WORDS BETH CUTTING
The lockdownish / tier-what / vaccine-who / stay-inside-when / don’t-go-to-work / do-go-to-work saga of this year has caused ripples of doubt, waves of confusion, and an underlying tide of anxiety. Not saying it’s all bad but that background discomfort, whilst knowing we don’t have full autonomy over our lives can often cause a lack of focus. Book sales have gone up ironically alongside reports of people struggling to read. We’re buying things to do and not doing them. We aren’t finishing the novels, knitting the jumpers, baking the sourdough.
So what do we do without cupboards of yeast, balls of wool, and endless new literary publications? Start smaller. I doubt you’ll produce the perfect pillowy potato dough the first time you try, but rise above it and move onto something less daunting. That’s what I like about short-form writing, it doesn’t feel intimidating, it’s neatly divided up into convenient pockets of time, and often unrelated to the previous section so you don’t have to go back and re-read the pages you lost when you fell asleep in the bath.
It’s a delightfully short and sweet literary exploration, without setting hours and hours aside, and it gets us firmly out of our own heads - which is vital for me at the moment now I’ve finished The Crown. My favourite way to read a novel is to devour it in one day, whilst stuck to an uncomfortable plastic sun lounger, surrounded by sand that’s too hot. I struggle to find the time in everyday life to get as absorbed as I’d like. So day-to-day I pick series more often than films, if you really try you can cram an episode in each evening; the same can’t be said for The Irishman.
Here are five book recommendations, some anthologies of various authors and occasionally poets, some collections from the same author, all-but-one are fiction. Short stories are for people with buckets of time and people without, they suit those with great attention spans, and those with short ones. They are for readers and non-readers. Essentially you can find a collection of short writing for just about anyone. So whoever you are, whatever theme you enjoy reading about - there’s something for you if you dig deep enough. Here’s what I’m digging.
FLY ALREADY BY ETGAR KERET
Fiction collection by one author
Etgar Keret is an Israeli born author and Fly Already was translated beautifully from Hebrew by five experts. The backdrop of the stories is vaguely Israeli, but we journey so often between the present, the futuristic, and the nostalgic that the setting isn’t digressive. The book doesn’t often touch on the current political climate (other than the dystopian trump-gets-a-third-term-story) which helps it feel like a future timeless classic. The kind of book I could pick up again and again at different stages of my life and take different things from it, my favourite kind.
Keret proves first and foremost that there is nothing less-than about short stories compared to long-form writing. Many of his stories are good enough premises for whole books, films too, but he casually presents them as small, neat packages. Despite occasionally nihilistic intentions, the humour and the originality threaded throughout are so well balanced it’s an endlessly enjoyable and unpredictable read.
The character’s paint meaning onto the things (animals, people, events) they come into contact with. They rise through science-fictional experiences only to be drawn back to what makes them human (or non-human in some cases), to expose what connects and distances them. It intelligently examines perspectives from the worst and best of humanity and shows how closely they can be interwoven. We meet Holocaust survivors craving revenge, a rich man seeking companionship, a couple desperate for a baby seeing their problematic puppy as a stand-in.
As I read the book, I’d feel my perspective and relatedness warp and shapeshift from one page to the next. After the story I would be reflecting on my own actions, how I live my own life, then the next I would feel momentarily lost in the swell of another universe’s viewpoints. No group is left out, no theme forced to shackle Keret’s imagination in order to sell easily branded copies. His book touches on the potential consciousness of robots, the impatience of aliens. But it isn’t specifically sci-fi either. Keret proves that, despite his fascination with the fantastical, the most imaginative story can be hinged from the severity of life's mundanity.
BEING VARIOUS (NEW IRISH SHORT STORIES) EDITED BY LUCY CADWELL
Fiction collection by various authors
A literary invitation to enjoy varieties of all things Irish, whether it’s experience, attitude, or place. This anthology includes stories from the likes of Sally Rooney and Danielle McLaughlin. The art of this collection is in the varied relationship we have with our identity. Whether we are undeniably proud, inherently conscious of our roots, Being Various takes it all on.
If we strongly relate to a certain place, the pace taps into our energy, the weather suits us, the locals embrace us - it’s easy to take on that place as ‘part of us’. Lucy Caldwell’s introduction and careful editing feel essential and prominent in Being Various; she raises the question ‘How Irish are you really?’ She wants the answer broached from all angles whether it be by parentage, birth, or residence. She has carefully selected a balance of authors: two-thirds are female, one-third Northern, two-thirds born in Ireland and two-thirds currently reside.
The Irish pride isn’t gushy in this anthology, it’s not pushy either. It’s there in the rain, in the craic, in the memories and the excitement the characters feel. It’s not always a strong sense of location related atmosphere as I expected, it’s an explored identity that’s tangible.
A lot of people have Irish roots, even more, claim to have Irish roots. It’s deemed something to be proud of, it adds a sense of charm.
By contrast, the next read explores the passage of home and how identity can be ripped away from you if you flee and relocate unlawfully, whether it saves your life or not.
REFUGEE TALES II
A non-fiction collection of poems and writings from various authors
Refugee Tales is so much more than a collection of writing, it’s an on-going project, inspired by Canterbury Tales, which organises ‘walks of solidarity’ through the English countryside for refugees, writers and campaigners - allowing the refugees to tell their stories.
