All My Friends by Marie NDiaye, translated from the French by Jordan Stump

July 5, 2013 § 5 Comments

All My Friends is a book of short stories by French author Marie NDiaye.  The second book released by Two Lines Press – a new publisher associated with The Center for the Art of Translation in California, – it is translated by Jordan Stump.  I’d heard many good things about NDiaye, and Stump seems to have an affinity for translating unusual narratives, so I was looking forward to reading this book.

Which makes it hard to admit that on first reading I found the collection somewhat disappointing.  The five stories are not linked, but they share a common theme – the main character’s inability (or is it unwillingness?) to connect with reality.  All five are written in the first person and each narrator drags the reader further into the rabbit hole of psychosis.  Because our perception of what is going on is so severely limited and dependent on a series of unreliable narrators, many of these stories are disorienting.  NDiaye makes little effort to distinguish between what is reality and what is delusion.  What breadcrumbs she leaves are sparse – small, easily overlooked clues as to what is actually going on.

The first story, “All My Friends”, is about a retired teacher stalking a former student.  The student is now his housekeeper.  His obsession with her dominates his life and defines his remaining relationships.  She, in term, loathes him – and seems to take a kind of sadistic pleasure in tormenting him with her disdain.  At least that’s what he believes.  The situation, as these situations tend to, crumbles.  The final scene is chilling… but a bit confusing if you think too hard about what triggered it.

“All My Friends”, along with two of the longer stories in the collection: “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day”, are particularly challenging.  The narratives are fragmented. and at times difficult to follow.  These short stories read as exercises, character sketches intended to be absorbed into a larger work (a novel perhaps) at a later date?  They lack emotional weight as stand-alone stories.  These narrators are so unreliable – their memories and perceptions so distorted – that it is impossible to believe anything they say.

I became increasingly suspicious… not to mention a bit paranoid.  I did not trust these people, but they were all I had.

And that’s what makes this collection so brilliant.  We are shown the world and events only from the narrator’s perspective.  And that perspective is a bit skewed – to say the least.

Jimmy’s dog ran towards her, leapt up, dampened her cheek with a hearty lick.  For the few seconds that the dog’s eyes were level with Brulard’s, she had the brutal feeling that she could see her own anxious soul reflected of submerged deep inside them.  The dark mirror of the dog’s pupils seemed to be showing her not her own miniaturized face but something else, unexpected, inexplicable – as if, Brulard told herself at a loss, her appearance had suddenly changed beyond all recognition, or as if the dog’s incomprehensible black eye were reflecting Brulard’s true, secret being, of which she herself had no notion, which she couldn’t describe, even on finding it thus revealed in the gaze of that pitiful creature.

The remaining two stories are less complicated, but equally rewarding.  They’re also easier to summarize than “The Death of Claude Francois” and “Brulard’s Day” (which, though convoluted, are still wonderful) .  In “The Boys” we meet René: an awkward, teenaged boy who spends all his free time at a neighboring family’s farm – the Moers.  On one visit he witnesses the mother selling her attractive, younger son.  Though this event will ultimately tear the family he idolizes apart, René becomes convinced that this is the path down which his own happiness lies.  Things, needless to say, do not go as planned.

René, as a character, is fascinating.  As you learn more about his life you realize that in his family he is the golden boy.  René’s mother gives him the best food at dinner.  His brothers and sisters admire him.  But his family circumstances are very different from the Moers’.  René’s family appears to survive at the edge of starvation.  His mother is a prostitute for the migrant laborers in the area and all the children have different fathers.  And so his vision of himself waivers between grandiosity and soul crushingly low self-esteem.  Remove the strange circumstances this story places him in and René could be any young man-boy with a high opinion of himself that he has done little to justify.

In “Revelation” NDiaye switches from the son to the mother.  A woman takes her mentally handicapped son on a bus ride with the intention of abandoning him once they reach their destination.  This is a very short story, only six pages long, and focuses entirely on the mother’s emotions.  At first she tells us of how she hates her son.  How he annoys her and how she mistreats him at home.  “He’s unbearable, she sometimes thought.  And also: he seems not so much insane as stupid, appallingly stupid.” Yet, we are told –

She was angry with herself for that.  This son was not cruel.  His capacity for meanness had waned even as the mother’s aggressive rancor grew.  She realized that her despair and her rage were fueled by nothing other than the progressive disappearance of those emotions in the son.

