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Savory Stories

Reader, I Married Him Amazon

Reader, I Married Him: Stories Inspired by Jane Eyre; Edited by Tracy Chevalier (An Anthology; William Morrow, $15.99, 304 pages)

The concept of a short story collection is not new. What is new, at least to this reviewer, is the breadth of topics covered by the 21 well-known female authors who contributed to the collection titled, Reader, I Married Him. The variety of voices and themes of these short stories are tied to the quote from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

Jane Eyre is a favorite of many readers and as such is an excellent jumping off point or conclusion for authors. Tracy Chevalier, also a celebrated author as well as the editor of this collection, sets up the premise in her forward. Each story has its own pace and locale; however, all of them touch on the premise set forth in the book’s title. A wide variety of cultures are woven into the book. Many are indicative of the author’s roots. Most of the authors are English-speaking and based in the UK, Canada and the USA. Also, many of them are professors at well-regarded institutions of higher learning.

Reader, I Married Him back cover

Reader, I Married Him is not a breezy read to be tucked in with one’s swimsuit and sandals along with sunblock and a floppy hat. Rather, it is meant to be deliciously savored one story at a time. A brisk read may be confusing and cheat the reader out of the quirky and sometimes deeply moving sentiments offered by these masters of their craft.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by HarperCollins Publishers. This book will be released on Tuesday, March 22, 2016.

Reader, I Married Him

These are the writers who contributed to Reader, I Married Him: Tracy Chevalier, Tessa Hadley, Helen Dunmore, Kirsty Gunn, Joanna Briscoe, Jane Gardam, Emma Donoghue, Susan Hill, Francine Prose, Elif Shafak, Evie Wyld, Patricia Park, Salley Vickers, Nadifa Mohamed, Esther Freud, Linda Grant, Sarah Hall, Lionel Shriver, Audrey Niffenegger, Namwall Serpell, and Elizabeth McCracken.

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On a Carousel

To Begin Again: Stories by Jen Knox (All Things That Matter Press, $15.99, 139 pages)

Jen Knox, author of the memoir Musical Chairs, has crafted a selection of short stories about life’s small and big surprises.   These tales remind us that life is what happens while you’re making other plans.

Knox can write:  “…when Wallace would glance over at his son, he saw, finally, the boy’s ability to appreciate the silence as much as he did, and he knew that the boy was learning, finally beginning to understand how important it is to be still.”   And the best of the stories (“The Probability of Him”) call to mind Maile Meloy and Alethea Black.   Some of the stories (“The Millers,” “Cheers”), however, go  nowhere.

This is a themed compilation about life’s lessons.   What seems to be missing is the overall message that the reader is supposed to take away from the experience of reading them.   I felt as if I had listened to a concept record album, with a few excellent songs, many average ones, and a handful of throw aways.   This raises another issue with Knox’s writing.   While she has a uniquely strong voice, it’s never a singular one.   If this were music, I’d say that some of the songs were too loud, some too soft and what was missing is the pleasing mid-range tone that the human ear desires to hear.

Perhaps To Begin Again is the writing exercise that Knox needed to undertake before tacking a debut novel.   If so, this reader believes that she has the potential to deliver one of general interest; although, there will be those who will continue to find her view of life a bit too harsh and gritty.

If you like reading the works of a writer who has not yet been toned down by the publishing industry, you may well enjoy the stories in To Begin Again.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted courtesy of San Francisco Book Review.   To Begin Again is also available as a Kindle Edition or Nook Book download.   “…a unique collection of stories that urges us to examine the complex wounds and wonderments of the human experience.”   Beth Hoffman, author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt.

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Radar Love

Gateways: An Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Anne Hull (Tor Books, $15.99, 416 pages)

“The Federation is old, and it had gotten old by minimizing change…  The emergence of humans had disturbed the Galactic balance; change had occurred, and the Federation didn’t like change.”

