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REVIEW: Archangel

[This collection of historical short fiction focusing on women in science is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Andrea Barrettarchangel-2013-by-andrea-barrett_original

2013, Norton

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Historical

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

Quality linked story collections are a rare breed. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Andrea Barrett’s own previous collection–and National Book Award winner–Ship Fever, Barrett’s Archangel elegantly presents separate and distinct stories that work together to build a complete work greater than the sum of its parts. I love books like this, that artfully blur the line between story collection and novel.

There are only five stories here; each is lengthy, but not quite novella length. There is no concrete unifying plot thread, although characters (or their relatives) and locations bridge the stories, which span about 40 years between the end of the 19th century up to the cusp of World War II. Instead, the stories are woven together thematically. Much like Ship Fever, Archangel focuses primarily on women characters in scientific circles, primarily naturalism, though not exclusively.
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REVIEW: Papa

papaAuthor: Vera Greentea (Artists: Joseph LaCroix, Ben Jelter, & Lizzy John)

2013, Greentea Publishing

Filed Under: Graphic Novels, Short StoriesSci-Fi, Short-Run

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Here’s another of the Kickstarter graphic novels that I backed last spring. Similar to The Book of Da, Papa is an indie sci-fi comic book in short story form. But instead of just one story, like with Da, there are three here, each featuring some sort of paternal relationship (hence the title).

Greentea wrote each of the three stories in this collection, though each is drawn by a different artist. The styles vary by quite a bit. I found the LaCroix entry to be the most appealing, but all three stories look pretty good.

The written stories are compelling, too, particularly the first and third. The title story, which opens the book, begins with a young boy finding a dead superhero washed up on a beach. It just so happens that the boy’s father is writing said hero’s biography. When the hero’s disembodied soul possesses the young boy (whether this actually happens or whether the child is vying for his father’s attention isn’t 100% clear), the father’s reaction is not what you would expect–and LaCroix’s drawing really nails the facial expressions in the closing panels.
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REVIEW: Little Houses

Author: Eleanor Swanson

2013, Stephen F. Austin University Press

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 9

It would be misleading to describe the stories in Eleanor Swanson’s new collection, Little Houses, as “gothic,” but they do involve some elements of the gothic tradition in terms of “other-worldly” manifestations, and an elusive, romantic tone.  But the ghosts that haunt these stories are as real as flesh and blood – more often than not they are brothers, sisters, parents, spouses.  Thus, the real haunting is usually something like the disturbance of the conscience, the challenge to our moral sense, echoing the epigraph to this collection, from Italo Calvino:  “The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts.”

Take the first story, “The Ghost of Bertrand Russell.”  The father and daughter in a seemingly solid young family on a camping trip are gazing up at the stars, looking for meteors, when the ghost of the past rudely intervenes in the form of a memory of an incident involving the protagonist, Andy, and his college Philosophy professor from long ago, Dr. Annalisa Baillet, and a “haunted” farmhouse.   His best friend and roommate, Scot, subsequently killed in Vietnam, is also part of the memory, and by the end of the story both Andy and his wife Joan are haunted by these ghosts from the past – ghosts of their own devising.  The joke in the title, of course, is that Russell idealized reason, regarded religion as superstition and had no patience for such non-scientific phenomena as spirits.   But we’re not talking about “real” ghosts, after all, are we, the stuff of Poe and other authors of gothic romance?

Swanson deliberately invokes Faulkner’s famous Southern gothic story, “A Rose for Emily,” in the story about a daughter’s discovery of her mother’s “secret” life, “A Still Volcano,” when the daughter, Chloe, travels to Arizona to close down her recently deceased mother’s home, pack things up and put the house on the market.  Only, there are no actual skeletons in the bed in this story of a marriage that is an oppressive disappointment.  Instead, there’s a message from mother to daughter that has a real impact on the daughter’s own marriage and how Chloe sees her relationship with her own husband.  Invoking another Emily – Dickinson – the message is contained in cryptic little anagrams, like dispatches from the afterlife that Chloe discovers hidden throughout the house as she sorts and disposes of her mother’s things.

In so many of these stories, the real drama involves the effects of the “weirdness” (not always ghosts, though they always seem somehow “not-of-this-world”) on the relationship between members of the nuclear family – brother and brother or sister and sister, husband and wife, parent and child.  Perhaps the most unsettling of these is a story called “The Hypnotist,” which doesn’t necessarily involve paranormal phenomena – ghosts – but focuses on a woman who marries a former CIA goon, who brainwashes her, feeding her false memories, manipulating her outlook.

