Archive for September, 2011

Sep
302

Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Part III – Short Stories, Pakistanis and Misc.

Short Story Collections

You Are Free: Stories (Riverhead) By Danzy Senna

This book was so relevant to me, similar to the way I felt about Danielle Evans Before You Suffocate Your Own Damn Self, except those stories focused on women slightly younger than me and these focused on women slightly older than me. I don’t find Senna’s writing exactly mellifluous, but I was completely hooked by these stories. Most of them are set in LA or New York and concern women who are becoming mothers or who are dealing with motherhood and partnerhood and professional lives as artists and lovers. Most of the stories deal with race, especially the complications of mixed-race America, but also the horrors of divorce and pre-school and the choices we make. And I don’t use the word “horrors” lightly here. I mean, some of the stories were really borderline terrifying—in a good way. Take the first story in the collection, “Admission”, about a couple in LA whose daughter gets into a fancy preschool. At first it starts out innocuous enough, but then spirals into something like an eerie Twilight Zone episode, which I wasn’t expecting and therefore it is literally is still haunting me, like months after I read it. Another story, “The Care of the Self” is about a woman who leaves her New York life and marries an artist in New Mexico, with whom she has a 10-month old daughter. The story revolves around a visit from her fancy, professional NYC girlfriend and how it brings out her securities and insecurities. There is a description of childbirth in this story that made me break out in a cold sweat. Unlike some of the other short story collections I read this year, I could tell you about each of the stories in this book. I think that says it all.

Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf) By Benjamin Percy

I’ve read the title story in Benjamin Percy’s collection over and over ever since it was selected for the Best American anthology (edited by Ann Patchett) back in 2006. The story concerns a teenage boy living in a small Oregon town where many of the men have been recruited away to the War in Iraq. Percy simply nails the historical moment, and really digs into adolescent maleness with the boy’s experiments with violence. It’s a flawless story and I study it constantly for the sleight of hand. So, I’ve been meaning to read this collection for a long time and thought it was really solid. It has a great sense of place and character: the Northwest comes through picture-perfect and the characters are more comfortable in the wilderness than in their relationships. I was amused and excited—especially since I read these two collections back to back—to find an undercurrent of horror running through the book, similar to Senna’s. I mean, besides Percy’s outright post-apocalyptic  story, “Meltdown”, which reads like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if the The Road were more of a renegade love story instead of a parenting manual—there were several other stories that hinted at a Twin Peaks-esque “the evil in the woods” storyline. I have to say, I am so inspired by this light weaving of the supernatural amongst short stories, and I think I am being pulled harder and harder to do this. Again, like Senna’s work, pregnancy was one of the spaces of horror (which I guess it has always been in fiction and cinema) but with a miscarriage by bats and a gruesome description (like really) of an ectopic pregnancy in another story—the book really shows Percy’s interest in the dark, which of course, I love. Percy’s novel, The Wilding, is high on my list of books to read.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Riverhead) By Maile Meloy

Okay, I need to admit that this year I have suffered something that feels almost dementia-like in it’s strangeness. After spending four years in an MFA program and binding together a thesis with 14 short stories and spending years reading and thinking about this form, I recently have felt like I: 1) Don’t know how to write a short story, 2) Don’t really know what constitutes a short story, 3) maybe don’t even like the form so much (eeeek, who am I?) This feeling has receded some in the past month, but I was really feeling this strongly this summer. So, I was seeking out short story collections to try and answer my question. I had read a sample of Meloy’s book last year, which gave me about half of the opening story “Travis, B.”, about an incredibly lonely ranch hand in Montana, and had been thinking of this character since then. I enjoyed Meloy’s collection, though I felt I was trapped in a meta-space when I was reading the stories of trying desperately to figure out what made each story tick, that I kind of enjoyed the whole experience a bit less than if I hadn’t been so caught up in “What makes a good short story?” I had kind of assumed that all of Meloy’s characters where going to be like the lonely ranch hand in the first story, but she is diverse, inhabiting everything from a down and out factory worker to a rich, old Latin American man–and there is a lot of heartbreaking moments that I savored. Meloy’s work made me remember that one of the things I love about short stories is the documenting of that moment of slippage, or loss. If anyone else is on the short story quest, this is a great book to check out.

