Review: The Wilds

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Review for “The Wilds” by Julia Elliott (2014)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The Wilds” is a unique short story collection with stories that range from sci-fi, dystopian, horror, and a couple of other genres that don’t really get talked about much because not enough people write about it yet. Elliott’s writing brims with creativity, her bravery in choosing these subjects to write about earns her four stars. It takes raw imagination to even conceive of stories like this. There is the strong presence of the Southern gothic in this collection, but it’s nothing like this. After finishing this book I can truthfully say that I’ve never read anything even close to the subject matter found in this book.

There are eleven stories in this collection–each of them set in plain, everyday environments–but Elliott twists and turns this into a weird, alien world. In “Feral” a pack of wild dogs ravage the planet and children and scientists become fascinated by their wild, savage behavior. In “Rapture,” a girl at a sleepover learns the truth about the world from her friend’s unconventional, fundamentalist grandmother. In “The Wilds,” a young girl falls in love with a boy who wears a wolf mask. And, in “Regeneration at Mukti,” an island retreat becomes a place where people are infected with festering diseases so that their skin can scab over and fall off. Elliott also gives most of these stories an open ending, inviting the reader to come to their own conclusion about the events she presents.

Why I didn’t like this: each of these stories seethes with a kind of ugliness and revulsion for the human body. There were quite a few gross-you-out passages, as well as a underlying theme of what I can only describe as sexual lust–that, at times, made me really uncomfortable. A lot of these stories, as interesting as they were, were just…I dunno, simply not my cup of tea. Ultimately I stayed committed to the reading because it intrigued me, but I would not want to repeat it again. The four star rating I’m giving here, however, is for the excellent writing that prompts the ‘ick’ reaction in the first place.

There is definitely something here, and I am eager to read a full book by this author. The cover is sheer beauty and enticed me to open this book. What will Julia Elliott come up with next? We will see.

Review: Daydreams of Angels

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Review for “Daydreams of Angels” by Heather O’Neill (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

So I love Heather O’Neill. If you haven’t read her novel ‘Lullabies for Little Criminals’ then you are sorely depriving yourself of great literature. She has another novel out which I have not yet read (will do this) but this book was available at the library first, so I dove right in.

‘Daydreams of Angels’ describes itself as ‘twisted fairy stories’ and that description is very accurate. There are stories about floating babies, talking bears, gypsies, and cloned Russian dancers. Most of them are flights of fancy (as I said earlier, there is a talking bear) but some feature real people and events. This book as a whole, however, was lackluster. Some of the stories I liked immensely: ‘Holy Dove Parade’ is about a girl member of bizarre cult who commits a crime, ‘Where Babies Come From’ is a weird grandmother’s version of natural events, ‘The Gospel According to Mary M.’ is modern story of Jesus’s life in middle school. Most of the stories though I didn’t really like and I struggled through, like ‘The Story of Little O,’ which I’m still not sure what it was about. Out of all 21 stories here I only liked about 5, the rest didn’t make much of an impression on me. The voice was too monotone, the plots too similar. All in all: meh.

I DO recommend reading Heather O’Neill, but don’t start here. Try reading “Lullabies for Little Criminals” and you’ll thank me for this later.

Review: Happiness, Like Water

Merry, Merry Christmas ya’ll!!!

I love Christmas Break, as I get to do nothing but read (and write about what I read) for three straight weeks.

  
Review for “Happiness, Like Water” by Chinelo Okparanta (2013)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, this woman can write…

As much as I love short stories, short story collections are always hit or miss. You may find one or a few good stories amongst the pack, or several decent offerings. Very rarely are ALL of the stories in a collection each a strong, workable a piece of art. This book of stories is one of the few exceptions.

“Happiness, Like Water” has 10 short stories, mostly featuring Nigerian woman who are dealing with contemporary issues such as unhealthy relationships, homosexuality, societal pressures, and what it means to be modern African woman in Africa, or, in some cases, America. Each of these stories are unapologetically feminist, with each character in each story making some kind of choice for her own future and taking her own destiny into her hands. In some cases, the choice has disastrous consequences, but in others, the characters find some kind of lasting peace.

The powerful story “Runs Girl” was my favorite in this collection, which tells the story of a young woman’s choice to dabble in prostitution to find the money to cure her mother’s illness. “Wahala!” is the tale of a woman who visits a traditional healer to cure her infertility and is forced to endure painful sexual encounters with her husband in order to have a child to conform to society’s expectations. “Fairness” is about one girl’s quest to be beautiful through the use of a skin bleaching technique that has dangerous consequences. “Story! Story!” is a suspenseful tale of a young woman’s obsession, with a shocking conclusion.

Several of these stories seemed to be companion pieces, ‘twins,’ if you will–two halves of the same event. In “America,” a young teacher tries to get a visa to join her lover in the U.S. In “Grace,” the focus is a romance between an older, divorced African American professor and a young Nigerian woman who is expected to be married. “Shelter” is the story of a young immigrant mother and daughter’s quest to leave an abusive marriage, and “Tumours and Butterflies” picks up that same story 20 years later, with a daughter’s choice to abandon her familial obligations in the face of her father’s cruelty and her mother’s complicity with their abusive past. 

The weakest story here was the only with a male protagonist. As far as characters go, there is not much variety. There is a lot of sameness that gets somewhat repetitive–nearly all except the one mentioned above was about young women, usually serving in the education profession as a teacher. 

Overall, this is a strong collection. It is hard to believe that this is Okparanta’s first book, as she is definitely an author to watch. Her writing is good and descriptions of events are solid. She does have a full length novel that came out several months ago that I will read, and I’m excited to find yet another talented contemporary Nigerian writer (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, A. Igoni Barrett, Sefi Atta are others) that people NEED to be reading right now.

Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

  

Review for “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Jesus, where do I start???

“Single, Carefree, Mellow” to describe this book is a hell of a misnomer, because not one of the characters in this collection of eleven short stories was single. All of Heiny’s characters are upper middle class, educated, young white women working in a writerly kind of job and married to or in a committed relationship to a nice, clueless guy who works in a tech field. Every single story (yes, every. single. one!) included a main character caught up in some form or another of adultery, usually with a slightly older man who also works in a writerly occupation. It was almost as if the author was using a formula here: introduce characters, insert some humorous descriptions, bleep bleep bloop…then onto the coup de grâce of the main character and her running partner going at it like rabbits in the backseat of a car. Yes. Really.

I can understand that a book has a common theme, but this was ridiculous. I’ve never read a short story collection in which the stories were so blandly repetitive, the characters so obnoxiously cliche. The women here were so indistinguishable from one another that it didn’t matter that Heiny used the second person narrative in several selections, or that the same character appeared in three different stories here in three different stages of her life. You don’t remember the characters’ names because they were so predictable and generic—the same voice, same character type. And since they’re all screwing their bosses or the dude they met on the Internet anyway, their affair part of the story becomes mindless, so beside the point. Like background noise, you ignore it. You move on, you don’t care.

Also weird was that no one in this book, not one single person, appeared to have any moral objections to all of this affair-having. Not that every person is a born again Bible thumper, but I found the total lack of empathy in each story strange, to the point where the characters were completely unrealistic. Not one of the significant others/husbands here seemed to be vaguely suspicious of their wife or girlfriend, and no one was ever discovered in their indiscretions. And always, after said affair was over, the protagonist seemed to go on with their daily lives as normal. Really?! Like, I had no idea that getting your rocks off with a guy you met on a plane while your husband’s on a bicycling trip was that simple. Wowzers!

Is infidelity among women this rampant in our society? After reading this book, if I wasn’t careful, I would believe so. However, I honestly believe that women are smarter than what Heiny portrays them as. The strangest part about it was that I actually did enjoy Heiny’s writing, she employs a fair amount of dark humor, which was a plus for me. There was also a very touching scene in one of the stories in which the character loses her dog after an illness, which left me kinda sore because this happened to me about three years ago (RIP Zoe). But that was the only scene that connected with me, it still wasn’t enough to save this crappy mess of a book. Glad I didn’t purchase this, thank God for libraries…

My Top 20 Favorite Short Stories

I’ve always maintained that if you really want to learn how to write fiction, you gotta start with short stories. You only have a couple of pages to grab a reader’s attention and establish the basics before your audience completely loses their patience and stops reading. It’s the first litmus test of whether or not you’re truly mastering your craft as a writer. If a particular writer has decent short stories, chances are you’ll eventually read their novel. 

My first writing experiences when I began writing at age 7 were short stories: fanciful little numbers that were inspired mostly by the 80s movies I grew up watching (“The Goonies,” “The Never Ending Story,” etc). Later on in my literature classes in school a whole new world was opened (Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne, etc) and they never left my heart. As a teacher I always used them in my instruction to engage students. Today I came across an article on Buzzfeed entitled “23 Short Stories You’ll Want to Read Over and Over Again” and some of my MAJOR faves got left out, so I made my own list. Enjoy!

Now some of these are already on Buzzfeed’s list, but because they’re my faves too, they’re listed again. In no particular order:

  1. “Thank You, Ma’am” – Langston Hughes
  2. “The Story of an Hour” – Kate Chopin
  3. “The Lottery” – Shirley Jackson
  4. “The Tell Tale Heart” – Edgar Allan Poe
  5. “All Summer in a Day” – Ray Bradbury
  6. “Patriotism” – Yukio Mishima
  7. “A Rose for Emily” – William Faulkner
  8. “Young Goodman Brown” – Nathaniel Hawthorne
  9. “The Necklace” – Guy de Maupaussant
  10. “The Cask of Amontillado” – Edgar Allan Poe
  11. “Sweat” – Zora Neale Hurston
  12. “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” – Flannery O’Connor
  13. “Raymond’s Run” – Toni Cade Bambara
  14. “Super Frog Saves Tokyo” – Haruki Murakami
  15. “Eyes of Zapata” – Sandra Cisneros
  16. “Everyday Use” – Alice Walker
  17. “The Pit and the Pendulum” – Edgar Allan Poe 
  18. “Wild Child” – T.C. Boyle
  19. “Cora, Unashamed” – Langston Hughes
  20. “Graveyard Shift” – Stephen King

Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana

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Review for Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is a bit of a guilty pleasure, because under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with characters engaging in behavior this despicable. I liked this book for exactly the reasons I shouldn’t, because I figure every now and then it’s good for a serious reader like myself to treat myself to a bloodbath by ne’er do-wells.

This book is pretty much a nastier version of “Breaking Bad” in literary form–with people being buried alive, chopped up, beaten up, and fucked up beyond all recognition in almost every story. Frank Bill takes you to hell and back in a bullet ridden pickup truck and to a thousand other nasty places in between. In this universe there is murder, crooked cops, revenge, dogfighting, drugs, and guns (lots and lots and lots of guns) and not only are they the rule, they are the law. You want to feel bad for many of these people but you don’t, the protagonist in one story often shows up again antagonistically in another, as if they’ve finally drawn fate’s hand for their misdeeds.

Honestly, I liked this book. But there were many stories I wished were longer because they felt so rushed. We never really get to know the man who’s head gets blown off during a meth raid and I wish we did. I really wish we did, because it would have given this story even more power.