Alissa Nutting's, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, is unlike any other story collection I've ever read. The first story, Dinner, moved me in a profouAlissa Nutting's, Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, is unlike any other story collection I've ever read. The first story, Dinner, moved me in a profound way. It was awful and brilliant and possibly life-changing. Because of this story, because of the other stories like it in this collection--bold, surreal, deeply compassionate, and highly imaginative--I might just write differently. I might just live differently.
Stories like "Dinner," "She-Man," and "Gardener" made me feel very human, very vulnerable and very afraid. I am going to die. We are all going to die. We know it, but we don't know it. If I have to know it, and we all do, if I have to feel it, and we all do, then I want to know it and feel it in the painful, wondrous and freeing way I came to it in these crushing, tall-tale stories. This entire collection made me ask myself 'How am I living?" 'How am I using my precious time?'
Admittedly, a couple of the stories in this collection fell a little short for my tastes and felt somewhat incomplete. Others veered beyond the surreal and ran right off the cliff, but overall this collection is an original, worthy, and memorable read. 4.5 stars. ...more
I'd like to lock myself in a room with Goodreads for a week. I've read so many great books in the past year and I want to write about them, to spreadI'd like to lock myself in a room with Goodreads for a week. I've read so many great books in the past year and I want to write about them, to spread the good word. So many books, so little time, and I've let that hugeness and those annoying Goodreads's star ratings overwhelm me.
Star ratings are hard. I prefer to discuss a book rather than rate it, but everyone else has to work with those screaming red blots, so I'll have to suck it up and play along. I'm going to take it book by book and I'm going to start with Lindsay Hunter's, Daddy's, which I just finished, having marveled all the while, and which has left me conflicted and troubled.
Lindsay Hunter's stories in this book are rich with language, with stunning images and with precise details. Much to my delight and awe, every story in this collection touched me. Every story offered something, whether it be on the level of language or character or emotion, and usually, spectacularly, all three. These stories are powerful and illuminating. It's hard to describe, but Lindsay Hunter has managed to strip away any and all layers between the reader and the stories. There's a confidence, beauty, brutality, and honesty to this collection that's gripping.
I've talked before about how troubled I felt during my MFA years at Mills College. I couldn't find any joy in reading. Zip. Zero. Nada. I was depressed, exhausted, and overwhelmed. I had a three-year-old and a newborn and no time for anything outside of mothering, least of all reading. How terrible, as a writer, to find no enjoyment in reading. How wonderful, then, in recent years to refind that love. To enjoy a book so much I don't want to put it down, so much I can't wait to get back to it. In this regard, the other two most recent titles that come to mind, aside from Daddy's, are Paula Bomer's Baby and Other Stories and Alissa Nutting's Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls.
Daddy's opens with "My Brother" and these first three sentences: "My brother tells me monsters set up shop in his closet among his Reeboks and hidden Playboys." Yeah, he says, leaning back and stroking his chin, yeah, you can't see it but something's coming for me. Big whoop, I tell him."
Reading is so personal, isn't it? When I was a girl, my mother believed monsters lurked inside her wardrobe, told me they were coming for her. So you can bet those first lines and that first story got my attention and had deep personal meaning. That said, "My Brother" is perhaps my least favorite story in the collection. In many ways, "My Brother" doesn't go as deep as the other stories, but there was enough in those first pages to hook me, and with each story that followed Lindsay Hunter reeled me right in.
Here's a line from the next story, "Scales," that shows Lindsay Hunter's keen eye and exquisite prose and which is of course even more powerful in context:
"Her spine sticks out and in the bright light of the bathroom little shadows collect under the bones."
So many of these stories are the proof that you can break all the 'rules' you want when you're this gifted a storyteller. From "Love Song" I'd be wary in my own work of using song lyrics to further a story and yet "Love Song" is a heartbreaking read, in the best way. The last page of this story literally took my breath away. I could go on and on about this book. Read this book. Shout about this book.
So why am I conflicted and depressed? There's the perhaps typical anxiety and yearning: How does my story collection compare to this? Can my stories move and affect readers anything close to this? Damn, how'd she get to be so brilliant? But it's much more and I'm not sure how to talk about it.
I don't know anyone in my life that I could hand this book to and say "read this, it's brilliant." I think it's fair to say that everyone I know and love would be shocked and disturbed by this book, and that even if they did enjoy it they'd have a hard time admitting it to the greater community: We can't like that.
When I write, there's a critic on my shoulder: You can't write that. I'm often a frigid, uptight and conservative writer. I have a low threshold for writing about the body, sex, violence, and our baser urges and desires. When I've dared break free of that jail, I've paid a great personal and emotional price.
