The Dominant Animal: Stories by Kathryn Scanlan

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His tolerance for looking at the unattainable was so much lower than mine, which felt boundless, untested. It was the only thing I wanted to see.

Scanlan’s collection casts an errie fog over the ordinary. There are people remembering cold parents who have died and a dog who abandoned love and home for another family. Men with groping, rough hands and a girl whose ‘curiosity often led her into troublesome situations’, and doesn’t seem too worry much over the danger, though she should. A couple who lives in cramped quarters slobbering over the abundance of wealth the affluent take for granted, people trying to sink themselves into death and a mother who watches a family friend with a hawks eye around her daughters.

Threats always lurk, either from within or without, beasts not entirely animal. Human beings are at their worst or alerted to predators in these tales. Some are liars, like the Master Framer and some men will never be rescued, because how can you save someone from what goes on in their own head, as in The Rescued Man.

The Poker was an interesting title, because what do females do but dodge poking and prodding from birth? The mother isn’t allowed to feel her pain, she is ‘greedy’ with her baby girl when protecting her from the arms of a ‘family friend holding her child wrong’, and nothing in the world, not even pills can keep her little girls safe from the violence beyond the door and the world’s flippant response to a woman’s reaction to insults and injury. In Mother’s Teeth a woman cares for her needy, sick mother, though really after her childhood owes her nothing.

As in The Candidate, a person is an animal among the domesticated of our species. Sometimes even a family dog can have more pedigree, ‘expensive heritage’ than us, and we are the sticky, messy animal never to be as sleek and refined as others.

The stories are both ordinary and strange, and the people in the tales are just trying to ‘live’. Oh, it hurt, something I did nearly cost you your life, well just like the woman in The Poker was told, ‘You survived didn’t you?’ As if that’s enough. My favorites were The Poker and The Rescued Man, in fact I the latter would make an interesting novel. I didn’t love all of them, but Kathryn Scanlan excels is in digging through the hum of the average, ordinary days and it’s people; sometimes finding things to abhor about them or admire.

Publication Date: April 7, 2020

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MCD x FSG Originals

 

And I Do Not Forgive You: Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

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What kind of tragedy is this? It’s not grand and operatic at all; it’s just awful, just like all the other awful hurts that happen to people like us.

Would I call this latest collection of stories a release of female rage? No, but they certainly bite and then wink and nod, nudge nudge- get a load of this! How do we still manage to find humor in the horror of it? Well, it’s what keeps us sane. History remembers men and all their greatness, “allowing” for women to live only in their shadow as a helpmate. Nothing proves this more than A Short and Slightly Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife. It tells the story of how ‘wifey’ secured her dead husband’s place in history, despite the threats, the terror of revolutionaries. In Marie’s day there wasn’t band of sisterhood behind you to charge forward in support of your brave fights. None of that for our Marie-Anne Pierrette. Speaking up, shaking cages could cost you your head, but she would not be cowed!  This little woman, little scholar, little child bride, little “wifey” meant to be nothing more than erased by history is given some attention as Sparks digs up the bones of her past.

Ghosts are anything but romantic in Everyone’s a Winner in Meadow Park. For a young girl, who senses this ethereal being “like a shadow over the sun”, the ghost is more witness to her miserable existence than any sort of help. This is the place her own mother’s dreams came to die and where it’s dangerous to be a girl. A place where life is nothing but tragic and it seems impossible to scrape a grain of a dream in the dirt.

Love as sacrifice in We Destroy the Moon, because the lost, the hopeless need a demigod, a prophet. If it is the end, who will heal and lead us? What is a woman but a piece of mother earth for her cult leader lover to offer up? Will she remain a loyal believer or abandon the last hope of her heart?

Loud, ridiculous women in need of an audience disappear. Some use their invisibility as a survival skill, happy to be overlooked in other tales. A girl tells her family story out of sequence in Eyes of Saint Lucy, the main star her strange mother, a  chain-smoking, tea and whiskey sipping ‘suburban ascetic’.  This wild girl, raised on her mother’s religion of martyred saints and mystics, so much a part of an artist’s dream can’t help but be more her mother than her father’s child. What happens when the feral boy enters the story? This tale was a bit down the rabbit’s hole for me, and I loved it. Untamed or orderly can a woman ever put her faith in men, be they brothers or lovers? This would make a heck of a novel, in my wishful thinking. Mother as wispy as a cloud and yet as deadly as poison.

In We Were a Storybook Back Then a child is trapped in a spell that the other children try desperately to break. Is imagination ever enough to break the curse of being different? In Rabbit by Rabbit memories vanish and reappear, a life like a magic trick in a magicians hat. This one was a little gut punch, because if we live long enough, everything we’ve endured goes into the trick.

There are relationships that sputter to life only to die out, beaten by hard luck or brutal hands. Lion tamers that get eaten, husbands who grow wings, robots curious about humans eroding memories, and a childless couple with moments of extraordinary happiness. There are revenges within and an anchor of pain. I am a fan of Amber Sparks, I loved The Unfinished World and Other Stories and was over the moon to see she has another books of short stories coming out, of course I snagged this ARC. This collection is a bit different, but I still enjoyed it. The women have a voice, and it’s not always pretty which is the point! It’s not about being well behaved little girls, how can one be in dark times? I really hope Sparks writes a full novel, her characters can be messy and dangerous but I still want to spend time with them. Yes, read it.

 

Publication Date: February 11, 2020

W.W. Norton & Company

Liveright

 

How to Pronounce Knife: Stories by Souvankham Thammavongsa

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They’d had to begin all over again, as if the life they had before didn’t count. 

In these stories Souvankham Thammavongsa allows the reader into the painful and sometimes humorous lives of immigrants. In some situations it is better to tell no one where you’re from, what language you speak so you are not judged. It is in rebirth that the future lies, and for children of immigrants there are often humiliations they don’t quite comprehend yet innately understand they must try to protect their parents from. My attention was grabbed from the first story where a little girl comes home with a note pinned to her chest (how well I remember the importance of such notes when I was a kid), notes that for this child have no meaning for the mother and lead to misunderstandings. Bigger humiliation visits this child when she brings home a book to read for practice and the parents attempt to help her understand a word. There is tender pride sometimes in misunderstandings. I couldn’t help but feel a connection with my father’s own youth when reading about the little girl in the first story. The memories he has of how it felt to be on the outside, trying to understand the American way of life, it is so much more than language but that is by far the hardest obstacle. She had my heart!

In Paris, Red is stuck in the chicken plant thinking about the shapes of women’s noses, and ‘the things that could make you happy’, but such happiness is available only to those who make enough money to attain it. Certainly a chicken plucker never could! In her town, there isn’t much a woman can do beyond chickens or shaking their own tail feathers, so to speak. This story is an exploration on what is beauty, dependent on where you are, naturally.

Age has its hungers in Slingshot, as a much older woman proves wrinkles aren’t in one’s heart, only the face. In another tale a mother has a runaway fantasy about a celebrity that causes her daughter and husband to lose their glimmer, she suffers from the disease of hopeless devotion in one form or another. A husband in The School Bus Driver finds his wife’s boss a little too helpful and present in their marriage. Disbelieving “people form this kind of friendship in this country,” he isn’t just a jealous man nor a fool! In Mani Pedi, former boxer Raymond used to knock people out in the ring but now works at a nail salon, realizing he ‘wasn’t the only person who’d ever lost the place he saw for himself in the world’. It isn’t only Raymond who is warned to keep his dreams small. In many stories there is an ache for more. There are young children driving through a neighborhood with their parents wishing to live in the bigger homes that come into view, unfamiliar with the strange customs, like trick- or-treating yet game to try to join in the door to door fun. In a heavy tale a mother impresses upon her daughter that she feels lucky earning money picking worms having been born in a peasant family who had no money for educating their children. It is through these slimy creatures and her ability to fill cups with many squirmers that she can hope for a better future for her daughter. Characters try to make their own place in the world, like Mr. Vong with his print shop, priding himself on the reputation of his deft skills with wedding invitations made in the Lao language. A keen eye, too, he has in the success or failure of relationships, but how will that play out in his own family?

