Saturday, September 24, 2011


Edith Pearlman is a classic example of how short story writers, even very fine short story writers, can get ignored by reviewers and the reading public. How can this happen? Well, it can happen when, like Pearlman, the writer writes short stories and never novels. Only a few writers who make this decision manage to get widely read: Raymond Carver, because, with the help of a savvy editor, he created a stylized, attenuated world of blue-collar misfits that caught the attention of reviewers. Alice Munro, because she is such an intelligent observer of the inner lives of women and creates a complex, densely populated world that reviewers can justify as “novelistic.

It can happen when a writer is ignored by the relatively wide circulation magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic, and is published instead only by low circulation journals such as Alaska Quarterly Review, Idaho Review, and Ontario Review. And it can happen when those stories are collected in books that only university and small presses seem interested in. When Pearlman’s second book, Love Among the Greats came out in 2003, Mary Ann Gwinn, reviewer for McClatchy—Tribune News Service, wrote: “I’m not a big short-story fan. They seem to end before they ever really get rolling—when it comes to the so-called ‘fictional dream,’ I like mine long, leisurely, and novelistic. It’s a pleasure to announce a short-story collection that has trounced that bias.” Good on ya!, Miss Gwinn. Would that more reviewers were similarly converted! If there is any “sacred text” out there to make more people appreciate the short story, it is Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision.

So let me tempt you to buy a copy of that book with some of my favorite lines from Pearlman’s stories. While you’re at it, buy another copy for someone who loves good writing. Two copies from Amazon will cost you $25.78 and thus give you free shipping.


Sophie and each parent had been separate individuals before Lilly came. Now all four melted together like gumdrops left on a windowsill.

Sophie had imagined that, in such an event, she would turn cool, a lizard under a leaf.

She felt her cheek tingle, as if it had been licked by the sad, dry tongue of a cat.

“The Noncombatant”

She lifted her wet head; she biked urgently toward the storm, as if it, at least, loved her.


But my forehead felt as if a flame had been brought very near, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that my hair was on fire.


The counsel locks his car and moves swiftly through the garage. Within its gloom his fair hair looks like dust.”

hen I unscrewed the end of the heart tube from the aqua clothespin and I slipped it under the blanket so the blood would pool quiet and invisible like a monthly until there would be no more left.


“Oh, Greg, sometimes I have to escape from his intensity, I get scorched, you are so cool, darling, like a winding-sheet.”

“If Love Were All”

She suspected that, like many fat men, he danced well.

The young woman sat at a piano, head bowed as if awaiting execution.

“Purim Night”

He liked to hang around the office because Roland, without making a big thing of it, let fall so many bits of knowledge, farted them out like a horse.


After a few minutes Signet set the youngster down and returned to her work, her scar glistening like the trail of a tear.

They left. Donna walked into the kitchen. It would be a pleasure to stew tomatoes until they burst through their skins.

“Home Schooling”

He taught us to beat egg whites until they were as stiff as bandage gauze.

Unravished Bride

They were bound to the code of their youth—self denial and honor and fidelity—an inconvenient code that would keep them, she realized with a pang, forever chaste, and forever in love.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Edna O'Brien's SAINTS AND SINNERS is my favorite for the 2011 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award

My favorite book of the six shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award is Edna O’Brien’s Saints and Sinners. If I were a judge in the contest, this is the one I would vote for as the “best” overall collection, the one I think most deserving of a prize commemorating the name of Frank O’Connor.

However, it would be naive, maybe even arrogant, to suggest that I know best which is the “best” book of short stories in the group. Obviously, as indicated by my remarks on Valerie Trueblood’s Marry or Burn, and the comments posted by one of her admirers, suggesting my own review is a “biased pan,” so-called critical judgments as to which is the “best” among a group of books of fiction may be tainted by “personal” preference. I would like to think my only “bias” is for good short stories, but maybe not.

Moreover, one often makes a judgment on what is “best” by eliminating from the list of contestants all those that one did not like so well, therefore arriving at a winner by a process of winnowing. As my remarks on each of the six books probably suggest, I would rank them in the following order, beginning with my “personal best.” If you want to know why I ranked them this way, I refer you to the six previous blog posts in which I discuss them.

