Adventures in Reading

Short Stories: Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, 2008
December 10, 2008, 11:55 am
Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: , , ,

Of contemporary short story authors Kelly Link is one of my favorites. I fell in love with her collection Magic For Beginners and was pleased to discover this most recent collection Pretty Monsters in the young adult section. The collection includes stories from her previous collections, previously published stories, and the title story “Pretty Monsters” is unique to the book. Link includes fantasy, supernatural, and horror in the book as well as zombies, teen angst, and a 200-year-old grandmother. And as always Link’s ever-precise language usage has somewhat of a haunting effect on the book.

Where Pretty Monsters stands apart from Link’s other collections is that it includes some lengthier stories in quite different styles. For example the “The Wizards of Perfil” or “The Constable of Abal” are more reminiscent and thematically similar to traditional fantasy stories while in the past her fiction has been more skewed, more surreal. Some of the longer tales have made me curious if Link is possibly considering a novel, but personally I’m satisfied with the short stories: so please keep them coming!

Conclusion: Keeper.


Fiction: Arsenic Soup for Lovers by Georgia Z. Post, 2008

Georgia Z. Post’s short story collection Arsenic Soup For Lovers is a self-published collection from iUniverse. It’s a thin book at only 62 pages with 25 stories. With a bit of an Elizabeth Berg feel to them, the rather bare bone stories look at affairs, marriage, and middle age.

These stories are Reader’s Digest-esque and rely on “zinger” endings. I grinned a couple times but overall the collection is very formulaic. Some of the ideas are interesting, but the collection would have greatly benefited from some further workshopping.

I think I’ve learned my lesson to stay away (far away) from iUniverse.

Conclusion: Tossed.

(Available at Bookmooch.)

Other opinions: BookZombie, The Things We Read, and Diary of an Eccentric,

Short Stories: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: ? American: x Short: 14.5 Story: x
From The Atlantic, Bradford Tice’s “Missionaries” is about two boys within the Mormon Church who are field operatives in converting new members. Like military recruiters with statistical goals, the older of the boys confronts possible converts with a terrible ferocity while the younger boy develops a crush on this more mature figure.

In Bradford’s comments, he mentions that Mormonism is not meant to be the center piece of his story, but how can it not be? The story is interesting and exemplifies the hypocrisy that can surface from religious practitioners, and it’s even given me pause to consider it a few days after finishing the story. But I have to wonder how it’s a “best” story if it doesn’t fulfill the author’s objective?

Best: ? American: x Short: 13 Story: x
From The Antioch Review, Mark Wisniewski’s “Straightaway” is told through an African American male voice and describes a life of brushing against achievement and success, but ultimately falling short. Three friends, with their high school basketball glory days behind them, are hired to remove a barrel from a woman’s property and are paid a large sum of money in doing so as long as they ask no questions. The three end up at the race track considering their position.

The hovering anticipation of the story is will they be caught? They were seen abandoning the barrel and the paranoia of the occasion is apparent throughout the story. It was a so-so story and I didn’t really care for it.

Best: ? American: x Short: 11 Story: x
From The Atlantic, Tobias Wolff’s “Bible” is the culture class between a white and female teacher instructing at a Catholic school and the Arabic and immigrant father of one of her pupils. Both characters come equipped with a good deal of baggage, and the father recklessly confronts the teacher with the suggestion of violence in regards to his sons academic problems.

Tobias Wolff is a name I hear and see frequently and his short story “Bible” was my first experience with him, and between this and “Missionaries'” by Tice, I don’t think I’ll be picking up The Atlantic. I don’t like my short stories to be obvious and I found myself scanning this tale because of it.

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Short Stories: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: ? American: x Short: 14 Story: x
From Zoetrope: All-Story, Karen Russell’s “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” is about two vampires subsisting off of lemons within a church’s grove that is also a tourist attraction.

Have I mentioned before I’m not really that big into the whole vampire thing? I know I mostly enjoyed what I read of the Twilight series and Dracula gave me tingles, but as a reader I feel when a writer utilizes a pop icon such as vampires that a whole lot is demanded to make it a worthwhile read. Russell’s story was cute, but not compelling.

Best: x American: x Short: 7 Story: x
From The New Yorker, George Saunders’ “Puppy” is an interesting class clash between two families: one middle-class family seeking a puppy and one lower-class family desperately trying to give away their puppy. Saunders provides interesting internal snippets into the mothers’ minds. Saunders cites his spark of influence as he once drove through a neighborhood and his family caught a glimpse of a boy in a backyard with a leash on.

While other stories deal with class in this collection, Saunders specifically created a woman who has crossed classes and how she deals with this. Perhaps it just reminds me of my own class conscious mother?