Every story made the characters vulnerable, it is a visit in the lives immigrants make for themselves and often with next to nothing. There is beauty and heartbreak, shame, struggle, humor, love and resentment too. Beautifully written. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: April 21, 2020

Little, Brown and Company

Good Citizens Need Not Fear: Stories by Maria Reva

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Many people claim that they like certainty, but I do not believe this is true- it is uncertainty that gives freedom of the mind.

Maria Reva’s collection of linked stories revolves around a “crumbling” apartment building on Ivansk Street in Ukraine before and after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the very first story Novostroïka, Daniil has the task of informing the people at the town council hall that the very building he occupies is without heat only to be told it doesn’t exist, according to the documentation. Tell that to the fourteen occupants in his suite alone, tolerating each other, stuffed in and happy just to have a place to “lie in peace”. Ah yes, a mistake, surely some human mistake- they will fix the problem soon… Poor Daniil, now work is a hassle, then it’s stuffing more food into fewer cans. Stuff…stuff.. stuff. Can living people be accused of not existing? Do they have documents to prove their building is real? Well?

Babies in Little Rabbit are themselves born natural disasters, but Zaya “little rabbit” is something altogether special among the unwanted and unhealthy children. Sanitrkas the closest thing to a mother the little ones have. Children lie sick with fevered dreams as holes are dug in the ground for the unlucky, but what about Zaya? What will become of this particular poor little orphan?

In Letter of Apology a celebrated poet has said more than he is allowed against leaders of the Communist Party and Soviet Society. The task of reeducating him falls to Mikhail Ivanovich. But soon, it is the poet’s wife Milena, who unnerves him, following Mikhail with a far ‘greater vigilance’ than his own. He just might find himself haunted by uncertainty.

My favorite story, a little piece of fascinating, strange Soviet history is about music and just how ingenious people were getting their hands on forbidden rock records. Smnea, a ‘simple pensioner’ finds a peculiar way to survive, safe only behind the secure walls of her apartment in the tale Bone Music (a hell of a fitting title, might I add). What’s a friend, what’s an enemy? This story has a sharp edge, it eviscerates the heart. The history about music records is true and well worth looking up after you finish this clever, excellent book.

Miss USSR  is like all things American, counterculture, and just the thing the people need. All madness ensues when the girl meant to win, Orynko, is gone… to maybe Siberia, if you believe that. What is Konstantyn to do? What does a tiny deception, a little switcheroo really matter? Will things go according to planned?

In Lucky Toss a saint, mysteriously owned by Konstantyn Illych, is watched over by a guard. A saint rumored to have healing powers! Is this guard up to the task? Will it cost him his teeth?

A strange inheritance in Roach Brooch may or may not be something of great value, for the grandparents of the deceased.

The Ermine Coat serves to occupy a young girl’s aunt and mother, tirelessly sewing coats to be sold on the black market. With a turn of fate in their favor, a forgeign buyer wants something special to spoil his cherished little girl with. There is a plan in the works, and we all know what happens with the best laid plans…

In the final story, Homecoming, a special orphan returns to her origins to see what can be made of the ruins of her childhood. Maybe a chance to add yet another travel package for millionaires to ‘live in fear’… it’d be surreal if it didn’t seem like a possibility. The ending is sweet, strange and I absolutely loved it. What a collection! There is dark humor in dire circumstances, and even in the fog of their most crushing defeats, the characters pick themselves up and get on with things.  I can’t wait to read more by Reva, I was blown away.

Publication Date: March 10, 2020

Doubleday Books

 

 

 

 

 

Orders of Protection by Jenn Hollmeyer

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How easy it is to spend a lifetime protecting ourselves from the wrong things.

In Jenn Hollmeyer’s story collection, people discover their need for protection- everything from the threat of poverty, abuse,  to ‘a thousand needle stings’ and maybe even from themselves. Lives sinking to its lows, partners abandoning promises, bright futures fizzling out, happiness pulling away, and sometimes the best parade is the march away from what’s bad for you and your child. Why cling to disaster when you can just let go? Characters intuit what is happening, but the question for them, as for us all is, what will you do about it? Keep your eyes closed tight, or act and face the consequences, the change.

