Irish Short Stories by Kevin Barry, Elizabeth Bowen and James Joyce

I had some plans for Irish Short Story Week but as usual I ended up reading mostly something else. I discovered two new short story collections which contain a wide range of stories. One is The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story(2011), edited by Anne Enright, the other one, New Irish Short Stories (2001), was compiled by Joseph O’Connor.

Anne Enright’s introduction to The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story was particularly interesting as she writes about short stories in general and underlines that the Irish have a very distinct short story tradition. Here is my favourite quote from her introduction:

I am not sure whether the novel is written for our convenience, but it is probably written for our satisfaction. That is what readers complain about with short stories, that they are not “satisfying”. They are the cats of literary form; beautiful but a little too self-contained for some readers’ tastes.

Kevin Barry is a writer I wasn’t familiar with. He is one of a very few who has a story in both collections. I read one from New Irish Short Stories called Beer Trip to Llandudno. What a hilarious story. It tells about a trip of a group of fortysomething men who regularly take trips to towns and cities just to sample the local beer. They move from one bar to the next and from pub to pub. Drinking beer is more than a hobby, it’s a religion. They take it extremely seriously and discuss the taste and flavour in minute detail. At the end, they rate the beer according to a complicated system. Of course, the more beers they have sampled, the more they are drunk and the trip gets farcical. If the story had ended there it would have been amusing but Barry goes much farther than that. He manages to convey a whole life in a few random sentences, in one or two allusions to side stories, he shows us more than a few guys on a beer trip but a group of human beings who have suffered, hoped, lost their dreams and  adjusted to life in various ways. Still, despite a lot of heartache and disappointment, they have kept their joy of life, their humour and their enthusiasm. Barry has only written one novel so far, City of Bohane which came out last year. Needless to say that I ordered it. This is a writer with a rare gift and I would love to read his novel.

Here’s the mini-blurb

This is the cool, comic, violent and lyrical debut novel from one of Ireland’s most talented new writers.

Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night is one of her most famous short stories. I found it in Anne Enright’s collection. It’s a beautiful, evocative story that takes place on a summer night in the Irish countryside. At the beginning a woman speedily drives a car through the landscape, seeing the sun go down and how everything is transformed by the softness of the light. Only the houses on a hill in the distance are still bathing in the sunlight. That’s where she is going but we do not know it yet. The point of view changes after a few pages. We do now see a scene in a large country house. A phone is ringing. The point of view changes again and another phone rings. We meet the people in those other houses, we know that they are linked to the woman in the car who is the one ringing but we don’t know what is going on. It will take the whole 30 pages of the story for us to find out the secret at the heart of the story. The character descriptions are masterful and the dynamics between the people very complex and subtle but what I liked most about the story was the description how the summer night transforms the surroundings, how the changing of the light seems to cast a spell over the landscape.

James Joyce’s Araby was the third short story I read. It was actually a re-read. I wasn’t aware when I wrote my introduction that Araby was the short story which was the reason why Dubliners is one of my all-time favourite books. I don’t want to write too much about it, I’m afraid my words would dispel its magic. It’s an enchanting, lyrical story that has a lot in common with Elizabeth Bowen’s Summer Night. I would call both stories, twilight stories. Twilight because at one point they describe the light at sun set but also because everything is half-hidden, half revealed. The feelings are hinted at, nothing is in the open. While Bowen’s story is a summer story, Araby is set in winter. What is interesting is to imagine the two stories like paintings. One is a softly colored summer painting, the other captures the darker colors of winter.

If you like, you can read Araby here.

I read the three stories as a contribution to Irish Short Story Week hosted by Mel u from The Reading Life.

Reviews and further suggestions can be found here.

How is your Irish Short Story Week going? Have you found anything interesting?

Irish Short Story Week March 12 – 22

Just like last year Mel u from The Reading Life is organizing an Irish Short Story Week.

He has already published his tentative plans and some resources for those who want to join. Some of the authors and topics he will review are James Joyce, Lord Dunsany, Elizabeth Bowen, Sheridan LeFanu, Oscar Wilde, Frank O’Connor, Irish fairy tales. I really like his plans, they manage to capture nicely how diverse the topic is. If you are interested in joining and want to know more about Mel u’s plans, you can find them here.

