Jaroslavas Melnikas, Marija Marcinkute (Trans) – The Last Day

last day

Noir Press is an indie publisher who specialise in printing books by contemporary Lithuanian authors.  Earlier this year, I read Renata Serelyte’s The Music Teacher, which I thought was fabulous so my expectations were pretty high when The Last Day plopped through my mailbox.

Jaroslavas Melnikas’ The Last Day is a collection of 8 short stories and they are all stunners. Think of the intellectual surrealism of Eugene Ionesco mixed with Haruki Murakami’s early short stories. As Melnikas is a philosopher, most the short stories have a metaphysical quality to them.

One such example is the highlight The Grand Piano Room. A person who has a room with a specific function in his house starts to notice that these specific rooms are disappearing and the furniture of that specific room appears in another room i.e the piano from the music room is in the art room, then the canvases and piano then are in the study and so on. This keeps on happening until the whole house is contained in one room. There will be a solution to this conundrum but it is better to read it.

Fate is also a big theme in the book. The title story is about a person who writes the death date of every living person in the world, which leaks and leads to worldwide confusion. A.A.A. is about a man who receives a letter with four choices which affect his destiny. The concluding story, It Never Ends is about an endless experimental film that depicts life and the main protagonist knows that there are consequences by watching it.

These stories a bizarre but never annoyingly wacky. Melnikas is more concerned in getting a deeper concept out rather than proving that he is a master of writing a weird story. Saying that all eight stories are readable and Marija Marcinkute’s translation is fantastic. One of my gripes with translated books is that I can feel the translation. No such thing here.

The Last Day is a rare book for me: A short story collection which provides brain food and yet reads easily AND is consistent. Each story is pure brilliance, hopefully Melnikas’ writing will reach a wider audience. As it would be a crime if such well crafted short works do not receive wider exposure.

Many thanks to Noir Press for providing a copy of The Last Day in exchange for an honest review.

Lauren Groff – Florida

Florida

While I was reading Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida, Animal Collective’s single Floridada kept going round my brain constantly:

(contains flashing images)

The track itself is a love letter to Florida, albeit in a surreal fashion and, to a certain extent Groff’s book has the same M.O. as all 11 stories present Florida in a surprisingly positive way.

The Florida of Groff is a place with swamps, suburbs and strange people. One thing which is also interesting that 3 of the stories are about Florida natives going to France in an attempt to escape their homeland and yet these people end up returning to Florida. I guess it has a strong pull.

As I have stated many times, short stories tend to be a mixed bag for me but here all eleven are winners. Groff’s writing is superb and she captures her characters eccentricities or their bizarre situations perfectly. There are laugh out loud moments with some parts that were odd and some even creepy.  Everyone who will read this collection will definitely get something out of it.

My personal highlights were At the Round’s Earth’s Imagined Corners, a story about the son of a herpetologist. Dogs Go Wolf, a tale that reinvents feral children stories and the concluding story, Yport, which is an absolute masterpiece. Honestly only Groff can write a story about Floridians emigrating to France due to a love for Guy du Maupassant, it’s also a clever allegory about relationships.

With these stories Groff manages to realistically portray a place that is pictured as a country of sunshine, beaches and oranges. Although this is a land of alligators and snakes Groff does not give the impression that Florida is a place to avoid, rather one that has hidden depths.

Many thanks to Heinemann for providing a copy of Florida in exchange for an honest review. 

Jen Campbell – The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night

BOTW

As I have said many times, I do not like short stories, mainly because the quality varies and I usually end up liking two. In fact I can actually list the short story collections I have liked in the past:

Anything by Roald Dahl

George Saunders – Pastoralia

Lauren Holmes – Barbara the Slut

Haruki Murakami’s anthology of birthday stories

Ken Liu – The Paper Menagerie

And now I can add Jen Campbell’s The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night to that list. In fact I can’t remember the time I was so absorbed with a collection of short stories. Actually I can, when I read Pastoralia back in 2000.

Campbell’s world is bizarre, weird and quirky but never descends into gross out. If you watch her YouTube channel you know that she adores fairy tales and in a good number of the stories, fairy tales did form the basis. One example is the opener Animals, where a woman buys a swan’s heart and goes off on a tangent about swans in fairy tales.

Reading these stories was an educational experience. Margaret and Mary and the End of the World opened my eyes to Rossetti’s The Annunciation. The story Jacob (which made me laugh) explores philosophical concepts. The title story fuses creation myths with metaphysics.There’s a lot to gain here and more importantly its fun to read.

Although it is difficult to single out a fave, but I would say that Aunt Libby’s Coffin Hotel is a brilliant exploration on how to deceive people AND ask eschatological questions at the same time.  Really though all these stories are of a high standard, if anyone else has such a fertile imagination and makes it so effortless in the short story format please do tell me.

