In the New York Times Book Review this weekend, Nancy Kline reviews Margaret Drabble’s recently–released collection of short stories called ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’ (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). The review itself is perfectly good, but something crucial is missing:
The review does not mention that ‘A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman’, the title story, is stunning. Simply stunning. It’s about a day in the life of Jenny Jamieson, an English TV presenter and mother of three who seemingly has it all, a woman who presents herself to the world as a happy, fulfilled and grateful wife and mother. Drabble’s detailed portrayal of Jenny on one, shocking day in her life, is insightful, moving and unforgettable. This story alone is worth the price of the book.
In the US, buy it at Barnes and Noble.
And in the UK, from the Guardian bookshop.
Photo of Margaret Drabble from the guardian.co.uk
First of all, a confession: I adore Virginia Woolf’s short prose but her novels leave me cold. I can’t digest more than a few pages of her stream-of-consciousness style. In fact, I have never completed one of her books, as short as they are. Just can’t do it. I read a page or two, my eyelids droop, my mind wanders, and I put the book down and pick up something else.
John Gardner, famous writer and critic, said, “The writer who cares more about words than about story – characters, action, setting, atmosphere – is unlikely to create a vivid and continuous dream; he gets in his own way too much; in his poetic drunkenness, he can’t tell the cart – and its cargo – from the horse.”
Many of Woolf’s short works are fabulous examples of poetic drunkenness; her prose spins my brain and fills me with longing and joy. I have fallen asleep reading ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’ and dreamt luminous dreams of snub-nosed monsters rising from the deep. Just a single paragraph of her prose is inspirational and always humbling.
The Duchess and the Jeweller, however, is more than just glorious prose. Only five-and-a-half pages long, it’s a fascinating, compassionate story about Oliver Bacon, a wealthy London jeweller who seems to have everything. It has typical Woolfian touches of poetic drunkenness as well as a traditional plot with an easily-identifiable beginning, middle and end – in short, a classic short story plot.
So the next issue of our newsletter, LITERARY DELIGHTS, will include this story and the writing tip, ‘How to Plot a Short Story’, as illuminated by Woolf; a point of craft that’s quick and easy to understand and then apply to your own writing.
To receive this, as well as some little-known facts about Woolf, sign up for LITERARY DELIGHTS HERE.
To read Woolf’s short shorts, ‘Blue’ and ‘Green’, please CLICK HERE.
To read ‘Red’, a pastiche of Woolf’s short short, ‘Green’ by Tessa Smith McGovern, published by Equinox (UK) and archived by the English Arts Council at the Southbank Centre in London, CLICK HERE.
I read ‘Vanka’ by Anton Chekhov for the first time recently and was amazed by what I discovered. As I sat down with the story and a cup of tea, I steeled myself, remembering what a hard slog it used to be sometimes to read classic authors when I was at school. Whilst I adored Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and voluntarily memorized pages of Milton’s Paradise Lost, other authors were a trial – Homer, Albert Camus, and some of Dickens’ less popular novels – yuck. I had always assumed anything by Chekhov would also be hard work. But I was wrong. What a delightful ten-minute read! ‘Vanka’ gallops along, is haunting, beautifully constructed and what’s more, very useful to writers.
Written in 1886, the story is set in Moscow, Russia. It’s Christmas Eve, and the protagonist is a nine-year-old peasant boy called Vanka Zhukov. Three months before, when his mother died, Vanka was sent away from his village and apprenticed to a cruel master, Alyakhin the shoemaker. The story is about the action the young and abused Vanka takes in response to his desperate situation, and the language is simple, elegant and effective.
This character Vanka, so brilliantly drawn, has become one of the cast of characters who loiter in my imagination. He pops into my mind at the oddest of moments, and whenever I think of how malnourished he was and how thin and gaunt his face must have been, I picture my own son and his sweet, full-cheeked face at 9 years old (he’s now 14), and I ache for how randomly cruel the world can be.
To read all of ‘Vanka’ and learn how Chekhov created a story with such emotional power, sign up for our newsletter ‘LITERARY DELIGHTS’ here. We’ll be sending it out shortly, and it will include the whole story, as well as an analysis of one point of craft used by Chekhov. You’ll be amazed at how a single sentence achieved an effect all writers need to understand if they want to engage readers’ emotions and write the most powerful stories possible. This technique works equally well in fiction, memoir or essays, and once you learn it, you’ll be able to put the same technique to work in your own writing.
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