Attrib. and other stories – Eley Williams

I should start with a confession: I love Eley Williams’ work. I’ve loved it since ‘Smote (or When I Find I Cannot Kiss You In Front Of A Print By Bridget Riley)’ was shortlisted for The White Review Prize in 2015. It’s a story I read repeatedly when I was trying to work out whether my own writing was experimental or not and it’s heart-stoppingly beautiful. It’s not even the best piece in Williams’ debut collection.

Williams’ stories are primarily concerned with three things: language, love (in many forms) and animals. These three things are woven together in almost every story.

The collection begins with ‘The Alphabet (or Love Letters or Writing Love Letters, Before I Forget How To Use Them or These Miserable Loops Look So Much Better On Paper Than In Practice)’. The plot of this is not and will not be obvious begins the narrator. It’s such a bold statement I wonder whether it’s an intention for the collection. With regards to the story, it’s because the narrator has aphasia.

I completely lost it (the plot, not the glasses – they’re only mislaid) about two weeks ago around the same time that I mislaid you. If you were here you would make a filthy joke about my use of that word, about you being miss laid. Scratch that, then. Screw it or unscrew that work out of place. Two weeks ago is when I lost it – the plot – round about the same time that you were not mislaid by me but were misplaced. When you misplaced me. Two weeks ago is when we ceased to converge by the bedside table, beneath the sofa, by the fridge.

There’s a point towards the end of this piece where I’ve noted ‘There’s a real emotional oomf in this’, the loss of not just words but a lover, the two tied together as though they would be the worst two things to happen at the same time, which, for a lover of words, they just might be.

Williams uses a lot of humour in her work. The set up for ‘Alight at the Next’ is funny in itself: the narrator wants to ask their date to come home with them. They’re just working up to the speech they’ve composed to deliver in time with the slowing motion of the train

when the doors are opening and you are standing closer to me than you ever have, and I have been counting, and measuring, and the doors have opened and

 / / a man / / pushes on / / to get inside / / the carriage / / before I’ve had time / / to step down

so without thinking and certainly without hinges I am holding out my hand and placing a finger in the middle of his forehead.

The rest of the story takes place while the narrator holds the man by his forehead, preventing him from embarking.

As for the animals, well, look away if you’re an animal lover…

In many ways my workplace is the loveliest in the whole country. They are still songbirds, after all, even when they are screaming in the pot.

so begins ‘Fears and Confessions of an Ortolan Chef’. In ‘Bulk’ a whale’s body is washed up on the beach; in ‘Mischief’ we encounter a rat trained to detect landmines, and in the final story of the collection, ‘Spins’ (shortlisted for The White Review Prize 2014), a spider weaves its web in the corner of the room an hour after the narrator’s lover has left them. A tip for beginners: spiders are not great conversationalists.

Williams’ work is clever, funny and thoughtful without being pretentious but what makes Attrib. and other stories one of the best books I’ve read so far this year is the huge beating heart at the centre of it all. There were points in some of the stories where I was so willing the narrator on in their quest to connect with someone that I found I couldn’t breathe. It’s a sign of a great writer when they can make you care so deeply about an unnamed fictional creation. Williams is a great writer and I have no doubt there’s even better to come from her.

I interviewed Eley about the collection, the state of the short story and completing creative work as part of a PhD thesis.

Did Eley insert a made up word in her collection?

You can buy Attrib. and other stories from Amazon and Waterstones or support your local independent book shop. If, like me, you don’t have one, I recommend Big Green Bookshop.

Thanks to Eley for the interview and to Influx Press for the review copy.

Homesick for Another World – Ottessa Moshfegh

And anyway, there is no comfort here on Earth. There is pretending, there are words, but there is no peace. Nothing is good here. Nothing. Every place you go on Earth, there is more nonsense.

The characters in Ottessa Moshfegh’s short story collection Homesick for Another World will come as no surprise if you’ve read her Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel Eileen. The people who populate these tales are inappropriate, slack, liars, cheaters, sleezeballs, hypocrites – they are us.

