Category Archives: Short Stories

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri

For the Pulitzer Prize Winner category of the 2019 EDIWTB Reading Challenge, I chose Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. I am a big fan of Lahiri’s, and enjoyed her books The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth and The Lowland. Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories that follows the same themes as Lahiri’s novels: immigration, loneliness, identity and connection in unexpected places.

Most of the stories in this collection involve Indian immigrants to the U.S., usually in the 70s or 80s, and usually to Massachusetts. There are couples learning to love each other after arranged marriages, graduate students trying to assimilate into American culture, and Americans to understand immigrants. Like in her other books, Lahiri has deep compassion for her characters and, in her quiet, elegant way, conveys the isolation and rootlessness they feel living in a new place and trying to find their way. There is restraint to Lahiri’s writing, just as her characters are often emotionally restrained in how they relate to each other and express their feelings.

I don’t love short stories because I often feel they lack staying power, and I feel similarly about Interpreter of Maladies. I enjoyed the stories a lot while I read them, but to write this review, I had to flip back through the book to remind myself of the different plots. The strongest one is the first, “A Temporary Matter,” about a married couple finally communicating with each other about the stillborn baby they lost months earlier. Sadly, the gulf of silence that has grown between them proves to be uncrossable and they separate by the end of the story. I also enjoyed “Mrs. Sen’s”, a story about an American boy who spends his afternoons in the care of an newly immigrated Indian woman who is isolated in her house because she’s too afraid to learn to drive.

I am glad I finally got to Interpreter of Maladies, which had been on my shelf for years. (Also my daughter is going to read it for school in January, so I can talk about it with her.) And I ticked another category off the challenge list. One more to finish!

LOOK HOW HAPPY I’M MAKING YOU by Polly Rosenwaike

The short story collection Look How Happy I’m Making You by Polly Rosenwaike is a kaleidoscope of perspectives on motherhood. The collection roughly follows a chronology, starting with the first story about a woman who is trying to get pregnant and sees the same cute baby on the bus every morning en route to work. Other stories feature women who are pregnant but don’t want to be, women who get pregnant unintentionally, women contemplating single motherhood, new mothers with postpartum depression, women who have lost their mothers.

Rosenwaike’s perspective is fresh and honest, reflecting the often conflicting feelings women have at these points of transition in their lives. The women are smart and funny, emotional and real. This is not a book extolling the magic and mystery of motherhood, but one that puts the experience of parenting through several lenses to get at the many emotions it inspires.

I don’t usually like short stories that much because I find them unsatisfying in terms of character development. This collection overcomes that challenge a bit – the women in these stories are pretty similar, leading to the impression that this is the same character going through all of these different experiences. A degree of continuity throughout the book sets it apart from other story collections. The end result is a look at motherhood that, while not linear, covers a lot of ground.

I especially loved the last story, which made me gasp in recognition.

Someday we will tell you this story. How helpless we felt, how weak, how unprepared, how we couldn’t imagine you falling asleep on your own – and for years you’ve been doing it: lying down in your bed in the dark and trusting that soon the darkness will overtake you. It will please you to hear this, the way it’s pleasing to think of oneself as a baby: tiny, goofy, not quite yourself. To think of your parents younger, uninitiated, baffled by parenthood, people in their own right.

I am a few years past many of the the experiences Rosenwaike addresses in Look How Happy I’m Making You, but her expressive, accessible writing is evocative and insightful, deftly drawing me right back into those years. I really liked this collection and look forward to what Rosenwaike writes next – hopefully a novel so I can delve more deeply.

This book satisfied the short stories category of the 2019 Everyday I Write The Book Reading Challenge.

BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES by Rebecca Lee

Bobcat And Other Stories is a collection of stories by Rebecca Lee that generally focus on love, infidelity and intellectual connection, often in academic settings. I read about this book in my Book A Day 2018 calendar and found it intriguing, and picked it up at the library. It’s a pretty uneven collection of stories. In the title story, a dinner party forces two marriages to come to terms, although the one that fails is not the one you would suspect. In another story, a student at a small midwestern college plagiarizes a paper, only to find herself thrust into the limelight when her professor, who is aware of the plagiarism, arranges for her to present it for his own political agenda. In the most memorable story, a woman finds herself in Hong Kong serving as a surprisingly matchmaker for her male friend, at the request of his father.

