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.

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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.

mini-review · stuff I read

Worlds From the Word’s End by Joanna Walsh

34146471Summary from Goodreads:
This collection cements Joanna Walsh’s reputation as one of the sharpest writers of this century. Wearing her learning lightly, Walsh’s stories make us see the world afresh, from a freewheeling story on cycling (and Freud), to a country in which words themselves fall out of fashion—something that will never happen wherever Walsh is read.

“Joanna Walsh is clever, funny and merciless. She abducts people from their apparently normal lives and confronts them with the fact that dystopia is not a place in the future but a room in their own house.” —Yuri Herrera, author of Signs Preceding the End of the World

“Terrifyingly perceptive, subversively hilarious–these stories are part Daniil Kharms, part-Lydia Davis–while also managing to be singularly Joanna Walsh; how her writing always manages to make everything else I read (and write) seem specious and frivolous.” —Sara Baume, author of The Line Made by Walking

“Worlds from the Word’s End is an anti-mainstream collection. Joanna Walsh’s thick, blurred and claustrophobic worlds deal with deconstruction, estrangement, silence and the disappearance of common language. This is unconventional writing that is going to enchant unconventional readers.” —Dubravka Ugrešić, author of Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

I had never read Joanna Walsh’s books before, but I was intrigued by the pull quote and blurbs. Worlds From the Word’s End is a small literary short story collection that lies somewhere between Laura van den Burg and Sofia Samatar in tone. There are a couple of stories set in dystopias that seem just one or two clicks off from our own (one is a society that has gradually decided words/lanuage was passé so that was interesting). There are a couple about being a book person, particularly the third story.

There is one story, “Simple Hans”, that I really didn’t like and it felt out of place in the collection.

Dear FTC: I received a review copy of this book from the publicist.

mini-review · stuff I read

Fresh Complaint by Jeffrey Eugenides

33844793Summary from Goodreads:
The first collection of short fiction from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides’s bestselling novels have shown that he is an astute observer of the crises of adolescence, sexual identity, self-discovery, family love, and what it means to be an American in our times. The stories in Fresh Complaint continue that tradition. Ranging from the reproductive antics of ‘Baster’ to the wry, moving account of a young traveler’s search for enlightenment in ‘Air Mail’ (selected by Annie Proulx for The Best American Short Stories, 1997), this collection presents characters in the midst of personal and national crises. We meet a failed poet who, envious of other people’s wealth during the real-estate bubble, becomes an embezzler; a clavichordist whose dreams of art collapse under the obligations of marriage and fatherhood; and, in ‘Bronze,’ a sexually confused college freshman whose encounter with a stranger on a train leads to a revelation about his past and his future. Narratively compelling, beautifully written, and packed with a density of ideas that belie their fluid grace, Fresh Complaint proves Eugenides to be a master of the short form as well as the long.

I loved Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex but Fresh Complaint was a pretty “eh, it’s fine” story collection. These stories were written over nearly 30 years and it shows. The best story in the collection is “Air Mail”, the worst is probably “Fresh Complaint”. In between, just a batch stories about aging, ego and sexual customs, middle aged guys trying to make it with women, and a clavichordist trying to outrun the debt collectors. I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters or plots. Eugenides’s novels are better.

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