May 25, 2007

Review:Little Black Book of Stories

Little Black Book of Stories
by A.S. Byatt

I hesitate to review this because I still haven't worked out all my feelings and thoughts on it but I don't know that I can move on with other reading without reviewing it. It deserves a review. But I don't know how to review a book of short stories, especially ones that leave me feeling so unsettled.

Not unsettled in the sense of a scary story but in that I just don't know what to think. I feel drawn and repelled at the same time. Each story has it's own heartbreaking moment and it's joyful one too. And I know that disliking a story is not the same as disliking a book. I love 1984 even though I hate everything that happens in it. There is a beauty to it that comes from a story masterfully told and an emotion felt to it's fullest. You see exactly what the author wants you to see. I think that is what's going on in these stories as well.

My favorite story was The Thing in the Forest, with it's war-riddled London children sent off to the countryside, it's grotesque creature, and it's follow-through with the witnesses lives. And I liked the last story as well, The Pink Ribbon, about an old man taking care of his wife with Alzheimer's. They both leave off with a bit of mystery. After spending some time determining how you would end it best, the reader then goes back and figures out why the story is left open. What is the point if we don't know what action was taken in the end?

The stories with the strongest emotional changes are Body Art and Raw Material. Body Art starts with an accumulation of little assaults, then bigger assaults, until you think it will all explodes in a painful tragedy but in the end there is no tragedy; there is only the realisation that everything will be okay. When you understand how the term "body art" is being used you find you can't hate the story because it is true. And Raw Material is the opposite with a build up of positive and a devastating ending leaving you wondering what happened.

The middle story, A Stone Woman, was different. Slowly turning to stone could have been a metaphor for recovery from loss. Or the development of a psychosis. I suppose the latter option would make a better fit, with the trip to Iceland and eventually leaving Thorsteinn behind. Or maybe it was the self-discovery of a woman who had always been defined by her mother.

There is a lot to chew on in this collection. A lot to ponder. I don't think this book is for everyone. If you read purely for entertainment then you probably won't like this one. But if what you like is the process of picking a story apart to see it's working parts then you should most definitely read the Little Black Book of Stories. It wasn't a book of fairy tales but it was an interesting read.

I had changed my Once Upon a Time Challenge list to include this one as a fairy tale option but it doesn't fit the bill so I will continue to read The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. I hope to make a big dent in it over this three-day weekend since I am too sick to do anything else.


Eva said...

Reading your review brought back the stories to me. :) We have the same favourite...there was just something incredible in "The Thing in the Forest" that I can't quite put my finger on.

Have you read other books by Byatt? I've read Possession and A Biographer's Tale. Neither of them really have the same atmosphere/feelings as Little Black Book. I loved Possession, though-in the end everything ties up neatly (unlike the stories). A Biographer's Tale was a bit closer to Little Black Book, but it didn't have the eerie feeling-just the open-endness and surreal plot devices. I didn't really enjoy it that much, though! If you've read other books by her, which ones do you recommend?

Wow-that ended up being super long. Good luck w/ the Grimms, and I hope that you feel better soon!

Petunia said...

I've only read Possession, which I liked. I pulled out Angels & Insects to read sometime soon. Maybe as a reward for finishing Grimm. I want to read more of her stort stories.

Nymeth said...

I absolutely LOVE this book, but I agree that it's not for everyone.

I think A Stone Woman is my favourite, but The Thing in the Forest is the second.

I REALLY recommend her "The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye" and "Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice". Both are books of fairy tales which are much more approachable than this one. They are also absolutely delightful, and they include two of my all-time favourite short stories: "The Story of the Elder Princess" in the first, and "Cold" in the second. Highly recommended.

I would say that this book does fit the challenge, though. There are definitely fairy tale elements to the stories.

Petunia said...

Thanks Nymeth! For the recommendations and for reassuring me about this as a challenge pick. I will definitely look for the other Byatt books. Her writing is wonderful and her stories have so many layers.