mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

So Many Islands: Stories from the Caribbean, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and Pacific edited by Nicholas Laughlin

40609543Summary from Goodreads:
Collecting new fiction, essays, and poems from seventeen countries around the world, So Many Islands brings us stories about love and protest, about childhood innocence and the traumas of history, about leaving home and trying to return. These writers’s island homes may seem remote on the map, but there is nothing isolated about their compelling, fresh voices.

Featuring contributions by authors from Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bermuda, Cyprus, Grenada, Jamaica, Kiribati, Malta, Mauritius, Niue, Rotuma (Fiji), Samoa, Singapore, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Tonga, and Trinidad and Tobago. So Many Islands is the fourth publication of Peekash Press, an imprint of Akashic Books and Peepal Tree Press, committed to supporting the emergence of new Caribbean writing, and as part of the CaribLit project.

From the introduction by Marlon James:

“I wonder if it is because we island people are surrounded by sea, hemmed in and branching out at once, that we are always in a state of flux. The sea and even the sky are definers and confiners, they have spent millions of years carving space, while at the same time giving us clear openings to map the voyage out. And, today, to be an islander is to live in one place and a thousand, to be part of a family that is way too close by for your business ever to be your own, or way too far but only a remittance cheque away. Or, put another way, to be island people means to be both coming and going. Passing and running, running and passing, as the song goes. Living there, but not always present, travelling or migrating, but never leaving. Or what has never been a new thing, but might turn into a new movement: more and more authors staying put, all the better to let their words wander.”

Marlon says it better than I can.

A bookseller friend pointed me toward this book when I mentioned that I was going to put together a display of books set on islands (outside the US) for the summer. Such a great find.

So Many Islands is a wonderfully multi-layered collection of essays, poems, and stories from authors hailing from island nations around the globe, particularly the Caribbean and the Pacific. Many, if not all, of these authors will be unfamiliar to US audiences due to the small percentage of non-US literature imported to our shores. Literature can be a window and door into the world and this collection does that – look through it into those worlds and cultures you have not yet met.

So Many Islands is out today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

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mini-review · stuff I read

Florida by Lauren Groff

36098092Summary from Goodreads:
The New York Times-bestselling author of Fates and Furies returns, bringing the reader into a physical world that is at once domestic and wild—a place where the hazards of the natural world lie waiting to pounce, yet the greatest threats and mysteries are still of an emotional, psychological nature. A family retreat can be derailed by a prowling panther, or by a sexual secret. Among those navigating this place are a resourceful pair of abandoned sisters; a lonely boy, grown up; a restless, childless couple, a searching, homeless woman; and an unforgettable, recurring character—a steely and conflicted wife and mother.

The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida—its landscape, climate, history, and state of mind—becomes its gravitational center: an energy, a mood, as much as a place of residence. Groff transports the reader, then jolts us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family, and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, she pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury—the moments that make us alive. Startling, precise, and affecting, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

A funny thing, books. And authors. I read Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton, as part of an early reader group and wound up DNF-ing it. I could not get into it, I didn’t care about the main character, etc. I didn’t read anything else she wrote for a good while. I only started a galley of Fates and Furies because at least four people whose opinions and taste I respect said it was good; I tore through it on a layover at O’Hare. And then I backed up to read Arcadia. Apparently, she’s a pretty good writer, more fool I.

Groff’s new story collection Florida is very “Lauren Groff” – well-written narratives with well-educated female narrators who are often in unhappy relationships and/or ambivalent about motherhood even though they love their kids. It was a good collection to read one story per day. If you’ve never read Lauren’s novels this is a good way to get a taste of her writing.

(I still haven’t re-tackled Monsters…but I do have that galley squirreled away in my desk, just in case.)

Florida is available June 5.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

Her Body and Other Parties: Stories by Carmen Maria Machado

36345284Summary from Goodreads:
A highly anticipated debut by one of the most ferociously gifted young writers working today (Michelle Huneven)

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

I finally made it to the top of the library holds list!!