Protection from old family stories, a slight revision (it wasn’t really a lie) that landed as a fog in one daughter’s life. How can the truth be so blindingly bright, alter the story those who remain behind have told themselves? How easy it is to let what we think we know poison our joy, trying our hardest to follow in the footsteps of other’s sorrows, like a code in our DNA. How easy a lie to hide shame can barrel through your loved one’s future.

The kindness of a stranger may be your holy grail, but they too can run out of goodwill. Where do we find the grace to be better than those who went before us? Where do we find an anchor to keep us present when we’re on the edge of not caring? It’s not the hungry coyotes alone we have to fear, sometimes it’s where or if our next breath of air will come. Sometimes it’s whether or not the ones we love will leave again. Some of us want nothing more than to be haunted by those who have vanished. Some of us are always just leaving the scene because alone may be the only way, for a time, that you can make it through another day.

Not all soft places are easy to fall into. Often it’s the broken people who make the most sense, while we are waiting ourselves to be ‘fully cooked’ as a person. It’s the things we don’t see coming, isn’t it? Not the things we shield ourselves from that get us. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: November 15, 2019

University of North Texas

 

 

 

 

 

Rituals to Observe Stories about Holidays from the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction by Edited by Ethan Laughman

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How was her daughter going to feel, this pale little stalk in a dark field? – Alyce Miller

Admittedly, I skip the holiday reads because they always come off as cheerful to the point of sickness. This are not those kind of stories, in this moving collection are gatherings where the character’s sanity is barely clinging, or they are witness to the collapse of others. In Color Struck by Alyce Miller, Thanksgiving for Caldonia revolves around the shock of her child’s birth. How could she question this gift from God, her husband Fred wants to know? Caldonia feels bitter and not even her family celebrating at her table can cheer her instead, all their ruckus, their chaos, is only making matters worse. Her baby just isn’t right and nothing anyone says is helping.

Morta Infinta written by David Crouse – It’s Halloween, which should be the perfect night for horror and dressing up, instead young Kristen is left with her father, who is experiencing a fear of his own, losing his wife as his marriage is declining. If she can just keep her father together, stop him from ‘simmering in his grief’, but it’s a mean feat and she’s just a kid herself, and sometimes our love isn’t enough to lift others, and sometimes she just wants to be free of adult problems. This was beautifully written and tugged on my heart, love can be such a weight for children when the grownups depend on them, forget themselves.

In The Invisibles by Hugh Sheehy disappearing and visibility, being on the outside is what guides Cynthia and her friends. It’s a club of three, until a mysterious van appears outside the skating arena. It all began with Cynthia’s mother, and the summer she ‘collected her sayings and built a personality with them.’ What we don’t know remains with us, shaping who we become, the mysteries, the memories, the horrors too.

In Faulty Predictions by Karin Lin- Greenberg elderly roommates are on a mission on Halloween night to save a young college woman from one of Hazel’s ‘visions’. But it’s ghosts of the past, not visions that are much more disturbing , an ache that feels too late to change. So maybe she is a medium or a psychic or some such nonsense… but she is blind about her own life, that Hazel.

Useful Gifts by Carole L. Glickford finds little Ruthie wanting nothing of the useful gifts her deaf mother prefers to purchase. These practical presents serving more as humiliation, no one wants what they need! Certainly not her peers, who will only laugh at paltry offerings! Ruthie is no exception either, her hungry little heart is weary of looking at the Opal girls’ and their beautiful things, their plethora of toys while she herself knows only longing. Envy, poverty, misunderstanding and love, genuine mother/daughter love is the heart of this Christmas tale.

Every story engages the reader, makes us pause and take note of our rituals, or the strange things that overtake us during holidays, or symbols that torment us- sometimes things as odd and ridiculous as a wooden mallard duck that makes us dangerous in our sleep, as Elliot discovers in Thousand- Dollar Decoy by Becky Mandelbaum. Things that can both serve to disorient and anchor us haunt the character’s tales. Sometimes it’s a wife trying her hardest to keep her husband alive by having a ready supply of objects, food and conversation, others want nothing more than to let him go. The stories are all complicated, just like every human being. They are drowning in desperation and sorrow, or haunted by loss or the threat of it, or ashamed of their disappointment in their children or parent, or struggling with motherhood or love. Often, each character is just trying their hardest to navigate their life, even if they feel like they are missing from it. You will recognize yourself, or others within’.  It’s a wonderful collection by various authors. Yes, read it!