1. Edna O’Brien, Saints and Sinners

2. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl

3. Suzanne Rivecca, Death is Not an Option

4. Alexander MacLeod, Light Lifting

5. Colm Tóibín, The Empty Family

6. Valerie Trueblood, Marry or Burn

But let’s be honest. Other considerations come into play when making a so-called critical judgment on what is “best.” Although I liked Yiyun Li’s Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, I would be reluctant to give her the prize a second time. Both Suzanne Rivecca and Alexander MacLeod’s collections are uneven, it seems to me; although some stories are very strong, others seem self-indulgent and hurried. Besides, Li, Rivecca, and MacLeod are young enough to still have time to prove themselves “worthy,” as it were. Colm Tóibín and Valerie Trueblood may be good novelists, but they are not, it seems to me, good short story writers.

By choosing Edna O’Brien, I may well be influenced by other, more extraneous considerations.

*She may be the “hometown favorite,” as it were; no one from Ireland has won this very Irish prize. And Colm Tóibín has already won important prizes for his novels.

*Because of her age, she may well be the sentimental favorite; she is 81, still elegantly working, and she has not won many prizes.

*Because she was treated so shabbily by Irish priests and critics as a “bad girl” when her first books came out, she may very well be due for some recompense; the priests do not have the control over the morals of the country as they once did.

It is fortunate that aside from these “personal” considerations, in my opinion, her book is overall the “best” book in the six shortlisted entries in the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

I wish Edna O’Brien much luck in the competition. I look forward to the announcement this Sunday of the winner of The Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Valerie Trueblood, MARRY OR BURN: Shortlisted for 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award

I have held Valerie Trueblood’s collection, Marry or Burn, until last because it is my least favorite of the six books shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. In February, 2011, I received an email from a publicist asking me if I would like to review Marry or Burn on this blog. Always willing to read new short story writers, I agreed and soon received a copy of the collection, Trueblood’s first collection of short stories (Her novel Seven Loves was published in 2006). I read all twelve stories, but did not think they were well done, so I wrote the publicist, expressing my regrets, saying that since I could not write a good review, I chose not to write one at all. When you are getting paid by a newspaper to write a review, you have promised to give your honest opinion, for better or worse, and over the years I have written what I thought were stinging reviews of many collections of short stories that I thought were weak, even though I have been called the world’s most passionate cheerleader for the short story. But when I have the freedom to follow my mother’s advice—“If you can’t saying something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all”--I usually do.

So when I learned that Marry or Burn was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, I was not just surprised; I was shocked. How could that be? Could I have been so wrong about Trueblood’s stories? Is there a back-story about the collection’s shortlist of which I am unaware? Am I being a fair judge, making a judgment on the stories based on my years of experience reading short stories, or is it just that Trueblood writes the kind of story that I personally do not like? Now that I have promised to comment on all six of the collections shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor Award, I have no choice but to try to examine these questions, even if it means saying something not “nice” about Valerie Trueblood’s short stories.

First, let me summarize my reading experience with these stories. This past week, I picked up the book and slowly read all twelve stories over again. With the exception of a couple of memorable and dramatic events—a woman shooting her abusive husband, and a woman attacking a bear with an axe—I could not remember any of these stories, although I only read them six months ago. Why is that, I wondered?

I did a search of various newspaper and magazine databases to see what other readers might have said about the stories and could find no reviews in any of the hard copy prepublication or newspaper sources, except one notice in the Seattle Times, which is Trueblood’s home turf. However, perhaps Ms. Trueblood’s publicist did have some success when he sent the book out to on-line reviewers, for several bloggers commented on the book and/or interviewed Trueblood. Most of these were vague and general, indicating merely that the blogger enjoyed the stories, because the characters were “alive, intense, and real, or because the writing was “light and deft,” making the world of the characters “fully real to our imagination.”

