St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

unnamedKaren Russell is on my list of six authors I want to read for the first time in 2014. I’m starting at the beginning with her first novel, a collection of interrelated short stories all set in the same swampy, beachy area of Florida. The hype in my head was MASSIVE and there was no way Russell was ever going to live up to such a beast.

Ten stories – all of them odd, all of them weird. Most of them are narrated by a child or teenager. They feel like coming-of-age stories. Many of them are allegorical in nature. And none of them end neatly. I’d even go so far as saying only one of them actually has a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative structure. So you’ve got to let that desire go immediately.

You have stories about alligator wrestling theme parks (which will eventually become Swamplandia!), little girls who sled out to sea on a crab shell never to be heard from again, and girls raised by wolves who must go to a reform school to learn how to live as human. The characters are strange and often unsettling. It can be hard to connect with the absurd plot lines at first, but soon you begin to see the humanity bleeding through the weird. And Russell at 25 creates some of the most imaginative and audacious imagery I’ve read – maybe ever.

So why only four stars instead of five? It took me a while to get invested. It took me too long to get over my initial frustration at how she ends her stories – or doesn’t end them, so to speak. Once I was able to let that go and just enjoy these brief slices of life for what they were, I was swept away and didn’t want to swim back to the mainland. That’s the magic Russell has created. She took me places I did not want to go, kicking and screaming, and left me bereft with their absence by the collection’s end.

Swamplandia!, I’m coming for you.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

243714Jhumpa Lahiri has won or been nominated for almost every prestigious literary award imaginable. And I haven’t read either of her two novels. I think I almost purposefully avoid award winners. Why do I do this? I think I tend to be disappointed when they don’t live up to this idea in my head of what an award winner should be. But I’m happy to say that Interpreter of Maladies deserved its Pulitzer.

It’s a collection of nine short stories focusing on Indian and Bengali characters both in India and in the States. You get nine brief glimpses into the lives of some beautifully rendered people having honest struggles. Many of those struggles revolve around marriage and relationships which is universal around the globe. You get realistic portrayals of what it feels like to be a foreigner in many different scenarios. You get a little bit of history, a lot of culture, and one of the best short story collections published in the last decade.

I read these stories in one sitting while the snow fell in Atlanta and everyone else seemed to be trapped in their vehicles. With the fire warming my toes, I literally could not stop reading long enough to care about those stranded commuters which included my husband. Maybe this makes me a terrible person or perhaps this makes Jhumpa Lahiri a magician or a wizard. Either way, I won the great snowpocalypse of 2014.

None of these stories are super joyful. In fact, most of them are downers. I had to take a couple of moments after each conclusion to mourn whatever needed mourning before I could continue. But I always continued. The pull of Lahiri’s writing was too much to resist no matter how gut-wrenching or desolate the stories read. What often irritates me about short story collections is how unfinished each snippet can be – how each story ends just as soon as you finally feel pulled in. Interpreter of Maladies didn’t have this flaw. I felt like I had gotten to know a complete story – or at least all I needed to know for the moment – at each story’s end. Utter perfection.

By now, you can clearly tell this was a no-brainer five star book for me. The Pulitzer people knew what they were doing with this selection. Now it’s your turn to pick it up for the first time or to reread and discover the magic all over again.

Tooth & Claw by T.C. Boyle

24725T.C. Boyle is another one of those author’s I’ve heard a ton about but never explored. To me, he seems sort of like a ‘gentleman’s club’ writer – someone meant specifically for male readers which is probably absurd. But something just felt so nebulously masculine in a way that put me off. Enter the library where you can borrow books for free! Or you can just check out the New Yorker online for the title story!

Tooth and Claw borrows its title from a Tennyson poem wherein nature is described as:

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law—

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed—

(In Memoriam)

Boyle’s 14 shorts all link to nature in some way – great or small. At times nature is a force to be reckoned with and at others a quiet mention providing background scenery. I think the ‘nature’ even doubles as human nature more often than not. Sometimes the stories work and sometimes they bore you to death.

