Theo - the troubled teen - and Pippa - the redheaded violin virtuoso. Pippa's initial reaction to the painting is to ask concernedly, "It has to live its whole life like that?" (chained to the little bar) while Theo, who spends a lot of time with this painting, later remarks that "Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch's ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature - fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place." Their differing reactions probably say a lot about how these two young adults react to very similar circumstances - they are both in the building when it is bombed by terrorists and they both lose the person who loves them the most in the world.

The book follows Theo out of that gallery with the Goldfinch painting which he takes in shock as directed by a dying gentleman. At first he is too frantic about his mother to really realize what he has done, but eventually he becomes too scared to reveal his actions since his life is already in turmoil with social services and other issues. He reconnects with Pippa throughout his life, and she seems to have acknowledged the sadness and find some way to have a life while Theo doesn't even realize how he is a goldfinch tied to the painting the way the goldfinch is tied to the wall.

Probably the most skillful thing about the novel is the way Tartt is able to create a character who is compelling for almost 800 pages, especially because he's not very likable. He's emotionally distant from those around him, makes really bad life decisions, does some outright criminal things - and yet, I wanted to see what happened to him. I didn't want him to have a happy ending - he doesn't really deserve that, but I also didn't want him to have a tragic ending - he doesn't really deserve that either, and Tartt masterfully gives a satisfying ending that is not too perfectly tied up or justified.

The novel is also filled with characters who are absolutely loveable - Boris and Hobie and Pippa and Popper - so that may be what makes the text so compelling. As an audience, it's much easier to relate to Hobie, the goodhearted man who tries to do right by Theo, because we like to think of ourselves as goodhearted people who would try to do the right thing, even for a person who is sort of a screw up. 

The writing is top notch, of course, with characters throwing out these gorgeous lines such as: "People die, sure," my mother was saying. "But it's so heartbreaking and unnecessary how we lose things. From pure carelessness."

It's also funny. I love my puppies to distraction, so when a character is reunited with the dog Popper, I adored how the characters interacted with Popper like he was a human. "Drive him around in back seat, wherever he wants to go...I will take him to the deli! For a bacon egg and cheese...we had a very nice nap together, the two of us...we ate a bacon sandwich." 

 My only complaint is that the frame that opens and ends the novel is never really explained. By the end Theo is directly addressing the reader and the writing process ("I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader"), but there is no explanation of why he is writing to a non-existent reader. I would have been fine with it existing as Theo's journals, but he does too many drugs to have written these cohesive journal entries. I would have been fine with it existing as an explanation or letter to a named reader, but he specifies that the reader is non-existent. It is a very very small complaint though, and does not stop the book from being very thoroughly recommended. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Push by Sapphire

"Father," she say. "What's your daddy's name?
"Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the Bronx."

She say, "Whats the baby's father's name?"
I say, "Carl Kenwood Jones, born in the same Bronx." 
She quiet quiet. Say, "Shame, thas a shame. Twelve years old, twelve years old," ... 
She say, "Was you ever, I mean did you ever get to be a chile?" Thas a stupid question, did I ever get to be a chile? I am a chile. 

After reading Atonement I think I thought I was ready to tackle all the other horribly depressing books on my To Read List, and thus I picked up Push. It's a short first-person novel, so we as the audience are getting everything from Precious's perspective and in her voice. Many readers find the phonetic spellings and illiteracy to be frustrating or a bad attempt at 'keepin' it real' (as spelled in several 1-star amazon reviews),'s how some people talk? 

I spent four years teaching in a minority-majority urban school and her voice felt very true to me, particularly how she acts in class. One second she is refusing to follow directions and yelling "Mutherfucker I ain't deaf!" and when she refuses to leave the classroom she says "I ain' going nowhere mutherfucker till the bell ring. I came here to learn maff and yo gon' teach me" and then her internal monologue reveals, "I didn't want to hurt or embarass him like that you know. But I couldn't let him, anybody, know, page 122 look like page 152, 22, 3, 6, 5 - all the pages look alike to me. 'N I really do want to learn. Everyday I tell myself something gonna happen, some shit like on TV. I'm gonna break through or somebody gonna break through to me - I'm gonna learn, catch up, be normal, change my seat to the front of the class. But again, it has not been that day." Finally, when the other kids start acting up, she tries to keep them in line. "In fac' some of the other natives get restless I break on 'em. I say, 'Shut up mutherfuckers I'm tryin' to learn something.'" All of these are so true - teens talk that way, teens FEEL that way (that they will magically wake up and their problems will be solved), teens who are illiterate, and teens who are disruptive and failing and then defend you against other kids for seemingly no reason.

