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Posts tagged ‘shorts: short stories/short books/short reviews’

Six Recent Reads

In the past few months I’ve been reading like there’s no tomorrow. Here’s my attempt to catch up the blogging to the reading.

9781616951696_p0_v1_s260x420The Boy in the Suitcase, by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis.dobbelt-nc3a6r-2-82351

This was a book club read, and not a genre I generally visit: Nordic crime fiction. Probably Stieg Larsson fans would devour it, or at least I guess they would (I’ve only seen the Dragon Tattoo movie — parts of it with my hands over my eyes — and haven’t read the book). Plot-driven doesn’t begin to describe it; I will say that the pages practically turned themselves. Read more

Some Reads for Summer

Here are a few titles I’ve enjoyed recently.

The New Republic, by Lionel Shriver.

I enjoyed her 2010 novel So Much for That, so looked forward to reading this one. Shriver’s humor is pitch black, and this one is no exception: imagine someone writing an at least partially comic novel about a group of terrorists who periodically blow things up, causing collateral damage in the way of dead innocent bystanders. Now try to imagine getting this published after 9/11. In an Author’s Note, Shriver tells us that the novel was completed in 1998, but she had no luck selling it till now. For me, the novel succeeded as comedy, but some reviewers disagree. Michiko Kakutani the the NY Times called it “ghastly” and “very unfunny”. The main characters are a group of backbiting, cynical reporters living in Portugal. Edgar Kellogg, a disaffected corporate lawyer, has just abandoned his lavish lifestyle to join their ranks. All of them are haunted (Kellogg literally) by the spirit of a charismatic reporter who’s disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

Animal Crackers, by Hannah Tinti

More dark stuff for summer. Some of these were actually too much for me — each of the stories has a human relationship with an animal at its center, and some of them involve cruelty. So I approached the story “Slim’s Last Ride” (Slim being a pet rabbit) with trepidation, and it was not unfounded. The stories are very well-written, though, and I’ll (cautiously) seek out other books by Tinti.

 

 

The Newlyweds, by Nell Freudenberger

This is a new novel about an arranged marriage between a Bengali woman and an American man — the catch being that it’s the bride and groom who do the arranging. They meet through a dating site; though Amina’s parents approve of George, after meeting him, it’s Amina who has chosen him. Though the story kept me going, I found the characters, especially George, somewhat stereotypical: he’s an engineer, and Freudenberger gives him just the personality you might expect a cartoon engineer to have: rigid, self-centered, emotionally stunted. Amina and her family are a little less two-dimensional. Freudenberger got the idea for the novel from a conversation with a Bengali woman on a plane — the woman was on her way to meet her husband-to-be. I’d check out other books by Freudenberger, but for me, this one didn’t live up to comparisons with Jhumpa Lahiri.

 

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson

Winterson’s memoir about her horrific childhood is something out of Dickens, filtered through the 1960s in the north of England. When your adoptive mother tells you early on that “the Devil led us to the wrong crib”, things can only go downhill from there. Locked out of her own house overnight in freezing weather, forbidden to read anything at home but the Bible, she finds salvation by reading her way through the entire English literature section of her local library. The reader breathes a huge sigh of relief when she finally leaves home, and manages to get through Oxford. Her story is almost unbelievable, and well-written.

photo credits, from top:

Suki Dhanda
Marianne Barcellona
Ashley Gilbertson/VII for the NY Times
Peter Petisch

The Rude Awakening of a Jane Austen Addict, by Laurie Viera Rigler

I didn’t realize when I bought this audiobook on sale that it was a sequel, though now that I’ve listened to it, I may go back and get the earlier book.

There seems to be a whole genre of Jane Austen spinoffs, and this one got good reviews. The premise is that Jane, a reader of Jane Austen, from that era, takes a spill off her horse and is transported into the body and life of a 21st century woman — who apparently bumped her head in a swimming pool, and went in the opposite direction, into the body and life of the young woman who fell off the horse. Rude Awakening is the 21st century half of the story; Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is the 18th century portion.

