I fret about writing a sentence: whether to make it concise, minimalist and pared-down or, exuberant and rhythmic to match the tone. Are the rules that dictate brevity and concreteness enduring? My new year resolution was to craft the best sentences I could.
Adam Haslett’s feature ‘The Art of Good Writing’ is one of the best pieces I’ve read about the sentence dilemma in the ungovernable activity of writing. He looks at the forthcoming book from Stanley Fish, How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One.
He quotes from William Trevor’s story ‘A Day’ to illustrate how the aural effect and rhythm of a sentence matches the pathology of his character.
Haslett counts himself among those readers who fell in love with literature not by becoming enthralled to books but ‘by discovering individual sentences whose rhythm and rhetoric was so compelling they couldn’t help but repeat them’.
It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.
But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book?
Took a long while to get into.
Some of the stories were lousy.
There are writers here I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.
Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.
These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!
It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.
Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.
This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:
Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’
From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.
Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’
We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’
Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda
It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’ ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.
Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’
Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’
Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’
This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge. The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.
William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’
The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.
We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.
I was happy to see my favorite book of 2010, Emma Donoghue’s Room, included in the New York Times 10 Best Books of 2010 listed below.
William Trevor’s Selected Stories is there too.
Here is the New York Times list:
By Jonathan Franzen.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28.
The author of “The Corrections” is back, not quite a decade later, with an even richer and deeper work — a vividly realized narrative set during the Bush years, when the creedal legacy of “personal liberties” assumed new and sometimes ominous proportions. Franzen captures this through the tribulations of a Midwestern family, the Berglunds, whose successes, failures and appetite for self-invention reflect the larger story of millennial America.
THE NEW YORKER STORIES
By Ann Beattie.
As these 48 stories published in The New Yorker from 1974 through 2006 demonstrate, Beattie, even as she chronicled and satirized her post-1960s generation, also became its defining voice. She punctures her characters’ pretensions and jadedness with an economy and effortless dialogue that writers have been trying to emulate for three decades, though few, if any, have matched her seamless combination of biting wit and mordant humor, precise irony and consummate cool.
By Emma Donoghue.
Little, Brown & Company, $24.99.
Donoghue has created one of the pure triumphs of recent fiction: an ebullient child narrator, held captive with his mother in an 11-by-11-foot room, through whom we encounter the blurry, often complicated space between closeness and autonomy. In a narrative at once delicate and vigorous — rich in psychological, sociological and political meaning — Donoghue reveals how joy and terror often dwell side by side.
By William Trevor.
Gathering work from Trevor’s previous four collections, this volume shows why his deceptively spare fiction has haunted and moved readers for generations. Set mainly in Ireland and England, Trevor’s tales are eloquent even in their silences, documenting the way the present is consumed by the past, the way ancient patterns shape the future. Neither modernist nor antique, his stories are timeless.
A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD
By Jennifer Egan.
Alfred A. Knopf, $25.95.
Time is the “goon squad” in this virtuosic rock ’n’ roll novel about a cynical record producer and the people who intersect his world. Ranging across some 40 years and inhabiting 13 different characters, each with his own story and perspective, Egan makes these disparate parts cohere into an artful whole, irradiated by a Proustian feel for loss, regret and the ravages of love.
APOLLO’S ANGELS: A History of Ballet
By Jennifer Homans.
Random House, $35.
Here is the only truly definitive history of classical ballet. Spanning more than four centuries, from the French Renaissance to American and Soviet stages during the cold war, Homans shows how the art has been central to the social and cultural identity of nations. She meticulously reconstructs entire eras, describing the evolution of ballet technique while coaxing long-lost dances back to life. And she raises a crucial question: In the 21st century, can ballet survive?
CLEOPATRA: A Life
By Stacy Schiff.
Little, Brown & Company, $29.99.
With her signature blend of wit, intelligence and superb prose, Schiff strips away 2,000 years of prejudices and propaganda in her elegant reimagining of the Egyptian queen who, even in her own day, was mythologized and misrepresented.
THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A Biography of Cancer
By Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Mukherjee’s magisterial “biography” of the most dreaded of modern afflictions. He excavates the deep history of the “war” on cancer, weaving haunting tales of his own clinical experience with sharp sketches of the sometimes heroic, sometimes misguided scientists who have preceded him in the fight.
FINISHING THE HAT: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim.
Alfred A. Knopf, $39.95.
The theater’s pre-eminent living songwriter offers a master class in how to write a musical, covering some of the greatest shows, from “West Side Story” to “Sweeney Todd.” Sondheim’s analysis of his and others’ lyrics is insightful and candid, and his anecdotes are telling and often very funny.
THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson.
Random House, $30.
Wilkerson, a former national correspondent for The Times, has written a masterly and engrossing account of the Great Migration, in which six million African-Americans abandoned the South between 1915 and 1970. The book centers on the journeys of three black migrants, each representing a different decade and a different destination.