I really loved Machado’s writing style and imagery. This is a really solid story collection of strange, unsettling, fairy-tale adjacent stories, very much in the vein of story collections I’ve loved this year (JagannathThe Heads of the Colored PeopleAll the Names They Used for God). The only exception was the extremely over-long and nonsensical central story “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” which was somewhat boring and possibly doesn’t make sense unless you’re an SVU devotee (I’ve watched some episodes but definitely not very many).

Dear FTC: I borrowed a copy of this book from the library.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · stuff I read

Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations edited by Sarah Cleave

39737311Summary from Goodreads:
In January 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries – Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen – from entering the United States, effectively slamming the door on refugees seeking safety and tearing families apart. Mass protests followed, and although the order has since been blocked, amended and challenged by judges, it still stands as one of the most discriminatory laws to be passed in the US in modern times.

Banthology brings together specially commissioned stories from the original seven ‘banned nations’. Covering a range of approaches – from satire, to allegory, to literary realism – it explores the emotional and personal impact of all restrictions on movement, and offers a platform to voices the White House would rather remained silent.

Banthology is a slim and lovely collection of seven short stories from authors who claim countries caught in the “Muslim Ban” as home. The pieces range from hyper-realist to bordering on fantasy. All deal with displacement, grief, and loss. Somali-Italian author Ubah Cristina Ali Farrah’s story about a teenage refugee in Italy is heartbreaking.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this story collection almost as soon as I heard of it’s forthcoming existence.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

35297351Summary from Goodreads:
Calling to mind the best works of Paul Beatty and Junot Díaz, this collection of moving, timely, and darkly funny stories examines the concept of black identity in this so-called post-racial era.

A stunning new talent in literary fiction, Nafissa Thompson-Spires grapples with black identity and the contemporary middle class in these compelling, boundary-pushing vignettes.

Each captivating story plunges headfirst into the lives of new, utterly original characters. Some are darkly humorous—from two mothers exchanging snide remarks through notes in their kids’ backpacks, to the young girl contemplating how best to notify her Facebook friends of her impending suicide—while others are devastatingly poignant—a new mother and funeral singer who is driven to madness with grief for the young black boys who have fallen victim to gun violence, or the teen who struggles between her upper middle class upbringing and her desire to fully connect with black culture.

Thompson-Spires fearlessly shines a light on the simmering tensions and precariousness of black citizenship. Her stories are exquisitely rendered, satirical, and captivating in turn, engaging in the ongoing conversations about race and identity politics, as well as the vulnerability of the black body. Boldly resisting categorization and easy answers, Nafissa Thompson-Spires is an original and necessary voice in contemporary fiction.

Another outstanding short story collection for 2018. Thompson-Spires has bookended darkly comic and satirical stories about being black in America, including one about two feuding mothers who communicate through notes in their daughters’ schoolbags and another about an able-bodied woman who develops a fixation on men with physical disabilities – I found this to be ingenious commentary about white men who fetishize/objectify women of color), with two moving pieces about the violence perpetrated on young black men by law enforcement. The writing and form are superb.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy for my nook because the digital galley file wouldn’t open.

mini-review · Reading Diversely · Reading Women · stuff I read

All the Names They Used for God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva

35082451Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting, diverse debut story collection that explores the isolation we experience in the face of the mysterious, often dangerous forces that shape our lives

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut collection spans centuries, continents, and a diverse set of characters but is united by each character’s epic struggle with fate: A workman in Andrew Carnegie’s steel mills is irrevocably changed by the brutal power of the furnaces; a fisherman sets sail into overfished waters and finds a secret obsession from which he can’t return; an online date ends with a frightening, inexplicable disappearance. Her story “Pleiades” was called “a masterpiece” by Dave Eggers. Sachdeva has a talent for creating moving and poignant scenes, following her highly imaginative plots to their logical ends, and depicting how one small miracle can affect everyone in its wake.