I’m not sure at all what I’m going to read. I have a few collections on my TBR pile and one anthology which looks promising. I know I will not be able to read more than one or two stories but that’s better than nothing, I guess.

Here are a few of the possibilities:

Frank O’ Connor’ s The Genius

James Joyce’s Araby 

Seán O Faoláin’s Innocence

Do you have a favourite Irish Short Story writer?

Best and Worst Books 2011

Looking back I must say that this was a very good reading year. That’s fortunate for me because to be honest in many other areas it was a nightmare and I hope that next year will be better. But readingwise it was wonderful. So many new authors, so many really great books. It couldn’t have been much better.

It’s always so difficult to say which books I liked the most but I noticed that whenever I thought “Best Books” and started to make a mental list, the same 12 books popped up again and again and only when I went back to the blog and looked at all the posts, did I remember many more. So, like last year, I’m cheating and do not present a Top 10 but a best of per category.  The 12 that popped up immediately can all be found under the category beautiful and enchanting.

All the quotes are taken from my reviews.

Most beautiful and enchanting books 

Saraswati Park by Anjali Joseph

“The calm, quiet and floating feeling that permeates Saraswati Park makes this one of the most beautiful novels I have read recently. Saraswati Park is about love and marriage, loss and discoveries but also about the power of imagination and memories, the beauty and danger of reading and ultimately also about writing.”

Three Horses by Erri de Luca

Three Horses was my first Erri de Luca but it will not be the last. “The scent of earth, sage and flowers pervades a story of love, pain and war.”

Games to Play After Dark by Sarah Gardner Borden

“It is hard to believe that Games to Play After Dark is Sarah Gardner Borden’s first novel. The topic, a marriage that falls apart, may not be the most original, the young mother who tries to combine the demands of her children and her husband and her personal needs, isn’t new but how she describes it, the details she evokes, the way she looks at what has been swept under the carpet and the bed and what is hidden in the closets is extremely well done.

Back When We were Grownups by Anne Tyler

Back When We Were Grownups is a novel about possibilities, lost dreams, second chances, family and love and ultimately about chosing the right path and belonging. I really loved this book. I liked Rebecca and many of the other characters, especially Poppy, the great-uncle. I liked how it shows that choosing a partner also means choosing a life and that maybe sometimes when we feel we are just drifting we are actually just sliding along because we are on the right path.

The Fish Can Sing by Halldór Laxness

Have you ever read a book and caught yourself smiling almost all the time? The Fish Can Sing is so charming I couldn’t help doing it. It’s also quite funny at times and certainly very intriguing. I’m afraid I can’t really put into words how different it is. As a matter of fact, Halldór Laxness’ book is so unusual and special that I have to invent a new genre for it. This is officially the first time that I have read something that I would call mythical realism.

The Square Persiommon by Takashi Atoda

I think the most intense reading experience is one that connects you to your own soul, that triggers something in you and lingers. Atoda’s stories even made me dream at night. I almost entered an altered state of consciousness while reading them.  The Square Persimmon managed to touch the part in me where memories lie buried and dreams have their origin.

Stranger by Taichi Yamada

Strangers is an excellent ghost story but it is also so much more than just a ghost story. It’s a truly wonderful book with a haunting atmosphere, a melancholy depiction of solitude and loneliness with a surprisingly creepy ending.

Enchanted Night by Steven Millhauser

Hot summer nights have a special magic. In the middle of the night, when everyone is sleeping and only night creatures are awake, the hot still air is heavy, time seems to stand still and the world is indeed enchanted. This is the magic captured by Steven Millhauser in his beautiful and poetical novella Enchanted Night. I have never read this book before but the images, the atmosphere felt so familiar. It was a bit like looking into my own imagination.

Goldengrove by Francine Prose

Reading Francine Prose’s novel Goldengrove felt at times like holding the clothes and belongings of a dead person in my hands. While I read it, and for a long while after I finished it, I felt as if I was grieving. It’s a really sad novel but at the same time it’s a very beautiful novel. It also reminded me of the series Six Feet Under. There is something very similar in the mood and the characters. Although I absolutely loved this novel I could imagine it isn’t for everybody.

Nada by Carmen Laforet

 Nada deserves to be called a classic. However it isn’t a classic because of the plot which can be summarized in a few sentences but because of the style. This is a young writer’s book who manages to capture the intensity of living typical for the very young and passionate.

