BOOKS FOR CHRISTMAS

SHORT STORIES
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The Independent Culture
According to William Trevor, the most beguiling short-story writers tease the reader by providing only a peephole through which to glimpse a new and complex world. And the "little people" of their stories (there's no place for the novel's great gesticulating hero) are forced to come to terms with their mortality. In this year's edition of Irish Short Stories (ed David Marcus, Phoenix House pounds 15.99) 16 new, young writers explore ancient traditions and homespun philosophies and reveal the age-old anxieties that spawned them. In Bryan MacMahon's "The Jack Darcy", Old Jack the angler is determined to create the perfect salmon fly before he dies. As he comes closer to achieving his lifetime's ambition, and death draws equally near, his granddaughter Kate stirs from her passivity and a new flydresser is born to carry on the "secret byline in her blood". Claire Keegan continues the theme of old worlds giving way to new, and transforms the "primitive da-rum of the bodhran" dance into a coming-of-age celebration that shatters the bonds of family life, and then realigns them.

Death and regeneration also feature in Reinventing the Enemy's Language: Contemporary Native Women's Writings of North America (ed Joy Hargo and Gloria Bird, Norton pounds 19.95). From around their "kitchen table", the editors have gathered voices from 50 tribal nations in the hope that collective memories will be handed down the generations and that they will reach out to others, "whose language and identity have been suppressed". Navajo writer Luci Tapahonso writes of a woman who mourns for her dead granddaughter. Until she finds a tribe elder who can undertake the necessary burial rite, she is stuck in her grief: "I understand now that all of life has ceremonies connected with it, and without our memory, our old people, and our children, we would be like lost people in this world we live in, as well as in the other worlds in which our loved ones are waiting."

The women writing in Susan Corrigan's Typical Girls (Sceptre pounds 6.99) come from a different angle: the clubs, gigs and galleries of Nineties England. These are "New stories by smart women" who smash through glass ceilings and thumb their noses at lad culture. Riot girls, single mums and high- flyers feature in stories written by "superstars from the pop culture arena". An 11-year-old Tracy Emin spies on squatters she dubs "The Three Wize Kings", and has her first brush with love and the law. And Maxine, in Emily Perkins' "The Indelible Hulk", learns that one day she'll find a friend who can accept imperfections. Until then, " 'You're the greatest,' she says to the mirror. And she piles her bowl high with cereal and pours over lo-fat milk."

Disorder and disaffection are the central tenets of the American crime story, and in Hardboiled (OUP pounds 15.95), Bill Pronzini and Jack Adrian collect some of the greatest examples of the genre. An early Dashiell Hammett story draws on private-investigative procedures learnt during his 14- year stint with the Pinkerton Detective Agency. His prototypical private eye displays the classic Sam Spade hallmarks of a dry wit and ready dismissal of the legal system. When we reach the final sentence's surprise stinger, a more complex morality unfolds. Chester Himes, James Ellroy, Mickey Spillane and Raymond Chandler are the other great cynics included.

In Under African Skies (ed Charles Larson, Canongate pounds 14.99), Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri and Wole Soyinka are joined by colleagues hardly known outside their continent. Civil war, apartheid and post colonial fall-out dominate these stories, but resilience, for the most part, triumphs. In Bessie Head's story of a wily political prisoner, the bespectacled, knobbly-kneed hero trains his brutish warder to turn a blind eye to his black-market trafficking of cabbages. When it occurs to him that he could never manipulate his unruly children with such ease, he is left wondering how much his political activity was motivated by his desire to avoid them. The irony goes deeper in Ken Saro-Wiwa's story of martyred activists. A man faces the firing squad and makes his final request: "I'd like you to put this on my gravestone, as my epitaph: 'Africa Kills Her Sun'. That's why she's been described as the Dark Continent, yes?"

Back to Ireland for David Marcus's selection of Irish Christmas Stories (Bloomsbury pounds 14.99) in which Sean O'Faolain, Bernard Mac Laverty and others attempt to crystallise the emotional resonance of this most emotive of festivals. Elizabeth Bowen describes a party where drunken adults throw off their reserve and collapse, illicitly, into each other's arms. Meanwhile, two children soberly watch their elders and recognise in each other their own inability to connect. Each story contains a revelation of sorts - Frank O'Connor shatters the myth of Father Christmas for a young boy when he suddenly sees his father through his mother's eyes, and realises that he, too, is set to perpetuate a line of "mean common drunkards".

Finally, Sarah LeFanu brings together "Stories to end the century" in Sex, Drugs, Rock'n'Roll (Serpent's Tail pounds 8.99). Here, the impact of the hedonistic Eighties is keenly felt. Philip Hensher shows that ideals exist only to be compromised, while Janice Galloway's heroine lives in hope that "when the drugs kick in, she'll feel nothing at all". But there is a sense of optimism: the rampant consumerism which makes a mockery of the Sixties notion of counterculture sex, drugs and rock'n'roll leads writers like Michele Roberts, Joyce Carol Oates and Christopher Hope to step outside the marketplace, and show that, within the imagination, anything is possible.

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