Lordt, y’all, All the Names They Used for God is face-meltingly good. The stories in this smallish collection all turn on the juxtaposition of the real with the fantastical, one-click off from traditional fairy tales in feel. I got a little brain-tickle as each one reminded me very subtly of an older tale but without retelling any one in particular. “Killer of Kings” is flat-out gorgeous, “All the Names Used for God” is quietly mind-blowing, and the final story “Pleiades” is devastating. Another outstanding collection from an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum.

This collection is kind of flying under the radar so if you’re looking for a story collection, go pick this up.

Dear FTC: My digital galley expired so I bought a copy on my nook to finish reading it.

mini-review · Read Harder · Reading Women · stuff I read · translation

Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck

35969593Summary from Goodreads:
An award-winning debut story collection by Karin Tidbeck, author of Amatka and heir to Borges, Le Guin, and Lovecraft.

A child is born in a tin can. A switchboard operator finds himself in hell. Three corpulent women float somewhere beyond time. Welcome to the weird world of Karin Tidbeck, the visionary Swedish author of literary sci-fi, speculative fiction, and mind-bending fantasy who has captivated readers around the world. Originally published by the tiny press Cheeky Frawg–the passion project of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer–Jagannath has been celebrated by readers and critics alike, with rave reviews from major outlets and support from lauded peers like China Mieville and even Ursula K. Le Guin herself. These are stories in which fairies haunt quiet towns, and an immortal being discovers the nature of time–stories in which anything is possible.

I had heard that Karin Tidbeck’s Amatka was a good book but I hadn’t got around to reading it, yet. So I was really interested in reading the new edition of her collection Jagannath, originally published by the Vandermeers’ indie press Cheeky Frawg in 2012. Jagannath is an unexpectedly lovely and unsettling collection of short stories that occupy a liminal space between reality and folktales (with a few dips into more mainstream fantasy). This is a collection for fans of Sofia Samatar, Margo Langergan, Amber Sparks, and Laura van den Berg, excellent company indeed. Tidbeck did her own translations for those pieces originally published in Swedish and I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between those originally written in English and the translations.

The new edition of Jagannath is available on February 6.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

35135343Summary from Goodreads:
A new story collection, the first since his seminal Jesus’ Son, from “the most essential writer of his generation” (Los Angeles Times), a National Book Award winner and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Twenty-five years ago, Denis Johnson published Jesus’ Son, “a work of spare beauty and almost religious intensity” (Entertainment Weekly), which remains a touchstone today, ardently beloved by readers and writers alike. Included in The New York Times’ list of the “25 Best Books of the Last 25 Years” (alongside Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral), it is routinely described in the press as the single most important and influential book of short stories in a generation.
Now, after years of writing novels and plays in a very different mode, Johnson returns to the short story form that first catapulted him to the highest pedestal of American writers. Though the subject matter — middle-aged life and the elusive and unexpected ways the mysteries of the universe assert themselves — finds Johnson in new territory, the style is pure, vintage, inimitable Johnson.
Taken together, the stories in this powerful and deeply felt collection are Denis Johnson at his absolute best, the highest-caliber work of an American master.

I was late to the Denis Johnson party. I’d never quite got to him. And then he passed away, rather unexpectedly last May, which prodded me to finally read Train Dreams. Which broke me for a little bit. The announcement of a final story collection was an opportunity to read another of Johnson’s books.

“It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.”
– “Triumph Over the Grave”

Hot damn.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden is a short book composed of five killer stories. From reading other reviews, it appears that Johnson continued or concluded story strands left from his previous story collection Jesus’ Son. I haven’t read that collection, obviously, but I didn’t feel like I was missing anything story-wise. These five stories are gritty, obsessed with old hurts, past transgressions, and unfulfilled dreams. The third story, “Strangler Bob,” is set IN the Johnson County Jail, which is two blocks from the UI where Denis Johnson once taught.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.  It’s also my staff rec right now at the store.