The mother, like all the characters in these stories, is self-absorbed.  She is concerned with events only in how they affect her, and as she sits next to her son she does not think about what will happen to him.  She has already begun the process of re-shaping the narrative in her head.  This son becomes the only son who understood her.  She is abandoning him because he is driving her mad, but once he is gone she will love him because of the loss her represents to her.*  She will make the most of the situation and will miss him as much as she previously despised him.

All My Friends is a slim little book.  After finishing and absorbing (and you definitely need time to absorb) what I’d just read, I couldn’t help but wonder what a longer story by this author – with all its edges softened and gaps filled in –  might look like?  That’s the tease of All My Friends.  A bit like If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, Marie NDiaye’s stories are just strange enough and interesting enough to spark readers curiosity.  And then leave them impatiently waiting for more.

Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 23 8

*Children, as a rule, do not fare well at the hands of adults in Ms. NDiaye’s world.

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The Honey Thief by Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman

May 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

The Honey Thief

One of my favorite covers ever. The effect of a watercolor or ink brush painting on the textured, matte dust jacket is gorgeous.

The best travel advice I’ve ever received is:  befriend the locals.  Or rather, convince the locals to befriend you. Whether it’s a small town in Maine or a village in Afghanistan (preferably when there’s not a war going on), no one knows a place like the people who live there.

I won’t be visiting Afghanistan any time soon – and sadly, I’m left to wonder if the Afghanistan it describes still exists – but be that as it may The Honey Thief is a great way to learn more about the nation and the Hazara people who make up roughly 22% of its population.  The book is  a collaboration between Najaf Mazari & Robert Hillman.  Mazari is a native Afghani who left his home country in 2001 and now lives in Australia with his family. He is the author of the memoir The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Sharif  Robert Hillman is the prize-winning Australian author of the autobiographyThe Boy in the Green Suit.  So both these men have some authorial experience behind them.  I call them collaborators rather than co-authors based on their  own description of the process by which this book was written  –

Najaf talks; Robert fashions what he says into the sentences that become the stories.  When Robert has completed a chapter or a story, Najaf reads it and offers suggestions.  The question Najaf asks himself as he’s reading is this:  “If these words were now translated into Dari, would my family in Afghanistan nod their heads and say, ‘This is our country.  This is true’?”

The result is an engaging little book of short stories and recipes told to us by a friendly and charismatic narrator It’s the narrative voice, Najaf Mazari’s voice I expect, that sells The Honey Thief.   His storytelling contains the perfect blend of honesty, exaggeration & nostalgia – capturing the charming informality of the oral tradition.

And the idea of including traditional recipes is pure genius.  These are written in the same style as the rest of the book and contain instructions like: “Fresh yoghurt.  This must be proper yoghurt, not that foolish yoghurt that is sometimes sold with bananas in it and strawberries and sugar”.  It’s as if you’re standing in the kitchen next to Mazari while he prepares dinner.  It’s a wonderful change from the ubiquitous discussion points meant to target the members of book clubs.

The recipes are a bonus feature that comes at the end though.  The Honey Thief starts by telling us about the Hazara people.

A tribe is a world.  I have described myself to people who are not of my tribe in this way and that, and usually I satisfy the person I’m talking to, and also satisfy myself, up to a point.    I say ‘ I am a pacifist,’ and so place myself in a very large tribe of people who share at least one belief with me.  Or I say, ‘I am a businessman,’ and the banker I am addressing knows that I can be relied on to keep an accurate account of what I buy and sell; that I make sensible decisions with my money.  I say, ‘I am a Muslim,’ and the Muslim listening to me will make a dozen assumptions about the life I lead, most of them correct.  When I meet a Hazara,  I don’t say, ‘Nice to meet you, I am Hazara.’ There is no need.  We will greet each other in a different way to the way we greet people who are not of our tribe.  We will be both excited and shy at one time.  Excited because we are brothers, shy because without even knowing my name, the man I am talking to can see deep into my heart…