That’s not to say that the collection isn’t worth reading because I believe it is. A couple of the stories actually won me over enough that I bought a hardcover edition to add to my other short story collections. The first winner was ‘Dogology’ where a woman endeavors to study dog behavior in the most natural of ways, eventually losing her ‘humanness’. The second was ‘Swept Away’ where a love story is put to its conclusion when a violent wind storm literally sweeps away a visiting ornithologist. I’m fairly certain she didn’t end up in Oz.

However, more often than not Boyle’s narratives follow some average joe dude who’s content drinking himself or drugging himself into a sort of oblivion (enter that gentleman’s club theme I mentioned above). These shorts are rarely compelling enough to warrant reading, let alone rereading.

What I particularly appreciate with short stories is that you don’t have to read the ones you don’t enjoy! You can skip whole chunks of blathering nonsense and cherish the brilliance in-between. There’s no doubt that Boyle is talented, but perhaps next time I’ll seek out works that aren’t quite as bogged down in his own past history with the drinking and drugging. For all the time he spends on down and out males, I actually think he writes fairly interesting women. So there will be a next meeting, Mr. Boyle. Perhaps a novel, yes?

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a funny, funny man.  Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is a funny, funny book.  It’s basically just a collection of anecdotal short stories involving animal characters highlighting some rather crass human behaviors.  Every once in a blue moon, an uplifting, lighthearted story sneaks in, but don’t expect that to be the norm.

Victoria asked me if I thought the novel was good upon completion and I immediately responded – ‘If you have my sense of humor’.  This response put her on her guard as well it should.  Sedaris’s humor rivals my own in appreciating the twisted and, admittedly, grotesque.  These animals let it all hang out in brutal, disturbing, and hilarious ways.  Crows eat the eyes of baby ewes.  Fuzzy bunnies go on killing rampages in the name of safety.  And they are all illustrated with NOTHING HELD BACK.  Sometimes the pictures even squeaked me out.

But never fear, there’s something for the faint of heart as well and the book ends with a truly delightful story involving the friendship between a hippo, an owl, and a gerbil that symbolizes a strange sort of beauty among humans and a hopeful triumph of our troubled species.

Now back to the dark bits – I totally understand why people have a problem reading this book.  They get so bogged down in the nasty pictures and gory plot lines, turning every page in utter abhorrence of Sedaris’s audacity.  All the while, they are failing to grasp the underlining morality of each simple tale.  The extremes in this book are merely portraying actualy animal behaviors that come naturally, no matter how upsetting.   Crows will eat eyeballs – sorry if you don’t approve.  But did you happen to notice how the mother sheep was a complete bitch, a condescending mother, and just an all around poor example of humanity?  I was engrossed in the juxtaposition of instinctual animal survival against the crass, but more benign, human behaviors that are a CHOICE and believe Sedaris is a genius.

I recommend Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk and hope you give it a shot!  You’ve been warned, so be prepared for some pretty intense imagery.  I’m glad I won this book in our book club book swap and can’t wait to return it to Victoria to hear her undoubtedly argue with me about the necessity of the violence.  Please feel free to do the same!

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Once upon a time, my husband (very early in our dating life) expressed his desire to join the military.  Two of his best friends were in the Air Force ROTC and they loved it.  I went into a panic attack trying to imagine myself as a military spouse and knew deep down that that life was too much for me.  I’m a worry wart by nature and already had trouble breathing when I knew he was riding long distance on a motorcycle – there’s no way I could handle him being deployed to a war zone 7000 miles away.  Thankfully, he decided to be a CPA instead, but since that moment I’ve always had the utmost respect for the men, women, children, and other loved ones soldiers leave behind.

Siobhan Fallon is one of those spouses – her husband has been deployed to the Middle East on three occasions and they have most recently been stationed in Jordan as a family.  Her debut novel is a collection of 8 fictional stories centered around families at Fort Hood, Texas dealing with the deployment and subsequent return home of their husbands, fathers, and sons.