The Cat by Colette

La Chatte has a subject to which I relate but it is far more than the story of a relationship between a man and his cat. It is a subtle analysis of love versus passion, of marriage versus celibacy, of childhood and growing up, of change and permanence. The story also captures the dynamics of disenchantment following the recognition that one’s object of desire is flawed.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell

So Long, See You Tomorrow  is a beautiful and melancholic short novel that explores a wide range of themes like memory, the past, isolation, loneliness, friendship, jealousy and violence. The central theme is that of the omission and the following regret. There are so many things left unsaid, things not done or too late in a life, that this core theme will speak to almost all of us. It’s often little things but they resonate for a long time in our lives and we might wish to turn back time and undo what has happened.

Most engrossing reads

These were the books where I never checked how many pages were left because I had finished them before even getting the chance to do so. In other words, the page-turners.

Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

Les Heures souterraines or Underground Time is a chillingly good novel and shockingly topical. It’s accurate in its depiction of life in a corporate setting and of  life in a big city. It’s a very timely book, a book that doesn’t shy away to speak about the ugly side of  ”normal lives”.

Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty

Whatever You Love is a book of raw emotions. And that from the first moment on when we read about the police knocking on Laura’s door to inform her that her daughter Betty has been killed. Laura is a very emotional woman, she feels everything that happens to her intensely, her reactions are very physical. There are many elements in the book that made me feel uneasy.

You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

You Deserve Nothing was certainly one of the most entertaining reads this year. It offers an interesting mix of alternating and very realistic sounding voices, a Parisian setting and a wide range of themes.

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Asworth

I already jokingly “said” to Danielle in a comment that her top 2010 might become my top 2011 and,  yes, this book is certainly a candidate as it is astonishingly good. Very dark, absolutely fascinating, engrossing, and very well executed. While starting it I had forgotten Jenn Ashworth was compared to Ruth Rendell but the association immediately occurred to me as well.

everything and nothing by Araminta Hall

everything and nothing was one of those super fast reads, a book that I could hardly put down. Really riveting. The only complaint I have is that this is labelled as a psychological thriller. Although there is a part of it reminiscent of Ruth Rendell, it is like a background story and not really very gripping. At least not for me. Still I consider this to be a real page-turner for the simple reason that it captures chaotic family life in so much detail and explores some of the questions and problems parents who work full-time would face.

Best Books – Literature and War Readalong

How Many Miles To Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston

I loved How Many Miles to Babylon? I think it is a beautiful book. It doesn’t teach you as much about WWI as Strange Meeting (see post 1) but it says a lot about Irish history. I found this look at the first World War from an Irish perspective extremely fascinating.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

I expected The Things They Carried to be a very good book. A very good book about the war in Vietnam. What I found is not only an outstanding book about the war in Vietnam but also about the art of storytelling. I’m really impressed.

The Silent Angel by Heinrich Böll

Böll has a gift for description which is rare. And he represents a rare model of moral integrity, he is an author who wrote for those who have nothing, who tried to unmask hypocrisy and uncover everything that was fake and phony in post-war Germany. I don’t know all that many authors who are so humane.

Most touching

On the Holloway Road by Andrew Blackman. I read this novel in the summer and it’s one of a few books I haven’t reviewed. In this case because the reading caught me completely unawares. I had such an emotional reaction that I had to talk about it all the time. I still feel like reviewing it but I need some distance

Best classics

Mme de Treymes by Edith Wharton

Madame de Treymes has a Parisian setting which always appeals to me, as sentimental as this may be. It is a cruel little book and a very surprising one. All in all there is not a lot of description of the city itself, the novel rather offers an analysis of the society. It is interesting to see how Americans perceived the Parisian society and the differences in their respective values.

Hotel Savoy by Joseph Roth

Hotel Savoy has really everything. It is funny, sad, picturesque, touching and bitter-sweet and the ending is perfection. Roth describes people, the hotel and the little town with great detail. And every second sentence bears an explosive in the form of a word that shatters any illusion of an idyllic life. Roth served in WWI and never for once allows us to forget that the horror of one war and subsequent imprisonment have only just been left behind  while the next one is announcing itself already.

