Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Hatful of Cherries by Félix Calvino

A Hatful of Cherries is a collection of 16 short stories by Félix Calvino set in Australia and Galicia. I'm always apprehensive when I start reading short stories because I like to know a lot about the characters, and short stories don't give you a lot of room for character development. Calvino does a great job giving readers an idea of who his characters really are in just a few short pages. While I didn't get as attached to the characters in these stories in the way I would have had it been a novel, I felt satisfied with the details I was given about each of them.

Take "An Old Sheep," for example:
As the only woman in the house, mother now set out to establish her authority past the kitchen walls. Though she was an outsider she came from good stock; her mother had presided over her own fourteen sons and daughters, and other relatives of her husband. And she too had been outsider.

Not that mother stated her ambitions. It was more like a low ranting wail directed toward the Lord, asking for patience and strength to endure her Calvary. This infuriated grandfather and she was told to go to hell with her pantomimes and not to interfere with his wine drinking, not to lose sight of the kitchen, the thimble and the washing. But their Holy War was over a piece of ground with rich black soil used by grandfather to grow tobacco, and desperately wanted by mother for her lettuce and tomatoes.

...But I felt sorry for father returning in the evening with the cows. Mother would be waiting in the stables, red-eyed, eager to tell him how unhappy she was because her work was not appreciated. Then she went back to the main house and to her bedroom, washed her face, put on a new scarf and attended to dinner efficiently but sombrely. Later in bed, she gave him a proper and unhurried version of the events, how they had developed and how alone she felt in the world. But these occasional storms were private family affairs and always blew away in the dark, leaving the sky blue again the next day. (pages 39-40)
My favorites stories in A Hatful of Cherries were "Basilio," a sad story of a man who picks up goods and sells them at market, traveling the dangerous post-Spanish Civil War roads while his wife worries about him at home, and "Sylvia," which follows two married men, best friends who share a lover. "Detour" focuses on a young man late to his engagement party when he detours to a more scenic route and his car breaks down in the rain. Calvino provides a shocking ending in just a few simple sentences.

He also does a wonderful job making stories about everyday incidents interesting. In "Restless Hands," he tells the story of a man who quits smoking, and in "The Laundry Incident," the main character finds his clothes stolen off the line on Easter Sunday.
...The socks, for example, should have been replaced long ago, as I have no mending abilities. As for the underpants, I am happy to see them go. Many of them have by now a senile elastic waistband and are therefore a source of irritation, having to be pulled up at regular intervals and in awkward places. Apart from a few shirts of recent purchase, the rest are well past mid-life and will not be missed.

The loss is not of a financial nature. I am more concerned for the safety of future washings. (page 110)
The stories in A Hatful of Cherries are beautifully written, with Calvino painting the scene so that you can picture it vividly in your mind. The prose is sparse, and each story is handled in a gentle tone despite some dark and melancholy themes. While there were a couple of stories whose meanings escape me, I think it is a solid collection of stories that is worth picking up when you're in the mood for short fiction.

Those of you interested in Calvino's work can read the title story, "A Hatful of Cherries," at The Barcelona Review. Also, Félix emailed me recently to say he has been published in the United States for the first time. His story, "They Are Only Dreams," is featured in Fast Forward: A Collection of Flash Fiction, Volume 2, which was released in June. Congrats Félix!

About the author:

Félix Calvino was born in Galicia, on the northwest coast of Spain and grew up on a farm. To avoid military service under General Franco, he went to England where he worked and studied English, his third language. He migrated to Australia in the late sixties, settled in Sydney and worked in the travel, restaurant and wine industries. In 1996 he moved to Melbourne and a year later, a long-held ambition for a tertiary education was fulfilled when he was admitted to the University of Melbourne. There he studied English and Spanish as components of his Bachelor of Arts degree.

His work has also appeared in journals such as Fast Forward Press, Quadrant, Social Alternatives and The Barcelona Review. He is currently undertaking a Master of Philosophy in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of A Hatful of Cherries from the author for review purposes.


Serena said...

sounds like an intriguing collection of short stories. Love it. I like when you find these new collections and authors.

Sandy Nawrot said...

I have just learned that I love short stories. I'd never really touched the genre before, but I have found that stories don't have to be long to make a lasting impression.

bermudaonion said...

I feel the same way about short stories - that's why I don't read them very often. This collection has a great title!

Unknown said...

I love short stories and especially the flash fiction genre that the author was recently published in. It is definitely difficult to capture a reader's interest in such a short time.

Staci said...

I'm always looking for good collections of short stories...thanks for highlighting this author for us!!

Anna said...

Serena: Well, really, he found me. LOL I think you'd enjoy the book. You can borrow my copy if you'd like.

Sandy: That is so true. Since I've started blogging, I've found some great short story collections. Before I didn't read too many.

Bermudaonion: I agree about the title. I like the cover, too, even if the cover and the title don't really go together in my opinion.

Janel: I'm really new to flash fiction. I'll have to read more of it.

Staci: You're welcome. I'll be posting a link to my interview with him tomorrow if you're interested.

Ti said...

This collection sounds wonderful. I don't usually care for short stories but I often wonder if I just haven't found the "right" collection. Thanks for the review.

Blodeuedd said...

I have seen some Calvino titles in the library but I have never tried him, hm, must see if they also have in English or my language.
great review

Anonymous said...

i actually love short stories and use them a great deal in my classroom. it's so much easier for students to pick up on characterization and exposition or other literary elements in short stories. glad you enjoyed this book and the author interview was great!

wisteria said...

I don't read a lot of short story collections. This sounds like one I would get though. Thanks for blogging about it.

Alyce said...

I am picky about the short stories that I like, and it's for that very reason (the character development). I tend to really like sci-fi short stories better for some reason. This does sound like a good collection of stories though.

Anonymous said...

I've been reading more short stories lately. Thanks for the review.

Becca said...

This sounds like an interesting collection! Thanks for the review! I am going to add it to my TBR list. Omg, my Friday Finds is growing out of control.

Wanda said...

What a treat to come across the quote on underwear: "a senile elastic waistband and are therefore a source of irritation, having to be pulled up at regular intervals and in awkward places." Made me smile and nod in recognition!

Anna said...

Ti: I don't read too many short stories either, but I really enjoyed these.

Blodeuedd: Not sure what other languages the book is available in, I just know that it's only been published in Australia.

Booklineandsinker: Thanks!

Wisteria: I hope you give the book a try.

Alyce: I noticed that I was plowing through these stories and becoming more attached to the characters than I have when reading other short stories.

Carolsnotebook: I haven't gone through a short story phase, but I do like them here and there.

Rebecca: I enjoy adding to people's TBR lists. Makes me feel better about my own growing wish list. ;)

Wanda: That's a great line, isn't it? ;)