Dirty Havana Trilogy by Pedro Juan Gutiérrez (1998)
 Pedro Juan is content as long as he has some money, rum and a woman. Rum and women are easy to find, money is harder as Cuba in the 90s is a rough place. Pedro Juan goes from woman to woman, job to job and also spends some time in jail. The book is more like a collection of many short stories, some with Pedro Juan as the main character and some are stories about others.

I’m guessing this isn’t the Cuba that tourists get to explore. It is the life within those crumbled buildings that they are taking pictures of. The life of whores, the unemployed, the crazies and poorest of the poor. It’s about the ups and downs and those random life altering events. And of course sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Dirty is definitely the right word for this book. Not only because of the sexual content, but also because of the conditions Pedro Juan finds himself living and working in. A work that manages to combine both sex, drugs and rock’n’roll and state of the nation is easily one of my instant favourites. The genre is apparently called dirty realism and Charles Bukowski was of course the king of it. 

Read it for the social commentary, or the sex, or both. 


Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid (1985)
 Annie John grows up in St. John’s, Antigua. She is a smart girl, but also naughty which makes her popular amongst the girls in her new class. Annie loves her mother, but she is very strict, so Annie has to hide and lie about things like playing with marbles and spending time with the very dirty Red Girl at the abandoned lighthouse. 
Although it is fun to read about Annie’s adventures in Antigua, I was disappointed when I finished it. Was this all? I kept expecting a turning point somewhere and it all seemed too fragmented. And reading the Wikipedia page, I found the reason why; the chapters were published as stories in the New Yorker before they were put together in a book. And when you read them as individual stories they make more sense than a novel. They are witty and Annie’s world is an interesting place. But I just wish this book would be more than it is. 
I blame my high expectations on the fact that it is on the list of 1001 books you should read before you die. It made it onto the list in 2008 after the list in 2006 was criticised for having too many dead old white men. I do see the point of a more diverse list, but I know a lot of other books I’d have put on the list instead of Annie John. I have the Autobiography of my Mother on my shelves, so I will give Jamaica Kincaid another chance later on. Her newest novel, See Now Then, also seems intriguing. 


Black Vodka by Deborah Levy (2013)
 “Have you ever had that weird feeling in an airport when you panic and don’t know what to do? One screen says Departures and another screen says Arrivals and for a moment you don’t know which one you are. You think, am I an arrival or am I a departure?” (from Pillow Talk)
Black Vodka is ten stories about Europe. Ten stories about identity, love, loss and longing which take the reader around Europe. I liked them all and they certainly made me think. There are many charming sentences, and they are all full of wit and sadness. Although, sometimes the Europeaness was too obvious, I mean, not every person in the book didn’t need to have several identities.

The story I liked best was probably Cave Girl; a story about a young girl who dislike herself so much she gets a total make-over. It is told by her brother and it is disturbing to read how the brother develops feelings for the sister.

Deborah Levy made me want to read more short stories, and more importantly, force my students to read, so I ordered a few anthologies with various authors to use in class, but of course I have to read them first. I also am going to read Swimming Home soon.

“Kissing you is like new paint and old pain. It is like coffee and car alarms and a dim stairway and it’s like smoke.” (from Placing a Call)


 If animals were more like us,
if mice kept pets and toads could cuss,
if dogs had wives and chipmunks dated,
sheep sat still and meditated,
then in the forest, field and dairy
you might find this bestiary,
read by storks, by rats and kitties,
skimmed by cows with milk-stained titties.
“I found this book to be most droll,”
might quip the bear, the owl, the mole.
Others, though, would be more coarse.
“Bull,” could say the pig and horse.
As to the scribe, they’d quote the hen:
“Trust me, he’s no La Fontaine.”
  This is a remarkable collection of short stories told by animals. They talk and swear, eat and live like humans, and most of them end up dead.
Each story is simply amazing and I have gone to bed very cheerful thanks to this book on my night stand.The stories are also beautifully illustrated by Ian Falconer and that makes this book one of my most cherished. 
I can’t really pick a favourite, but I laughed a lot while reading the Grieving Owl, about an owl which lets its prey go if he can learn something new which eventually leads him to a hippo with leeches in its anus. And then it’s the Vigilant Rabbit, where the rabbit goes on a killing spree while guarding the forest. 
Possible a new favourite and is definitely going to be read again! (Note to self: check out other David Sedaris books.)


the Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009)
“At night, something would wrap itself around your neck, something that very nearly choked you before you fell asleep.”

Twelve short stories, set in Nigeria and New York portrait contemporary Nigerian women, men and their struggles, whether it is because of their spouses (arranged marriages or not), troublesome brothers, religion,  same-sex attractions or war.

How can you say so much with so few words? I loved every story, but some stood out more than the others. Imitation is set in USA where a Nigerian housewife is living with her children while the husband works in Nigeria and only spends two months a year with his family. One day she gets a phone call from her best friend who says that her husband has a girlfriend living in their house in Lagos. What would you do in a situation like that?

In A Private Experience, a Christian woman and a Muslim woman have found shelter in an abandoned store during a violent mob destroys the market place where they both went with their relatives. And they have to trust each other despite the fact that the uprising is about religion.

I think this collection of novels is my favourite book by Adichie, having read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun last year.

“”Is it a good life, Daddy? Nkiru has taken to asking lately on the phone, with that faint, vaguely trembling American accent. It is not good or bad, I tell her. It is simply mine. And that is what matters.”


the Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories by Charles Bukowski (1983)

This book is filled with short stories, and they all include at least one sexual act.

Charles Bukowski is one of my favourite dirty old men, but this collection of short stories takes it one step too far. Necrophilia, paedophilia, rape and murder is never pleasant to read about, but having to read it from the doer’s perspective was terrible. And I’m glad I have read all the good stuff from Bukowski before this book.

Read his novels instead of this.

twenty-five, twenty-six: short stories

Miss Marple: the 13 Problems by Agatha Christie (1932)

Miss Marple and some friends gather for dinner parties where they take turn presenting a mystery to the others. It is 13 short stories that all are connected but can be read as just one short story. The guests are very much surprised every time Miss Marple guesses who the murderer is. She claims that living in a small village all her life has made her an expert on human psychology and relations and often finds similarities in the cases to her small village.

I love Miss Marple, having read all the other books previously. And I cannot believe that I have yet to guess who is the murderer in Agatha’s works, she is too clever for me. This will be a summer devoted to Mr. Poirot.

Dubliners by James Joyce (1914)

This is a collection of short stories that are snippets from ordinary people’s lives, out and about in the streets of Dublin.

In the beginning it was hard for me to just read 20 pages and then go on to the next story. I wasn’t used to have to take a pause and ponder over what I just read before continuing. I learnt to read more patiently and finally managed to get into the atmospheres of the stories. Because there is a lot of atmospheres and beautiful writing. And Joyce was a master of describing characters and settings. My favourite story was Eveline, where a girl had to decide between staying with a bleak future in Dublin or running off to Buenos Aires with her lover. I need to read more Joyce.