Adventures in Reading

More Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie

Best: x American: x Short: 14 Story: x
From Crazyhorse, Karen Brown’s “Galatea” is a fluttering into the life of Margaret Mary Bell. A college student in upstate New York, she discovers a romantic allure for William after meeting at a park. It’s a relationship of need and William’s past is disclosed in segments throughout the story. Eventually William leaves and Margaret discovers him to be the “Collegetown Creeper,” and the reader is left to wonder about Margaret’s own creeping.

My one glaring annoyance with this story is the first sentence: “I married William in upstate before he turned out to be the Collegetown Creeper.” In a story of suggestion and unresolved issues, I felt the first sentence gave it all away. Also, as a reader I found the sentence somewhat bulky in contrast to Brown’s otherwise gorgeous prose. Brown delivers beautiful environmental description providing a lot of effect for the weather and landscape of the region. These more concrete descriptions well-balanced the more understated themes of the story.

Best: x American: x Short: 20 Story: x
From The Missouri Review, Katie Chase’s “Man and Wife” is a conventional story with an increasingly dangerous edge: pre-adolescent Mary Ellen has been contracted into a marriage by her parents. The reader’s shocked response is met by a smooth narrative that introduces us to a world of traditional customs overlaying a childhood of Barbies and elementary school. In an absurd coming-of-age story, Chase alters our reality.

Reading like a cross between Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Lois Lowry’s The Giver, Chase has written an off-kilter tale combining normalcy and foreignness: it’s a story of child brides, arranged marriages, and recycling bins. In Chase’s comments, she mentions being influenced by Edith Wharton and her own desire to create a story within author-made constraints. I was also impressed, as this is Chase’s first published work, and the first story in the collection by a “non-professional.”

Best: ? American: x Short: 12 Story: x
From The Paris Review, Danielle Evan’s “Virgins” is the story of Jasmine, Michael, and Erica. These three teenagers deal with the stress of summer, relationships, and sex. In an evening of being adult, Jasmine leads the way to an adult club through the use of fake I.D.s. Erica and Michael are resistant, they participate in the evening. Only Erica and Jasmine make it into the club and the evening escalates into a dangerous and curious foray in adult sexuality.

An okay story, but not best perhaps. I liked the story and where it went. I liked that Evans provided a female character that could make mistakes, witness the mistakes she was making, but not necessarily lead to a cruel conclusion. The story was thoughtful if not thought-provoking, it was well-written, I sympathized with the characters, and in most everywhere it was a perfect example of a short story but I wasn’t moved by it.

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Half Way There!

It being July 1st, it is roughly half way through the year and I decided to spend some time looking back at my reading progress so far for 2008 and commenting on some of the more notable books I had adventures with.

I read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad back in January and I loved it. It kicked off my experience with the Canongate Myth series, which I have been increasingly fond of with the more I read. Since reading it though, I have stumbled across a fair amount of less enthusiastic and more critical reviews. While I still find the book charming and is one of my preferred Atwood books, I do feel I must add the disclaimer that I read The Penelopiad shortly after I finished a course on “great literature” with a rather narrow-minded if not misogynistic professor.

In February I was completely enchanted and enthralled with Kelly Link’s Magic For Beginners. It was a book I picked up on a whim and ordered through Amazon before I had even finished it. This collection of short stories was located in fantasy and science fiction, but I suppose a more descriptive (and somewhat imaginary) genre would be something like contemporary surrealism. Whatever it is though, Link’s book is good and I see many a Christmas stocking in my future I will be filling with it. And, her latest collection available for free here.

In March I read some really terrific books ranging from Haruki Murakami to Terry Pratchett. But I don’t even have to twist my arm to settle on my favorite and most influential book being Words in Context (previously known as Japanese for Japanese) by Takao Suzuki. Reading the book was enjoyable though there were certainly some more grueling moments digging through this commentary on linguistics and language. However, during the past six months this has to be one of the books I refer to the most. Additionally, it gave me an entirely new and more inspiring way to look at learning languages.

I expanded my J.D. Salinger experience in April with reading his short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish” from his Nine Stories collection. Until 2008, my experience with Salinger was limited to Catcher in the Rye, but I finally got around to reading Franny and Zooey and dug into Nine Stories for my personal short story reading challenge. It’s a brilliant short story that is… it’s just so perfect. And I got some terrific comments on other people’s experience with the story as well.

Perhaps a bit of a surprise as I read some really great books in May, but I have to say one of the best was Anisha Lakhani’s Schooled, which if not available yet will be out for public consumption over the next few weeks. I typically have a ridiculously horrible time when it comes to popular literature and picked up an ARC of Schooled at work to ease my brain. Though I had to twist my own arm into just enjoying a book for enjoyment sake, I was pleasantly surprised to find myself eagerly turning the page and getting pretty involved with the main character. It’s still the middle of summer and Schooled is an excellent book to spend some time with on a lovely day.

First Step in the New World by David Lida is a brilliant book that I read last month. An eclectic collection of essays exploring some of the many nuances of Mexico City, Lida has provided much more than a piece of travel writing with book. Lida spends time looking at the politics, socio-cultural, food, entertainment, gender studies – the book has just about anything. Whether you’re interested specifically in Mexico City, in modern architecture, or are just looking to expand your horizons Lida’s book is terrific. Perhaps my favorite part of the text is Lida’s actual voice, which makes Mexico City sound so tantalizing I want to hop on the next flight and buy Lida a beer.

The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood

I had a love and hate relationship with Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride while reading it and at least twice I closed the book and swore I had given up. The Robber Bride is the story of four women and how their lives since college days in Toronto have intertwined and fragmented. Tony, Charis and Roz are three women whose lives have all been disturbed by Zenia. Zenia is an aggressor and in the battle of the sexes she has sworn allegiance to no one but herself. She is the other woman, the woman that doesn’t get or at least chooses not to follow the unspoken rules of women and men and relationships.

It would be easy to dislike Zenia if it weren’t for the fact that the men she possesses – Tony’s husband, Charis’ boyfriend, Roz’s husband – are creeps for one reason or another. They are men highly dependent on the women in their lives but are simultaneously abusive towards them. These are men who take advantage of the women in their lives, but perhaps what is worse is that these are women – Tony, Charis and Roz – who know what is happening to them but decide to stick with it. Ultimately the only reason one can really dislike Zenia is because of her brutal honesty in exploiting these men’s weaknesses and forcing these women to come to terms with what they already know.

The character detail and development in The Robber Bride was excruciating. It is what made me put the book down from exhaustion but also drove me to return to the novel. The character investigation into Tony’s, Charis’ and Roz’s lives goes into minute details that creates three stunningly developed characters. What I discovered was that short engagements with the book are all I could handle and any attempt to spend a great deal of time with the book was a failure. For example, the first 100 pages are divided into thirds and each section follows Tony, Charis or Roz up to the exact moment when they meet for lunch. I can’t even remember the last time I read a book so driven by character development.

The idea of women protecting men from such predatory women as Zenia has an important focus in the book. But then, why should she care? At the same time, Tony, Charis, and Roz explore the idea of the unreasonableness of love. These women know they are strong and intelligent but still find themselves latched to the dependency for these men.

Previously I’ve read The Penelopiad and The Handmaid’s Tale by Atwood and enjoyed both of these novels. I must confess though that I found The Robber Bride rather unwieldly, but perhaps I missed out on appreciating some of its finer points. Regardless though, I find myself a bit reluctant to return to Atwood any time soon.

Other opinions: Trish’s Reading Nook.