From there you’ll go n to read an eclectic mix of histories, folktales, family stories and (of course) the recipes.  The Honey Thief really has a little bit of everything.  I particularly liked the stories set in the recent past (1970’s & 80’s). In many ways these are the most brutal, but that’s because they seem the most connected to current events.  Many of them follow the life of Abbas Behishti  who is a young boy dealing with the loss of his beloved grandfather when we meet him in the titular story.  As a grown man he makes a journey on motorcycle across a landscape stripped bare by  war with the Soviets.  The stark juxtaposition of a man whose way of life seems to have changed very little since his apprenticeship as a child to a beekeeper and the mujaheddin soldiers with machine guns he encounters as he travels across the country is startling… as much to him as to us.  The inclusion of these slices of a “modern” Afghanistan rounds out the book and turns it into something of a mini compendium on the Hazara people. 

Even with the introduction of modern warfare, this is still one of the more light-hearted  accounts of Afghani life I’ve read to date.  Alternating between  fables and stories makes them resonate and creates context.  Add the traditional recipes and it becomes an immersive experience.  Underlying it all is the deep love of an expatriate for the home he’s left behind. The Honey Thief is a chance to learn about a place and it’s people from someone who knows it best.

Publisher:  Viking, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 670 02648 7

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The Rise of the Short Story – Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog

March 15, 2013 § 3 Comments

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

The tagline for Winstonsdad’s Blog is “best in translated lit from all four corners”.  That’s no idle boast:  Stu has reviewed 325 books from approximately 86 countries.  He’s the creator of the popular #TranslationThurs hashtag – and is one of the most passionate bloggers on the topic of translated and international literature on the web.  To be honest, I’m not sure where he finds the time!  When he’s not blogging or tweeting ( @stujallen ), then he’s participating in a lit month dedicated to one country or another, or engaged in a reading challenge or a juror on a shadow jury.
Simply put – If you’re interested in translations then you NEED to be reading Stu’s blog and following him on twitter.  Period.

I like the occasional short story I sit in the fence I regards them never a huge fan or hater of short stories ,because of the nature of what I rad mostly translations as with them in English they tend to be second class so there isn’t as many translated .But in recent years it is slowly change press like Peirene ,archipelago ,granta and new directions have all been publishing wonderful collections in translation . As for the short story on whole I thing as media and ways we read have changed they have come more to the for they suit podcasts ,phones and e readers and average short story can be read in a days commute to work . I feel short story have found there new home in the digital world .

As for a suggestion I ll give one definitive one and a couple other writers my book suggestion is Circus  Bulgaria by Deyan Enev a collection In Translation of rather unusual and odd short stories my favorite being one about a little boy and a hedgehog at night . My other suggestion is to look at the short stories of some great writers Evelyn Waugh and  E M Forster both much better known for the novels but both wrote innovative short stories much different than there novels at times .

Stu’s recommendations:  Circus Bulgaria by Deyan Enev, Evelyn Waugh & E.M. Forster

Thank you Stu for sharing your thoughts and recommendations on the rise of the short story.  And (most sincerely) for creating #TranslationThurs

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The Rise of the Short Story – Jenn the Picky Girl

March 8, 2013 § 2 Comments

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Jenn is the quintessential Southern lady.  She’s just so darn nice!  We first met in New York City at the 2012 Book Expo, where I like to think we bonded in the line for Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven.  On her blog – The Picky Girl:  Reads, Creates, Blogs she not only  reviews books both critically and academically;  Jenn gives readers a window into the life of a single girl in the great state of Texas.  And –  I know you’re dying to ask – is she really that picky?  Keep reading and you’ll find out.

Short stories are, by their very nature, finite, and it is those very parameters that make them so artful in my eyes. It’s much like a snapshot in comparison to film. Not that movies are any better or worse than photographs, but the photographer has to craft the moment in a snapshot in a way that filmmakers (often) do not. The best photographs are those that seem to bleed beyond the borders, attempting to elucidate the objects or people contained within. A good short story does exactly that. My friend Jason Rice had his short story “Again, I Do, Redux”  published over at Vol. 1 Brooklyn yesterday. It’s brief but fascinating to read about a guy who realizes on his honeymoon he’s made the wrong choice. There’s nothing simple about it, yet it’s so accessible.