 

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women

Murakami

 

In general I like Murakami’s novels and his short stories but I had mixed feelings with this particular collection. First of all it’s not the quality of the stories. In fact I didn’t like one of them and that’s very good as I’m picky with short stories ( I blame Roald Dahl, his short stories were perfect)

What bothered me was the content of these stories. I don’t know if it is my age but I saw the majority of these stories as sexist. In this book all the males are slightly unpleasant, who view women as a commodity. These are men who visit prostitutes, cheat on their wives, leave them or simply use them. Women are portrayed as users and ummm that’s it really. I have to admit that I did feel uneasy reading this collection.

On the other hand these stories are well translated and are structurally tight. I won’t deny the fact that I enjoyed how well crafted they are and there was some pleasure in seeing how Murakami builds a story so well. Despite the less than appealing characters I still wanted to know how they would tackle the situations they were in.

Has anyone read Men without Women? any impressions similar to mine?

 

Ali Smith – Other Stories and Other Stories

OS

 

Although I can say that I’m an Ali Smith fan, I just feel that her short stories do not do her any justice. In her novels, Smith is able to expand and develop her ideas but in the short story format she doesn’t come off as witty and the stories seem like good ideas that are brief and slightly forgettable.

That’s all I can say really. None of these stories really stuck with me but they weren’t bad either, just too brief for me to like them.

Camilla Grudova – The Doll’s Alphabet

TDA

Maybe I am not too bright but I tried to pick apart Camilla Grudova’s stories but in the end I just sat back and enjoyed them.

Reading Grudova’s quirky tales took me back to the time when I first read George Saunders Pastoralia. Grudova manages to be funny and disturbing within the same sentence and every story in this collection is bizarre. Within The Doll’s Alphabet be prepared to meet werewolves, clowns, dirty people , humanoid spiders, a businessman who carried his belongings in tin cans, dystopian lit and tons more and all are told in Grudova’s stye which is reminiscent of Patty Yumi Cottrell and Otessa Moshfegh.

Although I did say that I could not understand what some of the symbols stood for, I can say that the majority of these stories have a feminist message. Nearly all the characters are females who overpower males or try improve their eccentricities but really it’s best to let Grudova’s singular prose envelope you and let the stories take on their wildly shifting shapes.

 

 

Carmen Maria Machado – Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body

 

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Although I have stated it before, I will state it again: generally I do not like short stories because I find them inconsistent. Thankfully Carmen Maria Machado’s collection kept my attention all throughout, bar one story (more of that later). In many cases I was amazed at all the ideas.

Machado’s stories, as stated in the title, focuses on the body, in particular the female body. Within these stories the body either fades away, develops boils, gets operated on or has some secrets. Despite the fact that there is a universal theme, Machado has wildly creative ways of displaying the importance of the female form. Such examples are The Husband’s Stitch, which is an updated version of a campfire story dealing with a woman who keeps a ribbon around her neck at all times or Real Women Have Bodies, where the body loses its permanence or Inventory where a woman makes a list of all the people she has loved or used her body in different ways and vice versa.

The one story, and my personal favourite, which encapsulates Machado’s main theme is Eight Bites, a fantastic piece about a woman who undergoes an operation to eat less. Maybe my interpretation is not correct, but I saw this story as a commentary on dieting culture. How we are obsessed with body image and the lengths people go to maintain a slim figure. It’s disturbing but it is a fairly realistic look at what is happening today.

There’s also a meta element to some of the stories, with The Resident being the most obvious one: A novelist takes up a residency at a sort of artists commune/hotel in the middle of nowhere, only to discover that the art world is constrictive and dangerous. In order to break free the writer undertakes a decision to give up writing, which is ironic as, obviously all the women breaking free in this collection are doing so in written word.

All these stories contain some type of surreal element which keeps the reader turning pages in order to see how far an idea can go, the post apocalyptic story Mothers is Machado at her most creative. Needless to say that the writing is also first class. Descriptions just flow and despite a lot of the ugliness that permeates these stories, there is a certain undefinable beauty in Machado’s use of similes and metaphors that captivate.

I did mention earlier that there was one story which I did not like which was Especially Heinous, a parody of Law and Order: SVU, a show I’ve never watched so this story was lost on me, this is more of a case of my ignorance but it does pay to have a background knowledge of the show.

For a person who does not like short stories, I was won over by Her Body and Other Parties, so that’s a good thing. Machado tackles topical issues with panache and style plus there’s enough quirky and inventive bits to keep the stories lasting quite a while. A unique voice that cannot be ignored