The subject matter is obvious from the first page, so I haven't given anything away. However, it is more depressing, more joyful, more funny, more uplifting, and more fucked up than these opening quotes indicate. 

Everything, from the description of the sexual abuse to the other people in the GRE prep course to the way that every system in place to protect children and women and poor people often makes it impossible for them to make real meaningful changes to improve their life situations in a permanent way...felt true. 

In contrast to the haters who feel like this book is trying too hard, promoting stereotypes, and glamorizing poverty and sexual abuse, I have to agree with Sapphire in this interview  where she says she felt she had to write this novel because "[she] had the intense feeling that if [she] didn't write this book no one else would" and that the story forces people to see "an obese black woman as a feeling, intelligent person, as a person who dreams, as a person who wants the things that [the audience] wants."

This novel moved me emotionally in a way that I haven't been moved in a long time, and I think it is a very important book, especially for anyone who thinks they want to work with someone like Precious in education or social work. 

Reynard the Fox by James Simpson

To this great feast all manner of animals came, for the King had announced it across the entire land.  There was more joy and happiness than was ever seen among the animals.  There were courtly dances, with bagpipes, trumpets, and all kinds of minstrelsy.  The King ordered so much food that everyone was plentifully served.  There was no animal, great or insignificant, who wasn't there, including many birds, and all who desired the King's friendship.

All, that is, except Reynard the Fox, the red, false pilgrim, who lay in wait planning how he could do harm.  He judged that his presence would not be appreciated.

I always thought Reynard the Fox would make a good subject for a novel--kind of like Watership Down, but celebrating malice and cynicism rather than pluckiness and derring-do.  Reynard was a medieval trickster figure in the French fabliau tradition known for terrorizing the court of a fictional animal kingdom.  Reynard's gift is his power of persuasion, and he never tires of using it to trick his peers into humiliation or violence.  Sometimes he tricks smaller animals into giving themselves up to be eaten, sometimes he does it for self-protection, and sometimes merely for fun.  Over the course of this book, Reynard...

  • blinds the children of Isengrim the wolf by peeing in their faces
  • rapes Isengrim's wife
  • eats Chaunticleer the rooster's wife
  • tricks Bruin the bear into getting the skin of his face torn off
  • convinces the Queen to take the skin off of Bruin's paws as well, which he uses for shoes
  • blinds Tybert the cat
  • kills Cuwaert the hare, then has Bellin the ram put to death for the crime cetera, et cetera, and in each case Reynard uses his gift of gab to insinuate himself into the king's favor, rather than serve punishment.  Reynard is part of a long tradition--perhaps more rightly said, a human inclination--of revering cleverness, even in the service of evil, and considering stupidity a deserving offense.  Reynard is cruel and Machiavellian, but the other animals are so dumb, venal, and greedy that we enjoy seeing them tortured.

This new version is James Simpson's translation of William Caxton's Middle English, which itself is a translation of Reynard stories from the Dutch.  Simpson's translation is very colloquial, and meant to reach a broad audience.  It's breezy, and appropriate for the slapstick tone of the source material, but it can be jarring.  At one point, Reynard to Isengrim: "What's up, Mr. Wolf!"  These stories are meant to puncture the pretensions of noblemen, and it doesn't quite work to have them talking like Encino Man outtakes, even though I see what Simpson was going for.

Ultimately, these stories tell an overarching story: Reynard goes from being hunted by the king to one of his closest advisors, all by the skill of deceit.  The message is a cynical one; Reynard is right when he says, "[w]hosoever intends to prosper in the world without composing a beautiful lie, without wrapping it and hiding it so that men take it for truth, won't escape servitude."  Whether or not things are any different today, I leave to your own discretion.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Fell of Dark by Patrick Downes

I see faces all over the place. In dust on windowpanes, in carpets, in plaster, and the branches of trees. In the folds of clothes thrown onto the back of a chair. A man’s death mask—open mouth, bullet hole in his forehead—shows up in the layers of a stone I keep in my pocket. I have a frowning man in a fingerprint.

Once I saw your face in my breath. It was a February night under a streetlight. I can’t count how many times since then I’ve looked for you in the mist.