Published September 1, 2019

University of Georgia Press

 

 

 

Happy Like This by Ashley Wurzbacher

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The rest of her life: looming, open-mouthed. She was heading straight for it on autopilot but couldn’t recall having chosen or engineered it.

This is an incredibly engaging debut collection of stories, which I devoured! My only complaint is it ended too soon, I wanted more. The writing is beautiful, it brings light to dark thoughts, it speaks of the intelligent minds of women and their choices. The happy pink cover betrays the depth of the female characters within perfectly, just like the world does. I do love the cover though, it’s simplicity, it reminds me of doodles in a journal. There is a line in the very first story, Like That Sickness and Health, that shocked my insides, there are mothers like this (some can’t help themselves really and others are a whole other nightmare) “…her mother, for some reason, making problems in the few places in her life where there weren’t problems already-“, I know there are women out there who feel that like a boulder in their stomach. Mothers can make things so much harder sometimes. Sickness as a study, what afflicts one afflicts in some ways all. Ashley Wurzbacher absolutely pins the female psyche in place for perfect study from the start. This has become one of my favorite short stories collection, and I can’t wait to see what this author rustles up in the future. There is something rich about pain for women, these college girls in particular, how they use it or ignore it and soldier on- this is one of the best short stories I ever read. Pain as expression, a language for what we can’t or won’t say. As  Mia works on her dissertation, “A Qualitative Study of the Effects of Factitious Disorders on the Social Lives of College-Attending Females”, she learns more about herself in the midst of these needy, suffering girls and their ‘exaggerated symptoms’.

What does happiness look like? Ambition? Love? Women make choices, sometimes just to feel moments, not to erase what already is. Not everything has to build and intensify, though often they do grow out of our control, these desires. In Happy Like That, Elaine tries to understand her dead friend’s secret affair. How she misses Lillian’s raw honesty, her ‘ease’ that Elaine longed to ‘soak up’. A friendship of opposites, the sort that pulls at you to judge the world less harshly.

I was absolutely charmed by Like This American Moon, “the foreign girl is coming”, it smacks of expectations and the ridiculous assumptions so many make about foreigners, more so when you’re stagnant and haven’t seen anything of the world. Take heart! Those of us who have been abroad and visited by family from other countries know full well over there, wherever there may be, hilarity over how they imagine Americans are can ensue too. Americans aren’t the only ones making outlandish assumptions, though we do make an art form of it. How does author Ashley Wurzbacher manage to tickle me with her characters humor and at the same time knock me senseless with sorrow? Some people never go anywhere, not because they are lost in a swamp of ignorance but because they are forced into a limited existence, so often born into it. You can love a way of life, even while you are dying inside. I think twelve year old Jean has a lot figured out before her time, and largely due to the disappointment adults dish out to her, I warmed to her fast.

I can’t crow loudly enough to do this collection justice, it’s not just for the women, though it is about them. Is it the world breaking us, or are we the ones doing the breaking of our own spirit? It depends on circumstance. To be young again and desperate to understand just who you are now, who you are going to be, to feel the rush of first moments like love as if it’s bound to cleave you in two, how do we figure out anything? When do we? How do we get to a point where we fizzle out, or lack ambition? When do we get scared of all the dangerous things that can happen, like Robin in The Problem With You Is That? Why must women so often be the villain, forced into taking a stance to keep others safe? This isn’t a collection about what women are supposed to be, marching together in perfect harmony cocksure about life and their place in it, oh no- these are women who haven’t figured things out, or young girls hungry for identity or sick with expectations and wanting to curl up in the comfort of illness. Women who are just trying to keep people safe, or life together, or figure out what direction the wind is going to blow them next time. Age isn’t the identifier of wisdom, a young girl can be shrewd in the assessment of where she stands socially in the world. She can understand her damaged father more than her mother, who long ago left. Women are wise creatures, but we are a bit faulty sometimes and maybe it’s because the world demands so much of us. Hell yes, read this collection! I have a new favorite author!

Publication Date: October 15, 2019

University of Iowa Press