Grand Hôtel by Vicki Baum

Grand Hôtel is set in a luxurious hotel in Berlin between the wars. It’s walls shelter a microcosm of German society. The novel draws a panorama of the society and the times, reading it is fascinating and gives a good impression and feel for the time and the people. Vicki Baum includes a wide range of characters, the porter who waits for his wife to give birth to the first child, the aristocratic head porter Rohna, the many drivers and maids as well as some very interesting guests. Including the employees of the hotel gives the book a bit of an upstairs-downstairs feel and permits insight into the lives of the “simple people” who earn just enough not to starve.

Pedro Parámo by Juan Rulfo

It’s a powerful novel infused with the spirit of the Mexican Día de los muertos or Day of the Dead at the same time it is an allegory of oppression and freedom that comes at the highest cost. When you read Pedro Páramo it becomes obvious that “magic realism” has many faces.

Best non-fiction books

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt

I found Making Toast wonderful. It contains a lot of little endearing episodes like the one that gave the book its title, in which Rosenblatt states that the only thing he is really good at is making toast for the whole family in the morning. He describes how he gets up very early and, taking into consideration each family member’s taste, he produces a multitude of personalized breakfast toasts.

The Film Club by David Gilmour

The relationship between these two is unique. So much honesty, trust and friendship between a father and a son is wonderful. Not every parent has the chance to spend as much time with his kid, that is for sure, but every parent has certainly spent enchanted moments with his/her child and will be touched by this story. For us film lovers The Film Clubis  a great way to remind us how many movies there are still to discover, how many to watch again and in how many different ways we can watch them.

Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

I can’t tell you exactly how long it took to read Howards End is on the Landing. An evening? Two? Certainly not longer. I devoured it. What is more fascinating to read than a bookish memoir? And written by a writer.

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

Brené Brown is a researcher, specialized in topics like shame and perfectionism and analyzing how they are linked and keep us from living wholeheartedly. She is an incredibly honest and open person who is able to show her vulnerability.

Natural History of Destruction by W.G. Sebald

On the Natural History of Destruction is one of the most amazing books I have read this year. For numerous reasons. It is in line with the topic of my reading projects and readalong and contains descriptions that I have never read like this. On the other hand it gave me the opportunity to see another side of Sebald. One that I didn’t expect.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein

What happens when a feminist who knows exactly how things should be, gets pregnant and the child is – horror on horror – a girl? This is pretty much how Peggy Orenstein opens her entertaining, thought-provoking and occasionally quite shocking account Cinderella Ate my Daughter about what she sub-titles “Dispatches from the front-lines of the new girlie-girl culture”.

The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard

Kat Banyard’s The Equality Illusion: The Truth about Men and Women Today takes an unflinching look at what it means to be a woman today and, due to the fact that Banyard is British, especially in the UK . Still, whether you are an Afghan woman fighting for girl’s rights of literacy or an American doctor performing late stage abortions, you have one thing in common: you lead a dangerous life and might end up being killed. Both things happened.  The first happened in Afghanistan in 2006, the second in the US in 2009. They illustrate the illusion of equality and show what a global phenomenon it is.

New Author Discoveries

These are the authors that made me think “I would like to read all of his/her books”.

Beryl Bainbridge,  William Maxwell, Jennifer Johnston, Peter Stamm, Annie Ernaux

The worst book this year

There is a lonely winner this year and it has so far not even been reviewed. I’m still determined to do so but I find adding quotes so tedious, only in this case it’s necessary to illustrate the problem I had with the book. Now you are dying to know the title, aren’t, you?

In a Hotel Garden by Gabriel Josipovici

Peter Stamm: In Strange Gardens and Other Stories – Blitzeis und In fremden Gärten (1999/2003)

In Strange Gardens: And Other Stories by Peter Stamm

In these stories, Stamm’s clean style expresses despair without flash, through softness and small gestures, with disarming retorts full of derision and infinite tenderness. There, where life hesitates, ready to tip over—with nothing yet played out—is where these people and their stories exist. For us, they all become exceptional.  “Sensitive and unnerving. . . . An uncommonly intimate work, one that will remind the reader of his or her own lived experience with a greater intensity than many of the books that are published right here at home.”