My friend asked me to read this book; his friend had written it. It would have been awkward to review if I hadn’t liked it—but thankfully, I did. I don’t typically read young adult novels, not because they’re stupid or immature but because most of them seem like retreads of the same magical-child-hero narrative. I suspected at first that that’s what I was getting in Fell of Dark, which begins with the death of the narrator’s father, and continues with a number of quasi-mystical miracles, like the blood that only the narrator can see spouting from the invisible holes all over his body. But it never congeals into a story of heroism—not a typical one, anyway—or even something as relentlessly plot-driven as your Harold Potters and what have you. I can see that frustrating some readers. Maybe not young ones, but the kind of older readers who return to YA literature for its familiar comforts.

But it’s also the novel’s main strength. The plot, as it is, centers around two very troubled teens who trade long sections of narration. Erik is the one with the dead father, who bleeds, who cannot stop growing to gigantic proportions, who addresses a second person throughout his narration who, it is clear, he hasn’t met yet. Thorn is the angrier one, who loathes his parents, who are cruel to him because his sister died saving him from drowning:

I have this fantasy. My mother will come out of hell. My father, if he can’t come out, will die in his Gehenna. I want her to forgive me. I never wanted Salome, their shining star, my shining star, to turn into a seahorse. I want to stop feeling like a monster. Murderer. I want to have one voice in my head, mine.

The prose is lyric, but simple and shorn. It does a lot, I think, without ever trying to do too much. Something is sacrificed in the differentiation between the two characters, but they are in a sense meant to overlap. Erik and Thorn, we sense—and the jacket tells us—don’t know each other but are headed toward a meeting, or perhaps a confrontation. That confrontation, when it comes, is brief, violent, and almost entirely “off screen.” That’s a bold choice, and one that consciously refuses to engage with our expectations of plot, especially in a genre that can be so formulaic.

In some ways, Fell of Dark never came together for me. The episodic and dream-like nature of the twin narratives collide, but they don’t really cohere, and perhaps that’s by choice. But I enjoyed the novel’s strong and idiosyncratic voice.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

"Miss _____,

You're right about this book being hard to read but I whole-heartedly believe it will end up being one of your favorite novels. The prose alone is reason enough to read this. I sincerely hope you try. 


PS: I was wrong on the stairs yesterday, sometimes people surprise you! <3"

I made a mistake in 2008 and watched the movie Atonement not realizing I had the book Atonement unread on my bookshelf. After watching the movie, I promptly gave away the novel because I couldn't stand to read it. The topic hits me deep in my gut and it just hurts my heart. One of my first students was carrying it around, and I warned her it would be the most depressing read of all time. She read it, loved it, and passed it to me with the above note. 

Finally, this year I decided I thought I could stand to get through it. She is absolutely right about the prose. It is achingly beautiful as evidenced in this perfect sentence: 

"Their friendship had become vague and even constrained in recent years,  but it was still an old habit, and to break it now in order to become strangers on intimate terms required a clarity of purpose which had temporarily deserted them."

Without giving anything way, the story is about a little girl, Briony, who sees something she doesn't understand, and makes an accusation that she also doesn't understand. The book then follows her attempts at atoning for what she has done. It is clever and witty in a way that all literate people will adore: 

"Mention of 'a quiet corner in a library' was a code for sexual ecstacy." 

It captures the secret weird thoughts that I have always thought and didn't realize anyone knew that I thought quirky inner thoughts that some people might relate to: 

"Cecilia wondered, as she sometimes did when she met a man for the first time, if this was the one she was going to marry, and whether it was this particular moment shoe would remember for the rest of her life - with gratitude, or profound and particular regret." 

I read it as quickly as possible because it is still the most depressing novel of all time, and it is not one of my favorites, but it is worth a read maybe? I'm conflicted. A student this year wanted to read it; I warned her it was sadder than The Road. She didn't believe me until she finished the book...then she said it was worse than The Road. She had to construct a lesson based on the text. Her activity for the class was trying to write an apology as Briony to the other characters which was an impossible act of frustration because some things you can't say sorry for. 

If you like achingly sad love stories, this is the novel for you. If you've seen the movie, you know exactly what you're getting into. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Nothing Like the Sun by Anthony Burgess

'Life,' so went Quedgeley on, 'is in a sense all lies.  We watch ourselves act every day.  Philip drunk and Philip sober.  One is inside the other watching the other.  And so I am John Quedgeley and Jack Quedgeley and Jockey Quedgeley and Master Quedgeley, Justice of Peace, and all.  It is all acting.'  And WS saw that this was true, revolving it in the murk of the bottom of his cider-tankard.  Had he not himself watched WS and WS watched Will?  Where was truth, where did a man's true nature lie?  There was, as it were, an essence and there was also an existence.  It was, this essence, at the bottom of a well, of a Will.

