Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Adam Sexton (ed.): Love Stories: A Literary Companion to Tennis

Ah… Wimbledon. This is normally one of the best times of the year for me, which is why a week ago I chose Love Stories for this week’s review. Thanks to certain favourite players losing in the first rounds, however, I locked up my racquet and balls out of sight, cover my ears and scream whenever Wimbledon is mentioned on TV, and have been sulking for days. I was even childish enough to consider not writing about the book at all, and didn’t finish reading it until this morning.

I’m glad I did finish it, though, as these short stories – plus a few excerpts from novels, and one from the screenplay of The Royal Tenenbaums – reminded me the game is not about winning, it’s about… well, actually, it is about winning. But it’s also about jealousy, perfectionism, cheating, broken families, prejudice, puberty, unrequited love, failure, parental pressure, and all manner of loss. (Come to think of it, I can’t remember a single upbeat piece from this anthology, though several were laced with generous doses of black humour.) In many of these stories, tennis – and membership in tennis clubs especially – serves to highlight dynamics of class, race, and culture; sometimes the sport brings people together on court only to underline their differences outside of it. In many others, an off-court rivalry or power struggle reaches its climax on court. There’s something about tennis that brings out your personal – and inter-personal – qualities better than any other sport. It isn’t merely a sport, after all: a great tennis player is not only stronger and faster than his opponents, but he has to outwit them, too. Tennis is art, it’s poetry, it’s life itself… but then, as a tennis lover, I would say all that, wouldn’t I?

In some stories, the tennis connection seems a bit tenuous. In John Updike’s ‘Separating’ and Rand Richards Cooper’s ‘Courtship’, for example, there’s only a dilapidated tennis court in the background, as a relic of a failed marriage; and in Jennifer Belle’s ‘Death and Tennis’ a never-used tennis racquet reminds the narrator of her deceased friend. From ‘The Petition Parade’ by Philip K. Edwards, I mainly remember the gruesome death of a poor little dog. I’ve also never been a big fan of including excerpts from longer works in anthologies, and some of these choices – specifically the ones from Nabokov’s Lolita and Martin Amis’ The Information – add little to the collection beyond the authors’ illustrious names. Nevertheless, I must thank Adam Sexton for including one from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: on the strength of this delicious excerpt alone, I resolved to get the book in my hot little hands as soon as possible.

The dustjacket boasts of stories from Updike and Wallace to Amis, from Nabokov to Atwood, but to me the real stars of the anthology are less well-known names. In Marcy Dermansky’s grimly humorous ‘Adults at Home’, an underachieving twenty-something is tormented by her insufferable, Grand-Slam-winning younger sister, and I added Dermansky’s novel Twins on my must-read list straight away. Also to my must-read list went Tara McCarthy’s Love Will Tear Us Apart, about a teenage pop duo of beautiful identical twin girls… who just happen to be conjoined at the hip. (They’re pretty mean tennis players too, believe it or not.) In ‘Pubertas Agonistes’ by Jonathan Ames, a teenaged boy suffers from late-onset puberty and quits his tennis team because he’s too ashamed to shower in the locker room.

I enjoyed ‘The Fourth’ by Lee Harrington, about an American thriatlonist who gets a job as an on-call tennis player at a wealthy aristocrat’s villa in Antibes – and finds out that her position is like that of a Victorian governess, not quite one of the servants, and certainly not one of the family. You can read a part of the story on the author’s website; and I’m glad to see it was in fact the beginning of a novel, as the ending felt abrupt and disappointing. Another argument against including novel excerpts in anthologies, surely: where exactly do you begin and end the excerpt?

But my favourite story in the entire book – partly, but not only, because it’s all about tennis – was ‘Match Point’ by Sarah Totton, in which a tennis pro is determined to finish a match though his hand is broken, and highly realistic technical detail is set off by some bizarre elements. I was so intrigued by Totton’s writing I set the book aside to Google her: imagine my shock when I found out she has been published in various literary journals, but there’s not a single short story collection bearing her name. Goes to show how hard it it to break through in this fied, but still, I shake my head in wonder. And wish I were a publisher myself.

Final Verdict: The collection is a little uneven, but contains a few gems and is well worth buying if you’re a tennis fan. (Also, the hardback edition is gorgeous, and will look lovely on your T for Tennis shelf. Just sayin’.) If you don’t like tennis, I can’t really say whether you’d like it or not: if only because I can’t imagine the mental landscape of someone so shockingly wanting in good taste…

Citadel Press 2003 hardback 239 pp. ISBN: 0806524383

(The paperback edition is titled Tennis Shorts: Great Writing on Tennis and Life, also from Citadel Press, ISBN: 0806524391.)