I had a hard time picking a Swiss author for German Literature Month as there are so many good ones to pick from. I chose Peter Stamm because the reviews in Swiss and German newspapers tend to be full of praise but I have never read anything by him. Most of what Stamm has written is translated into English, his novels as well as his short stories. I got Agnes (Agnes German), his first novel but from the English and German reviews I know, it’s his only controversial book, one that you either love or hate. I was much more in the mood to read something that critics called one of “the most beautiful and important books” or “one of the most remarkable achievements of contemporary literature written in German”. And so I chose to read his short story collection Blitzeis. You can find it in the English collection In Strange Gardens and Other Stories that combines two German collections, Blitzeis and In fremden Gärten.

Since I have finished the book I tiptoe around this review. The stories are saturated with a fleeting beauty that is hard to capture. What exactly was it that made me love those stories so much? So much that for the first time, I regretted reading short stories and not a novel. I would have loved to go on reading each and every single one of those stories. Nothing much happens in these pages. People dream and float and meet others. They live some moments of intensity, of joy, of disappointment, of regret. The stories take place in different countries, one is set in Switzerland, some in New York, one in Sweden, another one in Italy, one in the Netherlands. The characters are often from Switzerland, they meet people abroad, are fascinated by the cities and the landscapes they don’t know, some are happy to return to Switzerland, some will stay abroad. They enjoy moments in which nothing much happens.

These stories are, as I said, not so much about plot or even atmosphere but about mood. They achieve to convey a wide range of moods. Sadness, melancholy, joy, apathy… each and every story captures either one or more of these emotional states. At times I was reminded of some Japanese stories and their celebration of fleetingness, at times they reminded me of Anna Gavalda’s first short story collection Je voudrais que quelq’un m’attende quelque partI Wish Someone Were Waiting For Me Somewhere.

To give you a better impression I will pick two stories.

In the Outer Suburbs (In den Aussenbezirken) is the story of a chance encounter. A young Swiss man is walking the streets of New York on an early Christmas morning. He is hung over from the night before in which he had a party with friends. Too much alcohol and too many cigarettes were involved. He walks aimlessly through the streets and feels as if he sees them for the first time. He finally enters a bar and is drawn into a conversation with a drunk whom everyone seems to avoid. Without prejudice or preconceived ideas he listens to the man and they drink together. The drunk is full of wisdom, talks about poetry, and the difference of love poems written by men or women. After a long while they leave the bar together. The afternoon is still bright, although they expected that the night had already fallen. When they part, the drunk thanks him for a beautiful afternoon.

Passion (Passion) is the story of a love in its final hours. The beauty of the Italian summer, the happiness of the narrator who lies awake in the hot night listening to his friends talk below the open window of his sleeping room, contrast with the feeling of an imminent ending. He wants to break up with his girlfriend but when she finally leaves him, he is disappointed.

Peter Stamm’s stories may very well be the greatest discovery of German Literature Month for me. I loved each and every one of them and wanted to go on reading. I can’t wait to read one of his novels. I already got An einem Tag wie diesem – On a Day Like This and it’s likely that I will review it during the last week of German Literature Month.

The review is part of German Literature Month – Week 3 Switzerland and Austria

Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

The Black Monk (Penguin 60s)

Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov isn’t known for his novels but for his short stories and his theater plays. Some people believe that there has never been a finer short story writer than him. I agree, he is an accomplished writer and reading him is a real joy. I had this little Penguin book containing The Black Monk and Peasants for years now but never got around to reading it.

I have read many of Chekhov’s stories and I’m well aware that he was someone who was interested in the fate of the Russian peasant and the poor, nevertheless I don’t think I have ever read anything by him that was as bleak as these two stories.

They are very different but there is a common topic in those stories which is illness. Mental illness in the first and a neurological illness in the second.

The Black Monk tells the story of the Master of Arts Andrey Kovrin. Kovrin feels exhausted and tired and decides to go and spend the summer with his former mentor, the famous horticulturalist Pesotsky and his daughter. Being an orphan, Korvin grew up with Pesotsky and loves him dearly. The old man has a wonderful estate with beautiful gardens and orchards that produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.

The beginning of the story is very idyllic. Korvin enjoys the beauty of the gardens, the company of his friend and to work on his numerous projects. Nobody seems to be aware at first that he hardly sleeps. He is very nervous and overeager and works like a mad man. Strange thoughts haunt him and he constantly thinks of a tale that he once read about a black monk who is a real person in one place but a sort of mirage in others.

