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The Doll's Alphabet

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Surreal, ambitious, and exquisitely conceived, The Doll's Alphabetis a collection of stories in the tradition of Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. Dolls, sewing machines, tinned foods, mirrors, malfunctioning bodies - many images recur in stories that are in turn child-like and naive, grotesque and very dark.
In Unstitching, a feminist revolution takes place. In Waxy, a factory worker fights to keep hold of her Man in a society where it is frowned upon to be Manless. In Agata's Machine, two schoolgirls conjure a Pierrot and an angel in a dank attic room. In Notes from a Spider, a half-man, half-spider finds love in a great European city.
By constantly reinventing ways to engage with her obsessions and motifs, Camilla Grudova has come up with a method for storytelling that is highly imaginative, incredibly original, and absolutely discomfiting.

- Unstitching (2017)
- The Mouse Queen (2017)
- The Gothic Society (2017)
- Waxy (2016)
- The Doll's Alphabet (2017)
- The Mermaid (2017)
- Agata's Machine (2015)
- Rhinoceros (2017)
- The Sad Tale of the Sconce (2017)
- Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead (2017)
- Hungarian Sprats (2017)
- The Moth Emporium (2017)
- Notes from a Spider (2017)

182 pages, Paperback

First published February 14, 2017

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About the author

Camilla Grudova

15 books73 followers
Camilla Grudova lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. She holds a degree in art history and German from McGill University, Montreal. Her fiction has appeared in the White Review and Granta.

Grudova originally posted stories on her Tumblr blog before being spotted by an editor from The White Review.

Her story, "Waxy" (Granta 136), was nominated for a British Fantasy Award for short fiction and won the Shirley Jackson Award for best novelette.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 263 reviews
Profile Image for Alwynne.
558 reviews537 followers
October 30, 2022
Camilla Grudova’s short fiction’s set in suffocating spaces of the weird and the uncanny. They draw from a rich array of influences, like makeshift ragbag assemblages gleaned from the remnants of folk tales and classic speculative fiction. Some like “Waxy” and “Edward, Do not Pamper the Dead” take place in dystopian universes somehow devoid of nature, where society is rigidly ordered, housing is limited and food is scarce, what remains is processed or rancid, and vast swathes of animals are extinct – like an extreme vision of a post-climate-change world. In “Waxy” women are trapped by their gender, bred to be helpers for their men, and to live out their days on factory assembly lines; while “The Mouse Queen” and “The Mermaid” are variations on traditional fairy tales, feminist fables of metamorphosis and rage.

Grudova revels in decay and dilapidation which she blends with the surreal and the fantastical: oozing, stinking bodies; sewing machines that produce psychic films reminiscent of spirit photography; creepy, battered dolls, an array of tawdry yet magical detritus. There’s a strong visual element to her work, presumably connected to her background in art history. Reading her collection felt like an encounter with the verbal equivalents of Dubuffet’s Art Brut. The settings and the carefully-compiled lists of near-totemic objects that appear over and over again in her stories conjure images that share a lineage with the outsider art of late 19th and early 20th century asylums. The title piece “Unstitching” with its hints of Kafka, the repetition of sewing machines, allusions to processes of making and unmaking, that surface in numerous stories, recalled the work of seamstress Agnes Richter who lived out her days in a Dresden mental hospital stitching and unstitching an elaborate jacket representing her life.

As with any collection, I found some entries more potent or convincing than others. Sometimes Grudova’s narratives fall flat, the ideas too thinly spread, or her fascination with the grotesque too forced or overly self-indulgent. But I responded to her highly referential, collage-like style and there were countless small details that really appealed - for instance the scenes featuring what must be deliberate nods to the films of the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmajer. I particularly enjoyed “The Moth Emporium” with a protagonist who seems to have migrated from the pages of Angela Carter via Barbara Comyns. I was fascinated too by the menacing, malevolent narrator in Notes from a Spider a curious hybrid of man and Louise Bourgeois style spider; whose experiences take place in a strangely familiar post-WW1 city, an almost Prague or almost Vienna, where the monstrous has openly merged with the everyday.

Note: I have the Fitzcarraldo Edition but the American edition includes a useful list of Grudova’s literary influences:

The Doll’s Alphabet was inspired by: • Edward Gorey, Amphigorey Again • Barbara Comyns, Sisters by a River • Georges Perec, Life: A User’s Manual • T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays • Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor • Samuel Beckett, More Pricks Than Kicks • Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop • Franz Kafka, The Complete Stories • Günter Grass, Cat and Mouse
Profile Image for Melki.
5,676 reviews2,324 followers
January 1, 2018
Grudova's debut collection of short stories is strange, but wonderful. Her characters inhabit drab, gray worlds, and walk under dark, stormy skies. They seem to exist under a cloud of menace, and anything can happen in their Kafkaesque realities.

The author seems fond of sewing machines, and the devices appear in most of the tales; an odd, but apt addition is this contraption meant to free a woman from the drudgery of hand sewing that became instead an instrument of enslavement, chaining countless females to poorly paid and dangerous factory jobs.

The stories, while not bizarre enough to be Bizarro, are pretty weird. Sid's toys would feel right at home within these pages.


Just my kind of thing, but maybe not your cup of tea.
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,554 reviews2,534 followers
February 17, 2017
This debut collection sets surreal tales of women’s inner lives against ruined cityscapes. The 13 stories are like perverted fairytales or fragmentary nightmares, full of strange recurring imagery and hazily dystopian setups. Flash fiction-length stories alternate with longer ones that move at a dizzying pace, and the book is roughly half third-person and half first-person – a balance I always appreciate.