You also know when the men are gone.  No more boots stomping above, no more football games slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings.  Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

Fallon is great at creating a very emotional atmosphere.  Within just a few paragraphs of each story you’ll find yourself affected and deeply invested in each story’s outcome.  The unfortunate consequence of your investment is that none of the stories actually has a proper ending – we’re always left rather ambiguously wondering what happens next, which for myself was frustrating.  Once or twice would have been acceptable, but not each story.  Knowing that Fallon has her MFA, I almost wonder if she were taught to do this in her studies because it feels like something an MFA program would teach. But if she did in fact learn this technique in school, then the abrupt endings are done on purpose and have some sort of meaning.  I suppose they could represent how it might feel to have your spouse, a parent, or a child deployed to a far off war suddenly.  The upheaval the family left behind feels and the uncertainty of how things will end.  I could see this being a poignant literary device, but after 8 times it just sort of felt like a gimmick and cheapened the experience.

Conversely, the fact that you want to know what happens, that you are so heavily entrenched in the welfare of each family speaks to Fallon’s writing ability and her talent at capturing the nuances of her particular life experiences.  Each of the stories could be fully fleshed out into amazing full length novels.

I loved that Fallon’s portrayal of the military doesn’t shy away from showing ugly truths and harsh realities.  Obviously, military life is not a cake walk and the physical, mental, and emotional sacrifices that all military families endure need to be better understood and respected by those of us who live on the outside.  Some readers have been angered by Fallon’s treatment, citing a lack of patriotism, like she’s spreading some sort of unseemly gossip.  I see it quite differently.  When you read these stories, they don’t make you scoff at the military – they make you thankful for your freedoms and the men and women who sacrifice so much so that we can live our nice cushy lives.  They’ll make you proud to be an American without playing into war politics and remind you to thank soldiers for their service when you see them in uniform.

I would have enjoyed seeing a family where the wife went to war.  I know that most soldiers are men, but plenty of women serve as well.  Fallon was asked why she didn’t include such a perspective and she claimed she wanted to but that no particular character really came alive for her to write adequately.  One of the most striking stories for me personally involved a soldier not being deployed with his company because his wife had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  Seeing how cold the family was treated by others on base because he had ‘dodged’ the deployment was shocking.  They had children who could have been orphaned!  And I defy all readers not to ball like a baby during the final piece, my favorite and a perfect way to end the collection.

You Know When the Men Are Gone (great title, by the way) is a book I’d recommend to anyone wanting a look inside military families – so often war can seem so foreign to us in America because they are fought so far away – this collection makes you face facts and brings the brave men and women closer to home.  And it doesn’t matter if you’re pro-war or anti-war, you just have to be pro-human to enjoy!  Not a perfect first novel, but a promising start for Fallon.  I also recommend checking out her website.  She writes a personal blog and has several great posts on life in the Middle East.  I particularly enjoyed her take on visiting Saudi Arabia as a woman.

Coming up this week are my reviews for Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, Bossypants by Tina Fey, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann.

Note:  I won You Know When the Men Are Gone through the Goodreads First Reads program.  The book was provided by the publisher, Penguin Group (USA).

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Short Stories


Hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.

Today’s topic is Top Ten Books you’d recommend to someone who doesn’t like X (fill in the blank).  I’ve chosen my Top Ten Favorite Short Stories for those who think they hate short stories.  They are in no particular order and are linked to the actual story online so you can have fun reading!  Also, these stories are a great introduction to some amazing authors and are often much more accessible than longer novel length works.  Give them a try!

1. Young Goodman Brown by Nathaniel Hawthorne
2. A&P by John Updike
3. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
4. The Monkey’s Paw by W.W. Jacobs
5. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving
6. The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allen Poe
7. The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
8. Hills Like White Elephants by Ernest Hemingway
9. A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner
10. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor