Aetherial Worlds: Stories by Tatyana Tolstaya


They passed on, their personal suns went out, and there was no one left to speak of them, to think of them and to tell their stories, to laugh and shake one’s head while remembering.

I loved each of these stories, from tales about art, love and loss, politics and war, childhood and aspic, there wasn’t one story that didn’t captivate me. How does a man falling in love with a marble statue lead to losing his wife and children? Is a gypsy to be believed when she tells a woman every man who loves her will die? How does a life go on with the sad order of ‘vitamin drops in the eyes’ and ‘big stiff pillows in her bed’, as if love just flew out the window?

The artist Kazimir Malevich in The Square makes quite a name for himself after painting a thick black square the ‘most famous, most frightening, enigmatic painting known to man’. The author ties an experience Leo Tolstoy had years before that to the meaning behind the painting. The dissection that follows is engaging, death meets life, and expresses itself through art, a sort of terror facing us all.

Aspic reminded me of the horror facing me in the refrigerator when I was 4 years old. In Hungary they call it kocsonya, a pork broth that is jellied, cold after setting in the fridge in which is suspended pig knuckles, rinds, and ears. It’s more of an entire meal for us and nothing in the world could get me to have another bite when I was little. As an adult, my palate craves the foods my family made but that niggling fear from childhood always rises. I laughed when she wrote, “Truth be told, I’ve always been a little afraid of it, since childhood.” Because it can be intimidating. I am reminded of my childhood friends staring at some of our other dishes while at my house, curious, afraid (even if it was just chicken paprikash because so many american children hated vegetables, and who ate cooked peppers floating in gravy in the 80’s). We always ended up throwing a burger or hotdog on for said friend. That fear always came alive in me in the face of kocsonya, much to the shame of my grandparents.

In Smoke and Shadows, it feels like an affair against her desires. How can she possibly be in love with Eric, this man who is so very limited and yet she is. She sits down and eats  the meal his wife prepared, imaging hatred in the woman’s heart. It could be the exoticism he projects on her Russian background that has him enraptured. But what is it about him that has made her love for him obsessive. She sinks into a fantasy about his wife, that witch Emma.

The Invisible Maiden was my favorite, with one of the best lines I’ve read in years. “Growing in it were yellow lilies that smelled like mermaids.” What a beautiful sentence, lilies that smell like mermaids, how perfect. The family arrives at the dacha, and prepares it for their stay. It’s atmospheric, I fancied myself alongside them all, inhaling the smell of fried potatoes, cozy in the warmth. Who knew kombucha could be a pet, this before kombucha became all the rage with Americans aspiring to be healthy. Each character is a creation, alive as you and me. Curly, the ‘imbecile’ who built the dacha, and how he came by the moniker tickled me. The grannies, oh the wonderful grannies Aunty Lola and Klavdia Alekseevna and their sad, beautiful habits. This chapter would make a wonderful novel, dare I hope? I wanted to get lost in this family and remain.

The stories are full of humor, wit and intelligence whether about love, death, politics or tradition each is engaging and invoked memories of my own childhood. I could be laughing about her cynical take on life or feeling gutted over a disappearing , an old woman simply left with nothing and hoping to fade quietly. Tales from the Russian perspective, wonderful! I understand why Tatyana Tolstaya is a celebrated author.

Publication Date: March 20, 2018

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group


Skating On The Vertical: Stories by Jan English Leary


Funny how the comet looks both still and in motion- held in its orbit but fighting to break away. Brian thinks it’s beautiful, freeflying. I only see it’s falling apart. I am Brian’s tail, clinging for dear life, feeling bits of myself break away and turn into mist. He’s on the move and I can’t hang on for much longer.

Short and intimate, this collection is women at their worst and best. In Eskimo Pie, Margaret is a teacher reluctant to be the awkward students champion. It’s my favorite in this collection, because I felt so wounded by her honesty and refreshed. We hate mirrors, don’t we? Reflecting all those things about ourselves we shed long ago or, the horror, seeing everything we don’t want to be, but are. Jessica, that poor, clueless outcast is set to have a far worse day, poking Margaret’s meanness. When she gets her period, the hardness is dislodged and suddenly the commonality is suffering, something all women share, our bodies betray us all.

