“Give Me Your Hand”

Give Me Your Hand

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Megan Abbott’s 2018 novel. I read a first edition Little, Brown and Company hardcover from the library.

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2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Teenage friends Kit Owens and Diane Fleming are torn apart after Diane admits a terrible secret. Years later, they meet again while competing for spots on a prestigious grant.

I’m confused and disturbed that nowhere in the book’s description or author’s Acknowledgments is there any indication that Diane’s high school acts are based in reality. Not “inspired by”, not “influenced by”, but literally, word-for-word, event-by-event taken from the Marie Robard case. Diane and Kit are even studying the same damned Shakespeare play in school.

From reviews and recommendations, I was hoping for another Social Creature; instead I got The Da Vinci Code (it’s popular for a reason, but not my favorite style). Ridiculous and absurd plots can be entertaining, but you must accept the world you’re in and go along for the ride, like watching Face/Off or Armageddon. Otherwise, you’re just going to be miserable the whole time. While I found the teenage years of the girls interesting, I was not on the ride for what happens when they meet as adults. Continue reading

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“Friday Black”

Friday Black.jpg

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of twelve short stories, published in 2018. I read a first edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback from the library.

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 3.5 out of 5 stars. (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

As sometimes happens with short story collections, my ratings veer wildly from story to story. The opener (“The Finkenstein 5”, note [1]) is a stunning 5-star piece and deserves to be iconized like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, while “Light Spitter” (note [26]), only receives 1 star. (While technically written well, the plot and execution didn’t sit well with me.)

Adjei-Brenyah covers an incredible range of reality to fantasy, from “Things My Mother Said” (note [5]) which reads as purely autobiographical to “The Hospital Where” (note [15]) which carries so much nightmare/dream logic that it is barely comprehensible. The other stories fall along this spectrum, some hardly different from reality at all (“Zimmer Land”, note [20]) to creating their own sci-fi reality (“The Era”, note [7] and “Through the Flash”, note [32]).

I love grounded stories with one or two weird elements (the more I think on it, the more moving and incredible “Lark Street”, note [12] becomes). Adjei-Brenyah delivers sharp satire and insight on being black in America today through fantastical plots. He’s a modern Weird Fiction writer carrying the mantle of 1940s/50s Ray Bradbury.

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“Mouthful of Birds”

Mouthful of Birds

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection, translated by Megan McDowell and published in 2019. I read a Riverhead Books first edition hardcover from the library.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

In her terrifying (and fantastic) novel Fever Dream, Schweblin infused the mundane with an aura of dread – things are almost normal but warped. Mouthful of Birds carries that same vibe throughout its 19 stories (in 228 pages! These are swift tales).

Most of the stories begin in a recognizable world but gain nightmarish elements – sometimes it’s obvious (a teenage girl whose diet consists wholly of live birds), sometimes it’s a feeling (a depressed brother in a family with impossibly good luck).

Schweblin writes dark fairy tales for adults using simple language and locations (I hardly had to look anything up for this book). Megan McDowell does another great translating job (check out her site for other translated works; in the past year, I’ve read five with her name on it and they were all fantastically translated, fascinating books).

Great short stories (the ones that become immortal), need to score high on three elements: character(s), situation, and end. Schweblin nails the first two almost every time, but the third is often vague, confusing, or flat. You cannot have a 5-star story without all three and no story in Mouthful of Birds reaches that mark, though most are above average and certainly worth spending the time to read.


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“The Isle of Youth”

ioy 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s second short story collection, published in 2013. I read the FSG Originals paperback edition from my library.

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 4 out of 5 stars (stories averaged).

 Times Read: 1

One of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. Van den Berg never does the obvious thing. Whenever I thought I was ahead of the story, it turned back on me. None of these stories go where you think, none of them end where you think a short story should end. It’s exciting as a reader and it’s a great strength of van den Berg’s.

A feeling of truth fills each story – hidden deep, never discussed, but felt by many. The Third Hotel also had this effect on me. An author who can do it more than once is one to hold dear.

Van den Berg doesn’t supply answers to everything. People disappear in these tales and you won’t find out what happened to them. People die and you don’t know how, the whys are not spelled out. But she gives enough emotional information to make you care and understand. You will come to your own conclusions and every conclusion is correct.

While most of the female leads are in marriages – often troubled – the real connections here are between siblings. Brothers, sisters, twins; dead, alive, estranged.


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“First Love, Last Rites”

First Love, Last Rites

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ian McEwan’s first published collection of short stories, released in 1975. I read a 1976 Picador paperback.

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2.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This did not go as well as I hoped. McEwan goes for shocks in many of these eight stories but the shocks usually involve sexual abuse or violence against women or children. And I’m just done with it. I’ve read enough rapes from a male narrator’s point of view.

A couple of the stories (“Last Day of Summer” and “Butterflies”) rise above an average rating but I was mostly unimpressed and uncomfortable.

Also, a quibble: McEwan’s style in this collection has crazy, ambitiously long sentences and paragraphs, especially for short stories. If I had been assigned any of these for school, I would have lost my mind trying to write papers.

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“The Comfort of Strangers”

Comfort of Strangers

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ian McEwan’s second novel, published in 1981. I read a 1981 Simon and Schuster hardcover from the library.

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2.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: No, and despite the great cast, I have no interest in seeing this story played out again.

