Category Archives: Fiction

Review: The Grief of Others

I’ll be honest – it was the cover of Leah Hager Cohen’s The Grief of Others that made me pick it up off the library display table. It looked like the cover on some movie, which is usually a deterrent, but there was something eerie but welcoming about this one. I mean look at it, you want to enter but you know there’s a chance you might never leave.

Having read the book now, it’s funny that that was my initial reaction. Characters are drawn to this house, as I was to its image. As though Lady Liberty herself stood on their front lawn, the Ryries’ house draws suffering to it. Whether Cohen is saying that misery does indeed love company, or it is only by empathizing and witnessing the suffering of others that we can truly heal, she does so with a light pen.
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Fox News endorses Steve Almond’s new book

Genius book trailer here for Steve Almond‘s newest book of short stories. I’ll let you find out the title from the video…

If you’re as excited as I am now, come see him read at the Boston Book Festival (October 15th!) or at Porter Square Books on November 28th.

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A World Unrecognizable: The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

Did you grow up religious? I was raised in a cocktail of Catholicism (my mom) and Southern Baptism (my dad’s side), so whether or not I consider myself either of these things, my perspective and ideas of the world are colored by my experiences with both. Perhaps this is why books with premises like The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta are particularly fascinating to me. Most Christians believe in God and Jesus as the one way to Heaven, the one true belief. Possibilities such as the botched Rapture that occurs in Perrotta’s novel may well be considered blasphemous, propaganda from an unbelieving public.

As I read, I slipped back and forth between the two perspectives. I wondered what my family would think of this book, what my childhood pastors would say about my reading this type of fiction. And I realized that perhaps it is this type of fiction, this type of reaction that fuels my love for the art. Sure, non-fiction causes all kinds of controversy these days, but fiction allows us to live out lives we can never know. It allows us to flesh out ideas, theories about our beliefs, our experiences, our flickers of thought. We can anticipate human reactions to horrible situations without actually having to live through an apocalypse or a Rapture. We can process our real lives in a realm that is safe, a petri dish of imagination.
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The Year We Left Home

It seems like forever since I read a book, and that’s probably because it has been. The last book I finished was Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, A Widow’s Story, oh, a month and a half ago. I’ve been frequenting the library like old times lately, and I picked up Jean Thompson’s The Year We Left Home. She’s written familiar books such as Do Not Deny Me and Throw Like a Girl. It was on display on the New Books table and because of it’s interesting cover (so sue me!), I picked it up. Don’t you love the lack of consequences when you impulse grab things at the library? Me too.

Thompson’s novel is structured by year and character. Throughout the novel, we travel to different parts of the country, getting good clues as to the political and economic climate of the country as well as the family that the novel chronicles. Thompson is strongest when she’s in the characters’ minds. Each section is written in third person limited, and the outcome is beautiful. Set in a rural farmtown in Iowa, the story starts out in 1973, mostly between Ryan and his cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Their exchange in Ryan’s truck, smoking weed, takes place as much in what Ryan doesn’t say as in what the two do say to one another. This introduction to both characters sets up an understanding of the family they come from that is essential to the novel.

My favorite part about the novel’s structure was the way it dipped in and out of each character’s life, showed us glimpses that we return to later in the book, decades later. The first half of the novel’s sections end cliffhanger style. There’s a build-up of suspense that creates a sort of sigh of relief sensation when you realize you’ve reached the half of the book that ties up those loose endings. But there is nothing particularly neat about Thompson’s ties. There are lives forever changed by tragedy that we get to see once the initial support of the community dies down and the family is left to fend for itself. We are not present for every character’s trajectory of growth, and so it seems that it’s the circumstances rather than the journey that Thompson wanted us to focus on. Once history begins, there is no changing it until you are on the other side of it, still alive.

I read this book in less than two weeks. It wasn’t too demanding as far as focus, so it’d make a good beach or commute read. Up next is Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life. Guh, doesn’t the title just give you goosebumps?!

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One Story Throwback: Tornado Bandit

We had some scary storms yesterday in Massachusetts. The town where my boyfriend works got hit pretty hard, and today my thoughts are with all of those in Springfield, Monson, Westfield, and other towns that were affected by the tornadoes last night. Cambridge didn’t get much more than some rain and cloudy skies, but it was kind of a nail-biter with all of the news coverage and Mike’s phone battery on the fritz. Glad to say all is well with him.

My apartment is kind of a mess these days, with roommates moving out and a new roommie moving in. Last night was spent watching the news and cleaning up for the transition. During the reorganization, I found all of my old One Story magazines that I hadn’t yet read. This morning I found one in the kitchen (not sure how it got there) titled “The Tornado Bandit” by Anne Corbitt. I thought, Maybe it’s a sign, and read it on the train this morning. I’d read it before, but it was a welcome re-read.