“Unstitching,” the two-page opener, introduces the metaphors and gender politics that form the backdrop for Grudova’s odd imagination. One day Greta realizes she can unstitch herself, removing an outer covering to reveal her true identity; “It brought great relief … like undoing one’s brassiere before bedtime or relieving one’s bladder after a long trip.” Her neighbor Maria does the same, but men – including Greta’s husband – find this intimidating, and are jealous because they don’t seem to have a deeper self to uncover. I was tickled by the idea of women having a secret life unshared by men, but had trouble grasping the actual mechanics of the unstitching: “She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant.” Huh? This is a case where keeping things vague might have been a better strategy.

Sewing machines keep popping up, along with mermaids, dolls, babies, zoos, factories, and old-fashioned or derelict shops. For example, the narrator of “The Mouse Queen” is a clerk in a doll’s house shop, while her husband Peter works in a graveyard. One night he brings home the corpse of an old dwarf woman, which the narrator decides to stow in the abandoned grocery store under their apartment. Um, naturally.

In “Waxy” (full text available on the Granta website) the narrator works at a sewing machine factory and unlawfully acquires a baby by her sub-par Man, Paul. The sexual violence in this one and in “Moth Emporium” is deeply unsettling: even in these off-kilter fictional worlds women’s bodies are considered a threat and pregnancy is never innocuous.

My two favorites were “Agata’s Machine” (full text available at The White Review) and “Notes from a Spider.” The former is perhaps indebted to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking-Horse Winner” in its picture of obsessive and ultimately self-destructive activity. It features two Eastern European eleven-year-olds: the narrator is bullied, while her friend Agata is an aloof genius. In her attic room Agata keeps what looks like a sewing machine, but pushing its treadle creates flickering images of Pierrot (a clown) or an angel. This one has a chilling ending. The last story, “Notes from a Spider,” is told by a half-man, half-spider with eight legs. He keeps a zoo for vermin and opens – what else? – a sewing machine museum.

I’ve discovered that I have limited tolerance for outlandish tales like these. I’d be intrigued to find one of Grudova’s stories in an anthology, and I might be happy to read the best four or five of these. But because the same images and concepts keep repeating, the book feels twice as long as it needs to be. Ultimately this book was not for me, but I would not hesitate to recommend it to you if you have enjoyed the more fantastical of the feminist short stories by Karen Russell, Alexandra Kleeman and Helen Simpson.

With thanks to publicist Nicolette Praça for the free copy for review.

Originally published on my blog, Bookish Beck.
Profile Image for Blair.
1,745 reviews4,171 followers
April 9, 2017
If I was in the habit of saying 'what did I just read?' after finishing a particularly odd book, I'd certainly say it about The Doll's Alphabet. I flew through the whole of this short story collection over the course of a long train journey (I often read fiction quickly, but even I was surprised at how swiftly I made it through this) and, afterwards, felt like I'd experienced something like a sensory overload. Motifs recur so frequently throughout these strange stories that the book left me with a jumbled mental image of weird objects: dolls, sewing machines, particular types of food (toast with golden syrup, various tinned things), factories, insect-like body parts. Some of the stories are flash fiction, between a sentence and a page in length. Others take plenty of time to flesh out their grubby dystopian worlds. They tend to focus on women; there's a lot of sex, a lot of it disturbing; a lot of power play between the genders. Yet, in spite of all this dark weirdness, The Doll's Alphabet is so charged with absurdity that it can't help but be extremely funny at times.

'Waxy', probably the most-discussed story from the collection, is packed with its own proper nouns: it's frowned upon for a woman to be without a Man; women work in Factories and take care of their Men, while Men study Philosophy Books and take Exams. There's a post-war feel to this world – the outdated gender politics, the rationed food, the posters saying things like 'A GOOD LADY DOES NOT LET HER MAN LOITER'. In 'Agata's Machine', the title character constructs (using an old sewing machine) a contraption that makes visions of mysterious men appear – as if in a silent film, except these images have minds of their own. In 'Unstitching', women step out of their skins; in 'Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead' (what a title!), the dead keep on eating, smoking, reading newspapers. But I think my favourite might actually have been 'The Gothic Society', just over a page long, in which gothic motifs and objects spontaneously appear throughout urban environments: possibly elaborate acts of vandalism, perhaps a sort of plague, like a prolific weed. It's typical of Grudova's stories that it ends without conclusion.

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Profile Image for Auntie Terror.
412 reviews102 followers
October 27, 2020
Sewing machines, pregnancy, communication deficiencies and oppression in a dystopian Dostojewski-esque Future-Paste - and gherkins. 4.5 stars (rtc)
Profile Image for J.J..
132 reviews34 followers
December 23, 2022
Truly uncanny fiction that defies all genre conventions I'm currently aware of, there are recognizable influences that Grudova is keen on divulging [the obvious love for Kafka and classic fairy tales is all over this collection], but for the most part the author carves out her own niche, and the points of reference are just that, rather than anything that overwhelms the singular artistic vision here. Most potently, this is a deeply feminist [and often appropriately angry and even misandric] batch of stories with a keen focus on the divides in expectation and privileges between men and women and the hegemonic violence that occurs as a result of patriarchy. But the violence is rarely ever direct - more appropriately everything in these stories comes to a sinister, slow boil of confusion, communication breakdowns and the disquiet that comes with that. It's a deeply aesthetically interesting volume as well - I agree completely with the person who said this has a post-war feel, everything in these stories is fractured and haunted and desolate, often centering urban landscapes that are apocalyptic only in what is suggested, rather than directly explained, and Grudova has a lot of obsessive motifs of things that shouldn't be unsettling but made are by this bizarro world; fish, dolls, weird tastes in food, sewing machines, etc. - Objects and Items [and the capitalist mass production thereof] are a big thing here, working in tandem with the many themes of objectification of women's bodies and the subjugation of women on basis of their physicality. Vivid despite [and because of] its sparseness, and genuinely disturbing; Camilla Grudova is definitely a contemporary author I'll be revisiting.
Profile Image for Cinzia DuBois.
Author 1 book2,746 followers
March 26, 2019
Ok, so I must have just been the target audience for this book. Usually, I’m not someone who can stomach blood and gore, I’m rather prudish when it comes to sex in books, and I cannot stomach shock violence or blood. However, this collection was a magnificent blend of the grotesque and bizarre. As disturbing as it was, I never felt like I was being manipulated by a trigger happy author who just wanted to ruthlessly shock her reader.

