Hello, Personal Anthology subscribers! We’re Han Clark and Gary Kaill, and we run the online literary journal Lunate Fiction. We met at the Manchester Writing School at MMU in 2018 while studying the MA Creative Writing. That course of study not only changed the direction of our own work, but it impacted significantly on the type of fiction we read and enjoy. We founded Lunate shortly after graduating, largely because we felt that those particular tastes and preferences might just provide for a new journal where the like-minded could find a home. We’ve enjoyed showcasing short stories, poetry and book reviews for nearly three years now, and we hope we’re now seen as a home for ambitious work, as well as being a safe and inclusive space for all.
We were honoured to be asked to contribute to A Personal Anthology and we hope you’ll find something to enjoy in the stories we’ve chosen. There is no theme, no pathway, no real attempt to formulate our choices. We both simply grabbed a piece of paper and began to scribble a list of short stories we love. Some of them have been with us for a while, some just a matter of months. Our intent, on reflection, was not to critique to any meaningful degree, or even to curate. It was more the case that we wanted to express something more wholly instinctive, and seize upon the opportunity to share with you all these twelve exceptional stories.
Of all the stories by Lorrie Moore that I could have chosen, I decided to go with ‘How to Be an Other Woman’, the first story in Moore’s debut collection Self-Help, because I was re-introduced to it recently at a writing workshop given by Lara Williams (more on Lara later!) and reminded of how utterly sublime it is.
‘How to Be an Other Woman’ is the kind of short story we all want to write: witty, charming, irreverent, and original. It is also written in the second person, the literary equivalent of hair gel; some writers think it is really cool, others can’t stand it, but love it or hate it most of us have given it a go at some point with varying results. ‘How to Be an Other Woman’ follows the doomed trajectory of a love affair between Charlene and Jack, and what I find special about this story is the calm authorial undertaking to explore poor life choices and the acknowledgement that sometimes it is these same choices that glitter amidst the mundanity of an ordinary life. Yes, it can be messy. No, it is not always dignified. But, Moore reminds us quietly, perhaps life is not supposed to be. (HC)
First published in Self-Help, FSG/Faber, 1985 and then in the Collected Stories, FSG/Faber, 2008
It may not be quite proper to include this marvellous piece of writing here, because in truth it is an essay, or perhaps we would say now ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ rather than a short story. But I am including it anyway, because it has a story-like quality that deserves mention. Written to honour Ginzburg’s friend, Cesare Pavese, who took his own life via an overdose in 1950, ‘Portrait of a Friend’ is a masterclass in understated emotion – something we seek with fervour in our publications at Lunate.
It is also a spectacular example of how to weave character and place together so that one cannot be cleanly picked from the other. Her depiction of the city of Turin is hauntingly beautiful:
‘In summer our city is deserted and seems very large, clear and echoing, like an empty city-square; the sky has a milky pallor, limpid but not luminous; the river flows as level as a street and gives off neither humidity nor freshness. Sudden clouds of dust rise from the streets; huge carts loaded with sand pass by on their way from the river; the asphalt of the main avenue is littered with pebbles that bake in the tar. Outside the cafés, beneath their fringed umbrellas, the little tables are deserted and red-hot.’
Within Ginzburg’s writing, the city absorbs both her own quiet grief and the desolation that her friend must have felt. Tragedy can become a delicate thing and, when presenting it to an audience, sometimes it is all the more devastating for its unassuming fragility. (HC)
First published in Italian as ‘Ritratto d’un amico’, Radiocorriere, 1957. First published in English in The Little Virtues, Carcanet, 1985. New edition from Daunt Books, 2018
Delicacy is something I have come to appreciate more and more in fiction. Not necessarily delicate subjects, but a light authorial touch and I find myself returning again to Banana Yoshimoto. In much of Yoshimoto’s early fiction, love is given an unerringly positive place in the world she creates and has the power to offer both giver and receiver intense spiritual healing. In the case of ‘Blood and Water’ this power is literal, in the form of an amulet gifted to Chikako from Akira, but it is the gentle care he shows her which provides the greatest protection against her fear of loneliness. Yoshimoto’s work is often filled with the Japanese aesthetic of effervescence: objects perish or are lost, exchanging hands and living many different lives. Impermanence, Yoshimoto tells us, only sharpens our experiences, and love is no different. It’s loss is not to be feared, it is simply a gift to help us “forget, for a brief while, the sorrow that clings to life”. (HC)
Published in Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto, Faber and Faber, 1995
I have a soft spot for stories that use a basis of folklore for their launch. When done well they can read like a literary inheritance, a gift from a long forgotten relative. CJ Hauser uses a story of the same name from Japanese folklore about a crane who falls in love with a man and tricks him into thinking she is a woman so that he will marry her. Every night while he sleeps she plucks her feathers out, concealing her true identity, erasing her true self night after night to make herself into someone he will love. It is a cautionary tale.