Corbitt’s characters are the richest part of the narrative, which says a lot since the story is rife with mystery, adventure, and CIA secret agents. The story begins with this scene: The Miltons return home from Tennessee to find their house ransacked and a dead body in their guest bathroom. The struggle didn’t originate in their home, however, having busted through two other houses before ending in theirs. This brings together three very different couples: The Miltons who have settled into a cookie cutter lifestyle; the Billings who can safely be referred to as the rednecks with big money signs in their eyes; and the Finkelsteins, the Orthodox Jewish couple from down the street. Leah Finkelstein witnessed the Tornado Bandit and his later victim struggling in her home; the experience eventually drives her mad.

But rather than a mystery these couples can figure out, the Tornado Bandit becomes something else. The Miltons, particularly Carl, realize how boring their life has become and how little they have left of it. Late night rides in the cars off the car lot where Carl works and stints at the casinos in North Carolina become a regular occurrence for the couple that’s been shocked out of their routine.

The Billings, prompted by an invitation from Oprah, want to pursue a singing career for Tanya. The Finkelsteins deal with their own, tragic kind of change. Leah Finkelstein loses her grip on reality more and more, until finally she is tranquilized and numbed to the world around her.

The story has a surreal quality to it, like the Tornado Bandit somehow stopped time for these three couples, and we are watching their actions in the interim. The story ends with time picking back up again, ironically with the slowdown of the Miltons’ lives, the disappearance of the Billings, and the silence from the Finkelsteins’ house.

There is an eerie quality to Corbitt’s writing, and also a real sense of her characters that allows their faults and dreams to mix together to create a fullness admirable in such a short story. Want to read the story? Check out One Story‘s archives or leave me a comment with your favorite characters and why, and I’ll send you my copy. I’ll pick a winner and send the copy out next week. Don’t forget to leave an email where I can reach you!

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Friday Reads: “Fact of Life” at fwriction:review

 It’s been a slow week for me as far as Short Story Month updates go. Came into the office today because I’m getting picked up from here, which meant two fewer hours of sleep than I usually get on Thursday nights. To better ease myself into the day, I decided to take a quick fiction break this morning and read “Fact of Life” by Alison Barker at fwriction : review.
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Can’t get enough Staccato Fiction

Even when I’m busy, but I need that bit of a pick-me-up, Staccato Fiction is always there for me. If I sound like an addict, it’s because I am. Today I read “Those Plums,” but there’s no author name credited! I’ll try and figure this out, and update you on who’s responsible for this little gem. (Update 5/20: I just went to the Staccato Fiction site and saw that the story is credited now! Thanks, Harley Crowley for a lovely story.)

Reminiscent of Julio Cortazar a la “Blow Up and Other Stories,” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the world in “Those Plums” quickly shifts from recognizable to slightly distorted. It’s like those seemingly identical pictures side-by-side where one of them is slightly different. The story’s world after the second paragraph is slightly different. Slowly we begin to realize something is not right, along with the narrator. The other character in the story – inexplicably gaunt – is explaining his predicament, and his voice (I could hear it) is weak with his inexplicable exhaustion. All we know is that it began happening after he ate “all those plums.” The narrator continues to relate to this new world as though it were the old, recognizable one, and is met with further unmistakable clues that, no, this is no place that she knows.

Whomever this author is, s/he did an incredible job of building up a reality that gets knocked down so quickly. Four paragraphs! That’s all s/he needed to knock my socks off.

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What I’ll be reading very soon.

Like I’ve said I keep saying, I’m almost done with the Oates memoir. Last night, I picked up two books from the library to ease my fear that I will be without reading material while I’m away again this weekend. Both of my picks are short story collections to continue my celebration of Short Story Month 2011, and to hopefully find some fodder for more short story reviews. What’s on the docket? I’m glad you asked…
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A Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka

 It’s sunny out! I took advantage of working from home today and went for a little walk to the coffeeshop here in Ludlow, The Radical Roaster. It’s adorable and serves peanut butter + nutella lattes. It was the perfect inspiration to get reading and writing today, to start off the weekend right!

As a continued celebration of Short Story Month 2011, I revisited Franz Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist.” I was reminded of this story in Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story, which I’m currently reading. The story is amply available on the internet.

David Foster Wallace talked about Kafka’s humor in his speech, aptly titled, “Laughing with Kafka.” He talked about how many of his literature students missed the point, that Kafka was painfully funny, but not in the way many people these days are funny: Continue reading

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Story of the Day from Storyville

The truth is, I haven’t been taking advantage of my Storyville app as much as I should be. Last night, wired from an ill-advised cup of coffee at my writing group, I read “Ms. Yamada’s Toaster” by Kelly Luce. What a great story to fall asleep after.

Luce’s tale has several facets: Superstition, mortality, mob mentality. It’s the ultimate curiosity-killed-the-cat story, except in this case, humans are the cat and the curiosity is morbid, about the way in which they will actually be killed. The story is set in China, narrated by a child who makes deliveries for his father’s liquor store and retrieves the empty bottles from the customers.
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