The "You can't write that" police torment me: What if your daughters' school principal read that? Your parish priest? Your Catholic school community and your neighbors? Your daughters' friends' families? That's disgusting, my inner critic screams. What if these readers are so appalled by what I write it affects my family? One day, my daughters will also become my readers and my stories could potentially have enormous impact on them. These are real and present concerns that exist outside the bubble of our online community.What's good taste? What's vulgar? What's perverse? What's brutal-honest, brutal-beauty and brutal-bad? I'm conflicted. I don't know. I'm shook up.
I wonder if Lindsay Hunter found it an act of courage, an act of faith, to publish some of the more raw and graphic of these stories? "The Fence," for example. I wonder the same of Paula Bomer and Alissa Nutting. Maybe it's my Irish Catholic upbringing, maybe it's that I live in a conservative community, maybe it's fallout from childhood trauma, but there are some places I can't go as a reader or a writer. Hunter, Bomer, and Nutting all took me places in their stories I didn't think I'd ever dare venture and their brilliance kept me there, rewarded me. However, it's a fine balancing act, for them, for me. These stories disturb, but in the best possible ways. Lesser writers might just disturb.
Maybe I'm in the wrong life. Maybe I'm a coward....more
Donald Ray Pollock’s short story collection KNOCKEMSTIFF contains eighteen gripping and brilliant linked stories—terrible moments, scenes, and charactDonald Ray Pollock’s short story collection KNOCKEMSTIFF contains eighteen gripping and brilliant linked stories—terrible moments, scenes, and characters throughout that are so keenly observed, so brutally rendered, I often wanted to look away. Only I couldn’t stop reading. Pollock’s writing here is so confident, so skillful, I felt vested from the outset and read on enthralled.
As I read those first four unforgettable stories, I felt the skin on my arms tingle and inwardly declared Pollock a genius—the standard by which I would measure my own work, measure everything I will ever again read. However, by the end of this collection, the work felt too even, the protagonists interchangeable, and the brutality suffocating and dishonest.
In a review excerpt published over at Amazon.com, Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “The most startling thing about these stories is they have an aura of truth.” Well I should hope so. That latter statement doesn’t make any sense. “Startling?” What is fiction if it doesn’t reveal some truth(s) about the human experience?
It’s interesting that in the acknowledgements, Pollack writes “I grew up in the holler, and my family and our neighbors were good people who never hesitated to help someone in a time of need.” I can’t help but think that if Pollock had populated this collection with at least some of these “good people” this work as a whole would have read more real, more honest.
I struggled though the last few stories in KNOCKEMSTIFF. By then, I’d had enough of how this real life town and its people are “fictionalized.” I grew more and more irritated by how women are largely absent from this collection, and appear only as victims and shadows and “retards” and whores. Only exist to be brutalized by KNOCKEMSTIFF’s smaller-than-life men.
I’d planned to write more on the collection, and hoped to submit a review for publication, but discovered that the wonderful Southeast Review got there before me. Interesting how these two reviews, from Richard Garn and David Rodriguez respectively, vary. I’m with Richard Garn.
Let me repeat, alone each of these stories is a gem (“Hair’s Fate” is heartbreaking and one of my favorites) and Pollock is a tremendously gifted storyteller, but together as a whole the stories in this collection are, alas, a sum less than its parts. 3.5 Stars....more
The Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, a new release from Publishing Genius, is a collection of poems compiled from Mairéad Byrne’s blog, Heaven. The coThe Best of (What’s Left of) Heaven, a new release from Publishing Genius, is a collection of poems compiled from Mairéad Byrne’s blog, Heaven. The collection is ordered into thirteen parts and there’s a sense of slow build-up, of climb, climax, and linger.
The opening sections “Calendar” and “Everyday Lunacy” are whimsical and provocative, flirt with the reader. There’s a shift in tone and emotion once we arrive at the third section “Found.” I sat straighter in my chair, fully engaged. Each line from the second poem, “To Skin a Muskrat,” vibrates and the last line hums: “This is nothing like writing poetry.” Overall, the writing throughout “Found” is visceral, exact, and mesmerizing.
The sections “Interviews” and “Numbers” return us to a sense of playfulness, yet for the most part remain thought-provoking and moving:
I’ve got to the middle Whew! I’m middle-aged Whew! I didn’t get killed Whew! I didn’t kill myself Whew! I’m middle-income Whew! I’m alright I’m OK I’m acceptable Whew! Yay!
