Book Review: How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer

How to Breathe Underwater – Julie Orringer

This collection of short stories focuses primarily on adolescent girls. The stories are compelling and readable and not at all familiar with my experience of being a teenage girl. Which isn’t to say that they don’t ring true but by the time I got to the end of the collection, it felt like the intensity of the stories as a whole was a bit artificial.

These are young girls with a lot of life experience. There is violence, sex, drug use, guns, death. And while no one story feels over the top, all together it kind of does. In the end, this is probably a story collection best read with long breaks in between each story.

Many of the stories are told from – and feel like they’re told from – an adult perspective. There is an omniscience and distance from the events themselves that feels more adult. Even the first person stories lack the chaotic urgency of a teenager relating something traumatic that happened to them. For the most part, I appreciated this and Orringer makes it work. She does play with form a little, including one story in the second person. (Not my favourite narration or my favourite story but I appreciate the effort.) The stories have a sort of feeling of an adult wishing they could go back and warn their younger self. And after all, isn’t that something we’ve all wished we could have done?

 

 

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Book Review: Teardown by Clea Young

My boss handed me a copy of Teardown after I detailed my weekend to her recently. Namely that, while in Vancouver, Peter and I went to IKEA with Pearl in tow. We hadn’t been since I was about seven months pregnant with Pearl and had looked forward to the visit. We smugly wandered through the living room furniture, the display kitchens, and the fake bedrooms before we hit meltdown in the children’s sections. (Pearl melted down and let’s just say things suddenly became more tense between my husband and I.)

“You have to read the first story in this book,” my boss told me. “Read it right now.” So I read it where I stood and then took the book home until my next shift. The first story is about a young couple, pregnant with their first child, who visit IKEA and have a pretty epic fight while doing so. (And seriously, there are a lot of pregnant women in IKEA! I had never noticed before.) This is the title story in Young’s collection and gives a great taste of what’s to come.

Young’s debut story collection is truly excellent, full of strong, honest narratives and realistic characters. Many of the stories focus on couples and many of those couples are considering children or are in the early years of parenthood so there was a lot I could relate to. The self-doubt, the exhaustion, the struggle to remain connected and passionate with your co-parent. So much here rang true and I loved Young’s barefaced honesty as she delved into the heart of relationships. We have high school sweethearts on a road trip after infidelity has been relieved. Or the young parents away for New Year’s Eve in Whistler who end up as the oldest people at a trendy night club. Or the recently displaced roommate who takes home the practise baby from the midwifery clinic where she works and things unravel strangely. Yet even when the characters are doing strange and unpredictable things, they feel understandable and sympathetic.

While the stories definitely sparked empathy in me due to where I currently am in life, I think they’re well-written and engaging enough for readers who haven’t experienced this stage of parenthood. They’re an easy length to read quickly and each one feels complete, while also making you eagerly want to jump into the next Young story.

Book Review: 2 Short Story Collections

It’s a bit unfair to lump these two story collections in together but I read them almost back to back and, a few weeks later, am struggling to differentiate them in my mind.

A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)

A Manual for Cleaning Women and Collected Stories are collections of a life’s worth of short stories by Lucia Berlin and Grace Paley, respectively. Both women are Americans and wrote primarily in the first half of the 20th centuries.While Paley’s stories are set in New York (almost entirely in Brooklyn), Berlin’s roam around the USA, delving into Mexico. They write about the ordinary lives of women, mostly at home, often surrounding their children and their failed relationships. A Canadian comparison might be the stories of Alice Munro, although Munro’s stories end up feeling almost pastoral compared to the crowded apartments of Berlin and Paley.

The Collected Stories – Grace Paley (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2009)

These story collections have two major things in common. The first is that each author leans heavily on their own life experiences. Berlin seems almost to be writing her own autobiography, often naming characters Lucia or delving into stories of her childhood in mining camps and South America. Her characters often have four sons, like Berlin herself did, and are divorced multiple times.

The second characteristic that I found the two collections to have in common was the recurrence of stories. Characters often popped up again and this made both collections have a larger feel, as the reader follows a woman through her life, watches her children grow, her marriage flourish and wilt, her neighbours age and change. It felt like a small challenge to connect the stories together. While they certainly stand as individual tales, the connections definitely add.

Both Berlin and Paley are excellent story tellers and while they’re overall experience of life as women, wives and mothers in the early 20th century doesn’t echo my own in 2017, there are certainly many familiar moments. I would categorize Berlin’s stories as slightly darker – there was one I stopped reading partway through – but I enjoyed each collection and found both of these women an important addition to modern American writing.

Book Review: The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

This book will be available for sale in May 2017. I read an Advanced Readers Copy, provided by the publisher.

I believe I’ve mentioned that at the start of 2017 I decided I wanted to make sure I read more short stories this year than I did in 2016. Since I enjoyed Ferris’ previous novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, I was happy to have an opportunity to read his upcoming short story collection.

