Monthly Archives: March 2016

Weird Short Stories: American-style and Russian-style

Hall of Small MammalsPetrushevskaya

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce

2014. Riverhead Books. Hardcover. 294 pages.

Recommendation from: Outlandish Lit

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers.

2009. Penguin. Paperback. 206 pages.

Recommendation from: it was included in one of Eva’s Library Loot vlogs


Of the four books I was eyeing for this month’s #weirdathon (hosted by Julianne of Outlandish Lit), I read two, and they were both collections of short stories.

Thomas Pierce is a young American author and Hall of Small Mammals is his book debut. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is a Russian author in her late 70’s who has had a long literary career. There Once Lived A Woman . . . served as a major entrance of her work into the American publishing scene.


 

I found Hall of Small Mammals to be really delightful and satisfying to read. The first story, “Shirley Temple Three” starts off on a good foot; it’s about a woman whose adult son asks her to keep a small mammoth at her house for a while. I loved watching the main character bond with her unusual charge. I was going to list all of my favorite stories in this review, until I realized that would mean two-thirds of the stories. I feel like I should focus on the weird stories since this was a #weirdathon pick, like “More Soon” where a man receives regular updates from the State Department on the whereabouts of his brother’s highly infectious dead body. But I also found the non-weird stories like “Felix Not Arriving” and “Ba Baboon” to be very compelling, especially the brother-sister relationship in the latter story. Perhaps the real treat of the collection is “Videos of People Falling Down” which is a string of tiny interconnected stories that are all preceded with click-bait internet video titles like People Falling on Snow/Ice Funny!!!

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Outlandish Lit – “My only issue with these wonderfully strange stories was that a lot of them just kind of stopped.”

Six-Demon Messenger Bag – “what makes them so good is not the bizarre or the science, it’s that they are rooted in these terrific moments of human relationship dynamic.”

Tzu-Mainn Chen on Goodreads – “Stories are lean without being rushed, weighty without being presumptuous, emotional without being maudlin”.


 

There Once Lived A Woman . . . is subtitled Scary Fairy Tales, though I would personally classify many of the selection as ghost stories. Some of the stories were incredibly slight and not particularly memorable. However, there were a few that I found rather haunting. The nightmarish “Hygiene” follows the effect of a plague on one family. While there was probably a layer of cultural meaning I missed in “The New Robinson Crusoes: A Chronicle of the End of the Twentieth Century”, I did really like its semi-apocalyptic feel. In this story, a family retreats further and further from the threats of civilization, taking in other strays along the way. My favorite may have been “There’s Someone in the House” where a woman living by herself begins to feel like there is another occupant in the apartment and begins to purge her belongings in an increasing manic state. I really liked the ending of this story – there was a real restorative spirit to it. It may not be a coincidence that two out of the three stories feature a cat in an important role.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Benjamin from Goodreads – “If I had to pin it down, I’d say she’s really figured out the intersection of spookily unnerving contemporary fiction, folklore, and the ghost stories we still remember and re-tell, long after we stop believing in ghosts.”

Kayl Parker from Goodreads – “Some of the stories I found too romantic, or, as the book is actually labeled a Horror Collection, I found them too safe. There were a few . . . that no reader should miss.

Stephen Durrant from Goodreads – “the closest I can come in my own lexicon for a term to describe this collection is from classical Chinese: 志怪 zhiguai. Loosely translated, this means something like “accounts of the bizarre”

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Mini-reviews: Visual treats

The Arrival Shaun Tan

The Arrival by Shaun Tan. Published 2007.

Recommendation from: Regular Rumination

This gorgeous book is a wordless tale of immigration in a fantastical world. The dangers of immigrants’ homelands and the cultural strangeness of the new world are portrayed using otherworldly architecture, food, plants and creatures. In some things, one can parallel to the equivalent in our own world history, but Shaun Tan does not seem to be making everything into straightforward representative symbols. There’s quite a lot of room for whimsical expansion. It’s actually quite a moving book, especially in light of today’s fraught conversations about immigration.

Delta Deep Down Burdine

Delta Deep Down: Photographs by Jane Rule Burdine. Edited by Wendy McDaris. Introduction by Steve Yarbrough. Published 2008.

Recommendation from: Maggie Reads

I’ve been intrigued by the Delta region of Mississippi since reading Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding when I was in high school. I still haven’t visited, though I plan to. The photos in this collection were taken between the years of 1973 and 2006. The photo shown above was taken in 1989. The photo subjects are a good mix of people, buildings and landscapes. The selection and ordering of the photos was carefully done so that something in the right page photo subtly echoes something in the left page photo. It might be a similarity in color, or the composition, or a pattern. This was a lovely book to page through.

To see more of Jane Rule Burdine’s work, here is a link to a tumblr site:

Cat Getting Out of Bag

Cat Getting Out of a Bag and Other Observations: A Cat Book by Jeffrey Brown

Published 2007.