The early chapters of the book were slow going for me: to listen to a character describe in excruciating detail a familiar modern object (square, glowing red numbers, on and on — ALARM CLOCK, dammit!) grew old very fast. But once the Austen-style romantic complications got underway, I found it a satisfying read/listen. I’ll probably look for her earlier book, Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict as well.

author photo: Roman Jakobi

Where the God of Love Hangs Out, by Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has a knack for coming up with catchy titles — one of her earlier works was A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You. Where the God of Love Hangs Out is a collection of interconnected stories, some of them previously published in her 1993 story collection Come to Me. The running theme is, unsurprisingly, love: extramarital, bereaved, confused, and in one case, incestuous. If this sounds melodramatic, it isn’t. Bloom has a bone-dry wit, and if there aren’t belly laughs in these stories, there’s no shortage of rueful chuckles. Though long on my reading radar, this is the first of her books that I’ve read, and I enjoyed it enough that I may tackle her much darker novel Away, which she says may get made into a movie.

Here’s a short interview with Bloom, in which she declares “I’m not the Little Mary Sunshine of fiction”. For some reason, I can’t seem to get the video to embed, but the link works.

author photo: Beth Kelly

Three Short Takes

These aren’t short books. I’m just short on time to blog about them, and wanted to get something in before they fade completely from memory.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

This one took a while to take hold of me, but I did end up liking it, with a few reservations. The two main characters are Renee, a 54-year-old concierge of a Paris apartment building, and Paloma, a 12-year-old girl who lives there. What connects them is that both withhold their real selves from others. Renee, instead of revealing her love of classic literature and serious film, pretends to be everyone’s drab cliche of what a concierge is. She wills her real self to be invisible to the upper class tenants of her building, and she does a thorough job of it. She leaves on a television tuned to the sorts of shows she thinks a concierge would watch, but then retreats to the back of her apartment to read Tolstoy and Proust. Paloma has nothing but contempt for the adults around her, as well as for her sister. She lets no one know the emotional trouble she’s in.

I found both characters entertaining — except when they drifted into philosophical treatises along the lines of “what is art?” (Barbery is a professor of philosophy, which somewhat explains the detours, but doesn’t make them fit any better into the structure of the novel). Luckily, these tirades are neatly cordoned off into chapters; after a while, I started skimming. In the last half of the book, the plot gains momentum through the introduction of a new character who gives Renee a reason to let herself be seen. And Paloma meets Renee, which opens her as well. I’ve heard that there’s a movie in the works.

The Uncoupling, by Meg Wolitzer

Wolitzer (The Ten-Year Nap, The Position) strays into Alice Hoffman East Coast magical realism territory in her latest novel — only it’s New Jersey, not Massachusetts, and there’s a lot more humor involved. The story centers around Eleanor Roosevelt High School’s teachers and students, and the new drama teacher’s production of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata — you know, the one where the women of ancient Greece agree to go on a sex strike till the men end a war they’ve been fighting. The play is cast, rehearsals begin — and one by one, women all over town start losing interest in sex after feeling an icy wind blowing around them.

In the wrong hands, this could be silly. But the characters are so real that they threaten to walk right off the page; we feel sympathy for the newly unarousable women as well as for their rejected men. Along the way we’re alternately touched and amused: Wolitzer can portray a healthy marriage going suddenly off the rails as well as she can the eye-rolling impatience of their teenage daughter, who knows they have nothing of value to tell her.

I won’t reveal how it ends, but I found this a very satisfying read.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Prepare for frequent snorting on this one — Tina Fey is nearly as funny on the page as she is on the screen. From descriptions of her dark shin fur as an adolescent to a blow-by-blow commentary on her family’s dreary Christmas customs, Fey provides plenty of laughs, mostly at her own expense. Here’s the set up for the annual holiday trek:

Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day.

We always plan to leave around seven in the morning and, like clockwork, we’re out the door by ten. After gassing up, deicing, and turning around for an unanticipated bowel movement, we glide onto glorious 80W by ten thirty. Sure, there are those trendy types who prefer 76/70 because “it’s more scenic” and “they have a McDonald’s,” but I think 80W has a certain ceci me deprime.

And here’s the classic Palin/Clinton sequence Fey did with Amy Poehler to open Saturday Night Liive, worth a repeat viewing. Fey says “Doing that sketch on live TV was a pure joy I had never before experienced as a performer.”

January Wrap-Up

Before they completely fade from memory, some very short reviews of books read during January’s excellent reading weather:

25293076.JPGThe Writing Class, by Jincy Willett

Willett develops a cast of real characters in this one. She’s obviously spent some time in university extension writing classes, and she spares no one on either side of the lectern. Her instructor, Amy Gallup, is a misanthropic problem drinker with weight and mood issues (her mantra: “Kill Me Now”). The class, an assortment of self-important whack jobs, bonds when it seems that one of them might be a murderer. Mystery fans will enjoy the whodunit factor; the main pleasure of the book for me was the hilarious, eye-rolling inner monologue Gallup maintains throughout the book. The roll call at the first class meeting alone is worth the cover price.