This is quite simply a feast for science fiction fans!   Gateways is a collection of new science fiction stories and tributes – including essays and poetry – by 18 authors in the style of Frederick Pohl.   Pohl long ago wrote a seminal creative novel called Gateway, and he was perhaps the first to predict the current day realities of personal computers and mobile phones.

Many of the tales in this collection focus on futuristic space travel and wars between alien cultures.   One of the best, and clearly unique, stories (Shadows of the Lost) is about an encounter between very early humans and Neanderthals.   It’s an unexpected twist.   Another (Chicken Little), about a future in which only billionaires can afford to extend their natural life spans, is eerily effective.

Not all of the stories work, however.   Gunn’s Tales – about spaceship travel – is one that goes on far too long and fails to arrive anywhere.   Star Trek it is not.

Frederick Pohl is now 90.   He was a contemporary of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Kurt Vonnegut.   In his day, he won all of science fiction’s major awards (Hugos, Nebulas, the SFWA Grand Master Award) for his writing.   This worthy tribute compilation should put Pohl’s name on the radar for younger readers who are just coming to appreciate the many textures and flavors of science fiction.   Welcome!

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

Reprinted coutesty of San Francisco Book Review.   Gateways was released in trade paper form on July 5, 2011.   “…a must-buy for science fiction readers of all tastes,  from the traditional to the cutting-edge, from the serious to the laugh-out-loud funny.”   Amazon

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100 Years

Click on the link below to read the story Chicken Little by Cory Doctorow, excerpted from Gateways, an anthology of original science fiction stories inspired by Frederick Pohl.   (“No wonder they all stayed away from the office.”)

http://www.tor.com/stories/2011/04/chicken-little

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Driven to Tears

i-knew-youd-be-lovely

I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black (Broadway, $14.00, 240 pages)

“I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.”

Consider a formula for producing a promising new writer: the courage of Jane Mendelsohn and Emily St. John Mandel; the calm and precise voice of Maile Meloy; the microscopic focus of Joan Didion; and the world-weary irony of Roald Dahl.   This just about sums up what you get with Alethea Black, the author of this new collection of short stories; a collection that stands up well alongside Meloy’s Both Ways is The Only Way I Want It.

Meloy wrote about people who wanted more than they were offered in their life’s current circumstances.   Black writes about people who are at the end of the dock, ready to jump into the water.   They’re not sure that a change is going to improve their life – they only know that life cannot continue the way it is.   Her stories take us to the point where each character is about to experience a major change.   We’re never quite sure as to whether the change is for the better, as her characters have disdained the need to look before they leap.   In a sense, she writes about people who have been driven to tears and near madness, either by their past imperfect actions or sheer inertia.   Now, they’re going to improve their lives even if its kills them.

Black writes on a very human scale, without exaggeration; however, as with Dahl, her stories are sometimes symbolic of both larger and smaller things.   And, as with Dahl’s short stories, there’s often a sense of unreality just off-stage – as if we’re going to be surprised by something unexpected any second now.

The weaknesses in this compilation might best be explained by analogy.   If it were a record album, this reviewer would state that the songs were placed in imperfect order.   And the weakest song (story) was selected for the title.   Instead of, I Knew You’d Be Lovely – a tale about a young woman who attempts to select the perfect birthday present for her boyfriend, and comes up with something extremely unexpected – a better selection would have been the second of the thirteen tracks (stories) which was earlier published in Narrative magazine, The Only Way Out is Through.   (On a bookshelf, The Only Way Out is Through would sit well next to Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.   Case closed.)

“Law school had been the classic intellectual sanctuary from certain practical considerations.   Then it had ended, and he’d needed to make a living.   So here he was.”

Despite a few minor issues, I Knew You’d Be Lovely is an impressive offering, from a strong new voice, of stories about life’s desperation.   If Ms. Black has a fault it is that her coiled strength is never fully let loose…  There’s a sense of structure that’s a bit too quiet and organized (and intellectually proper) from this Harvard-educated writer who quite likely has the ability to “roar like forest fire” when she’s ready.   Perhaps she’ll roar when she releases her debut novel.

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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Coming Up Next…

A review of I Knew You’d Be Lovely: Stories by Alethea Black.