Perhaps Pauline Masurel in the online Short Review isolates what it is about Trueblood’s stories that I do not like, for she seemed to like them for exactly the same reason I did not. Masurel says the stories “display the sort of expansiveness that you’d expect to find in a novel rather than a short story having a wide cast of characters and a lengthy timeline.” I realize this is the same sort of comment that is often made about the stories of Alice Munro, who is my very favorite short story writer. However, reading the stories of Valerie Trueblood this second time, even though I purposely slowed down and tried to focus on them fairly, I found them too diffuse, with too many characters, too much time covered--in short, much too much like the seeming expansiveness found in novels without the sly, tight thematic patterning and psychological insight I find in the masterful stories of Alice Munro.

Too often in a Trueblood story, I got lost a few pages in and had to go back to the beginning to identify characters, visualize locale, and try to grasp the dramatic situation. I know I often have to do this in an Alice Munro story also, but the effort pays off by making me more aware of the emotional, psychological, thematic core of her stories. With Trueblood’s stories, I just found myself getting lost again when another set of characters at another space/time locale was introduced. Trueblood’s stories just go on and on without any sense of purpose or significance. Characters are introduced, their problems explored, and their actions and thoughts recorded, but the stories do not cohere in any meaningful thematic way. That may be fine in the leisurely world of the novel, but it just won’t do in the brief compact compass of the short story.

Trueblood’s prose is often too loose and wordy, without any significant reason. For example: “Her mother went into the hospital. She went by ambulance to the county hospital, the same one where they had taken Sharla’s little girl, and there she too died.” Why not, “Her mother was taken to the county hospital where, like Sharla’s little girl, she died.” And often, Trueblood takes time to pose general questions in quite ordinary ways: “What is love? What is it? How can it be what it seems to be, nothing? A vacancy, an invisibility, a configuration of the mind.” And too often the dialogue has no significance-- just people talking without that talk bearing any real weight or revealing anything important about the characters.

As I have been writing this, I have gone back through the collection and find to my amazement that although I have now read it twice, the last time in the past week, and I still cannot remember any of the stories. And damn it, I am not that old. The stories are just that diffuse.

I confess that Valerie Trueblood’s stories have suffered from the fact that I have also been reading Edith Pearlman’s magnificent collection of stories, Binocular Vision, this week. Pearlman’s stories are so brilliant, so well written, so remarkable in their precision and perception that Marry or Burn just pales in comparison. When she was writing the introduction to Pearlman’s book, fellow writer Ann Patchett says she sat down and read Binocular Vision with a pen in her hand, intending to underline some of the best sentences so she could quote them along the way, but quickly saw that she was underlining the entire book. I read Valerie Trueblood’s book this second time also with a pen in hand, hoping to accent sentences that I admired as I did so often while reading Pearlman’s book. I fear the pages remain clean.

Although I have tried very hard to understand, I cannot guess why Marry or Burn was shortlisted for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Perhaps you may think that I personally just didn’t like Trueblood’s stories, but having read thousands of short stories in my life, I feel confident that when I do not like short stories I read, it is usually because they are not very good short stories.

The winner of the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award will be announced in Cork in a few days. The folks at the Munster Literature Center will probably never ask me to be a judge in the contest, but because one of the pleasures of such contests is trying to out-judge the judges, I may be so bold as to pick my own winner.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Yiyun Li, GOLD BOY, EMERALD GIRL: Shortlisted for 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award

The two most prominent sources of reader/reviewer fascination with the stories of Yiyun Li are: that a writer for whom English is a second language can write so “elegantly” in her adopted language and that Li provides “insights” into a culture with which Western readers may not be familiar. Li’s debut collection, A Thousand Years of Prayers, won the first Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, a PEN/Hemingway Award, and the Guardian First Book Award in 2006, only ten years after she came to the University of Iowa from Beijing to study immunology. She has told an interviewer that she did not know Iowa City was a writer’s town; during her second year, someone told her that everyone is Iowa City was writing a novel, “And that started my dream. I thought I wanted to write a novel, too,” although she had never written anything in China. She began taking several undergraduate writing classes and then enrolled in both the nonfiction and the fiction program at Iowa, graduating with two MFA’s at once. Readers find such authorial backstories remarkable and irresistible.