Recommendation: My notes say this recommendation came from Paperback Reader though I can’t seem to find the actual blog post. Simon from Stuck in the Book also likes it.

This cute little book is a collection of comic panels about common cat behavior: zooming around the house, knocking things over, getting under sheets during bed-making, folding themselves into a tidy loaf position, etc. I especially liked one page that was labeled “She Knows” and shows the owner packing a suitcase while the cat looks on. Very occasionally, I wasn’t quite sure what an illustration depicted, but for the most part, as someone who grew up with cats and owns a cat, I saw much that I recognized and could smile over.

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Weird Books from my past

I have completed one book for March’s #Weirdathon (hosted by Julianne of Outlandish Lit) and am currently reading another, and their reviews will come in a later post.

Today I wanted to reminisce about several weird books I read a few years before I started this blog. I’m going to steal liberally from my reviews that I did on livejournal and Goodreads – the approximate vintage of both the books and the reviews is 2005 – 2007.

 

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian

The Children’s Hospital has a premise that is incredibly strange: the world is destroyed overnight by a flood and the only survivors are the medical staff, patients, and patients’ families of an angelically-designed children’s hospital. This is just the beginning of the story. The main character, Jemma, is a not particularly competent medical student who ends up playing a pivotal role in the destinies of all the survivors.

The Children’s Hospital is a difficult (not to mention lengthy) book, and I thought of giving up several times. I’m glad that I did finish it, because the book is a work of brilliance and mad imagination that one doesn’t encounter often. It’s incredibly epic and has passages that will sweep you away.

The Children’s Hospital is a book that I can only recommend with caution – it does not shy away from the grotesque and the despairing. The book ends up ripping you to shreds and it’s hard to be enthusiastic about recommending that experience to anyone else. However, if you’re looking for a true adventure in reading, give it a shot.


 

With by Donald Harington

A young girl gets kidnapped and whisked away to a remote abandoned farm in the Ozarks. When her captor dies unexpectedly, she must learn to survive with the help of an intelligent dog named Hreapha and a ghostly-type presence called an inhabit, both of whom narrate some of the story. I really loved this one – I put it on my year-end favorite reads list. The author was an Ozark native and set nearly all of his books in and around a fictional Ozark town called Stay More.


 

The Zero by Jess Walter

A post-9/11 novel about a first responder who is hired by the government to gather together all the paper scattered in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers. The problem is that there are huge gaps in his memory and he keeps finding himself in increasingly strange places and in the middle of shady transactions, trying to piece it all together. I found this book suspenseful and clever but ultimately not satisfying in how it all ended.


 

Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz

Favorite Stories (The * marks my two absolute favorite) are listed below. I didn’t care for the other stories in the collection.

Flush – A daughter takes her resistant mother to the doctor’s for a mammogram. This story showcases one of the recurring themes in this book, that of the role reversal that occurs when children become adults and their parents become like children again.

Visitors – A daughter waiting at her home for her parents to arrive on a visit keeps receiving increasingly bizarre phone calls from her mother as their trip progresses.

*Saving Face – In a totalitarian society, an artist’s love for a webbed-feet swimmer ultimately dooms her – the swimmer – to a strange kind of imprisonment.

Miracle – A woman gives birth to a black baby but maintains that her husband (who is white) is still the father.

Sales – In a barren land, a man and his wife trap traveling salesman and keep them penned in their backyard. The man’s younger sister looks on with complicity at first until she gives way to a growing defiance.

*Motherland – An island of mothers proves to be a stultifying place for their daughters who grow up with the wrong ideas about the ways of men.


 

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell

This collection of stories mostly takes place on an island, somewhere near Florida. The stories are a bit surreal, full of strange customs like a camp for kids with sleeping problems (gnashers, somnabulists, sleep apniacs) or a retirement community where the elderly are housed in old boats. Russell often explores sibling relationships, as well as kids falling into friendships with trouble-making boys. Almost all of the stories end with a feeling of isolation and loneliness and this can make it hard to really want to continue to the next one.

Best stories: “Haunting Olivia” due to exquisitely written passages on ghost fish; “from Children’s Reminiscences of the Westward Migration” – the only story that I thoroughly liked.


 

Winkie by Clifford Chase

I did not in fact finish this one but its premise is so weird I feel compelled to mention it anyway. As the Goodreads synopsis says, it’s about a teddy bear who ends up on “the wrong side of America’s war on terror”. My small review that I wrote at the time: “I can tolerate some wackiness, but this one was way out there, even for me. Didn’t get far into it before I asked myself, am I remotely interested in what happens to this bear? The answer: no.

 

 

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The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

Water Knife Bacigalupi

2015. Knopf. ebook. 384 pages.

Recommendation from: Leslie of Regular Rumination

Review:

The Water Knife is one of those dystopian novels where the plausibility sucked me in right away. As Bacigalupi unhurriedly sets up the narratives of the three main characters, the details of the world-building provide the initial feelings of frisson. Scarcity of water has wreaked havoc on the American Southwest, and powerful figures use legal and extralegal means of acquiring rights to remaining water sources.