Nothing is done for shock value - all of it has a purpose, and a powerful one of that. It’s not shock, overwrought, overdrawn statements about feminism, employing the same trodden tropes of fairytale and fantasy most writers who want to be Carter or Carol-Ann Duffy use. This was entirely original in flavour, but delivered the same punch I loved in these original writers.

The stories were disturbing but not distressing. They weren’t glaringly loaded with an agenda, nor were they predictable. Their scattered and totally absurd imagery wasn’t tactless or ridiculous for the sake of aestheticism or pseudo-intellectualism (I.e they lacked the marks of a pretentious wannabe-literary author).

They were the product of sheer and unfiltered imagination. They weren’t contrived or clumsily aggressive in their metaphor - they were organic, like uncomfortable dreams. The writer was authentic and delicate in demonstrating her research - she never laid her intelligence down too heavily, her stories came first.

Whilst it’s not for everyone, I was mightily impressed. I look forward to more from Grudova.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,172 followers
February 4, 2018
One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing she resembled in nature was an ant.

She admired herself in the mirror for a short time then went to see her neighbour Maria, across the hall in her building. When Maria saw Greta, she was not afraid for she suddenly recognized herself. She knew that she looked the same inside, and could also unstitch herself, which she did, unashamed, in front of Greta.

They admired each other, and ate almond cake as they did every afternoon, but now using their newly discovered real mouths, which were framed by steely, sharp black mandibles which felt like a pleasant cross between teeth and a moustache.

Fitzcarraldo Editions are perhaps my favourite of the UKs flourishing (in quality if not financially) small independent press scene, and indeed were worthy winners of the inaugural Republic of Consciousness Prize. But I do tend to associate them with the sort of lengthy, densely erudite and cerebral novels which, while I enjoy, I must also admit to feeling a little relieved to have made it to the end.

The Doll’s Alphabet, a debut book of short stories, strikes a rather different tone.

Camilla Grudova is a Canadian author. Jacques Testard (http://lithub.com/interview-with-a-ga...) serves as both owner of Fitzcarraldo Editions and a founding editor of The White Review, and, on Nicola Barker's recommendation (who first championed her as the heiress to Angela Carter), he first commissioned some of her stories for The White Review, then published this anthology.

The rather cryptic title story, a piece of flash fiction, reads in full:

“The Doll’s Alphabet has eleven letters:

A B C D I L M N O P U”

(No, me neither!)

But this is atypical as the other 12 stories range between 2 and 27 pages and typically succeeding in creating a world of their own (albeit explored at a personal level only), one rather surreal, highly disturbing and absolutely fascinating.

The first Unstitching (itself the 2nd shortest piece) sets the tone, from the opening quoted above, with unstitching spreading through society but the men unable to undergo the same “evolution towards unstitching Consciousness” as “they had no ‘true,secret’ selves inside”.

The world of the stories seems to be both old-fashioned and dystopian, with sinister sewing machines one common thread (pun intended). As the author has explained in an interview:
The anachronistic aspect is from my own life, my family didn’t have a television till I was a pre-teen or a computer until I was a teenager, and we never owned a car; the sewing machine was the first machine in my life, my mother taught me how to use it, I made dolls, doll’s clothes, clothes for myself. It was very much an imaginative tool for me so I associate it with writing. And my grandmother from Lublin worked as a seamstress. She lived in London and Paris at various points. I have her Polish-French dictionaries she bought in Paris. She was schizophrenic and an artist and died when I was quite young, so she haunts me. One of my mother’s favourite toys as a child, and in turn, one of my favourite toys, was this little metal sock darner that looked like a miniature typewriter, doll-sized you know, with 11 or so little prongs.
The publisher's blurb references Angela Carter and Margaret Attwood, and one of favourite critics Nick Lezard (https://www.theguardian.com/books/201...) reached for David Lynch as a comparison: a combination of the three does sum up the effect well and Grudova acknowledges the influence of Carter, amongst many others, although also has said she had never seen a David Lynch movie.

Perhaps my favourite story was Waxy - a world of Men who take Examinations in philosophy, winning cash prizes that they typically spend before they even return home, while Women work in hazardous factories and try to avoid pregnancy at all costs:

it was frowned upon to be Manless. I knew people would become suspicious of me if I went without one for too long. The way to meet Men was to go to a cafe, order a coffee and wait for a Man to talk to you. They often went, in groups, to cafes to study. The cafes had wooden booths and stools, and the floors and walls were all tiled. In the cheaper cafes the tiles were filthy and cracked, in more expensive ones they smelled strongly of bleach. The first question a Man always asked was what type of Factory you worked in. Ideal were the ones that disfigured a woman the least and paid the most. Pauline’s job was better than mine; she could’ve found a better Man than Stuart, though perhaps not because her anorexia was unappealing. Men really liked women to have breasts for them to fondle when they were nervous.

My hands were rather ruined from the chemicals in the paint I used at work. I thought about wearing gloves to the cafe, but that would’ve been deceitful, and if part of you that is normally shown is conspicuously covered, the Men know it is hiding some sort of disfigurement. I didn’t want them to imagine my hands were worse than they actually were. I was lucky not to have a disfigured face, though I did have a nasty cough sometimes.

One day at a cafe I saw a tall, red-haired young Man with lots of freckles who appealed, but a girl with brown ringlets and a black eyepatch came in sobbing and pulled him out by the sleeve of his coat before we had a chance to talk.
One evening I saw the Man sitting alone in the cafe. I assumed the girl had got pregnant and died. The Man only ordered a cup of coffee, and I didn’t see him in the cafe for a few days after that –until he showed up with a new girl.

She was fat and bald with red splotches on her skull, and wore a fake jewel necklace she played with repeatedly. The Man ordered a whole Golden Syrup Toast for himself and ate it greedily, chewing with his mouth wide open in a grin. I felt ill, and never went back to that cafe again. It didn’t much matter, the cafe menus were the same everywhere:




The tinned meat became grey when it was boiled and made the toast all wet; most people just ordered Golden Syrup Toast with Coffee. There were also pubs, that sold beer and gin, but, like libraries, women weren’t allowed in those. They were places for Men to socialize and study for their Exams in peace.

Highly recommended. Perhaps my own reservation is that most of the stories seem variations on a theme, and indeed given that the worlds she create have such similarities, I very much looked forward to reading the novel she is now apparently writing.

Sample stories:

Agata's Machine


Author interviews:



Profile Image for Mark Bailey.
88 reviews18 followers
January 23, 2022
An abandoned zoo, lycanthropy, an evil sewing machine, a tortoise in a pocket, a dystopian world in which factories dominate, recurring dreams of a large chest of drawers chasing a man down an endless staircase, dismembered mannequin limbs, a feminist revolution, an eerie pierrot, a nameless creature being birthed in a bath. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of The Doll's Alphabet.

This debut collection of thirteen vignettes from Camilla Grudova is beyond surreal. Inventive and immersive, unpredictable and erratic. Grotesque. Dark. It seems no amount of adjectives can do it justice. These stories are like fairytales gone wrong, in which fragmentary worlds run amok deranged and unhinged.

The opener, titled Unstitching, is a pure and elegant tale, metaphorical for female deliverance and liberation. A character known as Greta begins 'unstitching' herself - 'her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out'. Thus begins a pandemic of unstitching for women shedding their skins. It caused much debate and division between men, some lamenting 'the loss of the female form'.

The Mouse Queen sees its protagonist married to a morbid, peculiar man named Peter. After birthing twins, he abandons her and the children and struggle ensues. Herein the madness begins: she begins to transmogrify into a wolf at night, pilfering things and greedily consuming anything in her path. Then the twins vanish.

In Waxy, women work in factories of rank, and meet men in cafes to secure a relationship. It's frowned upon if you're 'manless' for too long. A true dystopian yarn, Atwood-esque and deftly written: "Take care of your man. A good lady does not let her man loiter. Feed your man well".

Agata's Machine is a desolate tale beneath its stark-mad underbelly - tainted with nostalgia and the boorish way in which life moves on. A magical sewing machine that once treadled reveals a dancing pierrot and an angel - they dance, gesture, fascinate. But its ability to captivate two young girls results in sinister ends.

The sad tale of the sconce zig-zags from one outlandish scene to another. A Mermaid and a sconce are personified as they’re transferred from an ancient ship to a museum. After bedazzling people at exhibitions, the world is ravaged by war and the mermaid is taken and used for sexual gratification by the soldiers. The sconce is then transported to an array establishments: a shop 'teeming with unclean life', a restaurant with 'peacock feathers, plastic lilies and flaking mannequin arms in vases', and to the bed of a girl with red warts all over her face.

In Hungarian Sprats, an endearing story of a wealthy son losing his luggage while on a voyage to Europe results in a genius, subtle way of protecting one's belongings: by canning them. But when the warehouse he uses to ‘can’ them has a mix-up, it results in a multitude of his items such as handkerchiefs, a dictionary, condoms, a sewing kit, underpants and a pipe being opened by unsuspecting citizens thinking they’re opening a tin of fish. Hysterical.

You really have to read these to appreciate their abject beauty. Grudova’s writing is ambitious and intense, weaving inimaginable scenes together with ferocity, and casting wonderfully grotesque, unsettling imagery. At times, Grudova’s masterful exploration of imagination is inconceivably bizarre. This collection is completely devoid of boundaries or restrictions, going beyond the unearthly: inverting it, warping it, flexing it, and in turn moulding an enchanting collection of superlative and mesmeric tales.
Profile Image for OD1_404.
147 reviews18 followers
March 4, 2023
Bonkers as a box of frogs!

Just updated my rating to 5 stars… as I haven’t been able to stop thinking about these truly peculiar, obscure and wonderful tales!

Camilla Grudova is an exquisite storyteller.

This collection of stories is truly unique. Honestly, I’ve never read anything quite like these tales before. Magical, macabre, surreal and just plain odd. I can highly recommend this collection.
Profile Image for Kitty G Books.
1,548 reviews2,934 followers
May 29, 2017
Well, this was a MothBox pick for the Short Story month and I LOVED it. All the stories were entertaining and engaging and beautifully weird and I took down mini notes as I was reading ti so I am just going to leave them below.

I would definitely recommend this if you enjoy Magical Realism as it's filled with wonderful stories and ideas.