In Hauser’s story she flits between telling the reader about the unfulfilling relationship she found the courage to leave, ending her engagement but avoiding the fate of the crane wife; and the expedition she embarked upon ten days later to study whooping cranes and their habitat. The two threads weave together perfectly and as the story progresses the uplifting message that one’s first duty is to honour thyself shines through with reasoned and compassionate good sense:
It turns out, if you want to save a species, you don’t spend your time staring at the bird you want to save. You look at the things it relies on to live instead. You ask if there is enough to eat and drink. You ask if there is a safe place to sleep. Is there enough here to survive? (HC)
Published by The Paris Review, 2019, and available to read online here
Most stories I read flitter through my mind and then they are gone, and there are others that simply settle in and nest there forever. ‘Penguins’ is an example of the latter. It is wry, it is funny, and there is a dawning awareness that the nameless characters you are reading about are suffering a kind of muted pain: the sort of discomfort that shares a likeness with a deep bruise that is felt long before it is seen.
Williams’ debut short story collection is full of modern-day madness, the torments we put ourselves through to fit in, and the unwitting traumas we cause each other in our quest to belong somewhere, anywhere, even if it is only to ourselves.
In ‘Penguins’ we meet an unnamed twenty-nine-year-old woman, who, after suffering the frequent indignities of online dating, meets a man who is good with her friends, visits art galleries with her, and eventually tells her he loves her. Then one day he says they need to talk “About. Um. Sex.” and he proceeds to tell her that he wants her to dress up as a penguin and incubate some eggs. After an initially shocked and passive acceptance, she becomes obsessed with the specifics of what he would like her to do, seeking details that he either cannot or will not provide, until he eventually asks her to forget the whole thing. ‘Penguins’ is a delightfully absurdist glimpse of the compromises we make and passive-aggressive contortions we form to keep a relationship going, whether we are sure we want it or not. (HC)
Published in Treats, Freight Books, 2016
The bond between sisters is a strange and complex thing, explored from every possible angle in literature, and yet Armfield manages something utterly original in ‘Formerly Feral’. The protagonist is a twelve-year-old girl. When her parents divorce she remains living with her father, whilst her mother leaves and takes her older sister. Her father swiftly marries a woman who has adopted a wolf, and is raising that wolf, named Helen, as a daughter – from then on the girl and the wolf are effectively treated as sisters.
The day they moved in, she dressed the wolf in a blue pinafore dress she described as its special occasions outfit and presented me with a copy, in my size, which my father suggested I change into before helping with the unpacking.’ I love this story for so many reasons: its sumptuous language, the hypnotic pace of Armfield’s writing; but most of all I adore the humour with which she confronts the savagery of female adolescence. There is much to be made about a creature with base instincts and desires being scrubbed with perfumed soaps and forced to blend into a world it has never asked to be a part of! (HC)
First published in Salt Slow by Julia Armfield, Picador, 2020. Available to read online at Electric Lit here
I remember being stunned when first reading ‘The Garden’, jolted to the point of having to pause and take a breath before continuing. It is so difficult to write about grief: so many pitfalls for even the most scrupulous writer, especially if they are attentive to the reader’s needs and wish to be generous enough to position that reader such that they do not feel overwhelmed or instructed. ‘The Garden’ is set several months after the death of its sharply realised (unnamed) narrator’s partner, John, and he floods the story with his presence — or, more accurately, the weight of his absence.
Trounce carefully balances two initially opposing elements: the agonising and emerging unpacking of memory, and the requirement (on the part of her protagonist) to move forward and make “something admissible” of her life. The latter is sparked by a visit from John’s young son, suggested by the wife he left for our narrator and results in a sleepover that coincides with a hellish storm, one that wrecks the untended garden of the title:
The storm deals discord. Its fluid, skilful fingers pluck conifers, fling wrought iron furniture over demolished boundaries. A flying shed is evidence of a whole nation’s timid pursuits.
“So, the ruin is coming then,” our narrator muses, as the storm hits, and one is reminded of her equally beguiling equivalent in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond: a no less compelling voice. Again, it requires the deepest level of craft to make one’s characters so absolute, so angular. Here, they burn bright enough to crisp the page. This astonishing story ends as it begins (“In the end it is the garden that saves her”) and you apply the strongest hope for this damaged but reconstituted pair. I think Trounce is quite remarkable: an uncommonly insightful and compassionate writer, alive to the poetry of what might at first pass as simple lives. I cannot wait to see what she does next. (GK)
Published in The London Magazine, April/May 2020
One of the things that has become quite clear to me, while reading people’s choices in A Personal Anthology each week, is that, as far as short stories are concerned, I am not particularly well-read. By which I mean, despite, um, co-editing a literary journal that specialises in them, my own relationship with the short story has been quite fractured, unfocused. Others seem so committed, have worked through whole collections by acknowledged exponents of the form. Whereas, I have tended to chance across the stories that have stuck with me, more often than not finding them in magazines and in online journals. Fiction flotsam.