Ferris combines charm and discomfort masterfully, taking his characters into awkward, sometimes surreal situations. In my opinion, the best short stories have a sort of open-endedness to them rather than trying to tie up all the loose threads like you might expect in a novel. Ferris excels at this here and readers will probably either love it or hate it but I quite loved it.

In the title story, a couple prepare to have friends over for a dinner party. The wife cooks and preps exhaustively while the husband (and narrator) gripes about how he doesn’t even like these people. When their friends don’t show up, he goes to their apartment and finds something entirely unexpected. And while the situation he ends up in isn’t the most realistic, it’s an unrealistic portrayal of a very real situation and emotions.

Probably my favourite story was about a young woman named Sarah who, excited by the spring breeze, calls her boyfriend home early from work to enjoy the day together. The story twists and turns through differing scenarios, exploring the tiny moments and choices that can change a day or a life. Ferris’ understanding of human complexity is spot on and leaves the most unrealistic moments feeling completely honest.

Book Review: The Dark and Other Love Stories by Deborah Willis

The Dark and Other Love Stories – Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

A quick disclaimer to say that I know Deborah Willis but only a little bit. We were in the same program at university but she was a couple of years ahead of me and we briefly worked at the same coffee shop and then we worked at rival bookstores. I read her first short story collection, Vanishing, when it first came out because I knew Deb but I was eager to read her new collection because I think she’s an excellent writer.

This new story collection revolves around the theme of love. That love takes a variety of forms. The powerful, platonic love of two best friends at summer camp in the title story. The love of a couple, spanning decades, a whole life time lived in the span of an afternoon nap, told in a trilogy of stories. The relationship between two marijuana dealers when one of them applies to move to Mars. The stories are painfully true to life, with all the small and large discomforts that love brings us, along with its unique pleasures. At least one made me have to close the book for a while because the ending was so unexpectedly sad.

Willis’ characters are believable, likeable, and discomfiting. She nails their human reactions and emotions with a sometimes uncomfortable accuracy. Even in the strangest of situations, the basic realness of these fictional characters remains.

Book Review: What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

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What is not Yours is not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (Hamish Hamilton, 2016)

I’d previous read one novel by Helen Oyeyemi (Boy, Snow, Bird) so I had some idea of what to expect from her writing. Oyeyemi’s stories exist in a slightly alternate universe of magic, discomfort, and romance. There is something delightfully disorienting about her world. It’s almost like ours but some of the details are just a little bit off.

This is a collection of linked short stories. I normally don’t love linked short stories because the link can end up feeling forced. And while there’s a tinge of that here, I thought the collection overall was very good. The initial link between the stories is that they all involve keys. There are locks and doors and rooms and places better left shut in each story. More interesting though is that as the stories progress we begin to see the connections between place and character. Some characters pop up again, years later. We get to see what happens to the little girl obsessed with an abusive pop star. We catch a glimpse of a teenage puppeteer’s future. The connections aren’t hammered home and Oyeyemi doesn’t go out of our way to draw attention to them – they’re more like glimpses of someone familiar on a bus going the opposite direction to ours – and they left me feeling delighted and clever  for spotting them.

The stories themselves are strange but compulsive. Each one had me eagerly reading to the end because I couldn’t imagine where Oyeyemi was going. Like Boy Snow Bird there is a strong element of fairy tale throughout. That blend of magic and darkness that you find when you read the original versions of stories like “The Little Mermaid” or “Cinderella”. While Oyeyemi’s style certainly isn’t for everyone, if you’re able to disengage from reality and accept a world of talking puppets and doors that open by themselves then you’ll find a lot of enjoy in this story collection.

Book Review: Barrelling Forward by Eva Crocker

Barrelling Forward - Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

Barrelling Forward – Eva Crocker (House of Anansi, 2017)

One of my 2017 reading goals is to read more short stories. Readers seem to have a love ’em or hate ’em relationship with short stories (especially short story collections) but I fall firmly into the love ’em category. Particularly in my life right now, I enjoy being able to finish a whole story in the approximately thirty minutes I get to myself in the morning before Pearl wakes up.

Eva Crocker’s collection of stories doesn’t disappoint. They’re quirky, sometimes unsettling, sometimes funny, wonderfully detailed. Crocker nails the small details that define every day existence. The things that don’t seem meaningful but are what stand out in our own memories when we look back at years past. As I read through Barrelling Forward I frequently found myself dwelling on the characters and their stories. The new teacher who thinks he might have bed bugs, or the young girl living on a balcony with her brother and thinking about the high school exams she’s missing. The twin sister desperate to differentiate herself and so rebels the only way she knows how. The characters feel true, the kind of people we’d probably pass by in real life. But here Crocker shines a light on all the awkward beauty of real people. I look forward to more from her.