33673477.JPGLaura Rider’s Masterpiece, by Jane Hamilton

Another plot involving a would-be writer. Hamilton writes about a married couple who own a boutique nursery. Laura decides she’s through with sex permanently, but manipulates an email romance between her husband Charlie and a public radio personality, in hopes of manufacturing the plot of her first novel. Send-ups of everything from small towns to public radio to garden clubs ensue.

39058935.JPGBlame, by Michelle Huneven

The set-up for this story gets your attention right away: an alcoholic history professor in her twenties wakes up in jail after a going on a major bender, with blackout, the night before. Thinking she’s just racked up yet another DUI, she follows two policemen into an interrogation room, wondering what the big deal is. Then she notices that one of them is carrying a folder marked “homicide”. After a prison sentence and years of AA, she begins to settle into a greatly modified life. But a major revelation, years after the night of the blackout, once again drastically changes the path she’s on.

50827843.JPGThe Help, by Kathryn Stockett

This first novel is set in Jackson, Mississippi at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Skeeter, a misfit English major, just out of college, gets a writing job, of sorts: a household hints column for the local paper. She consults local maids on stain removal and other housekeeping problems, and then puts herself (and them) at risk by collecting their stories. The need to keep this project and its participants a secret, plus an on-again, off-again romance for Skeeter, make this novel into a major page-turner. And from the author bio, quite a bit of it could be based on fact.

28759954.JPGFirmin, by Sam Savage

A rat begins his life in a shredded book behind a heater in a Boston used book store. Unlike his siblings, who eventually disperse to the outdoors only to get run over by cars or scuttle off to other buildings, Firmin ensconces himself in the store, devouring (literally and figuratively) a variety of literary classics. He becomes attached to the bookstore owner while observing him from his perch in an overhead light fixture, thinking they can be friends. This self-delusion ends once he discovers the box of “Rat Out” the owner sets out for him. He eventually becomes the pet of an eccentric writer in the building. Set against the backdrop of a seedy neighborhood (the whole area is due to be torn down in an urban renewal project), this bittersweet novel shares some of the themes as Me Cheeta.

A Complicated Kindness

23327158.JPGI read this one on the recommendation of Leanne, Kennedy Library’s former architecture librarian. Leanne is Canadian, and told me that this is one of her favorite (oops — favourite) Canadian novels. It’s a coming of age story with an unusual setting: a small Mennonite community in Manitoba. The main character is Nomi, a teenager living with her dad. Nomi’s mother and sister have both left home, leaving Nomi and her dad bereft and in a holding pattern, waiting for their return or for some resolution of their absence, which never really comes.

Nomi’s voice is unique; she struggles to reconcile the paralyzing strictness of the church and her dreams of someday living a bohemian life in New York. Not surprisingly, this proves impossible to do. Here’s a sampling of her sardonic description of her life with her dad:

Now my dad, you know what he says in the middle of those long evenings sitting in our house on the highway? He says: Say, Nomi, how about spinning a platter. Yeah, he uses those exact butt-clenching words. Which means he wants to listen to Anne Murray singing “Snowbird,” again. Or my old Terry Jacks forty-five of “Seasons in the Sun.” I used to play that song over and over in the dark when I was nine, the year I really became aware of my existence. What a riot. We have a ball. Recently, Ray’s been using the word stomach as a verb a lot. And also the word rally. We rally and we stomach. Ray denied it when I pointed it out to him. He says we’re having a good time and getting by. Why shouldn’t he amend? He tells me that life is filled with promise but I think he means the promise of an ending because so far I haven’t been able to put my finger on any other. If we could get out of this town things might be better but we can’t because we’re waiting for Trudie and Tash to come back. It’s been three years so far.

toew190.jpgBetween her clingy boyfriend Travis, who she doesn’t appreciate fully till he’s gone, and her shell-shocked dad, Nomi is lost. It’s not until she considers following the family pattern that there seems to be any hope for her. Her biographical entry in Wikipedia says that she grew up in a Mennonite community in Manitoba, which makes me wonder how much of this story is her own, and which character she is most like.

author photo: Carol Loewen