I found a copy of Treats by Lara Williams in a charity shop shortly after I read the author’s debut novel Supper Club which was published last summer. This very short collection – 21 stories in just over 100 pages – published in 2016 by the now-defunct Freight Books includes more of the same sharply observed prose about modern life, usually from the point of view of millennial age characters. Consequently, Williams is particularly good on the ways in which reality does not always meet expectations, whether it’s graduate job-hunting, relationships after university or creative writing courses. Her stories written in the second person are also very effective – a tricky perspective to get right. Overall, this is a fresh contemporary collection written by a striking new voice.
The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O’Neill was also published a few years before the author’s debut novel. Their Brilliant Careers was one of my favourite novels last year and is an excellent satire of the literary world. This collection from 2012 shows some of the early promise that was later fulfilled in that novel, particularly in O’Neill’s experiments with form. The most inventive stories here are similarly literary-themed, such as ‘Seventeen Rules For Writing a Short Story’ which accomplishes what it says on the tin, and ‘The Footnote’ about a failed novelist called Thomas Hardie where the “real” story as it were is revealed in the footnotes, although it’s a little awkward reading this one on a Kindle where flipping between pages repeatedly is not as easy as it is in a physical book. The collection also includes a few stories set in Rwanda where O’Neill lived and worked as an English language teacher for two years. These stories are more conventional in form, such as ‘The Cockroach’ which is about a ten-year-old Tutsi girl escaping the Hutu genocide. Those who enjoyed O’Neill’s debut novel will find it worthwhile to read his early work in ‘The Weight of a Human Heart’.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin has been on my TBR list for some time. While I usually read short story collections in one go, I found ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ best to dip in and out of over several weeks in between reading other things. Relatively unknown during her lifetime, ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was published posthumously in 2015, 11 years after Berlin’s death at the age of 68. This is a substantial collection of 43 stories – a little over half of what Berlin published during her lifetime – and they draw directly on the experiences of her very eventful life. Born in Alaska, she spent time living in Chile, Mexico and various parts of the United States and worked as a cleaner, teacher, and emergency nurse among other jobs. She married and divorced three times, gave birth to four sons and suffered from a number of health problems including alcoholism and scoliosis which led to a punctured lung. Her stories are quirky and very pithy, and her mastery of the killer opening sentence is second to none (“I’ve worked in hospitals for years now and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the sicker the patients are the less noise they make.” – Temps Perdu, p. 98). Highly recommended.