Readathon · stuff I read

At the End of the Century: The Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, with an Introduction by Anita Desai

42595346Summary from Goodreads:
Multilayered, subtle, insightful short stories from the inimitable Booker Prize-winning author, with an introduction by Anita Desai

Nobody has written so powerfully of the relationship between and within India and the Western middle classes than Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. In this selection of stories, chosen by her surviving family, her ability to tenderly and humorously view the situations faced by three (sometimes interacting) cultures—European, post-Independence Indian, and American—is never more acute.

In “A Course of English Studies,” a young woman arrives at Oxford from India and struggles to adapt, not only to the sad, stoic object of her infatuation, but also to a country that seems so resistant to passion and color. In the wrenching “Expiation,” the blind, unconditional love of a cloth shop owner for his wastrel younger brother exposes the tragic beauty and foolishness of human compassion and faith. The wry and triumphant “Pagans” brings us middle-aged sisters Brigitte and Frankie in Los Angeles, who discover a youthful sexuality in the company of the languid and handsome young Indian, Shoki. This collection also includes Jhabvala’s last story, “The Judge’s Will,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2013 after her death.

The profound inner experience of both men and women is at the center of Jhabvala’s writing: she rivals Jane Austen with her impeccable powers of observation. With an introduction by her friend, the writer Anita Desai, At the End of the Century celebrates a writer’s astonishing lifetime gift for language, and leaves us with no doubt of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s unique place in modern literature.

I sat down to read a few more stories in At the End of the Century during the 24in48 Readathon only to find that my galley had expired!!! Qu’elle horreur!! (Please forgive my terrible French.) I had only read the Introduction by Anita Desai and the first three stories, so not enough to really give an truly informed review of the book, but I did love what I had read. Jhabvala was the writer behind the famed “Merchant-Ivory” production company that produced films like A Room With a View (winner of the Academy Award for Adapted Script), Howard’s End (also won the Academy Award for Adapted Script), The Remains of the Day (nominated for the Academy Award), and adaptations of her own short stories and novels including The Householder and Heat and Dust (winner of the 1975 Booker Prize). So I had already loved her writing and requested access to the digital galley. Now, these are not short stories you can just rush though and hop from one to the other. I found that I needed a bit of time between the stories to process to I wouldn’t mix up the characters. In the handful of stories I read, I could see why Jhabvala is often compared to Jane Austen. There was an eye for the minutia of middle class life in India, with a bit of ironic distance, that compares with Austen’s eye for detail among the landed gentry in late Georgian England. I just failed to outrun the expiration date on the galley. This is a collection that I would like to pick up and finish – she has a unique perspective as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, who married an Indian man in London and moved with him back to India in the 1950s, raised her children and began writing in the 1950s and 1960s, then also lived in the United States near the end of her career.

Dear FTC: I had a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss but it expired before I could finish reading.

 

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stuff I read

Five-Carat Soul by James McBride

34626370Summary from Goodreads:
The stories in Five-Carat Soul–none of them ever published before–spring from the place where identity, humanity, and history converge. McBride explores the ways we learn from the world and the people around us. An antiques dealer discovers that a legendary toy commissioned by Civil War General Robert E. Lee now sits in the home of a black minister in Queens. Five strangers find themselves thrown together and face unexpected judgment. An American president draws inspiration from a conversation he overhears in a stable. And members of The Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band recount stories from their own messy and hilarious lives.

I had a galley, but only finished the “Five-Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” section before it expired. Womp womp.

So I finally caught back up with this wild ride of a story collection via Libby. Each story is so unexpected – a few are set during the Civil War period, a few in the 1970s, and the last novella-length piece is so amazingly inventive and set in a zoo (you have got to read it!). I had never read James McBride before (The Good Lord Bird is on Mt TBR I promise!) and his writing style is so wonderful to read. The way he manages to evoke a setting in just a few sentences is fantastic.

Dear FTC: I had a digital galley of this book but it expired so I finished it (over a year later) via the library’s Libby service.

mini-review · Reading Graphically · stuff I read

Girl Town by Carolyn Nowak

38469986Summary from Goodreads:
Multi-award-winning cartoonist Carolyn Nowak (Lumberjanes) finds powerful truths in fantasy worlds. Her stunning solo debut collection celebrates the ascent of a rising star in comics.

Diana got hurt—a lot—and she’s decided to deal with this fact by purchasing a life-sized robot boyfriend. Mary and La-La host a podcast about a movie no one’s ever seen. Kelly has dragged her friend Beth out of her comfort zone—and into a day at the fantasy market that neither of them will forget.

Carolyn Nowak’s Girl Town collects the Ignatz Award-winning stories “Radishes” and “Diana’s Electric Tongue” together with several other tales of young adulthood and the search for connection. Here are her most acclaimed mini-comics and anthology contributions, enhanced with new colors and joined by brand-new work.

Bold, infatuated, wounded, or lost, Nowak’s girls shine with life and longing. Their stories—depicted with remarkable charm and insight—capture the spirit of our time.

Girl Town came across my radar as part of my second round of TBR (aka Pigeon) recommendations. (Thanks, Mya!) So I was reeeeeealy smart and got the Graphic Novel Book Group at my store to pick Girl Town for our December selection.

Ultimately, I liked this collection. I think Carolyn Nowak does great work with Lumberjanes, so I’m glad I read her own work in Girl Town. I really liked the two center stories, “Radishes” (about two young women at a fantasy-ish boardwalk market) and “Diana’s Electric Tongue” (about a woman who is fed up with dating and purchases a robot boyfriend). The other stories felt a bit unfinished in places, not necessarily because they all end abruptly, and one is a transfictional piece that incorporated multimedia-like panels surrounded by a lot of dialogue ballons and it was very hard to read. This is definitely a collection that fits in with Kelly Link, Sofia Samatar, Carmen Maria Machado, and Anjali Sachdeva, only sequential art instead of prose. If you’re a fan of those authors, I think you’ll like Nowak’s work.

Dear FTC: I bought a copy of this book after receiving the recommendation in my Pigeon.

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.

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.