Ramblings and Recommendations

Hello all!

I love to read.  And, I find myself often talking about reading and books and making recommendations to my friends and neighbors (both solicited and unsolicited).  I also enjoy writing, but mostly of the stream-of-conscience brand.  So, here are my ramblings about books and reading and my recommendations.  I hope you enjoy.

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3 to Get Reading:  A Spring (short story) Collection

This year has kicked off with a lot of great short fiction. And, this is coming from someone who is not a great fan of collections.  Ordinarily, I enjoy my short fiction published in the New Yorker or in anthologies, where the better stories are curated.  Often collections by a single author leave me feeling wanting, not because of a lack of amazing stories, but because of the scattering of less-than stories in them.  Never fear, here are three collections that were released this Spring which are surprising and funny and tender – and, there’s not a dud in the bunch.

The Merry Spinster– Daniel Mallory Ortberg (Published March 13)

Ortberg’s collection of fairy tales reimagined (to be fair, any classic tale is a potential target here, the collection’s source material ranges from the Old Testament to Shakespeare to The Velveteen Rabbit,  in addition to the Brother’s Grimm and the Disney princesses) puts a dark and modern twist on tales you know by heart.

Books with fairy tale elements and retellings always catch my eye.  This collection explores the many stereotypical roles that characters play and how those roles may empower or subjugate them.  The author uses gender fluidity both to explore issues of gender and, sometimes, to remove them from the equation.  My favorite story of the lot is “The Rabbit”, which introduces the protagonist from The Velveteen Rabbit to the concept of “Realness”, which prompts an aggressive ambition that made me double over with laughter.  This warped (and I mean that in all the best ways) take on old stories is not to be missed.

Heads of the Colored People  – Nafissa Thompson-Spires (Published April 10)

This debut collection from an African-American writer speaks to particular aspects of the Black American experience.  Many stories revolve around a protagonist who is the only person of color in the room.  This plays out in different ways.  Some characters buckle under the weight of feeling like the representative for their race, others blend in so well that others become overtly racist in front of them. My favorite story of the collection, “Belle, Lettres” was a caustic, hilarious, back-and-forth between two mothers who use their young daughters as pawns as they launch a mean girl campaign against each other.  Another story introduces Randolph, an African-American professor on a small college campus.  He shares an office with a colleague and his anger and frustration about race and academic politics reveal themselves in the passive-aggressive way he deals with his office mate.   I especially enjoy what this story has to say about micro-aggressions and how it is the “other” who is committing the aggression here in order to illuminate the issue.  The entire collection is sharp, funny and modern.

You Think It, I’ll Say It– Curtis Sittenfeld (Published April 24)

This is the first short story collection for Sittenfeld, whose novels include Prep, Eligibleand American Wife; and it has all of the heart, wit and insight of her earlier writing.  Sittenfeld has a way of presenting deeply flawed characters and, somehow, making them sympathetic.  Each time I pick up something she writes, I enjoy the writing at the outset because I am laughing along with some behavior or character trait that is over the top. But, by the end, I find that I identify with those characters and am fully rooting for them. This collection puts the spotlight on women in the middle – middle aged, middle class, Middle America.  Sittenfeld writes relationships with surgical precision and her stories are full of Shakespearean miscues and misreads.  In the story from which the title of the book is taken, Julie and Graham, two acquaintances who are both married to other people, run into each other in social situations and strike up a game called “You Think It, I’ll Say It”. This game allows Julie to pull out all of her catty bitchiness to entertain Graham during these otherwise bland gatherings.  Julie misreads this ongoing game as a flirtation and the seemingly funny and light tone shifts as Julie feels her age, her dissatisfaction and self-loathing.

I received an advanced copies of these books from their publishers via netgalley in exchange for honest reviews.  Thanks!

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore – Matthew Sullivan

I picked up this book expecting a charming, cozy mystery set in Denver.  What I got was so much more.  This is a wonderfully written debut.  Sullivan gives us a literary novel that starts with a suicide, ends with the resolution of a twenty year old cold murder case and in between yields reflections about family, culture, belonging.  And, not insignificantly, this book sings the praises of books and reading and the ability of books to change a life.  Well-paced and well put together, this book is a gem.  Highly recommended.

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks!