Bacigalupi releases small revelations about this future vision, often without ceremony. Mexico has been officially carved up into cartel states. Texas is no more. Chinese corporations have moved into derelict Southwestern cities and provide some of the few means for employment. People raise aid for the impoverished Southwest, but they restrict interstate migration.

The story takes place mostly in the city of Phoenix, which is teetering on the brink of dissolution. Angel Velasquez, right-hand man for the ruthless boss of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, has been sent to Phoenix to check on another of the boss’ projects. Meanwhile, Connecticut-born journalist Lucy Monroe – who has adopted Phoenix as her home – pursues a story she knows she should leave alone. And at the bottom of the Phoenix food-chain is Maria Villarosa, a smart teenage refugee from Texas who is running out of ways to survive.

The convergence of all three characters’ storylines was perfectly thrilling because, in a moment, everything escalates very very quickly, in the best way. All the preceding character and world-building provided the stakes so that when the novel gave itself over to action, I was invested. Death dogs the characters every step of the way, and there were no guarantees on any character making it to the end.

Going back to my attraction to the plausible: I liked, for example, that in The Water Knife, the U.S. government still exists and most of the states still exist as well, and that in other parts of the country, people were not living in near-apocalyptic conditions. The whole world doesn’t need to have gone down in flames for a dystopia to exist somewhere. Certainly, we already have places in the world that resemble Bacigalupi’s Phoenix.

I also appreciated the end of the novel. In a story where “saving the world” – even “saving Phoenix” – was never a real possibility, the best one can hope for is to live another day.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Rhapsody in Books – “Bacigalupi is a consistently intelligent, prescient, and compassionate writer. If we just stand by, as we are now, and watch it “all going to go to hell,” it won’t be for want of trying by Paolo Bacigalupi.”

So Many Books – “Bacigalupi does a marvelous job at character development and it is fascinating to watch each of the three main characters change over the course of the novel as their personal beliefs and illusions, hopes and dreams, are ripped away.”

Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It – “The characters spring to life easily, but maybe Angel is a bit too much of the typical semi-invincible hard guy hero. It’s not that he’s flat (not at all even), but he’s just so good in what he does. Then again, a lot of action packed books are about guys that have all the luck in the world”

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H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Some time after her father’s sudden death, English writer Helen Macdonald decided to train a female goshawk, who she named Mabel. Though experienced in falconry, Macdonald had never trained a goshawk, a bird with a reputation for being difficult. H is for Hawk explores the emotional territory of her grief as well as the emotional territory involved with training this hawk to trust her. Macdonald’s book also is partly biographical, as she recounts the life and falconry of author T.H. White.

I was glad that Macdonald was an experienced falconer, as it reassured me that there wasn’t anything “stunt-like” about her training the goshawk. She is able to explain the details and history of falconry in a way that has been digested through her own lifetime of experience.

There is a lot to love about her writing. I liked this quote in particular, which I think conveyed the nature of her grief:

There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.

Macdonald also shares some great vignettes from her training of Mabel. I liked the story of her conversation with a man from Kazakhstan, who is reminded of his home country as he looks at Macdonald’s goshawk.

Macdonald is fond of descriptive passages with rich vocabulary. It can be quite beautiful, but sometimes it tipped over into being too much for me. I was reading the book on my Kindle and came across a landscape description that included the phrase “the argillaceous shimmer of tinder-fine clay.” Unfamiliar with the word “argillaceous”, I looked up the definition, and found it meant “clay-like” or “containing clay” – a pretty redundancy. It was instances like that where the writing became a little too ornamental for my tastes.

I struggled with the passages about T.H. White. I hadn’t realized they would comprise so much of the book. Once I realized that H is for Hawk was almost a dual narrative between Macdonald’s story and T.H. White’s, I tried to adjust my expectations accordingly. But I just was not very interested in White’s story, and these passages often seemed like retellings of his book The Goshawk and the journals he wrote about his falconry attempt. I started off the book thinking I was going to love H is for Hawk, but the T. H. White sections really dragged down my overall reading experience.

I can totally see why others loved it though, because it is a finely written book and others may find T. H. White as fascinating as Macdonald does.

Excerpt from others’ reviews:

BooksPlease – “This a book unlike any other that I’ve read, about wildness, grief and mourning, and obsession, which made it heavy reading for me.”

Memories from Books – “[The writing] captures the fierceness of the hawk itself; the depth of Helen MacDonald’s connection with the hawk; her despair; her single-minded focus on the hawk that deflects her grief, and the occasional moments of peace.”

Olduvai Reads – “Is it memoir? Nature writing? Literary? It’s a little of everything and it is brilliant.”

Also, I liked this review by dovegreyreader scribbles, who wasn’t getting on with the book in her first couple of tries, but ended up really connecting with it.

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