Thursday, 25 September 2008


Since starting this blog I've come to realise that it's as likely to advertise my ignorance as it is to show off my impeccable literary taste. So this is the moment to admit that until today I had never read anything by Joyce Carol Oates.

The opportunity to rectify this embarrassing gap in my reading came via an email from Narrative magazine about its Story of the Week. (I encourage you to take a moment to register for this free service on the Narrative website.) Gargoyle is an urgent monologue about loneliness, infidelity and betrayal in which the perspective of the narrator shifts disconcertingly from mistress to wife and back again. Its theatricality, circularity and theme reminded me of Play by Samuel Beckett, seen here in a screen adaptation by the late Anthony Minghella.

Gargoyle led me to another Joyce Carol Oates story, this time in the New Yorker. Spider Boy is just as impressive, and again features a central character who is haunted by a kind of doppelgänger.

Narrative magazine doesn't indicate whether Gargoyle comes from a forthcoming collection, but Spider Boy can be found in last year's High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories. Yet another one to add to the must-read list.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


Once again I am indebted to the Guardian Books blog, this time for drawing my attention to Untitled Books, which describes itself as 'a young, hip, discerning new literary service and online bookshop.' Not only that, it 'also aims to find, support and promote the work of up and coming and new authors'. Good on them, I say.

As evidence of the latter pledge, the website features a number of short stories by writers whose names were new to me. I enjoyed Katy Darby's Mufti Day, a touching and funny exploration of how a sober city gent comes to terms with the loss of his job and the death of his wife. Bugs Bunny, karaoke and sartorial experimentation all play a part.

Wednesday, 17 September 2008


The Guardian Books blog has welcome news about the launch of the Horizon Review, a new online literary magazine with a venerable old name. The debut issue features six short stories, which I am looking forward to sampling.

Meanwhile another famous literary name, Hamish Hamilton, is behind the magazine Five Dials. This is a produced as a very attractive downloadable PDF. I particularly recommend Arthur Bradford's story in the second issue, which has just been published. Called 'Travels with Paul', it reads like the plot of a Jim Jarmusch road movie. I hadn't read anything by Bradford before, but would be encouraged to investigate his collection, Dogwalker.

Monday, 15 September 2008


As mentioned previously, the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award will be presented to Jhumpa Lahiri later this month. In a controversial decision, the jury decided to dispense with the traditional shortlist and announce her collection, Unaccustomed Earth, as the outright winner. You can read an illuminating interview with Lahiri here.

The success of the book—it went straight to the top of the New York Times bestseller list—is enough to gladden the heart of any lover of the genre, or cure any publisher of the prejudice that short story collections do not sell. Fortunately the work itself more than lives up to expectations. Lahiri has a calm, beguiling style that immediately draws the reader into the lives of her characters, a hidden world of Bengali immigrants transplanted to suburban middle-America: 'I spoke to no one of your arrival; I almost never revealed details of my home life to my American friends. As a child, I had always dreaded my birthdays, when a dozen girls would appear in the house, glimpsing the way we lived.'

The narrator's use of the second-person singular address in Once in a Lifetime, from which the above excerpt is taken, is masterly. In Hell-Heaven, also published in the New Yorker, the sadness of a woman who has loved and lost is conveyed through the prism of her daughter's childhood memories. The quietly devastating denoument of the story reminded me of 'The Dead' in James Joyce's Dubliners. I can think of no higher praise.

Monday, 8 September 2008


One of the great pleasures of blogging is the opportunity to have a conversation with one's readers. It is always gratifying to get a positive response to a post about a featured author, but especially so when the response comes from the author concerned.

I am delighted to have struck up a correspondence with Glen Pourciau, whose debut collection of short stories, Invite, I showcased last month. I am also grateful to his publisher, the University of Iowa Press, for sending me a review copy of the book, which I am currently enjoying. The Roving Editor’s aim is not to engage in literary criticism, but to highlight literary excellence. In other words, to let the writing speak for itself. Just occasionally, we may be fortunate enough to hear directly from the author, as in this characteristically concise interview with Glen.

How and why did you become a writer?
I decided to become a writer after I read The Trial by Kafka. That’s what did it. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever read.

What, for you, is the essence of a good short story?
I have to hear the voice of the narrator to start writing a story. I think there should be complete unity between the voice telling the story and the story that is being told. As I see it, detail should be limited to what’s right for the voice and relevant to the story. Tone is the most important aspect of the voice.

Which writers do you admire?
Kafka and Beckett. I greatly admire Kleist’s novella, Michael Kohlhaas. I’m conscious of an influence from Harold Pinter. Thomas Bernhard is also in the top handful of writers I admire.

What is your writing regime?
Weekdays, I’m at my job. I manage a public library. I write very regularly on the weekends, about four hours each day, and sometimes at night during the week. I tend to pick things up at night when I’m absorbed with something. This can have to do with getting something down while a scene is vivid or it can have to do with editing.

Can you tell us about your new book, Invite? How, for example, did you decide which stories to include?
The question of which stories to include in a collection is complex. This is what I did. I got a group of stories together that I thought of as the core. I asked myself what connected those stories. In my opinion, if there isn’t a connection between some of them, the ones that are not connected have to go. They hurt the team. A story collection, as I see it, should not necessarily be a group of the writer’s best stories but the group of a writer’s stories that go together best. After settling on the core, I looked at my other stories and picked ones that best shared a kinship with the core. Ideally, each story in the group should make the other stories stronger.

What about your future writing and publication plans?
My plans are to keep writing stories and submitting them to literary magazines. I'm working on a second collection that I think could be ready, if I can decide which stories to include.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008


The short story often seems to be a neglected or undervalued literary genre. But not at the Munster Literature Centre. This is the home of the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award, 'currently the world's richest prize for the short story form.' The 2008 prize (worth €35,000) will be awarded to Jhumpa Lahiri at a festival in Cork beginning on 17 September. Amongst those attending will be Yiyun Li, Clare Wigfall and Bernard MacLaverty.

Bucharest-based Irish writer
Philip Ó Ceallaigh was on the 2006 shortlist for his debut collection, Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse. As its Short Story of the Month the Munster Literature Centre website features a new story by Ó Ceallaigh called 'Thomas and Mohommad', an unsettling account of a tourist's quest for redemption in the narrow streets of Cairo. A similar sense of dislocation pervades 'The Retreat from Moscow', one of the stories from the book, which was first published in the Dublin Review.