Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay dedicates this collection of short stories "for difficult women, who should be celebrated for their very nature." While it remains unclear what qualifications a woman must meet to be dubbed a "difficult woman," that is a term many of us have heard at least a handful of times in our lives. Perhaps this is why I found the short stories in this collection so personal, relatable, and emotional while at the same time shocking, distant, and sometimes repulsive. These stories delve into the lives and inner workings of a vast cross-section of those classified as "difficult women."

Gay gives us these women, and the other characters who fill the spaces of their lives, all at once. From the sisters recovering from a childhood nightmare or the woman married to her true love's evil twin, to the girl who grew up a part of her father's affair or the surprisingly diverse members of a gated Floridian community, the reader is dropped into the middle of these stories and brought up to speed throughout. It's disorienting at first, familiarizing yourself with your new host and realizing very quickly that something There is always some behavior or thought process the reader just can't quite understand, something difficult about this woman. By the time the reader has watched the scene play out and gotten a peek behind the curtain, the lines that would define this character to the outside observer are too blurry to even recognize. 

I made a resolution at the beginning of this year to read more materials about people and situations I don't understand, or don't think I could personally relate to. Surprisingly, this collection fit that bill. Though at first glace I thought I couldn't relate to many of these characters, by the end of their stories I either saw myself in them or at the very least understood why I couldn't. I recommend this collection to any woman who has been called "difficult," as well as any person who knows someone who has. If you approach it with an open mind, it can certainly open your eyes as well.

Children of the New World

     I have often wondered what our society will look like years down the road as technology is moving at breakneck speeds, and is, after all, so much a part of our lives.
     In the dystopian novel, Children of the New World, there are thirteen tantalizing and thought-provoking stories that will leave you feeling curious and alarmed about the direction a society may be heading.
     The first story introduces you to a family story, "Saying good-bye to Yang," where the father had to take his teenage son to get help after the son repeatedly smashed his face into a breakfast plate.  The son is actually a robot purchased to take care of his younger sister, Mika, who was adopted from China.  Yang was programmed to teach his little sister about her cultural heritage, but was outdated and classified as scrap metal. Despite being a robot, Yang's father mourns after him as he reminisces about the times they have spent together.  This short story is indicative of how we can become so attached to our "technology " that, after losing it, we are left emotionally compromised.

     The most heart-wrenching story in this book is entitled, "Rocket Night." In it, an annual fall school event takes place where families and staff get together and send the least-liked child into orbit.  The child, Daniel, who had a habit of picking his nose and wiping it on his clothes, chewing his pencils, and also wore hand-me-down clothes, was chosen.  Frightened, he clung to his mother's leg, unwilling to get into the rocket.  The narrator explains, "..and so we let our children loose. I watched my daughter pry the boy's fingers..and dragged him away." Daniel was placed into the capsule where his parents were assured there were enough supplies stocked for a long time into the future.

These stories beg the question, "Can this really happen?"

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Pulitzer-winning author, Viet Thanh Nguyen, makes a powerful return to fiction with the February 7th, 2017 publication of his short story collection, The Refugees. The book, comprised of eight unconnected short stories, explores the experiences of those who fled Vietnam following the collapse of the Southern Vietnamese government in 1975. Nguyen, himself a “boat person,” brings both first-hand knowledge and impressive literary skill to bear in this collection.

His stories of immigration, eerily relevant in this new year, focus on the refugee experience in all but one of the vignettes; the exception being the story of an American family whose daughter flees to Vietnam. The contents of each chapter vary effortlessly through space, time, and gender: from poignant ghost story, to a wife coming to grips with her long-time spouse’s dementia, to the struggles of youth with the obligations of filial piety. I have always believed that a truly talented author could make me believe anything of anyone, but I am also aware that a writer who draws on personal experience can lend a special sort of authenticity to their fiction. The Refugees has this in spades, and I would heartily recommend it to lovers of short stories and character-driven fiction.

Jennifer Wilson

Friday, January 27, 2017

Everything You Want Me to Be: a Novel by Mindy Mejia

Hattie Hoffman, a teenager residing in a small farming community in rural Minnesota, has the world by the tail. Intelligent, lovely, and genuinely sweet, she's the epitome of the perfect child for most parents. Her love for acting has given her big dreams for her future, a future that involves moving to New York and hopefully staking out a career on Broadway. However; those dreams are dashed when her body is discovered in a barn, a victim of a horrific stabbing. 

Local Sheriff Del Goodman and trusty sidekick Jake (deputy) go above and beyond to put the pieces of this puzzle together by gathering crime scene evidence and searching through her personal computer and cell phone for clues. It's soon discovered that Hattie had been involved in a secret online relationship.

Interviews are conducted of potential (and very obvious) suspects. Among these suspects are bumbling football jock Tommy Kinakis (Hattie's boyfriend) as well as handsome new English teacher Peter Lund, who was currently in the midst of a drifting marriage and rather unhappy about his living arrangement on his ailing mother-in-law's farmstead. My personal list of less obvious suspects were Mary Lund, the slightly angry and detached wife of Peter Lund ; Portia Nguyen, Hattie's best friend; and last but not least, Winifred Erickson, the elderly pipe-smoking friend of Mary Lund's family who had shot and killed her husband twelve years previously (a character whom I would have liked to have seen more of).

You'll undoubtedly experience a "Wow" moment towards the ending of this particular novel, with its twists and turns, but as much as one might enjoy this book, the ending was unfortunately a bit predictable. 

Cathy Kesterson

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Last Night: stories by James Salter

Last Night is a collection of 10 meticulously-crafted stories of betrayal, secrets, and lies. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver and J.D. Salinger, Salter creates characters who are unhappy, hurtful, and wholly unlikeable. Yet they are also flawed in completely recognizable ways. Even when their actions are unfathomable, the thoughts and emotions that lead them to make bad choices are the same that motivate most people’s decisions: love (or the idea of it), fear, loneliness, and desperation.

Fear and loneliness are heartbreakingly revealed in the story “Such Fun” where three women have drinks, gossip, and complain about their (privileged) lives while ultimately revealing very little of their true selves or motivations. In the end, one of them ends up leaving the party early and telling her cab driver that she’s just been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Salter doesn’t reveal why she keeps this from her friends and chooses to tell a stranger, instead the reader is left to form their own conclusion.

Each story is distilled down to only the most necessary information, giving the reader a feeling that they’ve walked in on the middle of a private conversation. The penultimate entry “Arlington” reveals the decline and fall of a young army officer’s promising career in just two short scenes. A tale that might have taken hundreds of pages for another author is expertly whittled down to just 7 pages.

For me, a truly great short story is like a painting where only a brief moment in time is captured but so much emotion can be revealed. Like the paintings of Edward Hopper, Last Night is melancholy, haunting, vaguely lonely, and stays with you long after you walk away.