Posted by: Corri van de Stege | October 5, 2008

The Sunday Salon – Moving into Autumn and inside

The last bit of summer warmth has disappeared and a cold wind has taken over the air outside; whatever illusion I might still have had about a pleasantly calm autumn with later afternoons of a weekend in the garden has been swept away.  The whole of last week seemed full of unease an tension and he weather provided the basket in which the world was shaken about: the credit crunch with its accompanying dismay in America and across Europe (we don’t seem to hear much about the rest of the world in all of this, or am I missing something?), the bitching between Labour and the Conservatives across the front pages here in England, and at a personal level the pressure to deliver projects in an ever tighter timeframe with trains cancelled leaving me tired and desolate for hours on draughty station platforms and then packed in overcrowded trains, and internet connections that fail at crucial times.  In weeks like this one everything seems to collude to build up an inner tension and unease that is difficult to shake off, like the chilly wind outside.

It was a week for short stories, for short bites, rather than sinking into a long novel that forces you to abscond from the real world, in fact, the world would not let me. 

On my night table and in my overnight case for working-away-from home days and nights I have the last edition of Granta (no. 103 – The magazine of New Writing) which has as its title ‘The Rise of the British Jihad’.  Inside, there are other writings as well, including a poem by Carol Ann Duffy The Woman in the Moon.   The first stanza makes playful reference to the children’s rhyme of the cow that jumped over the moon:

             Darlings, I write to you from the moon

            where I hide behind the famous light.

            How could you think it was ever a man up here?

            A cow jumped over. The dish ran away with the spoon


It is a serious poem.  I love the word play throughout, the rhythm and then the end


            What have you done, what have you done to the earth?


I have not yet read Richard Watson’s The one true God, Allah which is in fact the main ‘story’ in this Granta, and will try and do that this week, if not today.   It’s in my Salon!

I’ve also been reading stories in Tobias Wolff’s collection Back in the World and these stories are much in tune with my mood of alienation.  They are about people who somehow or other are slightly off-beat, they don’t quite fit in with whatever is around them, even if to them their lives are completely normal, at least, they never question, never pose existentialist questions about themselves.  They just are. The first story in this book is Coming Attractions and is about a girl called Jean who works nights in a cinema.  Her boss, Mr Munro tends to disappear and although at first she suspects him of adultery she sees him one night on the ice rink, skating.  As Jean waits for him to come back this evening (he usually gives her a lift home) we learn quite a lot about her: she’s a shoplifter, she usually keeps the things that she fancies when she finds them left behind on seats at the end of a show rather than put them in the lost-property, she plays pranks by telephoning people and pretends she’s someone else,  her parents are divorced and her father has a new wife and when she rings them, it’s Lynda the wife who answers the phone and Jean is irritated by her.  Then she rings home and she realises that her younger brother is still up watching television and that her mother is out with a boyfriend and when she tries she cannot get hold of her.  The tone of the story telling is matter of fact, subdued and this brings out the loneliness of Jean, even if she does not give it a thought.  Despite her pranks, her lying, her shoplifting, she does not think twice about trying to retrieve an old bike, which is too heavy for her, from a freezing cold swimming pool because she know her brother wants it badly and she wants him to have it.

Other stories are similarly about outsiders: there’s Leo, a priest, in The Missing Person and there is the couple, Mark and the heavily pregnant Krystal, who with their young son in diapers and stifling heat cross the desert in search of a forever receding better existence (wishful thinking on the part of Mark?) in the story Desert Breakdown, 1968.

I am absolutely taken by this style of writing, it is so measured, the stories so beautifully constructed, and I tried to do something similar with my draft story on Write on Wednesday, this week.  Wolff is really the ‘masterful story teller’ as the New York Times tag has it.  This collection was published in 1985 and I am well aware of his most recent collection Our Story Begins, which by the way is also the title of one of the short stories in this 1985 collection.  The last collection is on my tbr list.  Have any of you read it?  Is there a link between the short story in the 1985 collection and the title of this new collection?