NOTES FROM A SPIDER - Surreal story following an 8-limbed individual who cannot find a lover like him until he spies a sewing machine of immense poise and beauty. He takes her home and develops a relationship with her that only leads to deeper troubles and infatuation... 4*s"
May 22, 2017 – page 169

THE MOTH EMPORIUM - Creepy people who run a costume shop and scare the narrator as a child. Later she returns and finds a love affair and a life there which quickly blooms. The costumes business needs help, it's all a bit chaotic and gory! 3*"
May 22, 2017 – page 145

HUNGARIAN SPRATS - a silly little story about a man who decides to can everything he owns and ship it on a voyage with him. Naturally, things go rather wrong and his possessions are exposed! 3*s"
May 22, 2017 – page 137

EDWARD, DO NOT PAMPER THE DEAD - Weird and surreal look at a couple who are trying to save for a sewing machine to give them the means to have a baby. The woman is hardworking and desperate for love, the man more laid back and sneakily a saboteur... 3.5*s"
May 22, 2017 – page 123

THE SAD TALE OF THE SCONCE - Totally bizarre in a brilliant way. Tells of the journey a sconce goes on through they years. From the sea to shore to shop to sailors and more. It's a fishy tale and a sad one, but I really enjoyed it's bizarre nature!"
May 22, 2017 – page 107

RHINOCEROS - Really liked this though it creeped me out too. It's the story of a couple existing and loving but barely scraping by on meagre earnings from Nicholas' paintings. One day they find a zoo and the animals enchant him and there's a compelling allure to the place... 4*s"
May 20, 2017 – page 97

AGATA'S MACHINE - This one was kind of a blend of friendships, discovery and religion. The strange machine Agata introduces us to can create wonderful beings from the minds of children. 3*s"
May 20, 2017 – page 73

THE DOLL'S ALPHABET - Tiny sentence that possibly passed over my head. Maybe it's just that it's smaller as it's for a doll. 2*
MERMAID - Classic tale of a mermaid stealing away the husband. only 2.5*s"
May 20, 2017 – page 65

WAXY - Hugely inventive world where Men and Women struggle along. Women are raised to get a Man and care for him. Men take Exams to get money. Unregistered births aren't allowed. Food is rationed heavily. The world is a dystopia come to life. Paul is the peculiar man she meets. 4.5*s. I could have read a whole novel in this world.
May 20, 2017 – page 37

THE GOTHIC SOCIETY - tiny story about Gothic infecting the modern world. Barely a teaser but one that already sparked NY imagination. Super cool. 4*
May 20, 2017 – page 32

THE MOUSE QUEEN - this one was a longer story than the first and focused on themes of ancient Italy, mythology, art, religion and death. I loved the twists on motherhood and red riding hood. A peculiar twisted tale that I really liked. 4*s
May 20, 2017 – page 14

UNSTITCHING - A curious tale about women showing their true forms and shedding the skins they once bore. More depth than first meets the eye. Really strong opening to the collection. 4*

Fantastic. 4.5*s overall :D
Profile Image for Johann (jobis89).
628 reviews4,259 followers
August 1, 2022
3.5 stars. Really reminiscent of Julia Armfield and Margaret Atwood short stories. Strange and beautiful.
Profile Image for Kirsty.
Author 74 books1,269 followers
July 8, 2017
I have serious writer envy. Such incredible world-building, so much darkness, such a command of language. I loved this book and hated it too - it has to be read in short bursts, as the stories are so intense and so unpleasant. I can't wait to read more from Grudova.
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews625 followers
March 4, 2018
I guess it was the comparisons with David Lynch that really made this jump up my to-read list: I am great fan of his movies and of Twin Peaks. And I can see where those comparisons come from. If you replace Lynch’s red curtains with rather sinister sewing machines, you are in the right ball park. Plus it feels very Eraserhead at times.

This is a collection of short stories, but the truth is that they feel like a set of views of the same, albeit bizarre and disturbing, world that the author has created. In a further movie reference, the atmosphere created in nearly all of the stories felt to me like I was in J. F. Sebastian’s house in Blade Runner, especially with the repeated references to dolls and mannequins. At the end of the collection, I didn’t feel as though I had read a number of short stories as much as that I had spent some time being guided round a different world, being given glimpses of a strange place that can only be visited in dreams and nightmares. An often grotesque world, it’s true, but also a fascinating world.

Grudova’s writing is surreal. The stories are so engaging to read because they can "turn on a sixpence" and suddenly head off in a direction that no one could have seen coming (in fact, I wonder if Grudova saw them coming or simply went with it when the idea occurred to her as she was writing - it often feels a bit like the latter).

The first story is sort of typical, if there can be said to be anything typical here. It’s a sort of feminist revolution told as a story where a woman discovers how to, literally, unstitch her physical body and release the "real" her. From that point on, sewing machines play an important part in several stories. As do dolls with one story reading simply

”The Doll’s Alphabet has eleven letters: A B C D I L M N O P U”

I don’t know what it means, but I suspect, if in fact it does mean anything, that meaning is linked to the other stories. Other stories include a society where a woman should not be "Manless" but should be working in a factory to support her man who spends all his time getting ready for and sitting philosophy exams (I told you it was bizarre) or where a man decides the best way to protect his belongings is to have them all canned. And many more equally left field tales.

I found the strangeness of it all completely engrossing. It is impossible to get bored reading this book. The consistency meant that I didn’t feel as confused as I often do when reading a collection of short stories, but was able to read end-to-end without breaking off to look at other books in-between (often, I find short story collections confusing and read them in short bursts with other reading interspersed).

I’d be careful to whom I recommended this book. But, if you like your fiction to come from the imaginative/inventive end of the spectrum and you are prepared for some discomfiting stories, then this is the book for you. I really liked it!
Profile Image for Liesa.
293 reviews219 followers
January 13, 2021
Wer Fan von skurrilen Kurzgeschichten ist, kommt nicht um diese Anthologie herum. Die kurzen Geschichten in "Das Alphabet der Puppen" der kanadischen Autorin Camilla Grudova, übersetzt von Zoe Beck, sind an Verstörung und Seltsamhaftigkeit kaum zu überbieten und haben damit haargenau meinen Geschmack getroffen. Ganz nebenbei hat die Autorin auch noch Themen wie Gender, Freiheit und Gleichberechtigung in ihre Geschichten mit eingebettet und damit unaufdringlich und klug internalisierte Strukturen in Frage gestellt. Meine liebsten Stories aus dem Band? "Wachsig", "Agatas Maschine" und "Das Motten-Emporium"!
Profile Image for Marc Nash.
Author 20 books344 followers
February 20, 2017
Described as a cross between Angela Carter & Margaret Atwood, but the story "Waxy" put me in mind of Anna Kavan, "Agata's Machine" of Kafka. But the point is that these stories are of themselves and of the author Grudova, not versions of other earlier, more established writers.