It’s a gut-wrenching collection of honest non-fiction recounts primarily from asylum seekers, detainees and refugees. It’s the most important educational read I’ve maybe ever read, it’s a lesson in humanity. I instantly felt this should be prominently studied in schools, not only is it so well written in a variety of forms but it’s so agonisingly poignant.
It should be compulsory reading for everyone living in a safe country.
It’s both an easy read and a really hard one. Refugee Tales II includes shocking and poetic accounts of cruel injustice. It’s written by novelists and poets who elegantly and honestly portray the depth of the struggle. The form and the craft make it so beautiful and easy flowing, but the content will stop you in your tracks. You feel the uncomfortable sense of your own luck. This world we live in is one of brutal bias. One that is endured right on our doorstep.
The stories are about those whose lives have often felt disposable, they had to flee otherwise they might lose it in their home country, then they risk it during the journey to safer land, then when they arrive they can be brutally rejected. The Detainees Tale by Ali Smith tells us about one man who escaped slavery in Ghana only to be trafficked to and in the UK for five years. When he finally manages to inform the Home Office he gets detained and put in prison for six months.
This is not the case for all of them but this is certainly what hits ‘home’ for me.
Gillian Slovo said on the book “The best arguments I have ever read - albeit through tears - for why asylum is not a privilege but a right.”
I agree wholeheartedly and wanted to share a couple of quotes:
“Officially, living between the lines on our traffic island, barred from work, unheard at his own hearings”
“The world just turns against you, first in your own country and then everywhere you go”
These stories are essential for rehumanising those who are unfairly vilified.
SHUT UP YOU'RE PRETTY BY TEA MUTONJI
Shut Up You’re Pretty explores womanhood through interlinked short fiction and sits somewhere in between a short story collection and a novel. We trace a series of monumental events surrounding the main character Loli from the age of 6 to 26.
The first story Tits for Cigs addresses Loli’s first sense of clumsy empowerment. She lets a stranger touch her breasts in exchange for some cigarettes and walks away feeling she has won something from the exchange, other than cigarettes. Her best friend Jolie exclaims “We are women!”.
Mutonji often presents us with confusing coming-of-age scenarios, ones we can often relate to, the feeling we all have when we are young and awkwardly seek independence and autonomy. In the case of Tits for Cigs I could remember the sense of freedom I felt when realising the power of my own body, however, in hindsight, were we really empowered or coerced into thinking so? Empowerment is the belief that we are getting stronger and more confident to do something; in which case it must always relate back to the strength of our sense of self. It raised so many internal questions for me. Does it matter what’s on the other end of the exchange? If Loli didn’t realise at the time, she was being pushed into doing something, is it still empowerment? Or is it empowerment simply until you realise it wasn’t. Perhaps we withhold certain truths from ourselves to feel the temporary independence we desire.
Loli is often presented as strong, she does hold a certain strength, one that knows her own mind but she is complex in her vulnerabilities and often only welcomes them only when edged with a certain air of toxicity.
Loli’s sexuality is often mixed up with a sense of shame, when she is young she experiences an accidental sexual encounter with her cousin when she is attempting to wax Loli. Her shame continues to warp by her side throughout the book, and ultimately she is berated for admitting she feels pleasure when carrying out the sex work she later takes on.
The book presents an amalgamation of complex and sometimes bleak situations relating to womanhood, race, sisterhood, sexuality, empowerment.
***A sort of spoiler alert***
The ending is one of sophisticated simplicity when we learn all Loli really wants is the company of her mum. And it feels right, vulnerable and a testament to how far Loli has come in recognising what she needs when she needs it and how to act on it correctly.
It’s honest, beautifully blunt and entirely uncompromising. I loved it.
DADDY BY EMMA CLINE
Fiction collection by one author
I judged this book by its cover. DADDY written in big words over a sun-soaked androgynous young person sits somewhere between innocent and provoking. It’s a charged word, it’s steeped in childhood, but also one that has become morphed into something complex with dual meaning. Meaning we feel comfortable calling our fathers Dad, but Daddy? Nope. Not for me.
And it’s the perfect title for the book (once you realise it’s not based around a creepy lolita-ish ‘relationship’) because it presents us with duality of tone that is continued within the book’s exploration of the male psyche and what the consciousness looks like behind their decisions.
It probes the gaping distance between both generational disparities and gendered positions. Cline looks at the limitations of young consciousness vs older and how entitlement can vary in prominent ways on both sides of the father-daughter coin. We see ignorance and innocence tightly bound together; for example, one younger brother is described as “A strange mix of perversity - the background on his phone a big-titted porn star - and a real boyishness. He made quesadillas on the stove most nights, adored and replayed a song whose lyrics he happily chanted “Build Me Up Buttercup,” his face young and sweet.”
Cline masters the depth of the first world problem and sometimes the characters seem to house a naive awareness which in turn causes insecurity; when they realise they don’t know how to handle a situation the confusion comes flooding in. The entitlement men often have bestowed upon them doesn’t always work out in their favour - it lures them into a false sense of security and ultimately ends with disappointment, disengagement and resentment when life doesn’t go their way.
It’s not the easiest or fun read but it strives for honesty. It occasionally feels like realising some of your fears are peeling off the pages and coming true. But Cline won’t ever let you know if they are or not, she’s an elusive writer who doesn’t relay the events to the reader but leads us down a more ambiguous path. The answer isn’t in the actions but the reactions.
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