Bobcat And Other Stories has some beautiful writing, and Lee’s stories definitely have those unexpected twists that can make short stories so compelling. But in the end this collection came up short for me. I think it’s a bit too esoteric – lots of academia and strange names and odd settings that I had trouble following. In the end I had trouble connecting with it. Too intellectual maybe.

If you go to Goodreads, you will find a lot of people who loved this collection. So if you’re intrigued, go check it out. It just wasn’t for me.

 

YOU THINK IT, I’LL SAY IT by Curtis Sittenfeld

When I learned that Curtis Sittenfeld had a collection of short stories coming out next spring, I had to get my hands on it. Immediately. I don’t usually love short stories, but we’re talking Curtis Sittenfeld here. I will read anything she writes. So I got it, and I read it, and it was great.

The ten stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are about relationships – friends, exes, acquaintances – and the moments in life when they reappear or emerge in a surprising way, often against the backdrop of fame or marriage. In “A Regular Couple”, a woman is on her honeymoon when she comes across someone she went to high school with. Their power dynamic has shifted, which plays out in interesting ways when they end up spending a few unexpected days together. “The Prairie Wife” is about a mother of young kids who discovers that someone she knew at camp is now famous for creating a persona that is quite different from how she was as a teenager. In “Plausible Deniability”, a sister and brother-in-law play a dangerous game via text that ends when they both realize that he can never be what she wants him to be.

I don’t love short stories because they are unsatisfying; the good ones always leave me wanting a lot more. The stories in You Think It, I’ll Say It are no exception. But damn, these are good. They combine two crucial elements: convincing, honest observations and dialogue, plus some sort of twist or surprise. There were situations in each of these stories that I could strongly relate to, and as always, Sittenfeld just nails them. Like her other books, high school plays a big role, but there are also stories about marriage and parenthood. I read this book slowly, savoring each story because I didn’t want it to end.

It’s not fair for me to write this review now, when You Think It, I’ll Say It isn’t out until April 2018. But I’ll post it again next spring and urge people to read it. If you’re a Sittenfeld fan, then this will be right up your alley.

THE GRAYBAR HOTEL by Curtis Dawkins

The Graybar Hotel is a collection of stories by Curtis Dawkins, a convict in Michigan who is serving a life sentence. The stories revolve around many dimensions of prison life: the monotony, the close proximity to a rotating series of cellmates, the capriciousness of guards and wardens, the hours on end spent regretting and rethinking, and the attempts, often futile, to cling to one’s few diversions and possessions. Dawkins has an MFA, as evidenced by his strong writing, command of detail and compelling storytelling. The stories are powerful and disturbing, as they reveal perspectives on prison that people on the outside rarely see or even think about.

One story is about the physical transition from a jail to a prison, with the inmates in the transport wondering whether life will be better at the next place. Another is about one prisoner who’s a compulsive liar, but who gets his revenge when his cellmate calls him out on the lies. Another shows how much two baseball teams mean to an inmate – his beloved Detroit Tigers, whose games he watches every night, and the baseball team he creates within the prison until a prison fight puts an ends to their games.

There isn’t a lot of violence or tension; rather it’s the tedium of life in prison and the loneliness of the inmates that make the biggest impression. Friendships are fleeting, because prisoners are often moved without warning. Yet these men are in the closest of quarters, thrust into situations that they have no control over and often must suffer through with no relief.

That Dawkins is himself an inmate who has undoubtedly lived through most of these experiences makes The Graybar Hotel even more poignant. Dawkins doesn’t excuse his actions or blame anyone else for his situation. He has found an outlet and a purpose in writing about his experience, and I hope that it brings him some solace to know that there are readers out there who are hearing his voice. The Graybar Hotel is difficult to read at times, but it was illuminating and quite moving.

BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman

download-1The most recent EDIWTB online book club pick was Bertrand Court by Michelle Brafman, a collection of linked stories set in Washington, DC. Seventeen chapters explore moments in the lives of a range of characters, most of whom are related by blood or marriage and/or live on the same cul-de-sac in suburban Washington.

Brafman’s stories deal with relatively small moments – a child’s birthday party seen through the eyes of her mother and grandmother, a pregnant woman’s anxiety about miscarriage, a visit to a boyfriend’s family in Wisconsin. They are vignettes in the characters’ lives, mere blips on the overall arc of their relationships. But Brafman manages to find the profound in these small moments, teasing out the conflicts, passions and tenderness at the heart of these friends, spouses, partners and parents.

I love Brafman’s writing. She focuses on small details that seem insignificant but help paint such an immediate, realistic picture of what is happening. There’s also a nice feeling of tension that propels the stories- you know they are building up to something, and it’s fun finding out what it is. I think I grew to appreciate the book more and more as I read it and saw how Brafman really got to the core of these characters and relationships in 20 pages or so.

I had expected Bertrand Court to feel particularly Washingtonian, as it is billed as a book about “politicos, filmmakers and housewives”, but to be honest, I didn’t really find it all that resonant of my hometown. This could have taken place in any suburb where smart, engaged people live. (It *does* have a lot of Jewish people in it – that is true. And they felt pretty familiar to me.)

My favorite chapters were “You’re Next”, “Minocqua Bats” and “Would You Rather”.

At times it can be hard to keep everybody straight (though Brafman does include a list of the characters and their relationships in the beginning), but ultimately, I decided it didn’t matter if I couldn’t remember how everyone related to each other, each time. The stories worked on their own.

Bertrand Court is a big-hearted book to savor and to nod at in wistful recognition.

OK, EDITWB book club readers, what did you think? Please leave me your thoughts below.

 

AMERICAN HOUSEWIFE by Helen Ellis


41AFpxXA1KL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_American Housewife
 by Helen Ellis is a pretty dark collection of stories about, yes, American housewives. Some are writers, some just stay home, but most of them are sort of disturbed, but in a funny, wry way.

There’s one story about the wife of a bra fitter, who is so good at what he does that women come from great distances just to meet with him. The wife, who ironically has breast cancer, finds herself fending off women who fall for The Fitter when they see how he’s transformed their bodies.

Another story is about a Manhattan book club that turns out to be a mechanism for older, infertile women to find surrogates among younger book club recruits.

Another is about a novelist whose second novel is sponsored by Tampax, a corporation that becomes more evil and manipulative by the page.

What connects these stories is the subversive undercurrent that courses through these seemingly acceptable lives. The evil Tampax, who takes corporate sponsorship to extremes. The string of dead doormen in a fancy New York City apartment, killed by the wife of the co-op board president. These poor women here are trapped by others’ expectations and demands – the wife of The Fitter, the Tampax novelist, the co-op board wife – and are left fighting to held on to their men and their livelihoods. It’s pretty dark. But through it all, Ellis is keenly observant and quite entertaining. Even when some of her stories got absurd, I found myself laughing throughout the book.

My favorite story is “Dumpster Diving With The Stars”, about a rather obscure novelist who ends up on a reality competition show where celebrities compete to scoop up deals on antiques and collectibles across the country. It’s very entertaining if you’re a reality competition show fan.

There are a few very short chapters as well, most of which are compilations of lists and observations. My favorite is the translation of what Southern women say vs. what they mean.

American Housewife is a quick read, but it’s funny and memorable. Not every story works, but most of them do.  And you have to love a writer who opens her book with this quote and mentions “Sixteen Candles” on the first page:

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I listened to American Housewife on audio. It was narrated by four women: Kathleen McInerney, Lisa Cordileone, Rebecca Lowman and Dorothy Dillingham Blue. I recognize McInerney and Lowman from other audiobooks I’ve listened to, and I think Lowman was my favorite narrator here. She performed “Dumpster Diving With The Stars”, and I loved her spare, unemotional delivery. Perfect for the absurdity inherent in the stories. The other narrators were strong too, especially the one with the perfect Southern accent.

Check out this interview with Ellis from The Frisky.