Home Remedies: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang

 

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It’s what Taoyu wanted, to disappear from Hai’s life completely, to leave a wound that would ache. That was the only way they could be equals.

Home Remedies is a gorgeous collection of stories about Chinese immigration, family structure, love, sex and the privilege of choices. The future for each character is never certain, and splits open guiding them to places they never imagined they would be. Home, some make their way in American life with ease, abandoning their old skins and sometimes their family too. Others cling to the old ways of a country they will never return to. One thing is certain, each person will make their own story, even if it means becoming someone other than what’s expected.

In White Tiger of the West, the world is weary of Grandmasters, there no longer seems to be a place for spirituality but for one obedient little girl Grandmaster Tu could be the very thing that awakens a tiger, and gives her the flight of freedom. Home Remedies of the old involved tonics, tinctures, herbs… but in one story remedies are cleverly applied to survive say, a “bilingual heart” and “self-doubt”. Olympic divers are one in Vaulting the Sea, but what love is equal? Just how much can you meld yourself to another? I thought this was a beautifully painful tale of love and rejection, if any story is about identity it was this one. My favorite and most heart-breaking is Algorithmic Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships. Logic as the meaning, the answer to all of lives obstacles simple application of algorithms “a theory that proves itself day after day” until a former professor, clueless father needs to solve the new problem of his daughter Wendy, who “I somehow managed to drive away from me.” My heart! By far the best story within!

In this collection time stands still or rushes past. Characters are emerging into a bright future or retiring from their dreams, wearing clothes of the dead, or slicing through water in perfect sync. Sometimes they are just suffering through an “unremarkable period” of their life. It is stories about the youth, but the old have their say too, it’s like they live in different worlds sometimes. Moving, strange, exciting, biting… fantastic.

Publication Date: May 14, 2019

Crown Publishing

Hogarth

 

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Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

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She said people will find the loveliest part of you and try to make it ugly. “And they will do anything,” she always said, “to own that piece of you.”

In this fantastic collection of stories by Kali Fajardo- Anstine about the experiences of Latina women indigenous to the vast land of the American West, characters range in age and life situations. Beauty can’t save any of them from the violence of bad men, nor can it guarantee a better life , “they look at us like we’re nothing.”  In Sugar Babies, a restless mother leaves while her daughter cares for her own school ‘baby’. Sabrina & Corina is one of the saddest with a bad ending for a much admired Cordava cousin. The loss finds Corina using her make-up skills to tend to Sabrina’s body as she reminisces of her deep love  for “the family beauty”. Too, she shares the distance between them before everything went wrong, before her cousin’s ‘carelessness’ began to disgust her. This family of women  have lived with nothing but tragedies, how can anyone hope for a happy fate with so much evidence to the contrary?

In Sisters, Dotty has her sight stolen from her and thinks about a missing girl, about survival and thus begins the story of what happens when women say no and bruise a man’s ego, inciting his rage. This is the sort of story that makes me think of Margaret Atwood’s biting quote,  ‘Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women  are afraid that men will kill them.’ What happens to the women in each story can knock the wind out of you, and though fiction, it’s not one bit fantastical and that is frightening.

In Remedies, lice are the monster. I adore characters that understand natural medicine and for some, home remedies was the only cure. Too, a young girl struggles with a half-brother in her life, the father absent for both of them but why should she have to share her own mother? The writing is gorgeous throughout, I kept breaking my heart against each one. Just when I thought it couldn’t get sadder, I was gutted again. ‘Cora and I had been around sick and dying people our entire lives. People, we learned, weren’t permanent and neither were their illnesses.’ Characters are all struggling to keep things together through illnesses, death, grief, and the aftermath of prison. Some deal with their own shameful pasts, others with the inevitable trajectory of what’s to come. The Bob Dylan quote before the stories begin is spot on, these are certainly sad-eyed ladies. Yes, read it!!!

Publication Date: April 2, 2019

Random House

One World

Roar: Thirty Stories One Roar by Cecelia Ahern

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Even when practically invisible, she was still fighting to be seen.

There is a  story a woman of any age can relate to in this collection, whether you feel like your age or situation is making you fade to nothing, or you’re struggling with time slipping through your fingers, your most precious moments are running away from you and all you want is to eat them up and live in them. A woman returns her husband, she just has no use for him anymore, ‘Paddy wasn’t defective, he wasn’t faulty’, she had just ‘grown out of love‘ but then what happens if he is put back up for sale?