"Is it true that Shakespeare was gay?"  I get this question a lot, as a high school teacher.  The answer isn't easy.  I talk about the sonnets, and the twin figures of the "dark lady" and "WH," and how all of the sex in the sonnets seems to have been saved for the former, but all the love for the latter, and I talk about the surprisingly romantic language that Elizabethan men used to talk about their friends.  I try to explain that "gay" was not a concept that would have made sense to Shakespeare.  My students, like lots of people over the past 400 years, find the erotic power of the sonnets difficult to deny, and they too want to have faces, names, and facts to ground the sonnets' complex attitude toward love and sex in a real life.  I like the ambiguity as it is, but I understand the impulse.

Anthony Burgess' Nothing Like the Sun is a creation of that impulse.  It imagines a young William Shakespeare--here called WS--as he matures and becomes a playwright and a poet, but with a special focus on his sex life.  Burgess' WS is what we might today call a pansexual; he likes anything and everything, from the older woman whose pregnancy traps him in a marriage he didn't want (Shakespeare's wife Anne Hathaway) to the teenage boy he tutors, though, when the boy's father finds out, he isn't a tutor for long.  He sees a black woman for the first time:

He turned, his heart near fainted.  Dressed in a fair loose gown of virtuous, though dirty, white, her shoulders and bosom glowing to the empty street, she leaned, her arms folded, at ease against the doorpost, smiling.  If Englishmen were white, he thought, then she must be called black; but black she could not in truth be called, rather gold, but the not gold, nor royal purple neither, for when we say colours we see a flatness, as of cloth, but her was flesh that moved and swam on the light's tide, ever changing in hue but always of a richness that could only be termed royal; her colour was royalty.

The dark lady turns out not to be black, or a dark-skinned white woman, but a Middle Eastern woman named Fatimah.  WS vacillates between his love and lust for her and that he has for his young patron, Henry Wriothesley--the most common guess for the "WH" the sonnets are addressed to--and rages when Wriothesley seduces the former with his wealth.  Things end badly and strangely--spoiler alert--when WS discovers that he has contracted syphilis.  The bitter and obscure works of Shakespeare's late life, Burgess seems to imagine, are a product of his disease and his deep disillusionment:

What is your great crime, then?

Love, love, and it is always love.  Not wisely but too.  Faimiah.  I will distribute copies of that sonnet after the lecture.  You can never win, for love is both an image of eternal order and at the same time the rebel and destructive spirochaete.  Let us have no nonsensical talk about merging and melting souls, though, binary suns, two spheres in a single orbit.  There is the flesh and the flesh makes all.

It's a cynical turn for the novel, and unsettling, but perhaps in thoughtful accord with Shakespeare's own writing about love and lust--"Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame / Is lust in action."

In fact, I think Burgess does a pretty impressive job of capturing something of Shakespeare's spirit--not an easy thing to do--while retaining his own unique and modern voice.  Nothing Like the Sun, like A Clockwork Orange, is verbally dense and unapologetically challenging.  Burgess' vocabulary is cobbled together from Elizabethan and anachronistic sources--check out the word "spirochaete" above--and stuff that's just plain made up.  It doesn't sound like Shakespeare, but it shares Shakespeare's freewheeling and experimental method when it comes to language.  It succeeds in giving us an idea of what it might have been like to hear Shakespeare's words when they were written, fresh and new, rather than calcified by the past four centuries of adoration.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Sense of an Ending by Frank Kermode

Let us take a very simple example, the ticking of a clock.  We ask what it says: and we agree that it says tick-tock.  By this fiction we humanize it, make it talk our language.  Of course, it is we who provide the fictional difference between the two sounds; tick is our word for a physical beginning, tock our word for an end.  We say they differ.  What enables them to be different is a special kind of middle.  We c an perceive a duration only when it is organized.  It can be shown by experiment that subjects who listen to the rhythmic structures such as tick-tock, repeated identically, 'can reproduce the intervals within the structure accurately, but they cannot grasp spontaneously the interval between the rhythmic groups,' that is, between tock and tick, even when this remains constant... The clock's tick-tock I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organize that humanizes time by giving it form; and the interval between tock and tick represents purely successive time, disorganized time of the sort we need to humanize.