Two stories – ‘Bettering Myself’ and ‘Slumming’ – are narrated by teachers, those bastions of standards and rules and betterment. In ‘Bettering Myself’ which opens the collection, a teacher at a Catholic school keeps a sleeping bag in the back of her room to facilitate naps when she’s still drunk from the previous night; considers one of her students to be a friend, and avoids teaching calculus by talking about her sex life. While ‘Slumming’ is set in the holidays when the narrator goes to live in Alna, a poor town where she owns a summerhouse. There, she eats a footlong sandwich divided in two – one half for lunch, the other for dinner; takes ten dollars’ worth of meth or heroin, depending what’s on offer in the bus-depot restroom three times a week, and occasionally hangs out with Clark who looks after the summerhouse the rest of the year. They slept together the first year she was there, ‘me crouching under the sloped ceiling, his genitals swung in my face like a fist’.

It’s not that I lacked respect for the people of Alna. I simply didn’t want to deal with them. I was tired. During the school year, all I did was contend with stupidity and ignorance. That’s what teachers are paid to do.

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Many of the stories are concerned with the behaviour of men. Mr Wu is in love with the woman who dispenses the tokens at the arcade he frequents but doesn’t know how to speak to her. While he makes a plan, he visits sex workers in the city, averting his eyes when he has sex with them because ‘He had learned somewhere that closing your eyes meant that you were in love’. In ‘A Dark and Winding Road’, the narrator escapes to his parents’ cabin in the mountains following a fight with his pregnant wife, ‘to have one last weekend to myself before the baby was born and my life as I’d known it was ruined forever’. There he discovers a dildo underneath the blankets on the bed and an unexpected visitor.

Probably the best piece, if you were to judge each story alone, comes in the middle of the collection: ‘An Honest Woman’. A young woman meets her 60-year-old neighbour, Jeb, over the chain-link fence that separates their gardens. Her partner’s recently left her, while Jeb is widowed and has a nephew about the young woman’s age.

‘I’ll meet her,’ said the nephew. ‘But I’m not saying I’ll take her out. I don’t need any drama.’

‘What drama? You should be so lucky,’ Jeb said. ‘A sweet gal. Comes with baggage, of course, as they all do.’

‘Kids?’ the nephew asked. ‘Forget it.’

‘No, no kids. Emotional issues, more like,’ Jeb said. ‘You know women. Stray cats, all of them, either purring in your lap or pissing in your shoes.’

The story takes a creepy turn when the woman visits Jeb, waiting for his nephew but a storm prevents his arrival. Moshfegh highlights the irony of Jeb’s statement about women quoted above when she has him behave as an entitled, misogynistic white man.

It’s at this point in the collection that Moshfegh’s aim starts to become clear: this is a collection of stories about ordinary people at their worst, it’s a mirror held up to today’s society: to the misogyny, to the privilege, to the hypocrisy. Some of the characters know better but can’t be arsed to do better; some of them make an attempt but fall flat at the first hurdle. The collection’s full of characters for whom, essentially, nothing changes. To pull this off and maintain the interest of the reader is quite a feat and Moshfegh does it with style. Her prose is sharp, nailing thoughts, feelings and the messiness of life, love and sex – of which there is plenty.

This an accomplished collection. Every story is worthy of inclusion but there’s something about them taken together which really is spectacular. Ottessa Moshfegh is a remarkable writer.

 

Thanks to Jonathan Cape for the review copy.

Difficult Women – Roxane Gay

There’s an easy way to find out whether or not you’re a difficult woman according to the title story in Roxane Gay’s debut collection: check your pulse.

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Death makes them more interesting. Death makes them more beautiful. It’s something about their bodies on display in final repose – eyes wide open, lips blue, limbs stiff, skin cold. Finally, it might be said, they are at peace.

Although still not safe from the patriarchal gaze.

Societal structure and its oppression of women forms the backbone of the collection. Beginning with ‘I Will Follow You’ in which two sisters – Carolina and Savvie – whose relationship is so close that when Carolina’s husband moves to Nevada and Savvie doesn’t want to go, they remain in California together. And ending with ‘Strange Gods’ in which an unnamed narrator tells the man who’s asked him to marry her ‘There are things you do not know about me. These things are not inconsequential’ before relating the various ways in which she self-harms and the reason for her behaviour.