She presents an off-kilter world in each story, full of rot, decay, rodents, of dented & rusty food cans, precisely limited and rationed clothes, the centrality and repurposing of sewing machines. Smell is an important sense throughout, the stench of mildew, of turned food, of wounds and the bandages that cover them. The humans who populate these worlds are benighted, physically more than emotionally, though the compass for movement and development is extremely limited. These worlds might be described as dystopic, but I think that undervalues the tone Grudova is after. Her characters are disempowered, limited by circumstances, stunted by a lack of room for manoeuvre.

The opening story "Unstitched" is perhaps the only one of hope and movement, as women use sewing machines to unstitch the prisons of their bodies to reveal their true selves encased inside. "Waxy" is a strange world where men have to sit Exams rather than work and their women have to support their efforts, which means no children which would take away from that focus; in this story an outsider male who is not part of the exam system hooks up with a woman and they have a secret child and demonstrate strange, illicit tenderness in a world devoid of any. The final story "Notes From A Spider" is perhaps the most unsettling as an 8-limbed man pines for a mate and compensates by having seamstresses produce cloth on an arachnid-looking sewing machine that ends up consuming both them and ultimately him in his sexual desperation.

I liked the ambience of the world of these stories, and Grudova's style is simple though she certainly can throw up extraordinary imagery: "I was couch-ridden for a month after having the twins, I felt like Prometheus, the babies were eagles with soft beaks, my breasts being continually emptied and filled."
Profile Image for Doug.
1,937 reviews671 followers
February 25, 2018
Maybe even a 4.5.

"Peter ... slicked his hair back like a young Samuel Beckett, and had the wet, squinting look of an otter." p. 5

I think it was reading that early line in this collection of thirteen (triskaidekaphobians beware!) short (sometimes VERY short) stories when I realized I had fallen under the spell of a truly different and quite special literary artist; although the uniqueness of Grudova's work was somewhat dissipated for me by the fact I read this virtually in one sitting. Read back-to-back, the stories have a sameness in themes, style and motifs that works against how truly sui generis they are; comparisons to everyone from Kafka to Angela Carter to Atwood to David Lynch can attest to just how wide-ranging are her influences.

It most reminded me, however, with its sometimes grotesque, often shocking imagery, of a prose version of the classic Der Struwwelpeter, which is indeed name-checked in one of the stories. Not everything works; the titular one sentence long story is an enigmatic head-scratcher (anyone who can explicate what it means, please let me know!), and some stories are either a tad too long, or paradoxically, seem cut off mid-stream. Still wildly enthusiastic about this young writer, and looking forward to the novel she is apparently currently working on.
Profile Image for Vanessa.
864 reviews1,091 followers
July 18, 2018
The Doll's Alphabet is probably the most bizarre, grotesque collection of short stories I have ever read. It's also probably one of the most unique - Grudova manages to create these mini-worlds that are almost dystopian, with plenty of magical realism elements that feel nothing like the almost out-of-the-box writing styles of so many other books of that subgenre.

Unfortunately for me though, I just didn't enjoy these worlds that Grudova created at all. I like my fiction dark and depressing, and I am completely comfortable with that, but this collection made me feel quite uncomfortable at times (and almost depressed in a way). Everything the writer's words touched felt grimy, disgusting, and without hope, and I also didn't particularly enjoy the old-fashioned yet almost timeless quality to the worlds these characters inhabited.

This collection is undoubtedly well-written, and incredibly inventive. But the style was just not for me, and some stories I genuinely either disliked or didn't understand. The ones I did enjoy were few and far between, so unfortunately I won't be picking this one up again.

Favourite stories: The Moth Emporium, Notes From a Spider.
Profile Image for Krista.
1,351 reviews516 followers
December 23, 2017
The Doll's Alphabet has eleven letters:


The Doll's Alphabet is a strange, surrealist collection of stories that consistently had me wondering, “What did I just read? What does it mean?” That quote above is the entirety of the titular story: And. What. Does. That. Mean? Does it mean anything? I don't know if that particular “story”, and author Camilla Grudova's decision to name the collection after it, is meant to warn the reader off of trying to parse a deeper meaning in these tales, but like time-tested fables, these stories feel deep; they clicked for me beyond my conscious mind, leaving me puzzled but somehow satisfied. Channelling Grimm by way of Gogol, Grudova layers on some Atwoodesque social commentary and it all works.

This collection has thirteen stories, ranging in length from the two sentences above to one story that is twenty-six pages, and they are all set in a world of scarcity (think a cross between Communist bread lines and some post-apocalyptic future) with grime, shabbiness, and folks living on tea, tubers, and tinned fishes; this is our world but not, familiar but strange. (If I had a complaint it would be that for a collection of fantastical tales, despite different social structures and apparently different settings in each story, they all seem to inhabit the same world; there's also a sameness of voice and style that could have been shaken up.) And these are decidedly feminist stories, with surrealist situations underscoring gender roles – pregnancy and childbirth are often dodgy propositions; even mermaids risk molestation. Themes and ideas recur throughout, but no image moreso than that of an old-fashioned sewing machine; and what does that mean? In the first story, Unstitching, women discover how to reveal their inner selves (to the disgust and envy of their male partners):

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin, and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out...She did not so much resemble a sewing machine as she was the ideal form on which a sewing machine was based. The closest thing in nature she resembled was an ant.