Frank Kermode argues that we are "men in the middest," that is, we find ourselves in the middle of things, at a temporal point that is really of no consequence at all.  The kind of time we experience is "successive"; it passes, without any kind of special meaning or organization.  But being "in the middest" is not so bad if we can convince ourselves that the time we experience has a special relationship to a beginning and an end; if we can define it in terms of the "tick" and the "tock" in the illustration above.  We're always expecting the apocalypse, he notes--think of Y2K, or Heaven's Gate, or the apocalyptic frenzy of 1666 (for obvious numeric reasons), or 2012--and for this reason we convince ourselves that we are living in special times.  But when the date of the apocalypse appears, the compulsion is so strong that true believers merely chalk it up to a mathematical error and calculate a new date.  The danger, he says, comes from when we let what is an obvious fiction become real for us, and he singles out authors like Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis for falling for exactly this kind of fiction in the form of mid-century fascism.

But The Sense of an Ending is a set of lectures on literary theory, not cultural theory, and so most of what Kermode writes about is how this need to occupy the space between the "tick" and "tock" appears in fiction.  One of the simplest and strongest claims Kermode makes is that there is a natural relationship between literary fictions and other fictions; the novels we write are not so very different from the way we think about time outside of them.  The most sophisticated novels engage in peripeteia--the falsification of our expectations of plot which make our fictions seem more realistic to us--but still, they satisfy our notions that the beginning, middle, and end progress in a logical, related, and meaningful way.  This is something all literary fiction does:

One remembers the comic account of this antipathy in Iris Murdoch's Under the Net, one of the few truly philosophical novels in English; truth would be found only in a silent poem or a silent novel.  As soon as it speaks, begins to be a novel, it imposes causality and concordance, development, character, a past which matters and a future within certain broad limits determined by the project of the author rather than that of the characters.  They have their choices, but the novel has its end.

I read The Sense of an Ending for my thesis, which was on ideas of time in the work of John Milton, and it really illuminated Milton's work for me.  Milton was a believer in apocalypticism; he really thought that Cromwell's ascent to power would usher in the thousand-year reign of Christ.  Cromwell's failures were intensely disappointing to Milton, and the need to make his own life fit in between the "tick" and the "tock" is everywhere in Milton.  The saddest, most powerful parts of work are about adjusting to the sense of being "in the middest," and the fear that the time which he lives through has no meaning or significance at all.  But Kermode's observations help make sense of all sorts of literature, and they are as incisive today as they were when they were published in 1965.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you.  Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history.  You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so i is always possible the giant's cairn was erected to make the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war.  This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing.  One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king.  But why stack heavy stones to above a man's height in so high and remote a place as this?

Axl and Beatrice are old, at the end of what seems to have been a long and happy marriage.  But they are not happy in their village, so they set out to find the village where their son lives, having left long ago for reasons neither Axl or Beatrice can remember.  You see, there is a mist that hangs over Britain, a fog of forgetfulness, which separate Axl and Beatrice from much of their history.  At the fringes of their marital bliss are a number of disquieting questions: without their past, how can they be sure they really love each other?  And what is it, exactly, that everyone is trying to forget?

Ishiguro has always been interested in repression.  In Never Let Me Go, it's the way that the clones participate in their own murder and exploitation by repressing the question of whether things might be otherwise.  In The Remains of the Day, it's Stevens' refusal to recognize many truths about his life: his boss' Nazi sympathies, his father's frailty, his own deep love for Miss Kenton.  In each of those cases, Ishiguro is never glib enough to suggest that things would be better if everyone were honest with themselves; both the clones and Stevens seem to desperately need their delusions.  The truth, for Ishiguro, may set you free, but it seems just as likely to destroy you.

The same is true for Axl and Beatrice, and all the inhabitants of post-Arthurian Britain.  As their memories return, piece by piece, filled in with the help of those they meet along their journey, it becomes clear that the country was recently ravaged by war between the Saxons and the Britons.  Though Axl and Beatrice long for their memories to return so they might fully understand themselves, the lifting of the fog threatens to rekindle an old enmity:

"How right to fear it, sir," Wistan said.  "The giant, once well buried, now stirs.  When soon he rises,as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers.  Men will burn their neighbours' houses by night.  Hang children from trees at dawn.  The rivers will stink with corpses bloated from their days of voyaging.  And even as they move on, our armies will grow larger, swollen by anger and thirst for vengeance.  For you Britons, it'll be as a ball of fire rolls towards you.  You'll flee or perish.  And country by country, this will become a new land, a Saxon land, with no more trace o your people's time here than a flock or two of sheep wandering the hills untended."

Would we be better of, Ishiguro wonders, if we were to rid ourselves of history?  Does peace require the eradication of what we remember?