Li has been named by Granta as one of the 21 Best Young American Novelists under 35 and was named by The New Yorker as one of the top 20 writers under 40. In 2010, she won one of the so-called “genius” MacArthur Foundation Awards, worth half a million dollars over a five-year period. Her novel The Vagrant was shortlisted for the big-money IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2009, which was won by Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. But the fact that she won the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award in 2005, beating out David Means’ wonderful collection The Secret Goldfish, may make judges decide this year to award it to another, even though most reviewers think that Gold Boy, Emerald Girl is a better collection of stories than A Thousand Years of Prayers. I have not read Li’s first collection, but after reading her recent collection, I ordered it and plan to read it soon. Her success reaffirms my suspicion that good storytellers are born, not taught

As might be expected, the long, novella-type story, “Kindness” that opens Gold Boy, Emerald Girl has attracted the most praise from reviewers. It is often just assumed that if a story is long, it is more complex than one that is short. However, although “Kindness” is an affecting first-person account of a woman named Moyan who rebuffs the affection of her mathematics students and lives alone, which is not surprising since she has rejected overtures of love and friendship from others all her life—her professor who introduced her to Dickens, Hardy, and D. H. Lawrence, and her Lieutenant while a teenage recruit in the People’s Liberation Army. Although Moyan’s refusal to make contact with anyone has made her an exemplum of what Frank O’Connor has said is characteristic of the short story as a form—loneliness—“Kindness,” in its drawn-out exploration of the sources of Moyan’s isolation over a period of years, is much more characteristic of the novel form than the short story.

If “Kindness” is to be taken as typical of Li’s novelistic technique, the eight remaining stories in the collection, in my opinion, are ample evidence that Li is a stronger short story writer than she is a novelist. Frank O’Connor’s “lonely voice” is predominant in all of Li’s short stories—which may due as much to the fact that the great Irish short story writer William Trevor is her favorite author as it is to the influences of a repressive modern Chinese culture.

In “A Man Like Him,” a retired art teacher becomes incensed when he reads about a young woman who is suing her father for taking a mistress and abandoning his family. He frequents social web sites, pretending he is a younger, more desirable man, buys fashion magazines with pictures of young women, and lives with his ninety-year-old mother, who adopted him as a child. He ponders the expression, “a man like him,” feeling lost and alone, and stalks the beaten-down father who abandoned his family to show his sympathy--telling him, “We are the kind of men who would not kick our feet or flail our arms if someone came to strangle us to death.” He tells the father his own story of being accused of perversion for simply looking with fascinated interest at a young girl in one of his classes. The father tells him that his daughter has said that if she is unsuccessful in getting him put in prison, she will come with rat poison, adding, “I am waiting every day for her to fulfill her promise, and I count it as my good fortune to have little suspense left in my life.” The retired teacher leaves the man with an expression that his aged mother often uses and which he has adopted for his own, “I have nothing to say about this world.”

“I have nothing to say about this world” might be the mantra of most of the lonely characters in Li’s stories. For example, in “Prison,” a successful Chinese couple living in America lose their sixteen-year-old daughter in a traffic accident and find their world shattered. When the husband suggests they go to China and find a surrogate mother so that they might have another child, the wife chooses an uneducated young woman whose only child has been stolen by a kidnapper several years before, and stays with her during the pregnancy with twins, fretting over imagined dangers to the unborn children. When the two women are approached by a young beggar boy on the street, the pregnant woman insists that the boy is her missing child, causing such a scene that the boy’s guardian must take him away. When the two women get home, the girl demands that the woman give her half the money promised so that she can buy the boy back from the beggar man. When the woman asks the girl to sit down so they can talk about it, she threatens to run away and sell the twins. The story ends with a standoff as the woman thinks, “This was the price they paid for being mothers…that the love of one’s own child made everyone else in the world a potential enemy.” She knows that the relationship of trust she and the girl has developed during the pregnancy is crushed and that they will remain each other’s prisoners.