In Agata's Machine, a reclusive young genius transforms a sewing machine into a magic lantern that projects a moving image of her dream man, and in Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead, a man undermines his wife's efforts to save up for a sewing machine of her own:

He had dreamt of the sewing machine many times; he was convinced Bernadette and the machine would somehow become one being, a silver needle coming out of Bernadette's mouth where her teeth should have been. In his dreams, he lay flat on her lap, and she sewed his hands to his feet and so forth. Her neck bent, her face almost touching her thighs, but for Edward in-between.

In Waxy, in a society where Men study Philosophy Books in order to take Exams while supported by their women who work in Factories, a young woman works at a sewing machine factory (painting “NIGHTINGALE” on each machine by hand), and in the final, perhaps strangest story, Notes from a Spider, a celebrated man with a handsome, human face and the body of an arachnid finally finds his equal in an unexpected place:

The machine in the window had four legs, like iron plants, a wooden body, a swan-like curved metal neck and a circular platform to run the fabric across, not unlike the plate on a gramophone where the record was placed, and a small mouth with one silver tooth. She was an unusual, modern creature. What beautiful music she must make! Florence was her name, it was stencilled on the shop window. FLORENCE. I sat there in my carriage until it was morning and the shop opened. I hastily purchased her, the one in the window. They asked if I wanted her taken apart, for carrying, but I had her put, as is, in my carriage. I drove through the city, my legs entwined with hers, two of my feet placed on her sole-shaped pedals.

I don't know what any of it means, but I liked it. A lot.
Profile Image for Il Critico Portatile.
1 review1 follower
November 4, 2020
Buongiorno a tutti, oggi esaminiamo insieme
The Doll’s Alphabet della scrittrice Camilla Grudova.

Questo il testo dell'edizione in inglese:
The Doll’s Alphabet has eleven letters:

Intanto una notazione preliminare: il racconto dà anche il titolo alla raccolta, dunque è scontato ritenerlo centrale nel messaggio artistico dell’autrice; quanto centrale? Si tratta forse di una sorta di crittogramma da cui desumere elementi interpretativi degli altri racconti contenuti nel libro? Una loro chiave di lettura altra e diversa? [l’uso del corsivo è fondamentale nei dibattiti artistici, a voce può essere reso con un controllato uso della respirazione, un discreto aggrottamento delle sopracciglia e con aumento e/o diminuzione dell’enfasi nel tono; da evitare assolutamente il gesto con le due dita che si piegano in avanti, tipico dell’americano medio, emblema vivente della condizione a-culturale che qui si rifugge]. Forse è proprio così [nell’analisi critica porre domande è di gran lunga preferibile al dare risposte. Le risposte sono per i lettori facili e superficiali, il lettore critico alimenta sempre il dubbio].
Veniamo ora all’analisi del testo.
Le lettere sono in effetti 11. Dunque non c’è finzione né contraddizione tra i due periodi che formano il racconto; il racconto in sé è un racconto perfetto.
I più avranno poi notato che le prime quattro lettere coincidono con quelle dell’alfabeto latino; poi però qualcosa accade. Salta la lettera “E” (si veda più avanti come interpretare tale assenza ovvero, più correttamente, de-esistenza); eppure l’ordine non viene sconvolto, subito ritorna la sequenza dell’alfabeto che conosciamo (“I L M N O P”), salvo poi scomparire e riapparire sino alla definitiva e diremmo esiziale lettera "U".
Le bambole di Grudova sembrano dunque nascere nel nostro universo, anzi sono a tutti gli effetti bambole terrestri; non vi sono indizi per desumere una loro origine aliena: il racconto resta un racconto dell'orrore puro, senza contaminazioni fantascientifiche (fatto salvo quanto in appresso circa la possibile lettura cosmologica).
Ma quali eventi catastrofici hanno sconvolto il mondo delle bambole tali da cancellarne interi fonemi? [qui l’analisi vira, come anticipato, verso una teleologia del racconto in chiave cosmologica] Quali abominevoli menti hanno potuto concepire un simile apocalittico disegno, che ha precipitato le malcapitate bambole in abissi di indicibili difficoltà espressive? E per quali oscure finalità? [qui, viceversa, si apre lo squarcio lovecraftiano che, a ben vedere, non contraddice l'analisi cosmologica ma, piuttosto, la completa] Le bambine, mammine per gioco e diletto, come riusciranno a comprendere i loro bisogni di plastica e tulle? Si cela forse, tra queste superstiti lettere, un atto d'accusa di Grudova contro una società che perpetua l'incomunicabilità generazionale?
Torniamo ora alla de-esistenza della vocale “E” (non consideriamo nella presente analisi una eventuale “Y” per via dell’assenza – che certamente deve intendersi voluta dall’autrice – anche delle lettere “J” e “K” tra la “I” e la “L”, da cui si origina, come visto, una sequenza alfabetica non corrotta sino alla “P”).
Ebbene, se è vero, come è vero, che l’alfabeto è la base della lingua e la lingua la forma del pensiero, allora va da sé che l’assenza della “E” getta una luce oscura nel mondo delle bambole, non solo sulla loro società, ancor prima diremmo sul loro mondo filosofico. Un intero sistema di pensiero, quello delle bambole, privato della “E”.
Ecco che una volta giunto a questa ovvia consapevolezza, il lettore accuserà il più tetro sconforto.
Ad ulteriore conferma spicca la totale e implacabile inesistenza di consonanti fricative. Mancano le fricative nell’alfabeto delle bambole: è un fatto. Niente paroline dolci sussurrate, né fruscii di abitini: alle bambole di Camilla Grudova questo non è concesso.
Lasciamo a voi le scontate implicazioni di simile atroce condizione.
Il lamentoso finale in "U", quasi una nenia funebre, segna l'ineluttabile epilogo di questa efficace rappresentazione del male fanciullesco.
Profile Image for Jerrie.
985 reviews127 followers
August 11, 2017
I am somewhat torn between "this is so-so" and "this is complete genius". The writing is so good, though, that this ultimately had to be at least 4⭐️for me. The stories are strange and often grotesque. Many have the feel of being from another time/place. Frequent appearances by sewing machines, things in tin cans, art, pregnancy and birth, and stupid, lazy and/or arrogant men. Oh! And lists. Lots of lists. And, the doll's alphabet has 11 letters; not sure why.
Profile Image for Bookish Bethany.
226 reviews22 followers
February 12, 2023
An unsettling, dark and magical collection of stories. Grudova knows how to create an atmosphere, I love the Grimms fairytale feel and the sewing machine motif running through every story.
Profile Image for Noelia Alonso.
747 reviews117 followers
July 19, 2017
I enjoyed some stories more than others but in general it was a very interesting short story collection
Profile Image for Areeb Ahmad (Bankrupt_Bookworm).
658 reviews198 followers
November 20, 2022
"On my way to work I had to cross over a bridge, and I often imagined hanging the twins from it on ropes, their little legs kicking, saving them at the very last moment -I thought such an act would make me love them more. The image disturbed me so much, I saw it every time I passed over the bridge, so I took to running over it, arriving at work sweaty and full of pity for my children."