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When Gay’s good, she’s very very good. In ‘Open Marriage’, the narrator eats a tub of sour yoghurt to prove a point as her husband declares he wants an open marriage. The payoff is delicious and had me punching the air.

‘Requiem for a Glass Heart’ details a relationship between a glass woman and her stone thrower husband. She wants space from his protection, from her husband ‘who sees too much and loves too carefully’ but discovers he seeks his own space too.

‘I Am a Knife’ and ‘The Sacrifice of Darkness’ both involve women dealing with tragedies. The first has a wife hunting with her husband, attempting to fill a void:

When the buck was finally dead, I used one fingernail, cutting the creature open from his neck to his rear. His flesh fell open slowly, warm innards steaming out into the cold air. The air became sharp and humid with the stench of death surrounded by prayer. I am a knife.

While the latter is a rewriting of the Icarus myth focusing on what happened after Hiram Hightower, a miner who couldn’t face another day underground, flew into the sun, as told by his future daughter-in-law:

In the early days of darkness, we thought it might end. We thought we might once again see the sun, feel its golden shine holding our skin. The bright red crease in the sky pulsed, and like the sun, that crease grew smaller and smaller until it disappeared. Scientists tried to make sense of what happened to the sun. It was nearly impossible for them to believe a man could be so full of darkness he needed to swallow all the light of the sun.

Thematically, the stories are about relationships – with spouses, siblings, parents, lovers, ourselves; male treatment of women; whites’ treatment of blacks.

In ‘North Country’, an engineering lecturer moves from Nebraska to Michigan and has to deal with constant microaggressions.

“Are you from Detroit?”

I have been asked this question twenty-three times since moving to the area. In a month, I will stop counting, having reached a four-digit number. Shortly after that, I will begin telling people I have recently arrived from Africa.

However, ‘La Negra Blanca’ is the sole mishit. William Livingstone III is obsessed with black women and black culture. He visits a strip club where he watches Sierra, a mixed-race woman who passes for white, dance three times a week. The story lacks any subtlety and is less effective for it. It’s a shame in a collection which also highlights how sharp Gay can be elsewhere in her writing.

Overall, Difficult Women is a satisfying and, at times, a superb read. It’s impossible not to read these stories and feel that Gay gets it. She conveys what it’s like to be a living, breathing woman. The title story is divided into different types of difficult women and then into vignettes. ‘What a Crazy Woman Thinks About While Walking Down the Street’ ends like this:

She once told a boyfriend about these considerations and he said, “You are completely out of your mind.” She told a new friend at work and she said, “Honey, you’re not crazy. You’re a woman.”

 

Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.

 

 

Two Short Story Collections – Tania Hershman

Jersey Festival of Words begins this Wednesday – hurrah! I’ll be flying out on Thursday and coverage of events will start on here on Friday, although I’m sure I’ll be doing some tweeting before then. As final preparations happen, I’m covering short story collections this week beginning with those of Tania Hershman.

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Hershman has published two collections, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008) and My Mother Was an Upright Piano (Tangent Books, 2012). Part of what she does is combine science and creative writing, often in interesting and less obvious ways than you might expect.

Many of the stories in The White Road were inspired by pieces in the New Scientist. Hershman begins these with a quotation, showing where the idea came from. For the title story, it’s one about the completion of a road to the South Pole. Hershman imagines the ‘Last Stop Coffee’ place, run by the story’s narrator, Mags.

Today is one of them really and truly cold days. You’re probably thinking cold is cold is cold, either everything’s frosty or you’re sipping margaritas by the pool in Florida, but let me tell you, there are degrees of freezing.

Like many of the characters in both collections, Mags’ tale is one of loss and longing. It’s also notable, in The White Road in particular, that many of Hershman’s women break stereotypes: there’s the bride who lifts her husband over the threshold, the woman who had to give up studying physics and now makes scientific cakes:

The Sun: chocolate cake ball made in Christmas pudding mould, orange icing with brown smudges for sunspots, angel hair spaghetti mesh for the solar clouds, blue-dyed pasta as plasma shooting out from the solar storm.

