Maggie Brown & Others: Stories by Peter Orner

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Amazing what our bodies are designed to take.

Amazing what our hearts and souls are designed to take too. This is a hell of a collection of connected stories by Peter Orner. I was blown away by all of the characters because they resembled reality too much, the pain of being alive, our insecurities, our curiosity about family members closest to us, our assumptions about others that diminish them as people. There are stories about the fire of youth and the desires that flow beneath our skin, how hungry our hormones make us, how did we survive all that want? Later in life, the ache of it all, the self-pity. You can’t feel too sorry for the characters because when you do, you are snapped back into reality by lines such as this “He’d grown up poor, he said. That’s novel? The mass of humanity lives a world away from a hot bath.” I am always hungry for short stories that throw the reader right into a town, a house, a family, any situation where I can immediately understand the score because the writing is saturated with insight and emotions, the atmosphere rich, going between light and heavy. This line “He’d written, he told her, about flower children because they made him laugh. Spent my life trying to get clean and these kids can’t get dirty enough.”  That is gold, it sums up so much with a few choices words. Writing at its best. Truly, I was hooked.

My heart could break, my breath catch with a line describing our narrator’s mother, about her hands while she played the piano because he humanized her so tenderly in The Case against Bobbie. We dance through time, through our own hearts, first memories, beginnings, endings and all the decisions we face each day simply because we exist. How we live with what remains when death decides to court us. Wealth to poverty, love to the absence of it, youth to old age, and the curiousness of the parts we all play in between. Why do some images stick while some are diluted or fade away entirely? How strange to be a human being, what imperfect creatures we are.

Yes, yes add this collection to the top of your TBR list! These short stories swallowed me as much as a full length novel.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

 

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This Wicked Tongue: Stories by Elise Levine

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I’d walk a few steps and the haze would lift, as if I’d squeezed my last tears and could get on with things.

I had to settle myself in a quiet place, undisturbed to dig into these stories. The first tale in the collection Money’s Honey had me riveted because of the language, the emotional impact. “Fat girl, some call me. Hey there, fat slut. Like I’m there just to get a load of them.” In the span of a few pages, she will figure out just what she has to do, while going through the memory of who she has left behind, of the many hands that have touched her, can she abandon her wild ways and go home again, and maybe what she carries will make it all worthwhile? The stories are more about what is going on inside each character’s mind because the wicked internal language we have is what drives our own wicked worlds. Whether a narrator is ministering the dying as a divinity school candidate while failing to comfort the living or a cop searching for their unhappy wife in a cave, as his claustrophobia increases, suffocating as much as marriage the writing pulls us in. Are we okay? We’re not okay.

In The Association we’re inside young Martin’s head and privy to his observations about his uptight mother and the failings, ‘lapses’ he collects about his father. A bright kid who ‘needs to get out of his big head’ according to his dad, living between his newly divorced parents, mother wanting too much from his 11-year-old self and finding his new voice, one that upsets the balance, but so what- he is enjoying this snide self. Sometimes when I read from a child’s perspective that is spot on about the adults, I remember what it was like to feel forced to be the audience to adult antics, and how good anger felt when you let loose.

Levine’s stories include one based in c. AD 1372, language of the past, a journey through grief, the one sealed off in the cell for those seeking counsel, a spiritual practice long gone, “our words a poor magic mashed to this world.” 

Difficult relationships, disheveled selves, past, present, shifting timelines- an engaging lyrical collection.

Publication Date: June 25, 2019

Biblioasis

We Will Tell You Otherwise: Stories by Beth Mayer

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You have to count your blessings. Or pick your poison. And for God’s sake, not every single thing means some other terrible thing. But that I keep to myself.

This collection of stories by Beth Mayer will play with your emotions, is it dark? It can be, human behavior isn’t always pretty. It is moments of people at their best and worst. The very first story can break your heart as in Tell Me Something I Don’t Know a father tells us about his mother’s visit to give he and his wife a break, trying to get through the heavy days of their little boy Ethan’s chemo for his brain tumor. How do you grab happiness watching your child suffer, how do you break out of the fear that something worse is waiting around the corner?

In When The Saints Tell Their Own we’re left to wonder who is broken, when Blue (the narrator’s brother), checks himself into a hospital because ‘something is wrong with him’ but she is the one talking to the saints. Each story has fractures, I loved Let Her Tell The Way. It is the summer of 1978 and a family of four is meant to go on a vacation but the father (Bill’s) loyalty is always his clients (he owns and runs a funeral home). But this time, Peggy (wife/mother) is going to go on the trip as planned, of course her eldest child and headstrong daughter is going to test her. “The girl thought of herself first (always) and it was ugly.” What stuck to my guts is the disappointment, their trip is closer to reality than all the happy ads we see about how great getting away is. You take your family issues with you. Even the little ones can’t rally enough happiness to make it work, “The children bore too much.”  There is a short little story too from the “summer people” who really don’t mind the old bachelor whose family has been on the lake for generations… no, not at all. They tolerate the locals.. sure they do. If they don’t stay long they won’t be infected by whatever miseries visit the locals, right?