Lucky Girls (HarperCollins) By Nell Freudenberger

I was disturbed intrigued by the excerpt from Freudenberger in the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40, concerning a young Bangladeshi immigrant, and then I was read about her golden-ness, so I felt like I had to know for myself what the hype was all about. These stories are interesting, they are. I mean, I too find myself writing about young women in India and young women traveling the world. Also, I am always fascinated by the white people I meet who are in these situations, and Lucky Girls tells their story. I remember the story “The Tutor,” about an Indian boy who fails in America, returns to India  and the young white girl he tutors from Best American 2004. I mean, the stories are unexpected, they are original. The collection only has five stories – the last one especially long, but they are very well-written, and I would be amiss if I didn’t encourage you to read them, though I am reticent somehow. So strange, this reticence.

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (Vintage) By Karen Russell

At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like this book, though I loved the title story (even though Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal is the best book on this subject). When sitting down to read the stories straight through, I found that my tolerance for Russell’s meticulous, beautifully-imagined worlds was low. I couldn’t just flit from haunted swamplands to surreal summer camps. But then later, when I would pick it up and read a particular story, I would be absolutely wow-ed all over again by Russell’s imagination, but mostly by her story-writing chops: structure, dialogue, flow. I mean she wrote an amazing story, “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” about being disappointed in your parents and dealing with community, but the actual plot is about Western wagon migration and a family whose Patriarch is a Minotaur! I mean, let’s face it, she’s a genius. Read the damn book.

No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner) By Miranda July

I am really disappointed in myself for not liking this. I love Miranda July. I loved Me and You and Everyone We Know. I mean, come on, the scene with the goldfish and the kid smearing his spunk all over the library stacks and the baby on IM chat poohtalking? I LOVED Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely are Not Going To Talk About. This multimedia/play type of thing went to see where at the end we all had lighters under our chair and had to flick them when she asked questions that were both funny and painful. I even loved the website for this book when it came out that used a refrigherator and chalk. But I got totally stuck in the first story and haven’t moved on. I’ve even tried to skip around and read other stories. I couldn’t relate to the characters. It was too cutesy/hipster …. Sigh, I need guidance. Which story from this book did you love? What am I not getting here?

The Pakistanis

Burnt Shadows (Picador) By Kamila Shamsie

There was tons of talk about Pakistani Writers being the new “it” literary community at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and I developed a total writer crush on Kamila Shamsie, who was hot and brilliant and tomboyish and cool and smart all at once. Burnt Shadows starts with a horrifying and beautiful scene set right before the atomic bomb drops in Nagasaki and then goes all over the place from Delhi before Partition to Karachi to Jihadhi camps in Afghanistan to New York – and she pulls it all off with an interesting mix of characters and powerful surprises. I loved the way this book was understated and melodramatic all at once, and how Shamsie inhabits all these different characters. It was one of those books where I literally would be like, “OH MY GOD!” out loud at the beginning of a surprising chapter where she twists it all around. There is some rushing at the end, but I really appreciated that the perspective is totally not American. I can’t wait to read more of her stuff.

Homeboy (Shaye Areheart Books) By H.M. Naqvi

So, H. M. Naqvi won the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature (launched this year) and is totally a bad-ass, but I had no idea how much of a bad-ass he was until I actually read this novel which just rings from the first page. I loved, loved, loved The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and Homeboy reminded me of that book: a Pakistani who comes to America and then falls out post 9.11, top of the world to the bottom, but that was a special, reserved, refined kind of story telling, and this is balls-to-the-wall, N.W.A-quoting, reggae DJ, dandy-ish adventureism that takes on coming-of-age, coming to America, losing one’s father, friendship, duty, Islam, Patriotism, America … I can not tell you how relevant this novel was, how important, and how exciting it was to read a REAL South Asian American novel and I am so sad that I slept on it for so long. This book really, really gives a lot of knowledge for first time novelists. Especially because, Naqvi pulls such an amazing style through this, I mean, sometimes absolutely ridiculous but captures New York and post-911 life and fear and turn-of-the-century partying. I can not tell you how important this book is. Read it. NOW.