What happens when a woman walks in her husband’s shoes? She learns that men carry themselves differently, not always walking through the world as freely as she imagined. They too have expectations due to their sex, as much as women, but the best part of the story is when she runs into another man, Bob, who has his own surprise. “Our world is the same but it’s not.” Another story is about a woman who, due to a birth defect, wears her heart on her sleeve. It gives her away, her emotional state, beating loudly when her face tries to mask her feelings.

The Woman Who Wore Pink is quite interesting, as Gender Police make sure you don’t overstep your identity as male or female. It’s a damning and frustrating exploration on gender roles, how dare a woman hold open a door, that’s a ‘man’s duty.’ This story in particular reminded me of something I could easily see in the show Black Mirror. There was an eerie feeling that washed over me, all of the ‘supposed to be’ of it. There is no doubt there are unspoken rules regarding gender roles in modern-day life, and maybe there aren’t gender police, and sure you don’t get penalized or fined for doing something considered masculine/feminine (for the most part), say the type of food you eat or the color you wear but there are ‘rules’ aren’t there? I think about how a boy wearing a pink shirt when I was a kid in school would have certainly been an invitation for bullying. It’s a color… a color! The author is saying a lot in this story, and it’s my favorite.

I can’t think of a woman who can’t identify with The Woman Who Spoke Woman. Women need a translator in order for the men ‘in power’ to understand them. The men in charge demand  women who are ‘man-speaking’ and don’t ‘harp on about women’s issues.’ Sound familiar ladies? The Woman Who Guarded Gonads is a loud message, how different the world would be if men had to fight women’s ‘opinions’ about choices regarding their bodies, as we are forced to do. It comes off as preposterous, doesn’t it, and yet it’s a reality for women. I wonder what a man’s take on this short story would be, I welcome their thoughts.

The collection is a fast read but has bite, and of course the stories are meant to engage the reader to question the culture we live in relating to gender issues. Women are so hard on themselves, but so is the world. There is surrealism, as in The Woman Who Unraveled, meant to invoke deeper meaning. Visibly unraveling would likely be easier, because then maybe others would notice and one could take the time they needed to ‘feel whole again.’ Of course, our struggles are invisible in the real world, and we keep a face on, truck along, usually at the detriment of ourselves, and others. It’s not lost on me that I am dealing with a health issue and in doing my research about other women who go through what I will be soon, confess they didn’t slow down enough, nor have support enough to recover from their surgery because of the load they carry as a mother/wife. Unraveling indeed, women don’t listen to their bodies enough, and what a sad world it is when they don’t have the support they need.

Yes, read it. It’s strange but the author is playing with very serious feminist issues, to make it easier to confront she engages the reader with magical realism.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

Grand Central Publishing

 

Instructions for a Funeral: Stories by David Means

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The problem is, my son sees the man I am now and not the men I was before I became the man I am not.

I have conflicted feelings about this collection of stories. The best of it for me is in Fatherhood, The Problematic Father, “…the fact that my father was highly problematic at times came in part from that fact that he was dealing with me.” Have any truer words ever been spoken? We also don’t see all the versions of our fathers, who they were before they became simply, Dad. I think sometimes in reading we expect men to express the way they feel about their children and fatherhood in the same way mothers do and fault them for their genuine thoughts. How do you explain how it feels being a man, particularly a father, one who can “bear up under certain responsibilities”, about the limitations.

In Farewell, My Brother there is a line about a man named Frankie, ‘he’s one of those who came lumbering out of the vapor, his sway and his sea-dog talk marking him as an anomaly.’ What a gorgeous way to paint the picture for readers, David Means can certainly give life to his characters. His is a keen eye into decline, ruin. I feel a deep sense of detachment moving through so many of the characters, that hopeless feeling of pointlessness. There is suffering, sure, anyone alive suffers but even meeting the pulsing source, the cause which so much of the time is the life we’re living, doesn’t change much for us. Life can feel like a mystery illness sometimes.

Carver and Cobain… “his mind is impenetrable, untraceable step by step through those last moments”, which makes me think, in many ways, our minds are always like that, because we never can really express our pain, nor our joy whether we’re an award-winning author or ill-fated grunge star, can we? For Cobain it’s the end… the end… the end, isn’t it? Chronic pain, addiction only those living inside of it can understand the compulsion to obliterate it all. Is there a moment of regret at the very end, shocked awake when it’s too late?