“House Fire” starts out to be what seems like a light comedy about six women friends, from their mid-fifties to early seventies, who establish a detective business to investigate men who cheat on their wives. The title comes from a popular joke that circulates as a text message throughout the city: “An old man in love is like an old house on fire, which burns easily and burns down fast.” The women are so successful that a television station does a story about them, which ironically makes them lose business because potential clients think their “cover has been blown.” When they interview a potential male client, they become especially interested because the man thinks that his wife is having an affair with his own father who lives with them. During the course of the interview, the women recall their own past fears, disappointments, and betrayals. It is the lightest story in the collection, but even then it manages to probe beneath the surface of the mere plot to reveal the backstory of the characters’ loneliness.

The shortest story in the collection, “Souvenir,” (about six pages) may be the only one to verge on the manipulative. It is a single scene in which still another lonely, elderly man, approaches a young woman in a pharmacy with the oft-used line, “You remind me of my wife when she was your age.” The girl tries to avoid him, but when she awkwardly buys a pack of condoms, while being laughed at by other women in the story, she drops them and the old man puts his foot on them, scolding her for what he thinks is her immoral behavior. What he does not know is that the girl is planning to give herself to the boy she loved, a boy who has been beaten so badly by the authorities that his parents tell her he will never become a husband. However, “she is the kind of girl who did not believe their words. She believed that her love would save and change him.” The story ends with these lines: “Someday, when she became an old woman, she would show the pink pack to her children, a souvenir of her hopeful youth.”

The title story, which concludes the collection, is about a thirty-eight year old woman and a forty-four year old man for whom the man’s mother (the girl’s former teacher) is trying to arrange a match, unaware that her son is gay. The title refers to pictures of the man with his parents as he was growing up. “They would have been called ‘gold boy’ and ‘emerald girl’ at their wedding, enviable for their matching good looks.” The young woman agrees to marry her old professor’s son, but only because both love his mother. The story, and Li’s book, ends this way: “They were half orphans, and beyond that there was the love for his mother that they could share with no one else, he was a son who had once left but had now returned, she who had not left and would never leave. They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness.”

I like Yiyun Li’s stories, not because she provides me with information about Chinese culture, but because she is a fine writer who has mastered my favorite literary form. She is obviously a born storyteller who has learned a new language with which she feels completely comfortable and confident. Moreover, by studying the stories of William Trevor, she has learned the secrets of the short story form from a consummate master.

A couple of weeks ago, Eileen Battersby (who was a judge of the Frank O’Connor Award when Jhumpa Lahiri won in 2008) wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the six shortlisted authors in this year’s competition, concluding, “Lightning may well strike twice. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl stands out on this shortlist. Should it win, it will be a victory for everyone: the author, the short-story form, the judges, the award, literary prizes in general and oh yes, let us not forget, the real winners, us, the readers.”

The winner of the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award will be announced on September 18. In a few days, I will comment on the sixth and final book on the shortlist, Marry or Burn by Valerie Trueblood. Then I may well venture my own opinion as to who might be the winner of the Award.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Colm Tóibín’s THE EMPTY FAMILY: 2011 Frank O'Connor Short Story Award Shortlist

The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín

It is not often that I like an author’s novels better than his or her short stories. Usually, the writing is better in short stories than in novels, not only because it is difficult to sustain careful, precise, evocative writing over the long haul, but also because of the short’s story’s dependence on thematic significance communicated by careful poetic patterning of language.

I liked Colm Tóibín’s The Master, as a stylistic tour de force and loved Brooklyn because its universal theme, communicated by such carefully written language, suggested the technique of a short story than that of a novel (See my earlier blog entry on Brooklyn, January 20, 2010). However, I did not like Tóibín’s first collection of short stories, Mothers and Sons, and I am no big fan of his recent collection, Empty Family, in spite of its being short listed for the 2011 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.

Of the six collections on that list, Tóibín’s book has received the most attention by reviewers, albeit, not so much by American reviewers, who, with the exception of positive reviews in The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, pretty much ignored it. However, reviewers in Canada, Australia, England, and Ireland were mostly unanimous in their praise for the collection, which I thought lackluster, ordinary, and even sometimes carelessly written, as if Tóibín had so little respect for the short story form he used it only for “occasional” writing. In my opinion, he has not given it the care and careful attention that he did in The Master and Brooklyn.