At story’s end it’s obvious that the sisters, once as close as, well, “sisters,” will no longer have anything to do with one another.  Jenny, the narrator, has always recognized that her sister Lynne is flaky, but she’d never felt so estranged from her until Lynne became involved with the control freak, Frank, devoted to him as if a cult member.  At the story’s end, “I watched her walk down the concourse until she became smaller and smaller, then slipped away and disappeared into the crowd.”
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REVIEW: The Woman of Porto Pim

Author: Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

2013, Archipelago Books

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 6
Depth..... 8

The good people at Archipelago Books are out with a new Antonio Tabucchi title in English this spring, and while I can’t gush about it the way I did about The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, I think you might still find The Woman of Porto Pim worth your while.

The title short story is a classic, old-fashioned tale of love, betrayal, and murder set in a small whaling village. The voice of the narrator, an aged tavern singer, is full of longing and mystery. It’s one of the finest short stories I’ve read anywhere in a long time.

The book, on the other hand, is something more curious. It’s a tourist’s love letter to the Azores, a set of remote Atlantic islands considered an autonomous region of Portugal. Fueled by a hybrid of research, personal experience, and imagination, The Woman of Porto Pim offers a brief overview on the whaling regulations governing the islands, a first-person account of a whale hunt, and a few observations on human beings from the point of view of the hunted whales.
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REVIEW: Whack-Job Girls

Author: Bonnie ZoBell

2013, Monkey Puzzle Press Press

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Short-Run

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 9

Just as the term sounds, a “whack-job” is defined in the urban dictionary as: 1. A Person for whom failure is so consistent that they are slowly driven into madness. 2. Someone who partakes in unbelievably odd behavior that a reasonable human would avoid.  3. An extremely erratic or irrational person.

The ten stories in Bonnie ZoBell’s neat little collection are full of such characters, and as the term further suggests, the characters and the tales are darkly comic.  Because these are flash pieces – brief narratives that are over before a reader has time to get too emotionally involved – they are not really “tragic” stories, but tragedy hovers over them, menacing as a thundercloud, ZoBell subtly teasing out the ghastly implications with the skill of a gifted storyteller.  Often as not, though, there is a redemptive detail at the end and not just imminent doom.
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REVIEW: There Once Lived a Woman Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself

Author: Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

2013, Penguin Books

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 6

Back in 2010, I ended my review of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by saying I expected to start seeing more translations of her work in English “very soon.” So I was pretty excited this past January when I first read about the release of There Once Was a Woman Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories. This is what I’d been waiting for.

Things started out well enough. Translator Anna Summers’s brief introduction reminded me of everything I’d loved about Scary Fairy Tales and set the stage for Petrushevskaya’s particular brand of Love Stories, constrained and distorted by the cramped spaces of communal Soviet living. The first story, “A Murky Fate,” packed so much embarrassment and desperation into just four pages that I felt a little bad about reading it while sitting next to someone on the bus.

As I read further into the collection, though, I started feeling a little disappointed. While these stories are compact and dark, just like I expected, and while there are definitely some stand outs, like “A Murky Fate,” “Two Deities,” and “Hallelujah, Family!”, there’s also a lot of repetition here, a lot of people being unhappy in the same ways and turning to the same outlets with the same results. No one piece struck me as a total let down, but as a collection, Love Stories lacks the endless inventiveness that made Scary Fairy Tales so memorable.
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REVIEW: Jagannath

Auhor: Karin Tidbeck

2012, Cheeky Frawg Books

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 7

I picked this book solely because I thought the cover was cool. And as said cover implies, the stories here are varied, but each is dark and a little creepy. Indeed, there’s a permeating weirdness across the collection that Tidbeck sometimes sponges up with her prose and sometimes leaves to soak.

A Swedish author who writes both in her native language and English, Tidbeck’s word choices often have a foreignness about them that do a lot to bring about this feeling of something being askew. I know Murakami doesn’t do his own English translations, but I was reminded of his writing in that way. Like it does for Murakami, these slightly off-key notes give Tidbeck’s story a distinctly magical–and haunting–feel.