 

Book Review: Waiting for the Cyclone by Leesa Dean

Waiting for the Cyclone - Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

Waiting for the Cyclone – Leesa Dean (Brindle & Glass, 2016)

I’m not sure why I haven’t read many short story collections this year but that seems to be what happened. I’m happy to make amends with Leesa Dean’s debut collection. For me, the mark of a good short story is one which, when it ends, causes me to pause and look around for a minute or two.

I had read the title story of Waiting for the Cyclone previously, when it was first published in The New Quarterly and I liked it so much that I put Dean’s as-yet-unpublished book on my To Read list. Dean’s stories focus on women – tender, daring, unsure. Women who travel, women who fall in love, women who take chances, women who don’t. Reading the stories in quick succession, the characters did begin to feel like one very unlucky woman. Interesting but not a great decision-maker. Partly, I think, this comes from the settings. Central America is a common one, as is Vancouver and the British Columbia Interior. Dean is clearly familiar with these places but the repetition gives the impression that the stories happen in one world rather than multiple ones.

Dean’s women are the type who mostly go along with what’s happening and so end up in difficult and uncomfortable situations – like going on vacation with your ex-boyfriend or driving your best friend to the dentist directly after he’s told you his wife doesn’t want you to be friends anymore. Yet they’re not weak women and they’re not stupid and somehow Dean makes them sympathetic rather than frustrating. Perhaps they’re women who are always looking for the best in the others, the best outcome. And what’s not to like about that?

Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime - Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

This is Rebecca Makkai’s third book, following two novels. This short story collection is cohesive, yet diverse. There’s reality television and professional musicians and family legend. Indeed, fact and fiction are mixed together here. Spliced in between the fictional stories, Makkai includes interludes of her own family history, namely that of her grandparents. Her grandmother, a novelist highly respected in her home country of Hungary. Her grandfather, a politician responsible for introducing racist measures against the Jews in Hungary in the 1930s. Makkai’s father is the only child of their brief marriage. Makkai delves into her own attempts to reconcile this world history with her person experiences and memories of her grandparents, especially her grandfather. (This interview sheds some light on her story and process.)

The short stories are fine but the heart of the collection is really the real-life glimpses. While the fictional stories have interesting premises, I found that Makkai didn’t leave much room for the ambiguity that so many of the best short stories contain. While she does a neat job of creating worlds, they still feel fake as their tales are wrapped up a little too neatly. (Granted, some readers prefer this but I like a little more thoughtfulness in my short stories.)

On the other hand, the historical segments are full of an uncertainty and moral ambiguity that left me wanting more. While I’m not sure Makkai’s explorations, as seen here, are enough for a novel length book, I think they could stand alone as a set of linked family stories. Some of the fictional short stories here do have a wartime theme but not all and, in total, it creates a dissonance that wouldn’t be noticeable in a more traditional story collection. Basically, I think there is the potential for two books here and I’d be especially interested in an expansion of the non-fiction side.

As it stands, the book is a fine and interesting read with glimpses of the author’s potential to offer much more.

Book Review: Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill

Daydreams of Angels (HarperCollins, 2015)

Daydreams of Angels (HarperCollins, 2015)

In the womb, you hear people talking and their voices sound like someone you’re in love with talking in their sleep.

from “Heaven”

Heather O’Neill excels at creating metaphors that are both etirely unique and powerfully, strangely accurate. This skill – seen in her novels (Lullabies for Little Criminals and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night) – seems even more evident in the tight, condensed form of the short story.

In addition to their reserved disposition, the twins were known for their beauty…People who manufactured cracker boxes were always trying to get them to pose for them.

from “Messages in Bottles”

There are twenty stories in this collection, some a little longer, but most are delicious morsels. Many feature the Montreal neighbourhoods familiar to readers of O’Neill’s novels. Several are set during World War Two. They are fairy tales, love stories, family legends. Like O’Neill’s novels, these tales are peopled with extremem character; once again she describes the delightful eccentricities of their clothing, their speech. Many of the characters blaance between charm and terror. Many love their current lives and many long for something more. Sometimes at the same time.

A number of the stories are narratives told by grandparents to “me and my brothers”. Not necessarily the same “me” or the same brothers but it gives a thematic weight to the collection. A common thread of passion on family stories. The absurd tales we tell children and the delight in hearing a story that you’re not sure you should believe.

She had this incredible story. It was the most incredible thing about her. Actually, it was so incredible that it was probably the most incredible thing about us too.

from “The Story of a Rose Bush”

Those who’ve enjoyed O’Neill’s novels will love this continuation of her world. If you haven’t read O’Neill before this collection offers a great introduction.

They don’t know. It’s not their fault. What are they supposed to do when they’ve been told their whole lives not to believe in fairy tales?

from “The Gypsy and the Bear”