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Monday, May 24, 2010

The objects of our disbelief: Are they funny, are they dead? by Marjorie Ann Watts

I know that one should not judge a book by its cover, or its title, but when I first read about Marjorie Ann Watts’ collection of short stories Are they funny, are they dead? I was immediately reminded of the title of my favourite Barbara Comyns novel Who was changed and who was dead. I suppose that there are sillier reasons to pick up a book, so I shall not feel too guilty, and anyway, it did turn out to be worth it.

Are the funny, are they dead? Is a collection of short stories from the pen of a lady who originally trained as an artist and there is a strong visual element and a sense of landscape in many of these tales – which range in period and setting. They take in the wilds of the English coast and the grey paving of Harley Street among many other places. The stories in general deal with the anatomy of unsatisfactory relationships between people, the far reaching legacies of past family deceptions and lack of understanding that so often keeps one generation from being close to another. Watts frequently focuses on an object as a means of teasing out a long story and a set of characters. This is a most successful strategy – although I suspect that in a further volume of stories, it would come to feel formulaic. In this volume however, characters are well and quickly drawn and each story moves fast, taking in action and analysis with ease.

There is a clear-sighted surrealism and a willingness to ask questions at the heart of this collection. It contains shrewd observations about everyday life, and much humour as well. My favourite story is A Vivid Imagination in which Dr Ryle, a curmudgeonly and cynical old psychiatrist finds himself with a most unusual new patient. Milly Banks is a children’s novelist who claims to be tormented by the characters that she herself has created. Her tale is the kind that is always dismissed by others; and yet, before long, Dr Ryle will be careering down Harley Street amongst a plague of pigs and questioning his own sanity. This story is a wonderful piece of whimsy and an exploration of incredulity and imagination. Watts satirises the pompous and celebrates the freethinking – although part of her message seems to be that things would be better if people worked together.

In my view, the best stories of the collection are towards the end rather than the beginning of the book, so the reader who is short on time, might wish to start at the back. I am most grateful to Charles Boyle at CB Editions for sending me this book. If you are interested in CB Editions, their blog is here. This weekend has been a glorious one in France, and I have included some more garden photographs to commemorate it.

20 comments:

  1. Many thanks, Hannah, for the above (the flowers and the cat included). According to Amazon UK this morning 'this title has not yet been released', and a customer at Waterstones on Friday was told it was not yet in print - in fact it's been available from the distributor for six weeks, but until the slumbering giants wake up your best chance of getting hold of a copy may be the CB editions website.

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  2. You garden looks stunning, as always.

    I like the sound of these stories. I had never heard of them, so thatnks for bringing them to my attention.

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  3. This was a very good review. I seldom have the opportunity to read short stories, but I think I will start. It would be fun to read a couple in between all the novels I read. I think I'll check this one out.

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  4. Lovely review, Hannah! I have been looking for a good book of short stories and think this one might fit the bill. I actually haven't read very many short stories this year, but am aiming to chance that!

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  5. Awww, I love your kitty! The flower pics are great.
    Thanks for visiting my blog!

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  6. This sounds like an interesting collection - thanks for the review. I don't read enough short stories - one of my personal challenges for 2010 was to read more of them, but so far I haven't made much progress!

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  7. Hi all - thank you for visiting and commenting.

    Charles - you are welcome - how frustrating!

    Iris - thank you for your sweet words - nothing to do with me i am afraid, I just sit in it.

    Mirella - you know, i only started reading short stories this year but they have been a revealation! If you are interested in getting hold of this collection then I think the best way to do it is directly through the CB Editions website.

    Zibilee - thankyou! the best way to get the book is theough the CB Editions website. I love the way short stories are so *convenient* don't you? You can read one even if you one have a short break/bus journey etc.

    itsJUSTme - isn't he sweet?! He is not actually ours - we are cat sitting for two months but he is a pleasure.

    Helen - I think that short stories are really worth picking up - I have read three collections this year - all of which have reviews on la blog.

    Hope that you are all having happy sunny weeks!
    Hannah

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  8. Always looking to add more good short story collections to my TBR pile (I don't read enough short stories, really, and these sound like they might be worth a try). Great review!! And that cat!!! Gorgeous.

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  9. What a strange title, but the collection sounds good Hannah.

    BTW...The cat photo brings back memories of a cat from our past :(

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  10. I'm not usually drawn to short stories but after reading this I am tempted to give this book a go, thanks!

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  11. I don't tend to read many short stories but as always Hannah you have delivered such a good review. I like the idea of the wide ranging locations of the stories and I'm always drawn to that sense of place that some stories evoke so well.

    Glad to hear you had such a glorious weekend too - love the pictures of your garden. I'm assuming this is your feline visitor - she's beautiful. Keep the photos coming ...

    Jeanne
    x

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  12. As many have already said, short stories really just haven't grabbed my attention in the past, so it's not something I would have been looking for. You've made the collection sound interesting and I'll have to keep an eye out for it.

    Wasn't the weather last weekend beautiful! Can't say as much for today though, but I'm enjoying the cool after the heat.
    And thanks for dropping by my blog!

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  13. I go through phases where I want to read short stories so this collection might be one I want to pick up as it definitely intrigues me! I love the photos of your garden and kitty too - thanks for sharing!

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  14. Thanks indeed for visiting and leaving comments all, it is a pleasure to hear from you all.

    Hannah

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  15. Thank you for highlighting this book. The author was completely unknown to me and lets hope that the library would have the book. Thanks also for the visuals. Just looking at them brings a sense of peace! Thanks.

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  16. I enjoy short stories and this sounds good. I've never heard of this author - has she written much else?

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  17. Several of my favorite books of this year are ones that I've picked up merely because I liked the titles.

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  18. I've been looking for a book of short stories for ages, so thanks for the recommendation :-) I like the sound of A Vivid Imagination.

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  19. hmm..sounds good..great review.
    But I am not very much fond of short stories.I always buy such books, but, very rarely read them :(
    Will give a try to this one :)

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  20. I utter adore Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead too- so fantastically weird and wonderful!

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