Eunuchs is depressing and hopeful, Pak Jeong (Korean student) isn’t meant to succeed and it seems the system in place has it in for him. In trying to teach those students lacking the English language skills necessary to be ‘up to snuff’ for Dreighton Hall, she resents the successful elite and sees longs to save, Pak. Natalie wants to fight for him, as much as she wishes he could just try to blend in his defiance is gathering momentum and when he blows, Natalie has admiration for his courage.

Skin Art is about more than someone who used to ‘cut’, the way Madeline is treated by her husband, that dismissive annoyance and impatience he expresses towards her, the sense she has to explain herself speaks volumes. Why is it she is pushing herself so much, as if trying to keep up with his needs, when so often women are meant to push full steam ahead when they really just need a lie down, a moment to recharge? I adore the moment she gets Mendhi, has the Alok added to the design and that her perceptive husband, quick to point out her faults, is left with nothing but confusion.

In Skating The Vertical, Nate struggles with his father’s descent into depression after losing his job and feels shame in the cruelty he and his friends do to a homeless man. There is, for boys, a different sort of struggle, an expectation of ‘toughness’ and violence, boys can’t be weak, while girls fight within their bodies, boys have to act ‘out’.

Rocky Road touched me, it reminded me of something my own mother has said several times when other female family members have had cancer. A chummy sort of ‘well it takes cancer to lose weight’, that branded my brain. Think about that, I may be sick but at least I am not fat. That’s haunted me, in this story mother Leigh has just finished a round of chemo and her friend  Vena, is a self-appointed healer, setting up the best possible diet for her. Daughter  Candace feels shut out, their bond has been junk food, and their curvaceous “Morgan hips”. This clean life is a cold place. It’s funny how stories can mean different things to each reader.

There are sixteen stories within, dealing with unwanted pregnancy,  infertility ,desperate love, self-harm, healing, body image, and of course forbidden relationships. All the terrible things we women do to ourselves, the hidden pain, the lonely choices… it takes crocodile skin!

Available Now




All The Names They Used For God: Stories by Anjali Sachdeva


We didn’t know yet that for us there was no such thing as just sadness, that our grief had a life of its own, an invisible mouth like a black hole that drew us inexorably closer.

This debut collection is tender, dark, at times bizarre, and compelling. My absolute favorite is Pleiades, and the story has remained with me for days. I wish the author would use her magic and turn the story about the daughters of geneticists, the sisters so terribly alike and ill fated and turn it into a full novel. But that’s just me being greedy, I can only hope she has a full novel knocking about in her brain, ready to give birth to that I can devour one day. It somehow tickled and horrified me, broke my heart and then kicked my spirit some more. All the stories in the collection are clever and strange. I keep imagining my fingers as forks. I also stepped into the shoes of a wealthy girl, hungry to get the hell out and fall in bad love. In Logging Lake, it’s the terror of disappearances and never knowing. It’s eerie, the unknown is a black hole, it’s a madness, it’s the question that can never be solved.  In Glass Lung a worker in Carnegie’s steel mill is injured in a freak accident that alters he and his daughter Effie’s future.

There is the hunt for something amazing, and the terror of everything you’ve done, all the sacrifice amounting to nothing. It’s angels as muses, a girl as white as snow burying her dead parents, who finds a husband despite her cursed looks and then descends into a secret dark place beneath the surface of her land. The stories are unusual, and at times there is something ominous threatening just in the periphery of the characters vision. It’s terrible, and lovely. This is an author I’ll be watching, hoping for a full novel! Add it to your reading list for 2018!

Publication Date: February 20, 2018

Random House

Spiegel & Grau




A Goddamn Infinite Emergency: Love Stories by John Mandel


Someone once said if you listen to any man’s story for long enough you’ll burst into tears. We know how a man might come to behave badly; and we try to forgive him, and in so doing forgive ourselves for the lingering impulse to make a little mayhem, to join in the pissing contest, the primitive, unholy urge to dominate tucked just beneath our sympathies.