These are rich and complex ideas.  But Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day succeed insofar as they rely on the accumulation of everyday detail; we believe those stories because we see reflected in them the way the minutiae of our lives can serve as a distraction from larger, deeper problems.  Ishiguro's plain prose is suited to those stories.  The Buried Giant, on the other hand, feels painted with much broader strokes.  Its characters only rarely seem like real people; rather, they read as the fantasy archetypes they are.  It is difficult to care about what Axl and Beatrice, much less all of Britain, may have repressed because The Buried Giant is not a story about repression but an allegory of repression.

Ishiguro recently got into a tiff with Ursula K. LeGuin, who accused him of not sufficiently respecting the fantasy genre.  LeGuin's charge goes too far, but it has a kernel of truth: Ishiguro seems to have no real idea of how to harness the possibilities of fantasy, or how to build a world which is specific and real.  The Buried Giant, I'm sad to say, reads exactly like what it is: a fantasy novel written by someone who never really reads fantasy novels.

And that's a shame, because it's clear that Ishiguro is developing ideas here that are part of an entire life's work.  The small, private repressions of his other novels are transformed into a national crisis, and you can see him thinking in a new way about the social, political, and historical aspects of repression.  But if he wanted to write a novel that comments on the way that repression works in the world, I'd rather have had a novel about the world as it is.

For what it's worth, Randy liked it better than I did.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

All the Stories of Muriel Spark

All over the Colony it was possible to hear the subtle voice of the grey-crested lourie, commonly known as the go-away bird by its call, 'go'way, go'way.'  It was possible to hear the bird, but very few did, for it was part of the background to everything, a choir of birds and beasts, the crackle of vegetation in the great prevalent sunlight, and the soft rhythmic pad of natives, as they went barefoot and in single-file, from kraal to kraal.

I've often wondered why Muriel Spark never wrote a novel about Africa.  She lived there for many years, first with her husband Solly, and then by herself when the marriage went sour, but her books never wander far from the London neighborhoods she settled in when she returned.  Having read this collection of all of Spark's short stories, I think it's possible that Spark felt that she said in them all that she had to say about Africa.

Her first story, "The Seraph and the Zambesi," was written for a contest.  In her autobiography she tells the charming story about how, dead broke, she had to borrow writing paper from an art shop, promising she would buy something if she won the contest.  She won, and she made good on her promise.  The story that resulted is admirably bizarre for a first stab at fiction.  In it, a group of English colonists try to put on a Christmas play, only to be foiled by the appearance of an objecting angel.  Other stories speak more directly to Spark's African experience: "The Curtain Blown by the Breeze" repurposes a story Spark heard from a fellow colonist who bragged about shooting a young African boy caught peeping at his wife during breastfeeding.  The best story in the book, and the longest, is "The Go-Away Bird," about a South African girl who hears in the bird's namesake call an exhortation to leave the Colony, and bounces back and forth between England and Africa.

Elsewhere, Spark seems to have used short fiction to indulge some of her wilder ideas.  There are loads of ghosts--one of the best in the collection, "The Portobello Road," is actually written from the perspective of a ghost who haunts her murderer with Spark's characteristic disaffection and glibness.  Sometimes Spark seems to be indulging half-baked notions for their own sake, as with "Miss Pinkerton's Apocalypse," a story about a couple who see an alien in a flying saucer, but which is actually a saucer, like for tea.  But sometimes these wild ideas pay off, as with one of my favorites, "The First Year of My Life," told from the perspective of an infant born during World War I:

Let me therefore get my word in first, because I feel pretty sure, now, about the authenticity of my remembrance of things past.  My autobiography, as I very well perceived at the time, started in the very worst year the world had ever seen so far.  Apart from being born bedridden and toothless, unable to raise my myself on the pillow or utter anything but farmyard squawks or police-siren wails, my bladder and my bowels totally out of control, I was further depressed but the curious behavior of the two-legged mammals around me.  There were those black-dressed people, females of the species to which I appeared to belong, saying they had lost their sons.  It was like the special pin for my nappies which my mother or some other hoverer dedicated to my care was always losing.  These careless women in black lost their husbands and brothers.  Then they came to visit my mother and clucked and crowed over my cradle.  I was not amused.

All in all, Spark's style, which leans toward the brief and brusque, is perfectly situated to the short story, and many of these stand up to her best novels.  Some are misfires, but most are canny observations about human nature whose plain style balance their tendency toward the supernatural and the macabre.  It's hard to imagine what might never have been written if she hadn't won that first contest.