13 comments on “Adam Sexton (ed.): Love Stories: A Literary Companion to Tennis

  1. marygm
    June 29, 2008

    I think I’ll be giving this one a skip, Leena. I hear enough about tennis in my house. 🙂 It stuns me that people (even otherwise taciturn ones: i.e. men) can talk for hours about every detail of the game. At a recent barbecue I had a difficult choice between the tennis dissecting group or the smoking group. I chose the smokers. 😉

  2. Jackie
    June 29, 2008

    What a hilarious opening paragraph! I really did laugh out loud, that was great.Thatw as the essence of Leenawrit. It was a really objective review, I thought and I agree about including chapters from novels in anthologies. It’s so rarely done right.
    The cover is wonderfully old-fashioned.Is it a piece of antique art or specifically done for the book, do you know? How did ladies ever move about on the court with such dresses?

  3. Sam
    June 30, 2008

    Two reviews in as many days from Leena *and* a sudden draught of posts by her to read is always worth a, Yay! (though I’m sorry to hear you’re suffering from biting wind; sounds painful).

    Has tennis had its booky moment yet, in the way footy did with ‘Fever Pitch’, and cricket seems to be having with ‘Netherland’? There was Lionel Shriver’s ‘Double Fault’, I suppose, if it still exists after the mauling the critics gave it.

    I’m sure tennis’s time will come, in the way cycling’s did with Tim Krabbé’s (compelling) ‘The Rider’, and skiing’s did with ‘Cham’ (as in Chamonix) by that bloke who wrote ‘Boy A’, and horse-racing’s does every time Dick no-my-wife-does-not-write-my-books-for-me Francis rollers up to his desk.

  4. Leena
    June 30, 2008

    Mary, please point me towards these barbecues of which you speak… 😉

    Jackie, the picture is gorgeous, especially so in the bigger version, and I was intrigued by it too. Maddeningly, the book said no more than that the cover painting is from Bridgeman Art Library, but as Bridgeman has an online database, I found the picture here:

    http://www.bridgeman.co.uk/search/view_image2.asp?image_id=84360

    If the link doesn’t open it’s ‘The Tennis Match’ by Liz Wright, oil on canvas, 1980. She appears to have a website at http://www.wrightfineart.co.uk/L_biog.htm

    (As for moving about in long skirts, well, tennis dresses were generally shorter than normal dresses. Even so, I’ll bet women were from necessity highly strategic players, accustomed to moving the men around the court like chess pieces ;))

  5. Leena
    June 30, 2008

    Well, Sam, as it happens I’m writing something that promises to be the Great Tennis Novel (in my dreams, anyway). With black humour, ritual murders and a creepy Aztec god. Unless you beat me to it…

    Have you read Cham? I was quite intrigued by the Byron reference.

  6. Jackie
    June 30, 2008

    Only 1980??? My goodness, I would’ve thought older than that. Thanks Leena, for the links to the larger version. I also enjoyed the artist’s own website. Did you see she has one called “Foxes Dance”?
    Sam, Dick Francis’s wife died a few years ago, just so you know.

  7. Sam
    June 30, 2008

    No, I’ve not read it, Leena. I didn’t enjoy Boy A so decided to pass on his second, which is probably my loss as I love boarding and would probably get something out of the book (even if it is about skiing, and not boarding).

    I don’t think my GTN would be particuarly good. I’d spend the whole of the novel trying to understand the psychological-realist forces at play in the decision to hit a backhand.

  8. Sam
    June 30, 2008

    Thanks, Jackie, I’ll, er, take that on board.

  9. Leena
    June 30, 2008

    Jackie, ‘Foxes Dance’ is beautiful! There’s also one titled ‘Fox Fire Legend’. Lots of artists seem to like foxes a lot.

    Sam – well, the backhand novel might even win the Booker, you never know…

    I don’t think I’m going to read Cham either, as I’m utterly and completely uninterested in all sports except tennis (my loss, I know). I do wonder what Byron has to do with it all, but it’s probably destined to remain one of the great literary mysteries to me.

  10. Sam
    June 30, 2008

    Leena, I know you’d never ever even so much as dream of mocking me on the subject of Me & The Booker, so I’ll just thank you for your encouragement and kind belief.

  11. Jackie
    July 1, 2008

    Did you notice the flames that the foxes are carrying in their mouths in “Fire Fox Legends”? I wasn’t sure what that was; torches, cigars, what? I know it’s supposed to be a mystical painting, but it was a bit too out there for me.
    I believe artists like to paint foxes because of the unusual color, the sleekness and the variety of habitats and seasons they can be portrayed in. I have a sentimental attachment to them, as the first time I was juried into a professional show, it was with a painting of a red fox sleeping by an autumn maple tree, both drawn from life.

  12. Leena
    July 1, 2008

    Jackie, I’d love to see that fox painting of yours! (I have no idea about the flames, either. Weird.)

    Sam, I wasn’t mocking, believe me. It was just my way of saying that if I saw Backhand: A Novel in a shop, I’d pick it up…

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This entry was posted on June 29, 2008 by in Entries by Leena, Fiction: short stories and tagged , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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