Meanwhile I have started reading another novel, Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves.  More about that later this week!  I’m sure I’ve exhausted your attention span.  It’s started to rain and my outside salon is wet so it’s back inside – enjoy the rest of your Sunday. 



  1. I’m sorry to hear you’ve had one of these weeks!

    I love a good short story so am interested to hear about Wolff. I might try him after I finish my current read by an old favourite, Alice Munro.

  2. What a lousy week. There is nothing worse than a cancelled train, especially when there isn’t another one for an hour. (Do you get the feeling I’m writing from personal experience here? You should!) For me this is when letters or poems come to the fore. I wish I could get interested in the short story form, but I just can’t. I envy you having the Stef Penney to read for the first time. I thought it was a superb book. I hope it makes up for the rotten week you’ve had.

  3. Tobias Wolff is amazing. I’m sorry about your misadventures this week with the train and such, and I hope things look up soon. 🙂

  4. I read two short stories by Tobias Wolff in September online. I am trying to get hold of his books.

    Here is my SS post!

  5. Yes, I’m really into short stories at the moment and there are so many good writers around, including Alice Munro. I love her view from Castle Rock, both the story and the collection.
    Ann: I think you have experienced trains that are not running 🙂 And Stef Penney is good company on a rainy day like today!

  6. What a sublime post seachanges, very thought-provoking! I’ve been getting into a lot of short stories myself over the past week having started 2 short story reading challenges myself. The focus is more on classics than contemporary, but your post has given me something else to think about, specifically that Tobias Wolff book.

  7. Ooh I have this one: Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves on my TBR – can’t wait to hear what you think.

  8. Robert: nice to meet you and I’ve added your new blog to the roll at the side. Do keep in touch
    Mrs S: It’s good, will get round to the review soon, I hope!

  9. seachanges – Nice to meet you too. How kind and thoughtful of you to add me to your roll. Thank you!

    One thing though, I posted under the link of my more general blog and not my ‘book specific’ one. It doesn’t really bother me that that’s the one on the roll but it may fit in better if you changed it to the ‘booky’ one i.e. the link I’ve posted this comment on.

    Get that? Clear as mud! Thought so :o)
    Take care seachanges and thanks again

  10. All done 🙂

  11. I’ve not read any Tobias Wolff, but I’ve been hearing many good words about this collection. Thanks for the indepth review.

    I hope you have a better week next week – things have been dicey all over, it seems!

  12. You have not exhausted our attention span at all. In fact, it’s nice to hear about the collection by Tobias Wolff and the magazine Granta. Too often I forget about the great magazines that are out there. Unfortunately, I don’t think our local library is open on Sundays– where I could get many of the magazines (although probably not Granta :(. I read Wolff years ago: I don’t remember specifically anything, but do remember I enjoyed the stories I did read.

  13. Interested in the Wolff and the Penney (nice link since her title is about Wolves!) And sorry to hear about all the unease. I think there’s general seasonal unease about (not to mention economic and political etc.) I haven’t read a Granta in ages so seeing it there was like seeing an old friend. Interested to hear what you make of the Penney.

  14. American politics and the financial meltdown news are just ubiquitous. The first thing I was aware upon arrival at the Hong Kong airport was not a local pop song but the VP debate broadcast live on two huge screens! Can I be left unmolested by the trouble from home for 5 seconds? LOL

    I have the pleasure to discover Tobias Wolff when I read his novel Old School a while ago. It was beautifully written, like you said, in finely measured prose that explores the issue of integrity. I would read more of him although he is mostly known for memoirs and short stories.

  15. Becca – it’s probably that time of the year – we cannot quite face up to the long and dark winter yet…
    Unfinished person: Granta is a nice diversion and often includes some fresh approaches – hope you find it in your library!
    Pete: yes, nice thought process: the Wolff and the woolf, almost finished the Penney
    Matt: yes, I’ve come to realise it’s all over with Brazil closing down its banking system yesterday… I’m sure you’re not safe in Hong Kong from all of this either… Perhaps better to focus on the reading and put head under the cover ? 🙂

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