As idyllic as the story starts it soon gets darker when Korvin not only to sees the black monk but speaks to him as well and finally has a nervous breakdown. I found this a highly interesting story as we think at first that it is a ghost story and then realize that Korvin is psychotic. This reminded me a lot of Maupassant’s Le Horla and there could be an influence. The Black Monk is a story of a nervous breakdown that leads to hallucinations and visions that are so intense that Korvin takes them for real. He believes everything the monk tells him and what he tells him flatters him.

The black monk says to Korvin that he is one of the chosen ones, an artist and that artists never see the world like everybody else.

But how do you know that men of genius, in whom the whole world puts its faith, haven’t seen ghosts too? Nowadays scientists say genius is akin to madness. My friend, only the mediocre, the common herd are healthy and normal.

After the breakdown Korvin undergoes a treatment with bromides, gets a lot of rest and becomes extremely depressed. His visions are gone and so is his feeling of grandeur. Being cured is insufferable to him. Chekhov’s psychological insight is really amazing. I’m not sure whether Korvin suffers of schizophrenia but it could be. He could also be bipolar. Both explanations are possible and both illnesses have the trait that during the moments of (megalo)mania the patient is quite happy. Often however they don’t sleep, don’t eat, are highly agitated and a break down mostly puts an end to the high.

Peasants is a completely different story. Nikolay Chikildeyev is a waiter in Moscow when he starts to develop a strange illness. His legs get numb and he cannot work anymore as he falls constantly. It isn’t said what it is but it could have been a neurological affliction or MS. In any case he decides to go back to the country and take his wife and his daughter with him.

What follows is unbelievable and I think it must be one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. Chikildeyev’s family are peasants and so incredibly poor, it would be heartbreaking. I did say “would” on purpose because these people are not only poor, they are dirty and brutal, constantly drunk, they hate each other and life, they are mean and abusive.

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion.

On the other hand they are extremely religious but in a very irrational way. No one can read and would really know what is in the Bible but they mix up elements the priests said, with Bible quotes and childish beliefs and wishes and pure superstitions. They believe in heaven and hell and the Virgin Mary but without a clear idea what each of them really means. The holidays are followed religiously as each of them is an opportunity to get drunk.

If they could choose they would rather be dead than alive but on the other hand they are extremely scared of being ill and hate Chikildeyev because he is a mirror of their own frailty.

Far from having any fear of death, Marya was only sorry it was such a long time coming, and she was glad when any of her children died.

What is also amazing is the fact that some of the older peasants wish themselves back to serfdom as they were at least fed regularly.

I have never read anything like it and it felt almost like reading nonfiction as it is written in a very realistic and detailed way. It seems as if  Chikildeyev’s illness was just a pretext to have these outsiders come to that place of desolation and depravity. The story also underlines that when you have lived under such circumstances for a long time you hardly see them any more and certainly do not see that you are part of the problem.

Both stories are amazing and show how talented Chekhov was. I cannot say I “liked” them but I would recommend them because they are very enlightening. They show you the talent of an author and the reality of a society of which we don’t know that much anymore but that has certain traits and elements that can still be found nowadays.

Takashi Atoda: The Square Persimmon and Other Stories (1991) Magical Japanese Short Stories

The Square Persimmon and Other Stories is an introduction to one of Japan’s most popular and versatile writers of fiction. In these eleven stories, Takashi Atoda examines universal themes – first love, lost love, change, fate – thriugh unmistakably Japanese eyes. The dreamlike quality of some stories invites the reader to draw his own conclusions in the denouement. Yet, in each one, Atoda brings to bear his precise style and his own unique vision, by turns mysterious, romantic, darkly humourus, and even bizarre.

I found this truly magical short story collection thanks to Novroz’ review of the book. She made it sound so appealing, I absolutely had to read it. I couldn’t agree with her more, The Square Persimmon is a wonderful short story collection, enchanting, haunting and mysterious… Very, very special.

I have never reviewed a short story collection and it is a bit hard. Summarize the individual stories? Summarize the whole book? Short stories are often so much richer than novels, to do them justice isn’t an easy task. To describe these is even more difficult as they are so mysterious. To try to capture their essence is almost like describing scent.