The woman on a first date on a spaceship:

‘I’ve heard of men being hard to pin down,’ said Agnes, ‘but this is ridiculous. Didn’t you read the gravity section in the manual?’

Bill floated helplessly above her.

The woman who plays roulette and the one who knows how to keep a secret. If you’re wondering how some of those break stereotypes, you’ll have to read the stories!

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While The White Road is an enjoyable, varied and interesting collection, for me, My Mother Was an Upright Piano is where Hershman really finds her voice. The book is a collection of fifty-six flash fictions ranging from a paragraph to two or three pages. The scientific theme continues but is often less explicit than in The White Road. This leads to more experimental pieces and often an element of magical realism.

He meets a girl, it could almost be an accident, the way she slides into him, tips his cheek with her elbow, makes eyes at him, his whole body quivering, noticing her. It could almost be an accident, at a bus stop, or a train station, or the line for the launderette change machine, or an ice cream vendor, or someone making fresh crêpes, the egg swirling, hardening into solid substance. It could almost be an accident but it isn’t; this is what she does. She is a spy, The Devil pays her well for sliding into him, tipping his cheek with her elbow, making eyes, and she slips the cash into her bra, not trusting pockets, knowing how easy it is to finger ways inside, like electricity, and extract.

There are some fabulous single lines:

When you came back with the post, you held the letters out to me as if the red ink would burn through you like acid.

“If you sell your soul, can you buy it back later, even if it costs more?”

 A wonderful piece about Art (and science?):

We just love Art in containers, any sort of glass jars, or Tupperware, even. We adore that sense of containment, the feeling that the Art isn’t going to, well, leak out.

 Which makes an interesting contrast with this woman’s story:

She keeps her dirt in jars, in rows, on shelves, in rooms. She lives, of course, alone. Jars are labelled, jars are all the same. She does not touch the dirt, does not let it glister through her fingertips like stardust. The jars are sealed and left. If asked, she could not say why. But no-one does.

Hershman also writes perceptively about relationships. In ‘my uncle’s son’ the narrator realises:

I did not know then that sometimes you just need to give and keep giving until you pull the other person with you, until they are pulled over the edge and you are flying together.

And in the title story, music becomes a metaphor for passion:

My mother was an upright piano, spine erect, lid tightly closed, unplayable except by the maestro. My father was not the maestro. My father was the piano tuner; technically expert, he never made her sing. It was someone else’s husband who turned her into a baby Grand.

The stories in this collection are a joy to read; when they really work – which many do – they soar. Hershman’s skilled at creating a whole tale in a very short space. She has a third collection coming early 2017 and I’m already eager to read it.

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Tania Hershman appears at Jersey Festival of Words with poet Jo Bell, Saturday 1st October 5pm in the Arts Centre. Tickets are available here.

Daughters of Decadence and ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This week, my favourite publishing imprint (for obvious reasons) Virago is reissuing the short story collection Daughters of Decadence: Stories by Women Writers of the Fin de Siècle, edited by Elaine Showalter. The collection includes stories by Kate Chopin, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Mew and Constance Fenimore Woolson, amongst others. Possibly the most famous story included is feminist classic ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Rather than cover the whole collection, Virago asked whether I’d focus on this one story and, having last read it as an undergraduate student some twenty years ago, I’m delighted to revisit it.

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‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is narrated by an unnamed woman. She has moved, along with her husband, John, into an ‘ancestral hall’ for the summer whilst work is carried out on their home. The house is cheap and has been uninhabited for some time which leads her to believe ‘there is something queer about it’. Her husband disagrees. He also disagrees with her when she tells him she is ill.

If a physician of high standing, and one’s own husband, assures friends and relatives that there is really nothing the matter with one but temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency – what is one to do?

My brother is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing.

[…]

Personally, I disagree with their ideas.

Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good.

But what is one to do?

Not two pages in and already I’m furious at Freud – he’s got a lot to answer for when it comes to society’s views of women. Did someone mention the patriarchy?