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On the Border

The Madonnas of Echo Park: A Novel by Brando Skyhorse (Free Press, $14.00, 240 pages)

“A work of fiction is an excellent place for a confession.”

To be truthful, this is a collection of short stories with a common theme, not a novel.   As author Skyhorse makes clear in the introductory author’s note (items which always take away more than they add to the reading experience), one of the stories is based on something that happened to him in grade school.   At the time Skyhorse presumed that he was a Native American and, thus, refused to dance with a young girl who was Mexican.   Since that time the author, who has worked as an editor in the publishing industry, has learned that he is in fact primarily Mexican-American.   This collection of stories, then, is intended to honor the culture – and the people – he once snubbed.   It is an act of contrition, of penitence.

In the eyes of this reviewer, this collection worked a bit more than half of the time but was not fully successful.   On the positive side, Skyhorse gives life to people on the peripheries of Los Angeles who are often invisible.   They are the house cleaners, the bus boys, the hotel maids, and the daily contractors who scrape along in L.A. without set plans for their future.   Many of them are Hispanics (who have displaced African-Americans but themselves are threatened by newly arriving Asians) from Mexico or Mexican-Americans born in the U.S.   As Skyhorse makes clear, these are the people who take buses to work across the great expanses of L.A. and their lives tend to be at the mercy of factors beyond their control.

“The areas around St. Vincent (Hospital) and MacArthur Park are Latino; some Mexicano, some Salvadoran.   A new influx of Koreans hit the area several years ago, but there aren’t enough of them yet for tension.”

The short tales are interesting and make for relatively fast reading.   But I did not find the boldness, the vividness in the telling that some have focused on.   If anything, Skyhorse too often writes in the style of Junot Diaz and Oscar Hijuelos, as if starkness and drama and scenes that are a bit too descriptive – and occasionally disorderly – are essential to Hispanic writing.   This is offered as a critical point because a number of the tales were just this side of charming, and that charm was lost in the translation to grittiness.

Hispanic readers – and most especially those who have lived in L.A. – are likely going to see these tales as non-exceptional reflections of real life.   This is fine, but it’s hard to expect that most non-Hispanics will relate to them except as curiosity pieces.   And while Skyhorse pays tribute to Mexicans/Mexican-Americans, he also shows in one particular story that there can be troubling differences, and real anger, between the two groups.   This was a bit troubling even if it reflects reality – the laundering of dirty cultural linen in public.

Some readers will be put off by the round-robin nature of the tales, which cross-reference each other in terms of characters and situations.   What seems at first cute becomes somewhat tiring after the first hundred pages.   The most troubling issue for this reviewer, quite surprisingly, had to do with editing.   Mentioned repeatedly is the fact that the Mexican-American residents of Chavez Ravine were forcibly evicted (and their homes destroyed) in the early 1950s to make way for what would become Dodger Stadium and the LAPD Academy.   This is raised as a grievance in so many of the stories that one becomes surprised that Skyhorse did not catch his own repetitiveness and deal with it.   Or was it meant to be disruptive to the reading as an analogy to the disruption of these residents’ lives for what was claimed to be the greater good?

All in all, this is a fine debut for a first-time author.   Yet this reviewer feels that Skyhorse has a choice to make when it comes to his next release.   He can either use his calming voice to write about life in a style that is a bit more positive and charming, or he can rachet-up the grittiness and become an angry voice.   It is hoped that calmness prevails.

Joseph Arellano

Take Away:   Skyhorse has a lot of obvious writing talent, but let’s hope that next time he pens an actual novel.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “There was a time when the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park was known for silent films — not for drive-by shootings.”   NPR

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Don’t Dream It’s Over

The Imperfectionists: A Novel by Tom Rachman (The Dial Press; $15.00; 281 pages)

Perhaps the sub-title of The Imperfectionists should have been Related Tales of Dark Humor and Irony.   This is the fictional story of a second-rate international newspaper based in Rome, a poor cousin to the International Herald-Tribune.   It has never had any more than 25,000 subscribers and readers, and it has no website.   It is, therefore, doomed.