In the opening story of The Empty Family, “The Silence,” Tóibín returns to his mentor of The Master, Henry James, taking an anecdote from James’s Notebooks to put together a fictional recreation of Lady Gregory’s account of her short-lived but heated affair with Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. As a result of the affair, Gregory wrote a group of sonnets, which Blunt, at her request, published under his name. In my opinion, a competently done, but hardly Jamesian, literary jeu d' esprit, in which Tóibín attempts to write the story that James did not get around to writing.

The title story, “The Empty Family,” begins with a signature thematic sentence for this collection of stories, as well as a classic Irish theme ever since George Moore’s 1903 The Untilled Field: “I have come back here.” The story is a sort of meditation addressed to a former lover by a man who, while living in California, drives out to the ocean every Saturday so he can stand there and “miss home.” He returns to County Wexford where “home was some graves where my dead lay outside the town of Enniscorthy, just off the Dublin Road.” In a central passage that echoes Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” the narrator looks out over the sea and focuses on a single wave to discover that although the wave comes toward us as if to save us, it does nothing, withdrawing in a “shrugging irony, as if to suggest this is what the world is, and our time in it, all lifted possibility, all complexity and rushing fervour, to end in nothing but a small strand, and go back out to rejoin the empty family from whom we had set out alone with such a burst of brave unknowing energy.” A bit too facile and self-indulgently ruminative, it seems to me.

“One Minus One,” also addressed to a former lover, is mainly a meditation about a man’s return to Ireland to attend the dying of his mother. For everyone who has made this melancholy journey back home for the deathwatch and funeral service of a mother or father, this will seem a familiar experience, which Tóibín handles in a quite ordinary personal essayistic way.

“Two Women” is about Frances, a movie set designer, living in California, who returns to Dublin to work on a film. She recalls her broken relationship years before with her dead lover, an Irish actor. The woman is a brittle, crusty old lady, scornful of her home country and just about everyone with whom she comes in contact, although we are not sure if this attitude has anything to do with that old lover affair. When she meets the widow of her ex-lover in a most convenient, unlikely encounter, they have a sit-down, heart-to-heart that seems inconsequential. Although the woman is “careful to use detail sparingly but make it stand for a lot,” I am not so sure that Tóibín does the same in this story.

“The New Spain” is about Carme Giralt, who, exiled as a communist under Franco, returns to Barcelona to claim an inheritance from her grandmother—an inheritance that has excluded her parents. In its focus on family conflicts, the story is much like the loose pieces in Tóibín’s earlier collection, Mothers and Sons.

“The Colour of Shadows” is about a Dublin businessman who goes to Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s homeplace) to care for his aunt, suffering from dementia. She becomes paranoid that he has been seeing his mother, who has been cut off from the family for deserting the narrator (who is gay) when he was a boy--something his family cannot accept.

“The Pearl Fishers” is about a man who writes thrillers having dinner with a married couple of friends. The wife, who is writing a book about being sexually abused as a young woman by a priest, does not know that her husband and the narrator were lovers in high school. He is on the verge of telling her about his past love with her husband, but is prevented by the disclosure of her own secret. In her New York Times Review, Francine Prose names “Pearl Fishers” the best story in the collection, suggesting that, “multiple ironies, some obvious and others quite subtle, are allowed to shimmer lightly in the atmosphere surrounding the former friends. Resonating throughout the story, the contrasts between action and intention, expectation and outcome alter our perception of the characters: of who they were as teenagers and how they became the adults on whom we are eavesdropping.” As much as I respect Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer, I cannot agree that this story has that much Jamesian stylistic subtlety.