It’s not that the writing is too intelligent for most readers, and there are depths to explore, but not all stories flowed, and I hate saying that because there is serious storytelling in here. In Rockland, the senseless ache, the realization that no amount of ‘humiliation’ will necessarily be a cure. You want to fuel that hope for your loved one, but it’s dying, a brother is trapped in a loop of his own addiction, and how do you find joy in the possibility of ‘flight’ as a means to an end to all that suffering. Some of us will never find our path, are fated to be lost in ourselves be it addiction or mental illness, even worse a combination of the two.  For all the upbeat talk, the centers, the group homes, the medications and therapies, promises of salvation, for the moments light seems to return to our loved ones, outside in the real world the limitations of reality are waiting for our beloved to break themselves against all over again. The writing is astute but some readers may find the delivery difficult to follow.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

The Unhappiness of Being a Single Man: Essential Stories by Franz Kafka, Alexander Starritt (Translator )

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The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.

I don’t know that I would agree these are the best, most essential stories by Kafka but I wasn’t disappointed. This line in Homecoming jumped out at me, it’s such a short ‘nothing’ but poignant with something, “The longer you hesitate outside the door, the more of a stranger you become.” A young man returns home, unwelcome, “I’ve come back”, to his father’s farm, a house with bricks that lie cold against each other as if ‘occupied with it’s own affairs’. It gave me the feeling of being a living ghost, unwanted, a stranger now all the same, and aren’t we all ghosts in a sense when we first return to our old haunts, homes? To family who wants to see nothing but the back of us?

A Report for an Academy is about assimilating as a means of survival and escape from captivity. There are several different suggestions of what the story is about and what Kafka’s inspiration was, it’s worth looking up. Kafka is always saying far more than what is at surface a story about an ape mimicking the human world, conforming to rise above the caged existence, captivity. In a sense he is thumbing his nose at humanity, isn’t he?

The Silence of the Sirens is Kafka’s version of Ulysses. Here Odysseus finds the Sirens silence is as dangerous as their singing. A weapon far more deadly, so much for wax stuffed ears. The saddest story for me in the collection is The Verdict, it begins with businessman Georg composing a letter to his friend who left for Russia and is now stagnating, should he tell his friend of his engagement? His mother is dead, he’s moved in with his father, putting all his hard work in the family business, one wonders ‘did mother keep the peace once?’ Is this meant to be a silly piece, or a disturbing tale between a young son unable to escape his father’s shadow and a weak old man unable to accept his time has passed, jealous of his son’s future, youth? It’s so bizarre, why does George’s father question if his Russian friend isn’t an invention of his own mind, a lie? Why is he so disappointed by his son? Why does Georg obey his father’s verdict as if he is helpless against the tyranny of the old man, as if a child cowering under thunderous anger? Georg’s father emasculates him as only a cruel parent can. Autobiographical. It is well-known Kafka’s father was abusive, that Kafka wrote a letter to his father, that was actually a published book that changes the way you read The Verdict. You want to understand Kafka a bit more, read Letter To His Father by Franz published in 1952. Now I’ve gone and made myself sad! Kafka’s writing always fascinates me because of the many interpretations, so much left to the imagination, all the things left unsaid that the reader is meant to figure out. Is it real or horror or fantasy? It is never what it seems and exactly what it seems.

Paperback available now

Kindle Edition publication: March 5, 2019

Pushkin Press

Rag: Stories by Maryse Meijer

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Certainly there is a history of the incident, going back before my time: injuries, a childhood illness, ostracism, mental disorder, loneliness, screams. A history of chance.

These stories are raw and I devoured them. They are about bleeding out, deprivation, forbidden attraction, hiding from the world, the meaning of freedom, and all the things we think and don’t say or feel and keep in the shadows. Humans are beasts, we’re fragile creatures and mean ones too. We destroy others, we destroy ourselves. We’re full of longing and disgust for our longings too. I think the most moving excerpt for me is from the story Jury, but I am only going to give a line or two from it, “They were so helpless. They cut themselves, starved themselves, got themselves killed.” Women, girls, because our reality is that dangerous, that threatening in the world we all share. He is just a father, sitting on a jury thinking he can understand a fellow juror because he notices something about her, as if labeling a thing means it is easily repaired. The line about his grown daughter too, loaded with meaning, for me anyway. “This was a girl with everything. And yet she never smiled.”  Jury resonated with me, its brutal and strangely quiet at the same time. It is all the things that don’t need to be said to understand even the relationship between father and daughter. He just doesn’t really get it, he is frustrated by the helplessness women deal with and yet, angry at the ways we fail to acknowledge the danger.