I think the most intense reading experience is one that connects you to your own soul, that triggers something in you and lingers. Atoda’s stories even made me dream at night. I almost entered an altered state of consciousness while reading them. He managed to touch the part in me where memories lie buried and dreams have their origin. This doesn’t happen very often. They made me remember things I thought I had forgotten and sort of intensified everything. The best parts of his stories are like those rare dreams that we dream during our lifetime, in which we want to stay forever. The mood, the atmosphere and the feelings will stay with us for a long time.

Apart from two of the stories, they are all very Japanese. They describe Japanese customs, food, places, philosophy, esthetics, sensitivity, and history.  One recurring element is the use of flashbacks. The people in these stories encounter something that makes them remember someone or a place that is long gone, maybe dead. Another wonderful element is the description of the seasons. The cherry blossoms in spring, the leaves in autumn. They are meant to remind us of our perishability. The description of beauty’s utter fragility is another element. Each story has additionally a twist and a mostly surprising ending.

The stories are all melancholic and often sad. The protagonists look back on something that has passed. At the present moment none of the characters is really happy, they look back on lost happiness. Nevertheless the interactions that take place in the present are touching and intense, the people in the stories reveal themselves to those they talk to.

To give you an example I will just pick two of my favourite stories.

In Paper Doll a man walks by a house in which he used to live as a child. It’s a beautifully elegant house. He had completely forgotten about this house, his childhood and a special friend – a girl – he had when he was a little boy. His life is not a particularly happy one. Like many of the characters in the stories he isn’t well off, struggles to make a living, doesn’t have a lot of joy. After he has discovered the house, he walks by daily and remembers more and more of those days long gone. His memories are like a treasure, they transform his dull days and fill him with an intense joy and happiness.

The Honey Flower also evokes a memory. A man remembers a summer he spent in the country during the war in 1944. The horrors of war are masterfully blended with the memory of the little boy and his little beautiful girlfriend. The children met in secret to drink nectar out of giant white blossoms that grow on a tree.

Atoda has written 40 short story collections. The Square Persimmon is meant as an introduction to his work. The stories have been chosen by his translator. The aim was to show what a versatile writer he is. His writing is extremely varied, at times lyrical or melancholic, absurd or full of black humor. In her foreword his translator, Millicent M. Horton, mentions the Proustian quality of some of his stories. This is high praise but I would say it is more than deserved.

Haruki Murakami Reading Challenge 2011

I am still quite new to book blogging which means I am still quite new to challenges. However I know already what type of challenge would put me under pressure and which one most likely not.

Since I wanted to dedicate some of this year’s reading to the Japanese authors I have on my TBR pile and Murakami is one of them, I decided to join the challenge hosted by Tanabata from In Spring it is the Dawn.

Please read what Tanabata says:

For a list of the books available in English, visit the Books Page.

Things to keep in mind:
*The goal is simply to read something/ANYthing by Haruki Murakami.
*Whether you’re a complete newbie, or already a huge Murakami fan, everyone is welcome to join in.
*You can join in anytime.
*Feel free to grab either of the buttons but please save them to your own computer first.
*There is no need to list your books in advance, and even if you do, you can change them any time.
*You can also change your level of participation at any time because sometimes life just gets in the way.
*You don’t have to have a blog to participate. You can also share your thoughts on Goodreads, LibraryThing, etc.
*Crossovers with other challenges are allowed. (Don’t forget that anything you read for this challenge also counts for Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge).
*Books should be read between January 1st and December 31st, 2011.
(However, I welcome you to submit reviews to any of Murakami’s books or stories that you have read and reviewed previously. More on the ‘Submit a review‘ page.)
*Books can be in any format: paper, ebooks, audio.
*Rereads are allowed, and encouraged.
*There will be quarterly prizes (details to be decided).
*And most importantly, have fun!

As far as I am concerned, I will certainly read one but am not sure if I will read more.

These are the books on my TBR pile. The first two are the ones I am most likely to read.

The Elephant Vanishes (short stories)

Sputnik Sweetheart

Norwegian Wood

A Wild Sheep Chase

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

I am really looking forward to this challenge as it seems stressfree, fun and a good way to discover more books of this wonderful writer.