The Imperfectionists is not actually a novel but rather a grouping of eleven short stories concerning the wild and wooly characters who work at the rag before it enters its death spiral.   One copy editor is smart enough to depart early…  She finds an apparent life raft in the International Finance Department at the Milan Office of Lehman Brothers.   Welcome to the Titanic!

This may give you a bit of insight into author Rachman’s wicked sense of humor.   Rachman could likely write about anything – even a crew of sanitation workers – and make it sound interesting and engaging.

“You can’t dread what you can’t experience.”

The reporters and allied staff members at the nearly defunct paper truly dread – like they fear their own deaths – its inevitable closing, but they take some comfort in the fact that their pink slips mean they won’t actually experience the lights being turned off for the final time.

One of the opaque characters is a copy editor who simply pretends to hate her job because she loves it too much.   “I get to stay…” she thinks as she avoids a round of lay-offs, while grousing that she wishes they had let her go.   Then there’s the veteran war reporter who is completely nuts but quite successful (like the one my wife and I had drinks with once).   These gruff and nicked guys are far more interested in telling their literal war stories than in observing anyone’s reaction to them…  They’re a bit like wild animals whose press badge serves as their “If lost, return to —” tag.

The paper in question is owned by Oliver Ott, a man who inherited the paper and who is – quite naturally – completely clueless as to its operations.

“The paper – that daily report on the idocy and the brilliance of the species – had never before missed an appointment.   Now it was gone.”

Arthur Gopal, the often-pitied obituary writer, survives to find a plum job as a top reporter in Manhattan, while the publication he so carefully wrote for expires (“Overnight, the paper disappeared from newsstands…”) without the benefit of a beautifully written send-off.   Such is life.

The Imperfectionists would be virtually perfect but for an abrupt, flawed and somewhat frustrating ending.   Be forewarned.   Still, this is well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

This book was purchased by the reviewer at Lyon Books in Chico, California.

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Both Sides, Now

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It: Stories by Maile Meloy (Riverhead Books, 232 pages, $15.00)

“Meloy’s stories are both bold and quiet.”   Angela Meyer

One can’t/ have it/ both ways/ and both/ ways is / the only/ way I/ want it.   – A. R. Ammons

both-ways

Both Ways… is a collection of eleven short stories written by Maile Meloy, the title taken from the one-sentence poem posted above.   Meloy is a writer with a style that’s so cool its chilling; at times she will remind the reader of Joan Didion.   And at least one of the stories here (“Liliana”) reads like something Didion might have written for The Twilight Zone.   In Liliana, a man in Los Angeles hears a knock on the door and opens it to find his grandmother.   Perhaps this does not sound so unusual, except for the fact that his grandmother died two months earlier.

The ten other stories are much more conventional and share a common theme.   These are stories of people who have settled into their lives as they are, but see the chance to escape and live an alternate existence.   These are people who are tempted by other people and other places.   Meloy sets this up so that some of the story subjects elect not to change their lives while others do.   Since each protagonist actually wants to have it both ways – retaining his/her current life while also having it change – not one of them finds true satisfaction…  The exception is the final story, where one man feels both “the threat of disorder and the steady, thrumming promise of having everything he wanted, all at once.”

This compilation of stories is thus brilliantly structured, placed in a very deliberate order like the songs on a classic record album.   As with a great recording, one is tempted to listen to the songs (re-read the stories) to find the messages that were not obvious the first time through.   Part of Meloy’s intelligence is displayed by the manner in which she disguises things.   The first few tales are set in the remote state of Montana (far from L.A.) and the reader comes to think that maybe all of them will take place on that stage.   They do not.

Meloy also sets up situations that make you, the reader, think you know exactly what’s coming along before she fools you.   In one story (“Red from Green”), for example, we see that an older man and a young woman both possess – and practice with – loaded guns before he considers making an uninvited move on her.   Someone is going to get shot, right?   Well, no, but you will need to read that story to find out what does occur.