Where it seems a shame to be a man lately, Mandel writes of characters who are a storm of emotions and contradictions. Weak, strong, with friendships that others to others flirt on the edge of homosexuality, because naturally men can’t be close to other men the way women are without their sexuality coming into question. Men desiring every woman, in that animal way so many men try to contain and deny because ‘it just isn’t the thing’. Women tired of men, deciding they’ve had their fill and taking their leave while the abandoned refuses to appear diminished. Men confessing to their insecurities in the presence of other, bigger men. “And that is very bad news to me, because when there is a man close by who has any kind of questionable reputation, I think about him too much and I feel the need to keep a lookout for him, a kind of vigil, which is exhausting. For me there seems to be a man like this wherever I go, in every setting. I study them as if I were looking through a telescope at a meteorite and plotting its course right to the center of my forehead.” Men navigate the world entirely differently from women, we forget each have their own threat of violence.

Teeth grinding submission, well read minds, arse up humor in servitude, what the heck am I reading? I thought a lot about Charles Bukowski after reading Mandel. There is something raw and gritty, stories as confessional brimming with the things men are never to give voice to. The men are still here though, just sort of caged monkeys-diluted, safer, easier to digest when they guard their thoughts. I felt like they were released in A Goddamn Infinite Emergency: Love Stories.  Of all the magazines women read, wondering ‘what makes a woman attractive’ (because feminism aside, those magazines still sell and women still care) just read. “She isn’t beautiful or pretty- but lovely, specifically. I studied her face for weeks. I thought I identified a trace of damage, something that illuminated her alarmingly pale face.” What draws a man in seems to be as much as mystery to them as it is to us. In resisting love, it becomes obsession, against self-interest of avoiding such tangles. As he says, “What passes between two people in the same room but trouble, after all?” Indeed.

Bum’s Rush was my favorite, it pulses with an angry heartbeat. Their love is a bloodletting! Love provoked, has everyone been there? Stupefied by lovers truths, love and violence commingle to form what is a love that terrifies others with it’s physicality and in our narrators thoughts there is a surprising tenderness. Love with nowhere to go but back to each other again and again, helpless against the tide of passion and love they hold for partner.

A man writes letters for other men, in A Goddamn Infinite Emergency and confesses that raging women are right, he knows nothing about their gender and certainly can’t write for them. Too, women don’t seem to be able to understand a man’s mind because they are clouded with a ‘rightful rage’ all owing to the many terrible things men have done. He has his own rules with his wife, in his home which would be a more loving, happier, peaceful place if not for the patterns of his moods. A man who roots around in words, not wanting to ‘stain’ with poor ones, to the point of fighting with his unwanted assistant. The wrong words, the right words, it’s all we have.

I am butchering this review, I know. This is such a clever collection, that trying to describe what I felt reading the stories seems like I have wasps in my head. I laughed, I cringed and I felt closer to what goes on in the minds of men, it’s a hurricane, it’s brutal and embarrassing and lovely.

Available Now

Solipsis Publishing


Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami, Lucy North (Translator)


“Maybe the only reason I kept searching for her was because I began searching for her.”

Night chews on all of us at some point in time, and of course with these  phantasmagorical metamorphoses the reader can take it as it is or read more meaning into every moment. There is a reason Schrödinger’s Cat (from the first story) hung out in the the dark closet of my mind for a while. “How could anyone endure such a state, of having someone there and not there- not there and there- at the same time?”  It’s more than physics, isn’t it? People really can be there and not there, and endure it we do. As for the quote, why does she keep searching for the girl? Why do we do anything? Why don’t we stop?

I fancy writing that loses some people, it’s an art-form. Sometimes it seems writers try too hard to pen something incredibly outlandish, but Kawakami isn’t just throwing strange happenings your way without reason. Or maybe I just decipher the hallucinatory elements in such stories to satisfy my own fancies. Whether our narrator is gathering pieces of a girl,  losing her own flesh, witnessing terrifying transformations helpless to stop them, or running in fear- the first story is eerily entertaining.

The other stories in the collection are just as bizarre. In Missing, family members are ‘spirited away’, simply disappear. When Brother no 1 vanishes, Brother 2 steps in to marry Hiroko. There is Goshiki, family heirloom, ceramic jar inhabited by a speaking spirit that vanishes first. Brother no 1 isn’t really gone, not far from his beloved Hiroko, which may be why she is shrinking. People vanish and are forgotten in this peculiar family of “living pillars”. Hiroko tries to fit in, but in her own sense she is vanishing just as our narrator is expanding. Why is she expanding exactly, what does her brother have to do with that, hmmmm?

