And Other Stories – 28 April 2024

I am going to write about short fiction without (only) mentioning Claire Keegan, brevity without pulling out that Mark Twain/Pascal/Cicero-attributed quotation about how if he’d had more time he would have written a shorter letter, concision whilst questioning my own abilities in that regard.

I have been reading Ghost Pains by Jessi Jezewska Stevens. This short story collection opens with the morning after a party, a party the narrator tried to cancel which went ahead anyway until it was cut short. The rhythm of the writing swept me up so that I was at times amused, at times nervous, at times fearful about the coming disaster. The narrator offers a few details about her past while really one learns about her from the way she cinches her nightgown, the way she treats her basil plant and the way she shops for the party, buying apples and grapes as if she were creating a still life rather than lining her guests’ stomachs.

In another story, a couple on their honeymoon in Tuscany are obedient to The List, compiled by an officious friend with a PhD in medieval studies: they have strict instructions on what they must see and how they should react; they must enter every church. That leads to sentences beginning with phrases such as, “The morning after Herod.” The wife, reflecting on her change from acquaintance to girlfriend to fiancée to bride to newlywed and tourist notes, “One is quite low on self-esteem following a wedding, and Tuscany is no help.”

In Siberia, two ex-lovers speak on the telephone. There are sirens in the background. They may not leave their apartments. The streets are empty, then arenas of dread. They watch themselves and imagine each other as if in a play, staging the scenes, writing their lines. Chekhov, Nabokov and Beckett enter, Nabokov noting that if a butterfly appears in Act One, Chekhov supplying that it must ignite in Act Two…

There is so much quiet power in these short stories. The displaced, off-kilter characters, even those met fleetingly, will stay with you.

Ghost Pains is published by And Other Stories in their elegant new cover design, the kind which makes booksellers like me paw at the books and vow to start a comprehensive collection with a dedicated shelf. I have previously written about how much I loved Lublin by Manya Wilkinson (three boys on a doomed journey to sell paintbrushes) and Inland by Gerald Murnane (a narrator reaching out his hand to the reader, then snatching it back and then offering it again but by that point the reader has whiplash and misses it). The refined covers reflect the exceptional quality of the writing inside.

I plan to read Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq next, a novel about a young Inuk woman growing up in Nunavat, Canada, in which the extraordinary landscape plays a central role and which is layered with Tagaq’s songwriting.

All of which is to say that I hope you will be as excited as I am that Heron Books are working with And Other Stories for this year’s Independent Bookshop Week. Doubtless when the year began and you filled in your new diary this was the first event you entered. But, just in case, IBW runs from 15-22 June. That’s how much there is to celebrate – we needed an eight-day week.

Some more favourites titles from And Other Stories and full details of our IBW events are here.

We are particularly excited to welcome Stefan Tobler to discuss Pitch & Glint by Lutz Seiler. As the translator and publisher, it will be fascinating to have his insights into this poetry collection, rooted in an East German village and its harsh history.

I also can’t wait to explore Black Vodka by Deborah Levy over a glass of… something. Anyone who has been in the shop for longer than five minutes probably knows about my deep love for her writing and the stories in this book connect with each other with Levy’s characteristic subtlety.

Do sign up now for the poetry group and the short fiction group and do get writing in order to enter our flash fiction competition.

And other books, in brief:

Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear by Mosab Abu Toha: these poems about growing up in Gaza, surviving attacks, seeing others killed, carrying on with life, rebuilding libraries amongst the ruins were published in 2022. They hold a brutality and a beauty.

Love’s Work by Gillian Rose: as she was dying, the philosopher Gillian Rose wrote this final book, somehow reflecting on her Jewish upbringing, her relationships, her terminal diagnosis and on suffering, injustice and love in fewer than one hundred pages.  

My Mother’s Tongues by Uma Menon, illustrated by Rahele Jomepour Bell: a picturebook about a young girl, fascinated by her mother’s superpower of speaking two languages, Malayalam and English, and thus curious about her mother’s migration from India and what that story entails.  
The Final Year by Matt Goodfellow, illustrated by Joe Todd-Stanton: a verse novel about the last year of primary school, following a boy as he tries to navigate changes in friendship and finds his love of reading and writing.

And other events:
On 10th May we are launching Dead Animals by Phoebe Stuckes and Birding by Rose Ruane. Do book your tickets to hear from these extraordinary debut novelists.
On 18th May Rory Waterman joins us to launch his fourth poetry collection Come Here to this Gate, with a reading also from the wonderful poet Zoe Brooks.

May your Sunday contain slim multitudes,

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