All of the stories have meaning, purpose. In Rainbow Baby a mother’s grief is a specter, a bother like a living nightmare, decay in the brain. The hatred and betrayal of an old friend in Viral is so poisonous and sad, an ugly violence that isn’t far-fetched. It is born from envy, it is ‘animal hate’ of someone who ‘hasn’t known pain’. How broken our narrator of the story, and we the readers watching the transgression and knowing the horrible end, nothing you can do to stop it. Too, the manipulation at times young girls are so good at, with boys who can’t think more than “five minutes ahead”. What I think is fantastic about these characters is that they are incredibly developed for such short stories. With that line, a boy who “can’t think five minutes ahead”, it makes him such a solid mess, easily led. I can see him eager as a puppy.  I feel his naive stupidity as much as I felt the father’s anger and fears in Jury. If someone is suffering in a story, they can explain it to themselves, excusing it, erasing anything others would find seedy or even criminal, when in The Brother, the youngest takes what isn’t his, violates a girl. All because he longs to connect, to have what his brother has. Just like all the people on the outside, scratching to be let in!

As a reader I measure my responses as a human being, how is it I can be horrified and yet also feel sorry for the monster lurking in others. It’s so much easier to divide ourselves in categories, well I am nothing like that, there is nothing so primitive within my soul. Of course there is… the older you get the more you are tested by time, tragedy, experiences, the more things lash against you. It’s hard being your better self, your most human self. These are stories about feelings you should force to withdraw before you make a mistake you can’t take back. They are tales of sometimes allowing your dark side to run wild, or your emotions take over. It is being hungry with need, and my God desire and need can get ugly. Some offer themselves up as sacrifice to those who would soil them, I felt that in The Lover. Other’s close themselves away from the rest of us in The Shut-In, afraid of the world when they may be more monster than the threats they cower from. The ending of that story gutted me, it is such a small act but how I howled inside much like the unmasked.

The stories all stayed with me, and moved me in wonderfully strange and terrible ways. Yes, read it! From these stories alone I decided to start following the author.

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

 

 

 

Aerialists Stories by Mark Mayer

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I loved my mom, but sometimes I would pester her to tears. It was easy to make her sad, but she only wailed like that after she thought I was asleep. 

In this haunting collection of circus themed misfits the reader is surrounded by stories that are at once amusingly lighthearted and yet can turn painfully absorbing with deeply flawed characters coping with life’s pitfalls. My favorite is Strongwoman, where an eleven-year-old deals with coming of age while his parents split apart, his mother breaking under the weight of her sadness until along comes Klara, a ‘tremendous woman’ all muscle and brawn, to breathe life back into their home and his mother’s heart. One of the most beautiful moments in the story for me is his explanation about overhearing he was an accident. Just a small paragraph and yet it beat on the walls of my heart. Junior came to life for me, and writing believable children in short stories especially isn’t easy but Mayer has created a kid I could pick out of my own childhood.

In Aerialists two brothers discuss their time enlisted, one brother back home, his deployment finished until he hits the water for a different job but swearing he suffers from PTSD, another about to follow in his footsteps and join up while saying goodbye to his girlfriend, working for a pilot who is slowly going blind. In The Evasive Magnolio a lonesome peach farmer says goodbye to the elephant Maggy, wondering what sort of funeral could commemorate the beloved beast, left behind on unworthy land? Mayer’s writing is beautifully descriptive whether it’s about the eyes of a girl in one story ” Trinia’s eyes are green with little sunflowers” or an elephant’s ear in another, “ear like a sheet of moon.” As he dissects the gentle beast for burial he is a lonely man in a ghost town. Left with only dust from a storm, Maggy remains his only family, and he is the only person left to give her a funeral. Maple has a connection with Sasha, her special needs friend whom she bonds with through imagined conversations in her mind in the story Twin. When Maples dad gets the blues, she finds comfort with Sasha. Both grow up, but not in the same direction.

A maniacal clown  (realtor) knows what the truly wealthy want, as he channels his own murderous intent in The Clown, plotting their deaths as he shows them around. A boy tries to understand his distracted mother and later her absence in April Thief, while writing a story and sharing a dog with his pal. He hopes he can he wrap his mind around why he likes his dad more, not quite understanding the adult atmosphere. The stories are strange, but there is much to discern if you’re paying attention. An original collection by a writer who likely has so much more up his sleeve in the future.

Publication Date: February 19, 2019

Bloomsbury Publishing