Valerie Martin’s latest book, Sea Lovers: Selected Stories, features previously published works that span her career. The twelve stories in this collection usually start out firmly based in moody realism, then end up taking a couple of steps into dark whimsy. They’re organized into three different themes: animals, art, and transformation.
Content-wise, the first section, “Among the Animals,” was probably the most difficult for me to get through (and yet I couldn’t look away). Let’s just say that nature — human nature, animal nature, life in general — is not terribly kind, and Martin explores this theme from different angles. The first story in the collection, “Spats,” is an excellent example not just of the section on animals, but of the atmosphere of book as a whole. In it, the narrator is struggling to move on after the break-up of her marriage. Her husband has left her for another woman and is in the process of settling into his new life, so she spends her days dreaming of ways to get revenge.
Lucky Alan and Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem
Publisher/Year: Doubleday, 2015
What it is: A slim collection of quirky short stories.
Why I read it: I like short stories, and I also had the pleasure of hearing Lethem at a Literary Death Match a couple of years ago when he was promoting Dissident Gardens.
What I thought: This was actually my first time reading Lethem’s work. I usually love stories with surreal elements. I can see the appeal, and I love his writing style, but most of the stories in this collection just didn’t do it for me. My favorites were probably the title story, and “The King of Sentences,” about an author’s superfans who take things too far. Other stories, like “Pending Vegan,” had elements that I loved, but some stories were a chore to read and most were simply forgettable.
Sex Criminals: Vol 1 by Matt Fraction (Author) & Chip Zdarsky (Artist)
Publisher/Year: Image Comics, 2014
What it is: Suzie has a strange gift: she stops time whenever she has sex. When she hooks up with Jon after a party, they’re both in for a shock: both of them are still moving around post-climax. It turns out Jon has the same supernatural abilities as Suzie, but neither had ever met anyone like themselves before. And what’s a young time-stopping couple to do with this amazing gift of theirs? Rob banks, of course!
Why I read it: It sounded awesome.
What I thought: It was awesome, duh. I realize it’s not a book for everyone, but I loved the humor and the gorgeous artwork (check out some images after the jump) and the fact that there are Sex Police who smack people with dildos. Yeah. It’s that kind of story. Some of it’s a little hokey, but that just adds to the book’s charm. I kind of felt like a pervert requesting it at the library, but it was worth it.
Mostly set in New Mexico, the ten short stories in Kirsten Valdez Quade’s new book capture mesmerizing glimpses at the lives of outsiders. From deadbeat dads trying to make amends, to girls coming of age, to many a character trying to navigate race/class lines, the stories in this collection are heavily infused with Catholic, Mexican American, and New Mexican culture.
In the first story, “Nemecia,” a young girl’s life is completely turned upside down when her orphaned, emotionally manipulative cousin comes to live with them. The girl is moving in under violent circumstances: she was present when her mother and grandfather were both murdered. The girl is sweet and vulnerable around adults but can be cruel to her little cousin when no one is looking, going so far as to claim she was the murderer. It becomes clearer and clearer to the young girl which child is the more important one in their family.
In “The Five Wounds,” Amadeo Padilla is proud to be Jesus in that year’s recreation of the Passion. It’s a bloody event where he’ll have to carry a heavy cross and suffer as Jesus did, but Amadeo is eager to prove his machismo. The unannounced arrival of his pregnant teen daughter — whom he doesn’t have much of a relationship with — throws him off guard, and over the next couple of days, things happen that will become a much heavier symbolic cross for him to bear. This story was one of my favorites in the collection.
Tadeusz Borowski was a Polish author who was sent to Auschwitz and Dachau from 1943-1945. When he was twenty-one, his fiancee was arrested by Nazis at a friend’s apartment, and when Borowski went to look for her, he was ultimately sent to the concentration camps as well (both were part of underground activities in Warsaw). After his release, he searched for his fiancee and found her living in Sweden. Meanwhile, he was working as a writer and journalist. He eventually did marry his fiancee, but in 1952 at the age of 28, just three days after his wife gave birth, he committed suicide (there had been two previous attempts).
According to the book’s introduction by Jan Kott, writers/survivors at the time were expected to write either martyrologies or Communist works that were ideological and clearly showed right and wrong. Borowski was determined to document all that he had witnessed at Auschwitz and Dachau so that history would not be forgotten. However, his writings shocked a lot of people with their subject matter because of the perspectives they revealed. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a collection of concentration camp stories released a couple of years following Borowski’s release.
It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in the fiction category. It made the final cut for the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards. It’s basically on like…every Best Of list out right now. And even before all that? There was the nonstop buzz around the book when it was published. And I bit. I borrowed Tenth of December from the library a couple of times, but it went back unread each time. So finally, at the end of the year, I was determined to get this thing squared away.
This was my first encounter with George Saunders (and I’m the kind of person who picks up random books without fully examining — or even reading — the summary). I had no idea what I was getting into.
Talk about a What the hell am I reading? moment.
There’s some David Foster Wallace-type strangeness going on in this book. And much like my reaction to DFW, some of the writing in Tenth of December blew me away while other parts just didn’t work quite work out for me. The stories are dark and weird but also optimistic and hopeful; it’s a difficult mix to pull off, but Saunders (mostly) does it.
I think the thing I admired the most about his work was the shocking effect he leaves you with when he switches narrators. You’re exposed to this immediately with the first story, “Victory Lap;” the two young narrators, each with their own distinct voice, have fanciful inner lives that probably make their daily reality much more entertaining. Then something happens that introduces some actual drama into their lives.