In the third, A Snake Stepped On, when a woman steps on a snake, it tells her, “You know, once you’ve stepped on me, it’s all over.” In a puff of smoke it becomes a human being, a woman in her fifties and she is heading to the young woman, Miss Sanada’s, apartment! The snake claims to be her mother, of course she isn’t, but just what is she exactly? The snake wants to lure her to the snake world, but what does the snake really represent? What is the ‘innocent little act’ the snake claims she is putting on? Some have married snakes, she learns. She wants to deny the snake world, but it’s not so easy. A struggle ensues.

A strange book indeed, wildly entertaining if you’re into stories that confuse you as much as your own fractured dreams, the strangest dreams, naturally.

Publication Date: December 5, 2017

Pushkin Press


A Selfie as Big as the Ritz: Stories by Lara Williams


You think about how strange it is to still have absolutes like this, like marriage, in this day and age. Couldn’t there be another option, leasing it out for five, maybe ten years then reviewing it when the time comes.We are a generation of renters not buyers.

A collection of stories about women at different points in their lives. I felt as if I were a part of different incarnations and yet we all find ways to suffer little humiliations, don’t we? The death of rosy moments, the teeth stained with lipstick, children wanting nothing more than to shed their embarrassing mother, finishing school and returning home because you’ve yet to attain great prospects, and men trying to understand women- cruel, indifferent, beautiful, flawed.  Women in bodies betraying them, give up or keep the things that happen and the trauma of those decisions. “There are no words. There are no words for this basic animal trauma.” 

Cancer, love, the complicity in the crime of marriage, the babies, the mistakes, terrible dates, feeling age creeping up… “Thirties breathing down her neck like an inappropriate uncle.” That line, my how she nailed the uneasy slimy feel of age!  Lara Williams has a way of capturing the conflicting emotions people feel in any given situation. Young, old and everyone in between, the flicker of moments are captured beautifully in this collection of stories. Big women, small women, sick and healthy- all finding themselves or retreating. Something for everyone! It’s wise, brutal, shameful, embarassing, sexy, sad, and life continues on…

Publication Date: October 31, 2017

Flatiron Books




Found Life Poems, Stories, Comics, a Play, and an Interview by Linor Goralik


…the wife comes home and the cat smells like someone else’s perfume.

The thing about this collection is the style is different from the norm. There are snippets of thoughts and conversations, and they’re heavy, so much that a sentence standing alone packs a punch and condenses an entire story but it can also be the problem for some readers. You feel a bit all over the place, like your stuck in a big city with a thousand voices coming at you. It can be dizzying and yet Linor Goralik has a keen eye for life and people’s many emotions. Her micro-prose is solid but I truly wonder how much more I would prefer a full length novel by this author. This line ticked me, “and Mashenka woke up (“Oh look, Mashenka’s hatched!).”   

Some of the sentences simply set a scene in your head. “An eight year old deaf girl chatting to herself , using all ten fingers, on the steps of an escalator.” It’s talking pictures and scenes, and it’s moving fast. The reader is just an eye in the crowd, left to wonder about the strangers and stolen moments. “A cheap thirty-year old barrette in the elegant grey chignon of an expensively dressed lady.” Observations, and the thought ‘there is a story there.’  Just as we pass strangers wherever we go, tourists or not, all those strangers whose stories we will never know, it leads to a hunger, a curiosity of lives going on outside ourselves.

I liked it, but I’m the type of reader that wants more involvement. There is a distance I never bridged because everything flashes by. Dissecting the writing though, it certainly takes talent to move through so many souls, characters. There are great lines, and the writing really is beautiful but I think I have a hard time with this style personally. The author is said to be one of the first Russian writers that built her name through the internet, I find that interesting. It is a moody, light, heavy, cynical, hopeful, sad and humorous collection. It’s scattered humanity, in a sense.

There may be people out there that like the fast whip of many mini stories,  it’s just too much for me. I know I repeat myself, but I wonder if she could tell a strong story and stick with just a few characters.  I sometimes felt like there is  a loss of focus. I’m curious what other readers will come away with. I want more solid stories in my reading, particularly about Russia.

Publication Date: November 28, 2017

Columbia University Press