I argue this quite a lot, even though short story collections are least written about on book blogs and other review outlets. I think the dilemma is not so much the reading of the short stories but the writing about them. How do you begin? If the collection doesn’t tie together in terms of interconnected stories or characters, how on earth can you review it as a whole? It can certainly be difficult, and most reviews focus on stronger, more interesting stories, while reviewing the writing overall.

But reading short stories is another matter altogether. Perfectly fitted to waiting rooms, traffic jams, class breaks, or bed, in the last 20 minutes or so before sleep, a short story collection sits waiting. Most collections are loosely connected and can be picked up and put down, unlike a novel where continuity is typically key. I find myself seeking out short stories when I’m particularly busy or no book on my shelves is too inviting. They’ve gotten me out of more than one reading slump, and the confines of the narrative and complexities of the subject matter continually fascinate me.

So today I wanted to highlight my short story writer trifecta, the three short story writers whose writing is simple but far from simplistic, whose work I return to again and again, never tiring of the beauty and humanity encapsulated in such brief spaces:

Part of what I love about short fiction is the payoff. When you read a novel, sometimes the payoff is long in coming. In short stories, you don’t have long to wait, and the first time I read “Cathedral”, I sat, book in hand, tears in my eyes. Because Carver’s characters are nothing special. They’re Joe Blow, shallow, jealous, profane, insensitive. They’re you and I on our worst days. But there is some spark, some moment that lifts them from their ordinary lives, and the result is profound.

Start with: “A Small Good Thing”/”Careful”

Cheever. John Cheever speaks to the lost magic and wonder of adulthood. His stories are often called “stories of suburbia,” but in truth, they’re about the humdrum life of the adult, and those ways in which we either fall prey to it or challenge it.

If you’ve read anything by John Cheever, odds are it’s “The Swimmer”. And, if you haven’t read it, click on that little linkamajink, stat. Cheever’s stories are rife with internal conflict, but there’s also a sense of wonder in his stories that never fails to amaze me because of the sober subject matter. “The Swimmer” is the story of a man who decides one lazy Sunday afternoon to swim across town in swimming pools. And if that sounds odd, just wait until you see where these swimming pools take him. When we discuss this story in my Intro to Lit class, I have students help me create a map of the pools along with complete descriptions before we analyze this epic journey. It never fails to involve just about everyone (and if you teach, you know how difficult engagement can be).

Start with: “The Enormous Radio”/”The Country Husband”

I would say, of the three, Dubus is the most different. Whereas Cheever and Carver’s characters are isolated, whether they know it or not, Dubus’ characters are so humane. His character sketches are so sympathetic and forgiving of human failings. These are people facing loss of different sorts, and they react in the ways we do or the ways we might want to but cannot or do not.

Again, to focus on one particular story, “Killings” is probably his most anthologized story. A mother and father grieve for their son, and justice is far from being done. Watching his wife is almost as painful as Matt’s own grief, and that grief leads him to act in the only way he can conceive. It’s heartbreaking, and his anger, guilt, and sadness are palpable, urging you to understand and forgive, even if Matt himself cannot.

Start with: “A Father’s Story”

Jenn Recommends the masters of the short story:  John Cheever, Raymond Carver & Andre Dubus.

Thanks Jenn, for taking part!

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The Rise of the Short Story – Bristol Short Story Prize

February 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

TheRISEoftheShortStoryWelcome to The Rise of the Short Story:  a series dedicated to exploring the short story  and its current renaissance.  To that end – all during the month of February some of my favorite bloggers and podcasters will stop by to tell us why they love (or hate) short stories, why they think they’re back into vogue and to (of course!) recommend some of their favorites.

Inaugurated in Bristol, England in 2007, the Bristol Short Story Prize was created by the editors of the Bristol Review of Books (a quarterly magazine – and yes, that’s a lot of Bristols).  I learned about the prize thanks to RobAroundBooks.  Their goal is to… actually, they put it so well I’ll just let them tell you.  Here’s the list entitled “Our Aims” straight from their website.