It was June, and the flowerbeds were full of giddy insects that every now and then buzzed over to Herr Cederberg to make sure he wasn’t a flower.

The subject matter of the stories is wonderfully weird in its own right. The opening story, “Beatrice,” is about a man who falls in love with an airship. He is unable to buy the particular one he is enamored with, so he build a replicate and keeps it in a hangar as his wife. In need of cash, he takes on a tenant: a young woman who is in love (and in a relationship with) a steam engine. She dies giving birth to a human-machine hybrid daughter, whom the dirigible-loving man raises as his own. When his adopted hybrid child grows a little older, she is able to communicate with Beatrice, who relates that she hates the man, who has, from her point of view, kept her as a rape slave for all these years.
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REVIEW: The Fifth Lash

Author: Anis Shivani

2012, C & R Press

Filed under: Literary, Short Stories

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 3
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 4

My only previous experience with Anis Shivani’s work came from reading a few of the contrarian articles he writes for the Huffington Post. One of these, published about a year ago, proclaims MFA-style creative writing to be an offshoot of therapy, and the fiction produced by workshops to be no more than pale imitations of Carver or Hemingway, or whatever writer a particular teacher might set in front of the class.

That kind of proclamation generally comes from a stunt piece designed to stir up controversy (and hence pageviews), but Shivani hates MFA workshops so genuinely and so strongly that he wrote an entire book about why they’re so bad, 2011′s Against the Workshop. And he’s pretty convincing. While I don’t agree with all of Shivani’s anti-workshop opinions, he makes some good points about the similarity and craftsmanlike tastelessness of so much modern writing.

So I expected this man who hates safe, bland fiction to write stark, bold stories himself. I expected his style to be unique and adventurous, and his stories to surprise me, if not always pleasantly.

I did not expect him to turn out a collection like The Fifth Lash: safe, bland stories that could desperately use a good workshopping. After 300 pages of clunky prose, nearly nonexistent characters, and plots that are both didactic and boring, I would absolutely love to read some imitation Carver, I would pay a stranger good money for craftsmanlike tastelessness.
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REVIEW: The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico

This Calvino-esque collection is a C4 Great Read.

Author: Antonio Tabucchi, translated from the Italian by Tim Parks

2013, Archipelago Books

Filed under: Literary, Short Stories

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 9

I’d never heard of Antonio Tabucchi before I tore open the wrapping on a copy of The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico this past Christmas. Turns out, he was one of the most celebrated Italian authors of the modern era until his death just this past year. His name stands along side the likes of Primo Levi and Italo Calvino, and for good reason.

The stories in Flying Creatures more than live up to comparison with the works of any other postmodernist masters. Tabucchi renders narratives as light as air in rich, thoughtful prose. These pieces are fabulist, historical, experimental, philosophical.

But rather than laboring the point any further myself, let me share how Tabucchi characterizes the tales collected here (as translated by Tim Park) in his brief introduction to Flying Creatures:

I would have liked to call them Extravaganzas, not so much for their style, as because many of them seem to wander about in a strange outside that has no inside, like drifting splinters, survivors of some whole that never was. Alien to any orbit, I have the impression they navigate in familiar spaces whose geometry nevertheless remains a mystery; let’s say domestic thickets: the interstitial zones of our daily having-to-be, or bumps on the surface of existence.

If that’s enough to make you want to run off and read these stories, I won’t blame you if you stop reading this review right here. If you still need more convincing, then let me tell you about “The Passion of Dom Pedro.”
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REVIEW: There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights

Author: Laura van den Berg

2012, Origami Zoo Press

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Short-Run

Find it on Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 8

If I’m not careful, my review of Laura van den Berg’s recent collection of short shorts might end up being longer than the book itself. It’s not that I’m normally long-winded. It’s just that the whole thing is only thirty six pages long, and there’s a lot of good stuff in There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights. I’m tempted to summarize each of these little narrative gems–only one of its nine stories is longer than four pages–but by the time I finished that, you might as well have just read the book.

And you should read the book. Van den Berg’s very short stories are self-contained parables of modern life and love gone stale and the ways people sometimes try to rescue themselves from themselves. Her characters’s efforts run the gamut of realism and fantasy, from a struggling couple who rents a house by a lake for a summer to a family who adopt a couple of cannibals to help out with childcare. Whatever the mode, these stories are astutely observed and precisely composed portraits of life’s disappointments, large and small.
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