“Pearl Fishers” introduces the reader to something previously missing from Tóibín’s fiction, explicit descriptions of male sexual encounters. The narrator recalls sex with the husband, remembering “I had fed his sweet, thick, pungent, lemony sperm into my mouth with my fingers as if it were jam, desperately trying to make sure that none was wasted.” The sexual descriptions, describing painful anal intercourse, continue in “Barcelona, 1975,” which is about a young Irish man who leaves Dublin at age 20 for Barcelona (as did Tóibín) and takes a lover The emphasis in these sexual scenes is merely on the physical event, not the significance of the event. The prose is routine and ordinary, for example: “I don’t know when I first let my new friend fuck me. I had been fucked for a few seconds the year before, but it was so painful I had made the guy take his dick out forthwith and keep it out. Another guy, summer before I left Ireland, had tried more successfully, but it was better when I fucked him. So when my new friend asked me if I liked fucking or being fucked, I said I like fucking. He said he did too, and in fact he hated being fucked and couldn’t do it.” That, it seems to me, is just tedious, purposeless, writing, regardless of what act it describes.

When asked by one interviewer if he was trying to shock readers with the sex scenes, Tóibín replies, ”with a gale of giggles,” “Yes, that’s thrown in for mischief.” But then more defensively, he adds, “It’s actually an important part of me, and it’s an important part of the world and here it is, and I’m not ashamed of it and I’m certainly not going to hide it, and it’s going in my next book and if you can’t deal with that I can’t…I’m certainly not going to do anything about it such as not put stories into the book or not write things that occur to me. You just have to go wherever things take you. I’m not sure you can take everyone with you, but you should be prepared to try.”

Although one can certainly agree that Tóibín has the right to describe that which is important to him, that which, to some extent defines him as a person, at the same time, a reader has a right to question whether these flatly described explicit sex scenes are anything more meaningful than examples of the author’s right to disclose. Hermione Lee of the Guardian says, “Every so often he allows himself some lavish, graphic sexual writing, as though challenging us to read these descriptions any differently from his scenes of longing for lost family homes or missed landscapes.”

The reviewer in The Toronto Star, Alex Good, suggests the sex passages give one the feeling that “Tóibín is determined to overcompensate for James’s reticence” about male sex. Good argues, “It’s not being prudish to feel that descriptions of analingus or remarks on the taste and consistency of spunk are out of place in stories that otherwise eschew physicality for the inner life. Tóibín’s characters get defined by their sexual urges and behavior, which is a trap that James took some pains to avoid.”

Reviewers are more accepting of the sex scenes in the longest story in the collection, “The Street,” about a young Muslim immigrant, Malik, who has come to Barcelona and must work out the cost of his passage by selling phone cards. Reviewers call it a “daring story,” a “dangerous, dramatic story.” Because it deals with issues of immigration, marginalization Muslim strictures about moral behavior, and because Malik is a young man struggling with his sexuality, reviewers seem ready to ignore the sexuality in favor of the multicultural social issues. However, I think an Australian reviewer best understands the success of this story, suggesting that “The Street” is one of the best stories because “ultimately Tobin is a novelist rather than a short-story writer; his preference for stories of sweeping emotion sits better in extended narratives that allow for character growth and development rather than the sculpted precision shorter narratives demand.”

For me the central issue of Tóibín’s stories is whether they are tightly written, precisely structured short stories, or merely occasional authorial pastimes and recollections to while away the time in between what her perhaps thinks is the more important work of writing novels. Tóibín’s short fiction certainly embodies some of the obsessions of the Irish short story—the theme of exile and return, the notion of the lonely voice--but I am not sure that Tóibín takes the form as seriously as he does his novels.

Heather Ingman, who has written a book on the Irish short story, says in The Irish Times, “For the reader prepared to read slowly and savour the silences between the words, there are rich rewards in this collection.” In my opinion, although Tóibín's novels encourage us to read slowly, his short stories do not.

Francine Prose opens her review in The New York Times by asking: Why does the short story lend itself so naturally to the muted but still shattering sentiments of yearning, nostalgia, and regret?… In its search for the surprising yet inevitable chain of events that will illuminate a character’s---and the reader’s—life, a short story has the power to summon, like a genie from a bottle, the ghost of lost happiness and missed chances.” I agree. I just do not get a glimpse of the genie in the stories of Colm Tóibín.

I will discuss the fifth book in the 2011 Frank O’Connor Award shortlist, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, by Yiyun Li (who won the inaugral Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2005 for A Thousand Years of Good Prayers) in a few days.