College literature professors are going to have a wildly great time showing their students the hidden meanings and life lessons buried in Meloy’s seemingly calm and quiet prose.   But you don’t need to pay tuition to enjoy these tales of yearning, wisdom and acceptance.   For the price of a trade paperback you can slide into a seat in Meloy’s classroom.   Take good notes!

Joseph Arellano

Well recommended.

A review copy was provided by the publisher (Riverhead/Penguin).   “Maile Meloy is a true and rare find.”   Richard Ford


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A Well Respected Man

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hastings (Random House; $35.00; 640 pages)

William Somerset Maugham, author of the wonderful novels Cakes and Ale, The Moon and Sixpence and Of Human Bondage, wildly successful playwright and debonaire world traveler, was a decidedly private person.   He suffered from a crippling stutter, felt uneasy around most people, and throughout his long life he jealously and vehemently concealed the fact that he was bisexual.   Well, mostly gay.   He endured a long and miserable marriage to a brash and manipulative woman, Syrie Maugham.   And before he died he insisted that all of his personal letters and correspondence be burned.   If not for the fact that many of his friends and lovers retained the letters he wrote to them in spite of this fact, there wouldn’t have been nearly as much fascinating material on which to draw.   While reading Selina Hastings’ biography, which is culled to a large extent from these letters, I felt a bit of remorse knowing that it was his wish that his “secrets” accompany him to the grave.   But I read it with zeal and enjoyment nonetheless and comforted myself with the knowledge that a brilliant and wickedly observant writer born in this century – as opposed to the late 1800s – would not have felt the sad need to cloister his activities and thoughts in this way.

A good deal of Maugham’s writing, especially Of Human Bondage, is autobiographical: it depicts the wanton and forlorn abandon with which a man, often hindered by a physical defect that alienates him from his peers, can crave and seek the attention of a reprehensible mate.   The female object of this slaving and desperate attention, never his equal in intellect or virtue, cycles though phrases of appreciation and disdain, ultimately taking advantage of him and rejecting his honest but pathetic advances.   Selina Hastings succeeds in shedding light on the host of painful personal experiences, such as the loss of his mother and father at a young age that resulted in an exile to his stern uncle’s vicarage, his years as a resident physician in London’s poorest neighborhoods and the uncomfortable lifelong relationship he had with his younger male lover, that drove him to write about such dismal subject matter so tellingly.   What she does not do, however, is to offer much on how he often managed to take these bleak tales and turn them into mild or even hopeful visions on life and the world or whether he shared the curiously calm view of many of his characters that the world is a benign place with all of its millions of threads woven life a tapestry, a place that tosses us about with no ill- or good-will.

The remainder of his prolific literary output, such as the shorter novels and collections of short stories and vignettes, was largely gathered from overheard or shared conversations within his circle of famous and worldly friends or on his extensive travels throughout the Pacific and China.   He carried a notebook with him wherever he went, recording bits of dialogue or expressed thoughts, and turned them – sometimes with the nearly verbatim remnants of his notebook entries still intact – into stories and plays.   Reading the accounts of where and when he came by some of the actual material was a real delight.   By far my favorite bits of the biography were the accounts of his actual writing habits.   Each morning he retreated at an early hour to his study and sat and wrote for hours before continuing to the rest of his social and familial duties; he often studied classics and languages for hours in the morning if he had nothing to write.

This biography is thorough, well-written and despite its length and level of detail, leaves you even more curious about Mr. Maugham.   It lends a great deal of understanding to his actions, choices and the topics about which he wrote without extending too much bias, which is something from which many biographies suffer.   Maugham was without a doubt one of the most fascinating, dedicated and talented writers in recent history.   What a joy it is to be able to learn about his life, understand the processes he used to craft stories, get a glimpse of so many of his personal letters and get a taste of the many interesting (and famous in their own right) people and places he knew and loved.

Christine Van Winkle

Used by permission.   To see  more of Christine’s reviews (literary and otherwise) go to http://www.thewritechristine.com/ .

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