The Plot:

A vacationing couple meets a mysterious, violent man and his injured, submissive wife.

After enjoying The Cement Garden, I was hoping for more “Ian Macabre” with The Comfort of Strangers. It didn’t quite work out. The book is only 127 pages but I was struggling to stick with it after page 80.

The Comfort of Strangers is dark and moody but the good parts are weighed down by bloated, comma-laden ones. I don’t need to like every character but I have to at least find them interesting. By the end, I think we’re supposed to believe that Mary and Colin were soulmates (?); I didn’t even think they liked each other. McEwan keeps insisting they are in love but it just seems like good sex; their conversations are bizarre at best.

Their return to Robert and Caroline’s apartment is completely unexplained and unearned. Why would they go back after such a bizarre first visit? If they are worried about Caroline, reporting the situation to officials seems the better choice. Frankly, I’m paranoid enough that I would have gone home or changed hotels the moment I realized Robert had been photographing my balcony… Continue reading

“Love”

Love

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Hanne Orstavik’s 1997 Norwegian novel. I read a 2018 Archipelago Books edition, translated by Martin Aiken and borrowed from my library.

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2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Vibeke and her eight-year-old son, Jon, have moved to an isolated, wintry northern Norwegian town. But their relationship proves to be colder than their new home as Vibeke goes out for companionship while Jon wanders alone, believing his mother is preparing for his upcoming birthday.

Love feels twice as long as its 125 pages. There are section breaks but within those sections, the narrative (third person, present tense) switches between Vibeke and Jon without cues or warning.  It is an interesting experiment but feels gimmicky and inorganic to the story.

We are held at such a distance from the two leads and made to feel so suspicious of everyone they encounter that there is no chance to connect to anyone. Everyone feels dangerous but, ultimately, the greatest danger comes from within the family. Which makes the motivations of the carnival workers who pick up Vibeke and Jon completely nonsensical, especially the woman who Jon encounters. I have no idea what her purpose was. No idea at all. Is she Tom’s father? Is this a story of parallel mothers and sons? I’d love to speculate, but Ortavik doesn’t give enough information to back up a specific theory. Any theory would work because the text is so damned vague.

Ortavik’s greatest strength is in dream and fantasy sequences. Love has a very dreamlike quality of unease and nonsense and dread. Vibeke is a character very much in the Shirley Jackson mold but something is ultimately lacking in Love, which is too bad because this book starts with so much potential.

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“Strange Weather” (Post 1/2)

Strange Weather 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Joe Hill’s 2017 short novel collection. I read a first edition hardcover from the library.

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2 out of 5 stars (overall average).

Times Read: 1

None of the four stories in Strange Weather connected with me. After about thirty pages of each, I found myself checking to see how much more there was to go. Each time I was flummoxed; how was the story not wrapping up? Why was Hill dragging it out?

A good short story is built on a compelling “what-if” and doesn’t outstay its welcome. A good novel is built on engaging characters. Novellas are a difficult form because you need to be strong on both fronts. Hill nails the “what-ifs” but never gives us characters. These stories should have been shaved and tucked into a short story collection. Instead, we get the book equivalent of the fourth season of the Twilight Zone, when the episodes were stretched to an hour not for artistic or creative reasons, but because an hour-long slot needed to be filled.

I expected to like Strange Weather a lot – I wanted to like it a lot. I love short stories, I love novellas. To Joe Hill fans: I’m not happy to be writing this review, either.

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“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”

There Once Lived a Woman

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The first English-translated collection from prominent Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. I read a 2009 Penguin paperback (from the library).

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3 out of 5 stars (average).

Times Read: 1

The Introduction explains: From over a hundred stories we chose pieces with a common fantastic or mystical element (…) The stories in this volume were composed over the last thirty-plus years, but many of them are from the past decade (p.x).

As an entry to Petrushevskaya’s writing, this may have been a mistake. The collection becomes repetitive in mood and execution with a majority of stories ending on “it was all a dream”/ “dead the whole time” motifs. Full-on dream logic is frustrating; if anything can happen at any moment, there’s no tension other than wondering when the protagonist will realize they are asleep/dead. Also, unfortunately, some stories feel like confusing translations rather than an expression of Petrushevskaya’s style.

The language and plots have a timeless simplicity, making most stories feel like they could exist anywhere in the 19th or 20th century, but then Petrushevskaya surprises with the occasional reference to a cassette tape player or cell phone.

There are gems in here and most stories work on their own, it’s putting them up against so many of the same that weakens them. But the stories are so short that the duds breeze by. Continue reading

“The Diving Pool”

Diving Pool

[Explanation of Reading Journal/Entries]

Three novellas by Yoko Ogawa, originally published in 1990-91 and translated by Stephen Snyder in 2008. I read a Picador paperback from my great, wonderful library.

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3 out of 5 stars (averaged).

Times Read: 1

My second Ogawa outing (after Revenge). I’m getting a handle on her style and liking it quite a lot. These stories, like all in Revenge, are told in first person. The language is straightforward and full of somewhat universal elements (food, weather, animals) while giving very few cultural-specific references (I think the only city mentioned by name is Tokyo). I can’t remember the last author I had to look up so few references for. It makes Ogawa’s work extremely accessible.

Ogawa’s translator, Stephen Snyder, is also very good. The stories don’t feel translated. The sentences are smooth and clear, the images (even surreal ones) conveyed well. Continue reading