  • To publish a brilliant short story anthology every year, full of fresh and original writing, and to get it stocked in as many bookshops as possible. This includes high street chains, independent shops and online booksellers.
  • To inspire and encourage writers and readers.
  • To discover and promote previously unpublished writers.
  • To provide) an opportunity for writers to get published.
  • To share our enthusiasm for short stories in as many ways and with as many people as possible.
  • To establish ShortStoryVille as a dynamic and exciting annual celebration of short stories.
  • To inspire young people to read and write short stories through our schools’ projects.
  • To establish Bristol as a short story centre.
  • To raise the profile, support and raise funds for Bristol Review of Books magazine.

After a little back and forth via Twitter (@BristolPrize) with Joe Melia, who is the prize coordinator, I realized I’d found the perfect person to ask to dissect the popularity, the importance and the current cultural relevance of short stories.  And – lucky for us – Joe graciously agreed.

In the UK there’s definitely been an increase in short story activity in recent years – the number of stories and collections being published, the number of reviews, the amount of comment and discussion, the
emergence of the Edge Hill Prize for short story collections, and the explosion in short story events. You
only have to check out the ever-growing list of U.K. and Irish magazines and journals publishing short
stories on Tania Hershman’s website as an example, or look to the emergence of a single short story
category in the prestigious Costa Book Awards. Bear in mind, too, that Tania’s list doesn’t include lots of
the mainstream magazines that have been publishing short stories for decades like Woman’s Weekly. And all this in a country that according to publishing folklore doesn’t give a hoot about short stories.

I think this increase is largely down to the way the internet and social media etc have enabled short story
readers, writers and publishers to connect with each other and share their enthusiasm. Websites like The
Short Review, RobAroundBooks, Threshholds in the U.K., and U.S. ones like Charles May’s blog, The
Mookse and The Gripes, and Books On the Night Stand’s Short Story Project for example. This has
shown just how many people there are who really do want to read short stories.

There’s a great sense of occasion when reading a short story. It’s a real commitment, there’s no room for
daydreaming like you may sometimes get away with in a novel. The reader is completely involved and
the rewards are immense. I love that Stephen Amidon quote about George Saunders : ‘You do not read
Saunders’s stories so much as watch them detonate on the page in front of you’. It’s a brilliant depiction
of what happens when a story works for you as a reader. Or the writer Elizabeth Taylor’s observation that the mighty Alison Macleod often quotes: “the short story gives the reader the feeling of “being lifted into another world, instead of sinking into it, as one does with longer fiction” “.

I don’t subscribe to the idea that short stories suit this current era more than any other because of short
attention spans, the hectic pace of life etc. etc. Short stories have always been relevant – in this era and
every other. Or the idea that they’re great because you can wolf down a story in a lunch break or sprint
through one on a commute. If anything the opposite is probably true, I think. To make the most of
reading a short story you have to ‘slow down’ as Professor Harold Bloom says in his book ‘How to Read
and Why’. Or as Lorrie Moore put it in a Paris Review interview:

“There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we
know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time
they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.”

If anything, the scoff-it-quick idea may well be a reason why some readers don’t take to short stories. If
you approach a short story thinking “this is going to take me five minutes, it’ll be really quick, I can just
whiz through it and it will blow my mind” then you’re going to be disappointed most of the time.

A defining moment for short stories in the U.K. may be on the way. The much-anticipated Literature
Prize is set to fully unveil itself in a month or so as it aims to become the UK’s most prestigious literary
award. It will certainly get massive exposure. There are big hopes that it will invite short story collections
to be submitted as well as novels. Not before time. Canada’s big literary award the Giller Prize, for
instance, has accepted short stories as well as novels for nearly 20 years. If it happens then there will finally be a major U.K.-based literary award and celebration of fiction writing where novels and short
stories are given equal billing. Literature Prize gang may you have the courage and the vision to do this!
And then, what if the £40,000 first prize were to go to a short story collection? Now that’s a story that would definitely detonate!

Joe recommends:  Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins; Aerogrammes by Tania James; This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You by Jon McGregor; My Mother Was An Upright Piano by Tania Hershman; The Stone Thrower by Adam Marek. 

And I recommend any of the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthologies (good news for those of us in the U.S.A. – there’s free worldwide postage and shipping).  

Thanks Joe, for taking part!


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