Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen

Selected Stories, by Kjell Askildsen
Publisher: Columbia University Press
ISBN: 1628970286
100 pages, paperback
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

Any review I compose of this brief collection of short stories is going to be colored by the horrendous formatting issues that the advanced reading copy presented on the Kindle. Each story’s title was missing and the spacing between paragraphs was irregular, sometimes a line break was present, other times not. The combination of these issues meant that stories would end and the next would begin without any visual clue. It therefore became exceedingly hard to tell if a new story had begun or not. Sometimes a change in style or voice made it clear, but the similar tone and themes of several of these stories made this annoyingly unclear.

Despite these reading issues, the heart of the collection still was clear, dark and minimalistic much like the cinema I have seen from the Scandinavian countries. I read most of the stories here as falling within a common framework of the protagonist (mostly male) feeling lost. Each tale was filled with coffee, cigarettes, booze, and isolated walks as the character tried to regain a place in their life or relationships, find their bearings. In a way, the poor formatting accentuated this feeling for the reader, and may have influenced this personal interpretation of the stories.

Most of Askildsen’s writing is understated, contrasting with the blunt simplicity of the sentences and words. Most sentences are short. They aren’t complex. And simple facts are stated. Yet, beneath this almost droning mindless simplicity lurks a real sense of foreboding and menacing, and at times horrific events and actual death or loss or subtly hidden even within the forthright simplicity of the grammar and structure.

This is something I’d want to reread in actual hardcopy form, the electronic doesn’t really do justice to the atmosphere of the stories. I want to smell the pages as I read them each. Or at least have better formatting. Though the experience was more like three stars, it definitely grew on me as I read more of this, and it certainly has compelled a curiosity to read more by the author, so a curve to four I believe is reasonable in light of the technical snafu.

Hence the unavoidable and unfortunate caveat for this title: a reread could conceivably lead to a shift in the star ratings in either direction.

Four Stars out of Five