Sewing machines—I never considered them as menacing as they are here—are clearly the star of the show and feature in many of the stories. Birthing and babies and Peirrots reappear also. The other alien inhabitants of Grudova's bizarro world: the sentient sconce child of an octopus and a wooden female figurehead of a ship, the eight-legged half-man half-spider hybrid in the search of love, women unstitching themselves to reveal their actual insectoid bodies, a single mother who forages for food as a wolf at night to feed her twins, dead people that don't really die and keep on making demands on the living.

I finished this collection last night and I still do not have words to describe what I actually read because it was all just so incredibly weird. I will be processing it for some time yet. It wasn't my cup of tea, to say the least, and I probably won't read more of her. What struck me best was the matter-of-fact way these stories integrated very off-kilter and insidiously disturbing elements in the quotidian lives of her characters. Eccentric like "what the fuck am I reading", comparisons to David Lynch aren't unwarranted. "Waxy" was my fave: all women must have a Man and take care of him while he has to give Exams to earn.
February 5, 2021
Highly original themes are thrown inside a stirring pot and form unspeakable nightmares, grotesque scenes and appalling thoughts. What prickles the hair at the back of the neck though is how incredibly realistic and slice-of-life these stories feel like when you approach them as a reader.
Grudova moves along Angela Carter's lines, yes, but I could definitely feel Aldous Huxley and other dystopians' ideas and influence inside the pages of this book. She is worthy of praise for delivering such originality and in such a wide spectrum of genres, ranging from magical realism to science fiction, fantasy and dystopia.
I enjoyed every single one of the stories, and they were both entertaining and filled with important messages that every reader would benefit from reading.
Profile Image for Miguel Lupián.
Author 13 books93 followers
January 10, 2023
Supe de este libro por la reseña de Alma Mancilla en Penumbria: "Los cuentos de esta colección se mueven entre lo grotesco y lo fabuloso, lo inquietante y lo cotidiano, con personajes predominantemente femeninos y una voz autoral de una autenticidad sin cortapisas, plena de imaginación y originalidad". Inmediatamente compré la versión digital y quedé sorprendido. Amé su prosa ligera, fresca y maravillosa, su minucia de anticuario para fijarse en los pequeños detalles y su capacidad de síntesis para contarnos grandes historias en sólo unas páginas. También, la hermosa extrañeza de su universo, los referentes mitológicos, la forma en que va desdoblando a sus personajes y los vasos comunicantes que encontré con mi propia obra. ¡Quiero leer todo lo que publique esta autora! Cierro con una cita de Deborah Levy que se incluye en el libro: "Grudova entiende que la mejor escritura tiene que llevar a cabo el truco estético más difícil: tiene que ser a la vez memorable y fugaz".
Profile Image for Barbara McEwen.
832 reviews28 followers
May 6, 2018
4.5 stars - Yup, this is a treasure! These are some weird stories to be appreciated by weird women just waiting to unstitch themselves. Expect creepiness, and the bizarre, and a lot of long lists, which was my only minor negative really.
Profile Image for Marie-Therese.
412 reviews164 followers
October 25, 2017
3.5 stars.

An odd but frequently very engaging collection of short stories that lightly tread the intersecting borders of magical realism, surrealism, horror, dystopian fiction, and Kafkaesque fantasy.

Kafka is clearly an influence on these tales (the "readers guide" at the end of the book notes this explicitly) but there are also strong surrealist touches (Grudova's characters' obsession with sewing machines and their tendency to anthropomorphize them almost inevitably bring to mind Lautreamont's famous line describing a young boy as "beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”); nods to Isak Dinesen, Angela Carter, and a sense of whimsy and love of canines that seems very Leonora Carrington-like are also evident. Grudova's language tends to be straightforward, even occasionally a bit prosaic and stiff, but her imagination is wild, her eye for detail keen. Post-apocalyptic scenarios make repeated appearances in these stories: animal life is frequently limited to insects and humans, the state has taken over as employer of virtually everyone, hunger is widespread, and deformities and teratogenic births are common. The horror here is more often existential than explicit, but it's disquieting nonetheless and Grudova can be ruthless in depicting it. These aren't happy stories but they're not tragic either-virtually all of the characters featured are survivors; while readers can't predict a happy ending for these individuals, one can generally be certain that they have a future, tough though it may be.

This was a very good book that I would recommend not only to fans of the writers I mentioned above but also to those who like Liudmila Petrushévskaia, Rikki Ducornet, Tatyana Tolstaya, Bruno Schulz, even Caitlín R. Kiernan. While I feel Grudova is still in the process of finding her own wholly original voice, this is a strong start and I look forward to reading what she writes in future.
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