Best: ? American: x Short: 12 Story: x
From New England Review, Christine Sneed’s “Quality of Life” is the story of Lindsay and how she finds herself swept up into an affair with an older and relatively unknown man. Lindsay’s story is a life of relinquishing control of one’s own life to others (such as this man and her family). By the end of the story, it seems that Lindsay is completely under the influence of this man.

I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed where it headed, but why (as a rhetorical question to the story as a whole)? Short stories often examine an occasion or sequence of events, but it’s curious which ones are chosen. Often they’re points of considerable stress or change. The reader is introduced to Lindsay after she has already started losing control of her life to her own family, and we just continue to see a more thorough process with this mystery man. However, I didn’t feel there was enough reasoning to why Lindsay could not stop or get herself out of the situation.

Short Story: Kelly Link’s The Specialist’s Hat

The current short story discussion at A Curious Singularity is on Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat,” and as I’m the one who suggested the title, I thought I ought to get around to posting on it!

I discovered Kelly Link by accident. I was looking for something good, fun, and fantasy-esque to read and I stumbled across Magic For Beginners. I then found myself a little in love with Link.

“The Specialist’s Hat” has a great deal going on through theme, build-up, and playing on some of the creepier aspects of childhood. Twins Samantha and Claire are “half-orphaned” after their mother passes away and now find themselves with their academic father, whose researching a “bad” and little-known faux poet Rash, living in the haunted house and museum Eight Chimneys. The story is interspersed with the poetry of Rash and narrative describing the house.

What could have been an obvious story is told with a certain children’s quality, a simplistic view, and a child’s observation. The story unfolds matter of factly, but flows into the unresolved ending that Link so often uses.

As a reader, it’s curious to investigate what’s real and what’s not real within “The Specialist’s Hat,” and Link provides well-balanced detail that never resolves this issue: Who is the woman in the woods? Is the baby sitter the dead daughter of Rash? What is the specialist’s hat? Is that the Specialist or really the father? What the hell is the Specialist? Is this a story about the over active imagination of two bored, little girls staying up late and ultimately recovering from the recent death of their mother or is Eight Chimneys truly a haunted house with a “gonna getcha” ending?

Nonfiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2008

If you’re interested in running, or interested in writing, or interested in Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* is “a kind of memoir centered on the act of running” that’s both an enjoyable and thoughtful read. Through this collection of essays and comprehensive journal entries, Murakami reflects on his start at running and novel writing, and how running has affected his life as a novelist.

I wouldn’t say What I Talk About… is one of Murakami’s most enlightening or brilliant works and it doesn’t have a mass appeal, but it does offer a curious insight into his life as an author. With the odd philosophical asides, this was a book I enjoyed and that inspired me to run (despite the cold!) and has re-interested me in reading more of Murakami’s works.

*A play on a Raymond Carver’s short story collection entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Fiction: More Best American Short Stories 2008

Best: x American: ? Short: 12 Story: ?
From The New Yorker, Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “Nawabdin Electrician” is a biographical tale of Nawab, a Pakastani electrician trying to make a living for his large family in the 1970s. Through imaginative cajoling, Nawab talks his employer into giving him a motorcycle, which leads Nawab into both trouble and danger.

Is this American? Is this a story? As it was originally published in The New Yorker, Rushdie counts this as American, which I think is completely appropriate. But more interesting this is the first piece that I had to wonder whether or not it was a “story.” The tale is based off of a family friend of the author, and is based on real happenings. In that sense it’s biographical and nonfiction; it’s also worth considering how much of an author’s own life flourishes in his work. What is fiction if not a reinterpretation of reality?

Best: x American: ? Short: ? Story: x
From Harper’s Magazine, Alice Munro’s “Child’s Play” is an enthralling story of Canadian childhood, children’s experience with disability and otherness, and the dark cruelty that children are capable of.

Dear Alice Munro: Where have you been all of my life? Though this is my first experience with Munro, she is a prolific writer, which I’m looking forward to reading. “Child’s Play” was one of the longer pieces in the collection and deviates from the standard 20ish pages of the rest of the book. In contrast though, Munro had the shortest snippet of commentary out of all the author’s comments.

Best: x American: x Short: 12 Story: x
From The Southern Review, Miroslav Penkov’s “Buying Lenin” is a multi-generational story of an Eastern European grandson moving to the U.S.A. for school and leaving his grandfather behind. What unfolds is a beautiful and amusing dialog between grandfather and grandson, communism and capitalism.

Penkov is a young writer in both age and experience, (Seriously, Munro is a tough one to follow!) but “Buying Lenin” is such a brilliant story and I had one of those lovely and embarrassing moments while reading it as I laughed out loud in a room full of quiet people.