I bought this issue of Lighthouse to read a new story by Lara Williams but it was this story that shook me. ‘Compo Proc’ is one of the few stories I can remember reading that takes as its narrative impetus the mindless minutiae of work: in this instance, a young rail worker named Wesley who has worked out how to game his employer’s compensation procedure to his own benefit. Until, that is, a rule change threatens to scupper his artful plan. It is exceptionally well told — feverish and breakneck. It’s the short story equivalent of that classic, breathless movie scene where our hero is searching a desk or an office while we know that the antagonist has made an unexpected return. I’d love to be proved wrong, but all manner of searching suggests that Reynolds has not published since, which is a terrible shame. (GK)
[Editorial note from Jonathan: As it happens, I studied with Jack Reynolds on the MA Creative Writing at UEA, back in the day. I’ve emailed with Jack and can confirm that although he hasn’t published since ‘Compo Proc’ he is hard at work on a novel, that is coming along “very nicely”.]
Published in Lighthouse 4, Winter 2013/14
There was a period (for ‘period’, read: a couple of decades) in my life when I read quite narrowly. American authors. Big American Authors writing Big Books. John Irving. William Styron. Margaret Atwood. Donna Tartt. Brett Easton Ellis. Stephen Amidon. Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe books: a trilogy (ish) that began with The Sportswriter in 1986. And, of course, his short stories, which form the foundation of the later long-form work. I didn’t expect a great deal from his 2020 collection Sorry for Your Trouble. My tastes had broadened considerably by now and I had no real enthusiasm, going in. So, what a surprise to find late Ford so beguiling. The opening story, ‘Nothing to Declare’, rehashes standard Ford setting (old lovers chance upon each other, reminisce, pull at the gauze of memory) but the execution dazzles. I’d forgotten what a sentence-level delight he could be, how pleasing the athleticism of his prose. This from one page in, as MacGuinness, at a bar with friends, chewing over who he might have spotted:
They were at the Monteleone, the shadowed old redoubt with a bar that was a carousel. It wasn’t crowded. Outside the tall windows on Royal a pride was shoving past. Boom-pa-pa. Boom pa-pa. Then the trumpets not altogether on key. St. Paddy’s was Tuesday. Now was only Friday.’ Bravo. (GK)
Published in Sorry for Your Trouble, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020
One of the short stories that I (will) carry with me. I wrote at length for Lunate about Yes Yes More More when it was published last year. ‘Rise Up Singing’ is a pivotal story in a debut collection that gathers together a small ‘cast’ of characters and follows them from school and over the next couple of decades or so. What do I like about it? I like how it’s generous enough to allow its characters to live on the page jeopardy-free. Even as its trim plot (on a hot summer afternoon in Bolton, we follow two teenage girls, Janey and Annie, from school to home, to club, and to home again) introduces Annie’s father right at the end, all he wants to do is have a quiet moment with the girls, rather than a fight. Which, at first, feels odd. It shouldn’t, of course, but I suspect Wood is motivated in part by aspiration. For her characters. For us all.
I revisit ‘Rise up Singing’’s joyous dialogue in my head on an almost daily basis. In testing moments now, both Han and I will say, “There’s no need for any of this”: a shared understanding that (I hope) pays tribute to the story’s opening scene where Claire places her head on the desk and whimpers that very line in an English Lit class as an ill-advised acid trip starts to take hold.
“We’re good girls,” Janey says to Annie as they sit on the kerb together on their way home. Sometimes that’s all you need from a story. Just wonderful. (GK)
Published in Yes Yes More More, The Indigo Press, 2021
To bear out my whole ‘collecting stories jumble sale-style’ thing, here’s one I chanced upon a couple of years ago. I never read the fiction in The New Yorker. I don’t know… it’s just so often Ooh, here’s a story about a young American boy whose school diorama project causes his lawyer father to set off on a surreal and life-changing trip into the desert. Please. But this is from another world entirely, this remarkable story of a now adult daughter piecing together the fragmentary memory of her father’s death in a car accident. Such lightness of touch in how Hadley manages the emotional currency of the piece. Such a gift for plotting – I photocopied the thing and highlighted each paragraph in different colours to better understand (and learn from) its complex chronology. This is the only thing I’ve ever read by Hadley: an oversight I’ll correct soon. (GK)
Published in The New Yorker, May 2020, and available to read online here
The short stories of Linda Mannheim are a recent discovery and I absolutely love them. They seem to operate as snapshots of lives in transit, under strain, often requiring a crazed resourcefulness to make it to the next scene, even. She writes in what I’d describe as a very hard-boiled fashion; her sentences contain flint. She’s big on intrigue, very good at leaving a scrap of the emerging story on the table, daring the reader to pick it up. Mannheim’s lean plotting and taut dialogue suggest she would actually make a very good crime writer, and ‘Noir’ toys with many of the genre’s tropes with a knowing grace.
Laura, a young reporter in Miami, becomes entangled in a shadowy political mystery when Miguel appears in her office looking for friends he fears have been murdered by an El Salvadorian death squad. ‘He had owl eyes so deep and ringed with dark, he looked like bad memories and brutal worries were at the foot of his bed every night.’
It’s nothing less than ingenious how Mannheim’s plotting so slyly mirrors the genre it references throughout. Laura’s filmmaker boyfriend “Sam’s big project at school was a film that mimicked the soul of these stories but brought you a beat away from them, a knowing and updated version of noir.” A feat that this remarkable story achieves, too. (GK)
Published in This Way to Departures, Influx press, 2019