Monday, 21 March 2016

Reads for the Commute: Short Stories & Short Novels

If there are any benefits to commuting, it has to be the opportunity to read! But then, how frustrating is it when you only have a couple more pages to go with your chapter but it's your stop?! Or you have reached the most exciting part of the story and it's impossible to tear yourself away so you try reading while negotiating escalators and ticket barriers! What about short stories as an alternative?

I have only recently become a big fan of short stories and used to think them a slightly acquired taste. However, after reading a few more, I realised how much skill is actually involved in writing them. I also find them a good tonic in between "big" or "weighty" reads, or for following a book you've totally fallen in love with and to which nothing else is going to compare. Sometimes it's often easier to fit in "bite sized chunks" of reading around your routine and commitments. 

Here are some suggestions of collections of short stories and short novels that could easily be read or dipped in and out of during a commute or busy day.

Chess Story
Austrian author Zweig is famous for his novellas. This was first published in 1941 and is 104 pages long. I read it sitting in the car park at Sainsbury's, seven months pregnant, while my husband did the weekly shop! He had been pushing this book on me for ages and I had resisted as we read quite differently but finding myself stuck there for a while, I had nothing else to do! I didn't think I would like the style and chess does not particularly fascinate me, but once I started reading, I realised I had completely misjudged this quite powerful book! The writing is exceptionally well crafted and it is a bit of a psychological novel with interesting character analysis and clever analogies with the game of chess itself. It is memorable. Here is the blurb from Goodreads:

Travellers by ship from New York to Buenos Aires find that on board with them is the world champion of chess, an arrogant and unfriendly man. They come together to try their skills against him and are soundly defeated. Then a mysterious passenger steps forward to advise them and their fortunes change. How he came to possess his extraordinary grasp of the game of chess and at what cost lie at the heart of Zweig's story.

Fascination: Stories The Dream Lover: Short Stories
William Boyd is perhaps better known for his novels such as "Restless", "Any Human Heart" and very recently, "Sweet Caress," but he has also published several collections of short stories. I read "The Dream Lover" a long time ago with a Book Group and it had quite a mixed response. As I often find with collections, there are usually two or three stories that really stand out and then one or two which are slightly weaker links. For me that was the case here. They are quite male orientated and more like snapshots or shorts than stories. There are about 25 of them in the space of around 350 pages. Boyd is a great writer and I am always hooked by his books, but I think I prefer his novels to his short stories. However, they are worth considering and the online reviews vary enormously so - as books so often are!- it's very subjective! 
Collected Ghost Stories
M R James is the absolute master of gothic tales and ghost stories in my opinion! There are several collections available and some are free on Kindle. M R James was a victorian author but his books have inspired many of todays crime and thriller writers. Mostly he focuses on generating atmosphere, tension and understated chills rather than horror, but they are gripping and unsettling tales.

Runaway
Equally famous and masterful is Alice Munro who has published numerous volumes of short stories. This collection focuses on love. Munro is a great writer who is highly skilled at creating character and exploring emotions. Her writing is perhaps more literary fiction but she's accessible and all the characters and scenarios are engaging and resonant. 

The Garden Party and Other Stories
I should have read Mansfield years ago  - her work has been a real revelation. I read this collection first but have since tracked down several others. I think this is free on kindle as they are from the 1920s. Mansfield is fantastic at capturing moments and scenes rather than fully formed stories and I found it easy to picture each of the characters she illustrated. I liked the glimpses into people's lives during a particular segment of time or place and found them still relevant despite being nearly 100 years old. Mansfield is a must for people exploring the short story genre.

If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things
I've included Jon McGregor as a contender for your short novel choice - although it says its actually 288 pages long - I thought it was much slimmer! I know it was hard to put down and felt more like a novella - perhaps it describes just one singular day in one ordinary street full of ordinary people.

McGregor's writing is fluent and lyrical. This book is not conventional and there is a brevity of punctuation and character names, but it is poetic and hugely powerful. It was something that surprised me and provoked quite unexpected emotions. I was pleased to discover McGregor's work.
The Victorian Chaise-Longue    The Closed Door and Other Stories
Always a pleasure when I can squeeze in a few Persephone recommendations!!
"The Victorian Chaise Longue" is a mere 99 pages long and is about the story of a woman falling asleep on her chaise longue only to wake and find herself trapped in the body of her alter ego ninety years before. It is a psychological thriller!

Dorothy Whipple is my most favourite Persephone author! She has several novels already published with this company - all of which I highly recommend- and now this short story collection. Her novels are quite long and thick so I was intrigued at how she would handle such a reduced opportunity to build and develop stories. She doesn't disappoint. t think it is her focus on family relationships that makes her work as interesting and relevant today as it was when it was first published.
The Old Man and the Sea
Perhaps another acquired taste is Ernest Hemingway! All of his novels are relatively short -this one is 132 pages. They take a bit longer to read (well in my opinion!) as his writing style is sometimes more literary or a little inaccessible even though his speciality  is "less is more" and his concise style more arresting. I can appreciate his talent and original voice and have enjoyed several of his novels.

The Uncommon Reader Talking Heads
"Talking Heads" was published in 1988 and I ashamed to say I only read it (and the subsequent collections!) in 2015...... but thoroughly enjoyed them and wished I'd read sooner! It is a collection of monologues which depict a range of engaging voices and are brilliantly observed, darkly comic, poignant and uplifting. They are vivid and authentic and show that Bennett really is a master storyteller. Read them!

"The Uncommon Reader" has the fun premise of the Queen discovering a mobile library and working her way through it's titles with advice from its librarian. As always with Bennett, it's witty, entertaining and very well observed. A must for book lovers!

There are lots and lots of further examples but I hope this gives you a range of things to choose from and makes your Monday morning commute a little more manageable after an almost sunny spring weekend! Have a good week bibliomaniacs!

For further recommendations, reviews and bookish chat follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacUK) or sign up for email notifications of future posts

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