The narrator goes on to describe the room which they’ve taken for their bedroom. The room was her husband’s choice – ‘I don’t like our room a bit’ – and she’s particularly perturbed by the wallpaper:

I never saw a worse paper in my life.

One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin.

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions.

The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

It is a dull yet lurid orange in some places, a sickly sulphur in others.

No wonder the children hated it! I should hate it myself if I had to live in this room long.

As the story progresses, the narrator becomes obsessed with the wallpaper, convinced that there are two different patterns to it and that they change with the light. Then she discovers there’s a woman behind it, trying to get out…

Two key things I haven’t mentioned yet are – one – that the narrator is a writer but her husband and her sister-in-law disapprove of her pursuit. She writes the story in snatched moments, hiding her work when one of them enters the room. By making her a writer, Gilman highlights how women have been denied their own voices and the right to tell their own stories. Two – that the narrator is a mother. It’s four pages into the story before she mentions the baby and we never see him. Here the possibility that the narrator is suffering from post-natal depression is raised. Why don’t the men in her life consider this? At the time the story was written it had only recently been recognised as a condition. Also, why would a new mother be depressed? Having a child is what women are made for, isn’t it?

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ considers the merits of the rest cure and finds them lacking. It looks at the feelings of entrapment women experience trying to survive in a patriarchal society which dictates their emotions to them, tells them what they need and expects them to conform to marriage and motherhood without protest. It’s an incredibly powerful story and one that continues to resonate more than a century after it’s initial publication.

 

Thanks to Virago for the review copy.

The Greatest of These – Part Four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon

An absolute treat today: part four of an exclusive short story by Joanna Cannon, author of the hotly anticipated The Trouble with Goats and Sheep. I loved the novel, which I included in my Ones to Read in 2016, and will review it in full next week. The story – ‘The Greatest of These’ gives a real flavour of the novel in terms of introducing some of the main characters, the tone and the themes. If you haven’t seen parts one to three, a list of all the places the story is appearing is below.

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Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

It was Tilly who noticed him first.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees. He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

He said he was stuck.

‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

The women of American Housewife tell their stories in tales that range from between a page and forty pages in length. Some, anonymously, tell us about themselves:

I shred cheese. I berate a pickle jar. I pump the salad spinner like a CPR dummy. I strangle defrosted spinach and soak things in brandy. I casserole. I pinwheel. I toothpick. I bacon. I iron a tablecloth and think about eating lint from the dryer, but then think better of that because I am sane.

Others give instructions about the ‘Southern Lady Code’, ‘How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady and ‘How to Be a Patron of the Arts’, the latter seemingly a guide to Ellis herself as much as to the reader.

The first real gem in the collection, ‘The Wainscotting War’, is told entirely through emails between two neighbours in an apartment building. Beginning with passive-aggressive lines: I’ve returned your basket to our shared mail table, which I believe is an antique toilet, to blatant dislike: Our hallway looks like a room at the Met that makes schoolchildren cry, to outright aggression: To quote your graffiti: Suck it, to an ending that will make you reconsider ever getting involved in a dispute with a neighbour.

Many of the women hide real sadness behind their snide retorts and one-liners. Like the wife of the pilgrimage-worthy bra-fitter who begins her story with: The Fitter is mine. Myrtle Babcock can get her flabby pancake tits out of his face and ends it with the secret as to why business is booming, and the women in ‘Hello! Welcome to Book Club’ who cover up their sorrows with their regular meeting and ‘Book Club names’.

In the longest story in the collection, ‘Dumpster Diving with the Stars’, a writer of an out-of-print cult classic goes on a reality TV show suggested by her best friend, a ‘chick-lit’ writer who publishes a book a year. Her roommate and partner in the competitions is Mitzy, former Playmate and girlfriend of Hugh Hefner. She’s an identical twin and it’s the first time she’s ever been separated from her sister. Structured through the ‘Cardinal Reality Rules’, the first person writer narrator shows us the reality behind reality TV – who’s hiding what and why; how the contestants are manipulated – and delivers some interesting points about the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

American Housewife is as much about writing as it is being a housewife in 21st Century America. Several stories in the collection involve a writer, mostly revolving around ideas of how to survive when your career isn’t going as you dreamed it would. Getting a sponsorship deal with Tampax isn’t the answer, it seems.