In other Rooms, Other Wonders (Norton) By Daniyal Mueenuddin

This was really the book that tipped the trend scales in favor of the Pakistanis, I think. I’d heard so much about it and Mueenuddin’s own fascinating story of going back to Pakistan and learning to run a farm, that I held off to read it, in case it didn’t live up to the hype. But it did, oh, it did. It is definitely one of the most amazing accounts that I have read about class in South Asia. The connected stories in this book move so fluidly between the working poor to the powerful rich and in-between. There is a story, “Lily” about wanting to change and realizing you can’t, that I think might be my favorite short story of the year. [I wish someone would make it into a film. Sophia Coppola, maybe, but I think she only makes movies about white folks. So if, like me, you thought this collection would only be good at one thing, think again, it is amazing in a bunch of different ways.

On Writing

Changing my Mind: Occasional Essays (Penguin) By Zadie Smith

What I like best about this collection of essays is it’s range: that it moves easily from a dense essay about modern literature “Two Directions for the Novel” to Smith’s coverage of the 2006 Oscars for Vogue Magazine, though I think the essay I was most interested in was Smith’s coverage of a trip to Liberia. A great book of essays to think about how a novelist can work in other forms.

How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) By James Wood

I’d been reading this great book on Fiction on and off ever since it came out, but this summer while working on fiction and studying for the GREs, I finally finished it and it seemed just so relevant. Wood’s picks apart all the tropes and devices of fiction using the examples in his study and the result, I found, was really helpful in thinking about both reading and writing. A must have for any writer’s library.

Sep
3

Books I’ve Read: First Half of 2011, Part 2 — Plot Lessons

Room (Little, Brown and Company) By Emma Donaghue

I’d been hearing good things about Emma Donoghue’s book for a while and actually tried to get it as an audio book when Robin and I were driving cross-country last October, but since it is told completely through the voice of a five-year-old who has never been outside a small storage shed-like room, the audio book option wasn’t really feasible (an adult actor doing a kid voice for nine hours just won’t cut it when driving across the plains). But, reading this story, which is loosely based on this gruesome real-life incident, was really entertaining and educational. Donoghue really gets the kid’s voice down, but there is this amazing escape scene in the middle of the book that I literally read over and over to learn about pacing, plot and storytelling. I’m kindof bummed that she didn’t win the Orange Prize.

Bunner Sisters (Free e-book) By Edith Wharton

I’ve been working on this one short story for, literally, years, and recently it ballooned from like 4000 words to 20,000 words and I was wondering if it might not be a long short story, or gasp, a novella. After a quick poll on Facebook, I got some good suggestions and, from this brilliant writer, found Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters as a free download that I transferred to my Kindle. I mean, I know a bit about Edith Wharton, Ethan Fromme’s heartbreaking and horrfying end has always stuck in my mind, but this story was especially swift and powerful. Crushing, really—how the sisters’ lives fall apart so quickly and how their earlier lonely widowed days seemed so perfect when looking back at the end. Another great lesson in pacing and significant details.

The Blind Assassin (Anchor Books) By Margaret Atwood

I got all excited about 1Book140 when it was being promoted and thought it would be awesome to read a book in a virtual book club and have assigned reading dates, but then in actuality, I didn’t really feel like engaging so much on Twitter. In fact, the whole experience reminded me of when I first got to a college English class and just wanted everybody to shut up. It was weird, but I did enjoy the crazy puzzle of the book. I was really into Margaret Atwood back in the 80s. In fact, she was the author of some of the first adult books I read like The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, which I remember I had in that kind of pulp paperback form that is small and thick. The Blind Assassin’s strengths are it’s structure—it is a story within a story, plus a story and a mystery unrevealed. It also digs into wartime Canada and pulp science fiction and class and sex (lots of illicit sex) and bad Gothically-evil husbands and an equally evil sister-in-law. The book is daring in many ways, one of which is that the narrator is a crotchety old woman—and it was fun to try and unravel who was who and what was what, though the mystery becomes clear mid-way through the book. There were parts that were a bit slow, but the mystery pulls you a long through it. And it’s such a good feeling, isn’t it, being in the middle of a long, slowly-resolving novel with a mystery at it’s core?

Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi (Pantheon Books) By Geoff Dyer

I wouldn’t say this book was exactly a lesson in plot, but perhaps in structure. The much-hyped book was published in 2009 and I had marked but not read the publicity around it, or anything else by Dyer. But we spent a few days among Varanasi’s famous touts, boats and corpses in the Spring, and I was thinking of setting a short story I was working on there, so I decided I should read this one first. Dyer’s amazingly funny and achingly clever, so this novel ends up being two long short stories, loosely connected, about a writer first sent to Venice to cover the Biennale, during which he (and everyone else) drinks endless glasses of bellinis and then the Jeff of the story, meets an American girl from LA, who he woos, does copious amounts of cocaine with and some vigorous coupling. Meanwhile, the girl is often mentioning Varanasi and how Venice reminds her of it, kind of. In the second part, the same Jeff (or maybe another, in a different universe) ends up in Varanasi on a writing gig, and then decides to stay and “drop out,” though his dropping out involves staying at the Hotel Ganges View, one of the nicest hotels in town. I was in love with the first part of the book: it was hilarious, sending up tourists and pretensious art-types and everything in between. Dyer manages to be extremely sarcastic and then, also, kind of sincere, in his descriptions of both the art and his small, enjoyable fling. More than anything, it rang true and entertaining—and was beautifully descriptive, so at the end, I felt like I had been to the Biennale swilling bellinis and doing cocaine on yachts, and then getting up early to go see tons of art. In the same sense, I was a bit disappointed in the Varanasi section, since Jeff is just a Western tourist who writes about the traffic and diarreah and trying an failing to understand Hindu spirituality. Again, his descriptions of the grotesque, this time, as opposed to the golden beauty of Venice, are arresting, but it didn’t feel as new and fresh as the Venice section. But maybe it is hard to be new about one of the oldest living cities in the world? All in all, this book left me wanting to read everything Dyer has ever written, and nothing by him ever again. I think that means I love him.

Less Than Zero (Vintage) By Bret Easton Ellis

I started reading this when I was at the Sri Ram Ashram with my mom back in February. I don’t know why, but sometimes my reading material needs to be the exact opposite of what I am doing. Shortly after, Ellis wrote this brilliant essay for The Daily Beast about Charlie Sheen and the Hollywood Empire, which is probably one of the most interesting culture pieces I’ve read all year. I’ve seen the movie version of Less Than Zero, of course, but it is actually nothing like the book—way tamer. The book is disjointed and makes L.A. seem vapid and futuristic and incredibly weird, but it is an amazing piece of writing nonetheless. If you’ve only seen the movie, you should definitely read the book. It made me feel the same horrified way as when I saw Kids for the first time, which is that I recognized some small part of my own youth and identity in what Ellis was holding up in this cracked cocaine mirror of a book.

Free Food for Millionaires (Warner Books) By Min Jin Lee

I am such a sucker. Junot Diaz recommended this book on the New Yorker’s Book Bench at the beginning of the summer, so I read it. I remember when it first came out and got all these big reviews, but some of them likened the novel to Chick Lit, and I decided to stay away at the time. In one way, it was really satisfying to read a long novel about Asian American characters that had such a large cast. The book is obviously modeled on 19th century novels, with it’s focus on social mores and breaking tradition, family and money, but I have to say I really didn’t like or relate to any of the characters—especially the tough-as-nails main character Casey Han. There was way too much stuff about fashion, banking and ivy leagues for my taste. Plus, the sex was described in a way that I felt like no one was enjoying it, except one couple, who are totally the villains of the novel, which made me realize that I need the people I read to either enjoy having sex or not have it (a good lesson for my writing, too). An ambitious project, that seems to lose it’s resolve before the end—but maybe just leaving room for a sequel? I’ll say this, if this novel was a television show, I’d probably watch it when it came on Netflix Streaming.