The Wanderers – Meg Howrey

This novel is being touted as Station Eleven meets The Martian.  My advice is to disregard those comparisons, which are not accurate and enjoy this book on it’s own merits.  In this novel, space exploration is becoming more corporate and less governmental and Prime, the premiere company in space travel, is set to send a team of three astronauts to Mars four years from now. In the meantime, the astronauts have undertaken to do a full simulation on Earth of the mission, throwing simulated troubles in the way of the astronauts and see what aspects need to be tweaked before liftoff.  The plot, in many ways, is beside the point.  This is not a fast-paced thrill ride of Science Fiction.  Underscored by that fact that all of the action is merely a simulation and not really happening, the meat and potatoes of this book is in the characters.  We meet the three members of the crew, a member of their ground crew, and their closest family members.  The tension between those who go and those who stay, committing to relationships and committing to occupations are at the forefront.

 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks!

The Idiot – Elif Batuman

In 1995, Selin Karadag arrives at Harvard for her freshman year. She is issued a new thing called an email address and embarks on a relationship with a classmate through the new technology. This is Selin’s first experience with the difference between IRL and online personas and this retro look at these relationships is self-aware, but spot-on. Although this tells the story of a college freshman, it does not fall into the usual tropes or animal house behavior and cliches. Instead, this is a well-written, empathic novel which was a pleasure to read.

 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks!

Backlist Binge – Moshin Hamid

Exit West, a novel by Moshin Hamid, is the story of Saeed and Nadia, a young couple in an unnamed country in which unrest turns to civil war (presumably, this is based on Hamid’s native Pakistan).  The early pages of the novel follow this couple as their relationship escalates in tandem with the hostilities of the war.  The question at the heart of this conflict is: how do you make the decision to leave your home; what is the tipping point?  Hamid draws a picture that makes the couple seem like the proverbial frogs in a pot of water:   as the temperature in their country rises, is it too gradual to keep them from noticing when they need to depart in order to save themselves?

Ultimately, the couple, worn by the war, does leave their country.  Hamid uses a bit of magical realism, similar to Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad.  In Exit West, rumors tell of literal doors that those wishing to escape the war can walk through to relocate to other places across the globe.  This bit of magical realism serves it purpose well. The journeys of immigrants are themselves long and harrowing and worthy of discussion, but here, he has something else to say, and by eliminating those journeys, he is able to leave those stories for other writers or other days, but without diminishing them with short telling.

When Saeed and Nadia decide to step through their first door, they find themselves in a sea of refugees in Greece.  Later doorway travel takes them to England and, ultimately, the United States.  The second half of the novel is about the immigrant experience and the floating sensation of being displaced and not quite belonging again.  Saeed says about the magical doorways, “… the passage was both like dying and being born.”

After finishing this stunning novel, I was propelled to investigate Hamid’s backlist.  I was thrilled to see both that there were a good number of books, but that it wasn’t an overwhelming number.  I have since picked up all of his books, and have enjoyed every word.  His work is quite varied and he has a way of putting an interesting voice and spin on each novel he writes.

For those of you who, like me, enjoy a good binge of a great author here is a complete list of Moshin Hamid’s writing:

Moth Smoke (2000)

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia (2013)

Discontent and Its Civilizations (2014) (non-fiction collection of essays)

Exit West (2015)

Even if you are not a binge reader, I urge you to pick up Exit West.  Once you do, you just may change your mind!

My Ex-Life – Stephen McCauley

NEW RELEASE — OUT TODAY!

David and Julie married 30 years ago when Julie became pregnant. The marriage didn’t last, however, when, in quick succession, Julie lost her baby and David came out as gay. The couple divorced and lost touch. Now, David lives in San Francisco and is a successful private college counselor to the rich and bratty. His long-time boyfriend just moved out and is buying David’s home out from under him. On the East Coast, Julie is divorcing, trying to keep her house and her head above water. Her pot smoking is getting a little out of control, as is her teenage daughter, Mandy. Mandy learns that her mom was once married before and reaches out to David to help her with college and he comes to Julie’s Airbnb for a visit. A clever and fun summer read that has some great commentary on internet porn, college admissions, Airbnb and weed. It’s out today — on the scene just in time to pick up and put in your beach bag.

 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks!

Brass – Xhenet Aliu

Waterbury, Conneticut is a dying town full of abandoned brass factories. Elsie, 18, waitresses in the town’s diner and dreams of leaving.  But, in the way of things, she winds up pregnant, alone and trapped in this small town.

The narrative alternates between Elsie’s story (told in the first person addressing her daughter, Luljeta), and her daughter’s story (now a teenager) in the second person.  Yes, the second person.  And, it really works here.  It’s as if the mother is telling Luljeta’s story as it unfolds.  I love this book so hard.

Beautifully written with so much to say about class and belonging and choice and living hard in the US. One caveat: the first chapter is a bit confusing and not sympathetic to the characters. Stick through the next couple chapters and become hooked.

 

I received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher via netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thanks!