The women in the book who aren’t writers are somewhat unpredictable. Beneath their polished veneers, they’re plotters, kidnappers and murderers. Their stories are delightfully dark and twisted, showing that while women might not seem to have the upper hand in society, they’re damn well going to take it anyway.

American Housewife is an absolute jewel of a collection: dark, piercing and laugh-out-loud funny.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere – ZZ Packer

Bar one, the protagonists who populate ZZ Packer’s debut short story collection are young women on the brink of discovering something about themselves, life or both. They push boundaries and challenge authority often hiding the vulnerability they feel from those around them but not the reader.

In the title story, a young woman, Dina, is one of the few black students at Yale. During an orientation exercise, students have to state which inanimate object they wanted to be. Having grown up being ‘good in all the ways that were meant to matter’, Dina says she wants to be ‘a revolver’ and ends up with a year’s worth of psychiatric counselling.

“You’re pretending,” Dr. Raeburn said…”Maybe it’s your survival mechanism. Black living in a white world.”

…Dr. Raeburn would never realize that “pretending” was what had got me this far. I remembered the morning of my mother’s funeral. I’d been given milk to settle my stomach; I’d pretended it was coffee. I imagined I was drinking coffee elsewhere. Some Arabic-speaking country where the thick coffee served in little cups was so strong it could keep you awake for days.

Race is mentioned in several stories: in ‘Doris Is Coming’ there’s a discussion about the phrase ‘flesh coloured’ and its inaccuracy; in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ as teenagers Marcelle and Tia meet in the bus station before Tia runs away, Marcelle says the bus driver won’t notice them, “We all look the same to them anyway”, and in ‘The Ant of the Self’, the young male narrator and his father attend a race rally in Washington, selling birds. However, besides ‘Brownies’, the first story in the collection, where a girl from a troop of black brownies, accuses a girl from a group of white brownies of calling her ‘a nigger’, the stories aren’t centered on race. They seem to root themselves equally in being female in a male world and on the protagonists finding their own path, or not. At the end of ‘Brownies’, the narrator, Laurel, says, “…and suddenly [I] knew there was something mean in the world that I could not stop’.

In ‘Every Tongue Shall Confess’, Clareese Mitchell, member of the choir at Greater Christ Emmanuel Pentecostal Church of the Fire Baptized, curses the Brothers’ Church Council who’ve decided the choir must wear white every Missionary Sunday ‘when her womanly troubles were always at their absolute worst!’ That’s the thin end of the wedge for her though as far as the behaviour of the Brothers and her patients she tends to at the hospital. While in ‘Our Lady of Peace’, Lynnea comes up against the barriers in the education system, the care system and those exploited by a police officer.

Two things stand out about the collection: the first is that the stories don’t rely on the jazzy, unexpected twist at the end. There are twists but they mostly feel more organic as though the stories could be real. ‘Speaking in Tongues’, in particular, feels as though it could be the real life story of a young girl who takes a bus to Atlanta searching for her mother and ends up in a world she wasn’t aware existed.

The second is Packer’s use of language which is precise and illuminating with regards to the human condition. In ‘Geese’, the group of young people sharing a room in a country that’s foreign to them struggle: Things simply made all of them cry and sigh. Things dredged from the bottom of their souls brought them pain at the strangest moments and the protagonist has a plan: Or rather, it wasn’t really a plan at all, but a feeling, a nebulous fluffy thing that had started in her chest, spread over her heart like a fog. While Tia, the runaway in ‘Speaking in Tongues’ describes her aunt’s love as: …a smothering sort of love: love because you had to, never getting the chance to find out whether you wanted to or not. And sometimes, she simply tells it straight, like in ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ where Dina’s expected to take part in the trust exercise where you fall back into someone else’s arms: Russian roulette sounded like a better way to go.

Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is an impressive collection: eight distinct stories with distinct voices, considering life (mostly) in America for a range of (mostly female) young people. Packer’s been working on her debut novel for over a decade now, on the strength of these stories I’m adding myself to the queue of people anticipating it.