The section “War” begins with the haunting prose poem “Baghdad.” To my great surprise, from the very first line, I realized that I had met Mairéad Byrne several years ago at a reading in Dublin. There, I had the honor of hearing Byrne perform “Baghdad” and other poems. Byrne’s vibrant, lyrical voice, the relentless pelt of “Baghdad, Baghdad, Baghdad” has stayed with me all this time, as any writing about war should—any worthwhile writing period. The work in “War” is startling and skillful, and left me rightly unsettled and a little stunned:
I THOUGHTXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXBECAUSE YOU SAW ME XXXXXXXXSLICED &XXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXTORN OPENXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXX&XXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXTHE SHINING CHILDXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXDRAGGED FROM ME XXXXXXYOU WOULD HAVEXXXXX XXXSTAYED WITH USXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXFOR LIFEXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXBUT NOT SOXXXXXXX
I also enjoyed the stirring section “Family”:
I’m a miserable person: What have I in life but my two daughters, Wine, & poetry?
Come into my house. I do not want it anymore.
On the yellow bus with the children— in their seat belts of shout.
From the section titled “Poetry”:
how long does it take to write a poem?
time stands still
The sections “Providence,” and “Dedications” deliver further keen, compassionate, and shocking observations and moments.
“Family,” “Instructions,” and “Everything is Unlikely” tie with “War” as my four favorite sections. Just as we eased into this collection, the tiny section “Everything Else” gently takes us out—a loved one leaving, the sun going down.
I saw so much of myself, of my Irishness, in these poems and white spaces. While there are few surface references to Ireland, she permeates everything. I recognized the Irish obsession with the weather and place, with routine and everydayness. I saw how we use humor as salve, deflector, and to save our sanity. I also witnessed our psychic scars from colonization, brutality, and patriarchy. Our great joy and searing sadness. Strength. Courage. Imagination. Uniqueness.
I heard our gift of the gab and our stubborn silence. Above all, I heard echoes of the great Irish writers that have gone before us and that remain among us. Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, and Eavan Boland are just three that will buy Mairéad Byrne a pint in heaven. And if anyone points out that Eavan Boland isn’t in heaven yet, then you haven’t read HEAVEN from this collection. But you should. You should read this collection in its entirety. Then reread it.
I do wonder at the order here. I worry that its initial whimsy and obliqueness might lose readers. More, some of the poems read like lists and scraps, and I found myself glossing over them. Overall, though, it’s an order and a collection that works, and works well.
I remember shaking Mairéad Byrne’s hand that long-ago night in a dim pub in Dublin. I also felt her hand come out through these pages and touch me again. Byrne boasts a down-to-earth voice and style that are devoid of intonation and affectation. There are eight words of Gaeilge in this collection that translate to “an educated heart.” Mairéad Byrne’s generous, educated heart sings from these poems and white open spaces. ...more
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, is set in 1980 Dublin against the charged backdrop of the River Liffey. The novel tells the turbulent story ofNuala Ní Chonchúir’s debut novel, You, is set in 1980 Dublin against the charged backdrop of the River Liffey. The novel tells the turbulent story of a ten-year-old girl and her broken family. Narrated through the child’s point of view and told in the second person, this novel uses plain prose, vivid detail, fresh images, and the delightful Dublin vernacular. You is a compelling story that brings to life complex characters and delivers hard-hitting truths.
At the novel’s opening, the narrator’s single mother, Joan, attempts suicide and is admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Even after her discharge and return home, Joan remains depressed, abuses alcohol and, to varying degrees, neglects her three children. Joan also has a sinister love interest, Kit, and he and the novel’s plucky narrator often collide. Indeed one of my favorite scenes comes early in the novel when the narrator innocently walks in on Kit in the bathroom. Several terrible moments pass where Kit remains exposed and relishes, insists on, her seeing him. This moment reveals volumes about both Kit and the child and is expertly and economically handled by Ní Chonchúir.
Perhaps what I most admired and appreciated about this novel and Ni Chonchúir’s great skill set is the enormous restraint she employs, particularly around the novel’s central tragedy and her portrayal of the narrator’s mother, Joan. These characters are fully and compassionately drawn and cannot be easily judged or condemned. More, Ní Chonchúir deftly employs humor throughout and achieves great pathos in what is at times a deeply troubling tale. Issues of death, suicide, mental illness, neglect, abuse, alcoholism, and brokenness are central to this novel.