The lump in my throat remained from Don’t Tell Me How This Story Ends, it’s for imperfect families, the ones who have a revisionist in their midst. Truth is malleable for some, the convenience of old age or ‘forgetting’ to suit your own conscience… it hit hard for me. The most difficult family member (here it’s a father) but it can be anyone, grandparent, mother, sibling, uncle… that their fragility humanizes them, the unfairness of it all, when it seems they should be punished for the cruelty they spread. Life doesn’t play out like that though does it? Not always.

A young boy seeks council about his future through his classmate Suzy, a man fancies old-fashioned ways until his world is rocked by a mysterious girl who will help him navigate the technology he hates and a young girl finds a best friend in the beautiful Cha Cha McGee who the whole town may want to mark just as badly as Lady Pearson, the harlot, witch…  These stories are all about human nature in its many forms. This is an author to watch.

Publication Date: August 20, 2019

Black Hawk Press

Beth Mayer is the Hudson Prize Winner

for more information  https://www.blacklawrence.com/we-will-tell-you-otherwise/

Turbulence: A Novel by David Szalay

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She was very aware of her failure to be equal to the needs of this moment. 

In these connected stories each character is on a journey, be it on an airplane, within memories, or flying to their future. The title isn’t lost on readers, what is life but an irregular motion disturbed not by currents but by every experience, however great or small,  one encounters? Human beings, despite their location on the planet, confront joy, sorrow, fear, hope, love, loss and death. Every story is not the same, that’s the gift of being human. We glimpse moments here, but we don’t stay long. In one story an accident resulting in the death of a young man causes Werner , on his way to the airport, to be late for work, setting off memories of his tragic past and the death of a sister. This story was as heartbreaking as Marion’s, desperate to catch a flight to Seattle where her daughter has just gone into labor. In a moment when her daughter needs her most, all Marion feels is ‘her own insufficiency as a human being’. Despite being a famous author whose writing is meaningful enough to be taught in classes as far away as Hong Kong, she doesn’t have the right words to ease her daughter’s devastating reality. It’s easy to relate to those pauses in time, when what is asked of us is impossible to translate. We sometimes fail, because we don’t know what is required, or how to give it.

There are love affairs, and the struggle of ‘do I stay or do I go?’ The kernel of truth that maybe it doesn’t make a difference, that either choice is neither solution nor problem. In DEL-COK sisterhood is interrupted by domestic violence, despite a husband who is distant, working in Qatar. The frustration that is born out of caring, the cracks that could be fixed if only others would make the effort, the right choices depresses Anita. The many ways we are tied to each other, for better or worse. We all take flight for different reasons, not all lead to happy reunions. When Shamgar lands in Doha, we learn what it means to have a ‘sponsor’, which for all intents and purposes is really an owner. Yet even here, working a garden that will never be his, something else claims his longings. The story of Ursula, and her daughter Miri’s choice of  partner with Mousa (a Muslim man) explores love with an asylum-seeker, the mistrust and suspicion that arises, warranted or not. This collection is about people around the globe, our commonalities, our differences. In the end, aren’t we all sharing the human experience? Haunted by the same things, filled with new beginnings and endings, longings, grief… just trying to make sense of the world and our own confused hearts?

Death hovers in BUD-LGW, when a young woman comes home to visit her sick father in London, accompanying him for his scans at St. Mary’s hospital. She has news of her own to share, and her father can only hope he lives long enough to see it happen. It’s a fast read but meaningful despite the slim pages. This is my first read by David Szalay, Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author of All That Man Is. It’s evident that Szalay is able to get to the heart of his characters, regardless of what continent they inhabit, and write of experiences we can all easily relate to. The stories don’t have an ending, they are as open to the characters as your own life remains until your last breath.

Publication Date: July 16, 2019

Scribner

Black Light: Stories by Kimberly King Parsons

I’ve almost had no loss in my life, but I still believe we’re always in between tragedies, that anything good is a lull before the next devastation.

The stories in this collection are wickedly rich.  In Foxes, a little girl’s plot-lines revolve around what’s deep in the woods. But the mother already knows what horror can live outside of fairy-tales, the tragedy of confusing a fool for a knight! She dearly hopes her daughter escaped her inheritance of bad choices, and if pretty isn’t enough than thank god for her brains! People living nowhere or searching for somewhere, even when they are living on fumes, pockets full of nothing! When you’re hungry, when your broke love is a war zone, but when will The Light Pour In? If love were a scale, what does age difference weigh? These aren’t your beautiful, blessed folks, no no no… these are ruined people.

In Fiddlebacks, children chase creepy crawlies while their mother finds comfort in the back of a car with a man whose face is ravaged. Drugs, cheating for the illicit pleasure, a charismatic friend who fires the blood of first love, snarled minds that art therapy attempts to mend, and a medical student that charts his beloveds insides, grounding her. 

The writing is sometimes like sand in my eyes, it’s raw. The characters don’t stand sure and tall, they ‘cant’ help but see a thing through its disappointing end’, and are nothing like wise, unbelievable sketches of people in other novels who know how to navigate their perfect, clean little lives. Somehow, this is far easier to relate to! This is a curious collection and I can’t wait to read a full novel by Parsons! Feast yours eyes on that cover people, that is a hell of a book cover!!!

Publication Date: August 13, 2019

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Vintage 

 

 

 

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

 

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