You brought back so many memories of my Dublin childhood in the 80’s, everything from something as small as the orange cellophane wrapping on Lucozade bottles to something as huge as visiting my mother in St. Brendan’s Psychiatric Hospital. I, too, grew up around water, the Royal Canal. That canal, just as the River Liffey here, left an indelible mark on my psyche. Much of the suffering, disappointment, and harrowing sense of abandonment in these pages also resonated. For my tastes, the novel perhaps ended on too neat a note. However, to Ní Chonchúir’s great credit, long after I turned the last page, I’m still thinking about this family. I worry for them, especially for the burdened, feisty, and sensitive child narrator. I also hope hard....more
Again and again as I read this collection, I thought this is how I want to write, thought this is why I want to write. A few of the stories perhaps paAgain and again as I read this collection, I thought this is how I want to write, thought this is why I want to write. A few of the stories perhaps pale next to the gems, but overall this is an excellent, searing collection. 4.5 stars....more
This is an excellent collection of linked stories with a memorable, compelling and very human protagonist and cast of characters. Set in New Orleans,This is an excellent collection of linked stories with a memorable, compelling and very human protagonist and cast of characters. Set in New Orleans, place is also central to this collection. This is a book I'll dip into again and again....more
The immediate playful tone to Mel Bosworth's Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom drew me right in. I suspended belief and gave myself over to tThe immediate playful tone to Mel Bosworth's Grease Stains, Kismet, and Maternal Wisdom drew me right in. I suspended belief and gave myself over to this sometimes madcap mix of meta-fiction and magical realism. I like how self-conscious this book is--we are always aware this is a story being created and yet the connection forged between our soulful narrator David and his love-interest Samantha is no less powerful because of it. How did Mel Bosworth do that? I think ultimately through vulnerability, both Mel's and his characters. Both creator and created take risks in this work and lay themselves bare, and I found myself charmed. Lose yourself in this strange and lovely book. You'll like where it takes you. ...more
I wanted to love this book. I really did. Readers, editors and fellow writers, all of whom I respect and admire, raved about this book. I expected toI wanted to love this book. I really did. Readers, editors and fellow writers, all of whom I respect and admire, raved about this book. I expected to feel the same way. I'm afraid I didn't.
I attended Ben Greenman's reading, and his excellent conversation with Oscar Villalon, here in San Francisco's fabulous City Lights bookstore. He wowed me. I found him intelligent, articulate, earnest, tender, and, yes, sexy.
I loved Greenman's passion for the dying art of letter writing and his concerns about isolation and what's lost versus gained on the human levels through technology and the internet etc.
I hurried home with Greenman's book and dived right in. Only I belly-flopped. I couldn't get into the stories. They felt strangely inaccessible to me. I couldn't connect with the characters and didn't feel moved by their struggles and dilemmas. There was too much remove for me between the stories and the storyteller/narrator. Thus as much as I admired the skill, language, craft and scenarios in many of these stories, they left me numb. For me, they failed on the level of characterization and empathy.
Perhaps the failing is all mine. That's more than possible. Perhaps I'll come back to the collection down the road and give it another read. That's how much I want to like the stories as much as I did the man.
Read "Cartographer's Girl," the first story in Matt Bell's powerful debut collection, HOW THEY WERE FOUND, and I challenge you to stop reading. This mRead "Cartographer's Girl," the first story in Matt Bell's powerful debut collection, HOW THEY WERE FOUND, and I challenge you to stop reading. This modern day fairy tale moved me deeply, and sets the extraordinary tone for these fresh, inventive and deeply affecting stories.
From "Cartographer's Girl":
"The compasses are disappointingly true, pointing north over and over, when all he wants is for one to dissent, to demur, to show him the new direction he cannot find on his own."
"... and then she'd cling to his body like the mast of a sinking ship, like she had lashed herself to him."
"Wolf Parts" is another similar standout. That and "Dredge" chilled me to my core.
From "The Leftover":
"She will say, I am still here. She will say it like it means something all by itself, like quitting or being quit on is the easiest thing in the world."
Even stories where I felt less riveted, less connected, like "A Certain Number of Bedrooms, A Certain Number of Baths," still offered so much by ways of language and craft.
I think Matt Bell poured his heart into these stories, called into action every bit of brilliance at his proposal, and the result is great and gorgeous on so many levels.
This deceptively simple book was a gripping read and I felt my chest clutch throughout, and whole body sigh at the novel's end. Told in clear, conciseThis deceptively simple book was a gripping read and I felt my chest clutch throughout, and whole body sigh at the novel's end. Told in clear, concise prose, Dermansky's characterization of the novel's protagonist, Marie, is masterful. Though a deeply flawed character, I cared a great deal about Marie and found myself hoping for her all the way, even while knowing her situation was impossible.
That sense of the inevitable and the impossible at the end of the novel will stay with me for a long time. I so, so wanted a different end for Marie. It's a testimony to Dermansky's skill that she delivered the right ending to this novel, an ending that although inevitable was also surprising and affecting. On finishing this novel, I felt the same pain I've felt on losing a loved one--that mad desire to turn back time, to bring back the dead. I found Marie's quiet acceptance at the end of this novel instructive and healing. So much about life is about putting up a good fight, it's also about accepting what we can't change.
Thank you, Marcy Dermansky for this wonderful novel and memorable protagonist.
I've read this brilliant book several times now and continue to pluck riches from its pages. Every story calls out my heart. I just reread "The PianoI've read this brilliant book several times now and continue to pluck riches from its pages. Every story calls out my heart. I just reread "The Piano Player" and it's extraordinary and heartbreaking and magical. ...more