“Adèle”

Adele 01.jpg

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Leila Slimani’s debut novel, first published in France in 2014, translated by Sam Taylor and released in English in 2019. I read a Penguin Books paperback.

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3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Adèle craves sexual encounters – the more impersonal, the better – but knows her secret will tear her from her husband and son.

Though The Perfect Nanny was Slimani’s first novel published in English, Adèle was Slimani’s debut. Also, like The Perfect Nanny, the title has been changed in translation. In this case, it makes a little more sense. The original title, Dans le jardin de l’ogre translates to In the Garden of the Ogre, a line that is echoed on page 2 (She wants to be a doll in an ogre’s garden). I can see how publishers would think this sounds like a horror or fantasy novel and calling the text Adèle reflects the obsession the story has for its main character. Even when the narrative includes her husband, Richard’s, point of view, his world is consumed by thoughts of Adèle.

From the start, I’m on Adèle’s side and wholly invested in her while never understanding her compulsions. Strangely, we follow Adèle’s perspective until, on page 141 (out of 216), we begin switching back and forth between her and Richard – who I definitely never like. If we are ever supposed to sympathize with him it doesn’t work, likely because his perspective shows up so late in the narrative.

I love how Slimani writes women who feel conflicted in roles of wife and mother and caretaker, who do not take to it naturally, who balk against expectation, who may not know what they want but know what they don’t want. Continue reading

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“There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights”

There WIll Be No

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s 2012 chapbook of nine short (short!) stories. I read a 2017 Bull City Press reprint edition.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This entire book runs the length of a short story but van den Berg packs plot, emotion, and her usual beautiful writing into each page. The stories live; the characters have a past and future and the mind tries to follow them beyond the story – the sign of a great short story writer.

I hate to admit it, but for years I didn’t think I liked female authors or main characters. This breaks my heart now and I wonder how many great books I’ve missed. I’m thankful that authors like van den Berg have shown me strong, complex, fascinating female characters that I connect to. In the past six months, she’s become one of my favorites.

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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 White Book”

the white book

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Han Kang’s 2016 sparse, meditative, autobiographical (?) work, translated by Deborah Smith and published in English in 2017. I read a copy from the library (which they awesomely ordered after a purchase request. Thank you, library!).

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A woman ruminates on the color white and its relationship to her mother’s first child, who died soon after birth.

The White Book is more poetry than narrative, which is always a challenge for me. The text feels more like notes for a novel than a novel itself.

I understood that I was reading deeply moving imagery and ideas but couldn’t emotionally connect. The strongest feeling I had was admiration for Han Kang’s prose (and that admiration is enough to give the book an above-average rating, despite how this intro must sound).

So, sadly, The White Book did not work for me, but for the reader who can connect, it will be loved. Because it is such a short book (and newly released in hardcover), I am not going to share all of the quotes I wrote down. I’ll give you enough to know if you want to read it, but I’m not going to spoil the best parts. Continue reading

“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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“Find Me” (Post 2/2)

Find Me 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.


Book 2

[45] Opens with a quote by Joy Williams from The Quick and the Dead (p.221)

Joy Williams (b.1944) is an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist. She is the author of four novels. Her most recent novel, The Quick and the Dead (2000), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and it is not related to the 1995 film).

[46]

The fog twists over the road in a way that makes me think it’s not just air and water but something alive.

(p.227) Continue reading

“Find Me” (Post 1/2)

Find Me 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Laura van den Berg’s debut novel, published in 2015. I read a large-print copy from the library, which means my page numbers go deceptively higher (396) than the standard paperback release (288).

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3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

When a deadly virus tears through the United States, immune Joy – struggling with abandonment, abuse, and regret – is brought to a Kansas hospital with others for study.

Find Me is divided into “Book 1” and “Book 2”, the first taking place in the hospital, the second telling us what happens to Joy after she leaves. Book 1 is more focused on plot – characters are developed, secrets are revealed – while Book 2 becomes a metaphorical, Cormac McCarthy The Road-type travelogue.

I don’t gravitate toward disease/virus/apocalyptic tales. I couldn’t get through Station Eleven, World War Z or the film version of Children of Men; I’m not a Mad Max fan. I Am Legend is my least favorite Matheson story… If you also shy away from outbreak stories, know that Find Me isn’t obsessed with the usual tropes. It’s a personal story that just happens to take place around a plague.

Van den Berg has launched herself into my list of favorite authors (The Third Hotel was not a singular magic moment). She combines moments that feel like a key turning in a lock with a rich, information-filled world. She is a collector of interesting facts and, unlike some authors who variously make things up or simply get them wrong (…Mr. King…), van den Berg does solid research, knowing that the truth can be as absurd and unexpected as fiction.

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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.

Buy the Book.

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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“Suicide”

Suicide pic 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Edouard Leve’s last novel, seen by some as his own public suicide note. Published originally in 2008; Jen Steyn’s English translation published in 2011. I read a Dalkey Archive Press paperback edition from my library.

Buy the Book.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A stream-of-consciousness communication with a friend who committed suicide at 25.

I try to review books on their merit alone, not delving too deeply into the author’s background. But this book refuses to be discussed without the first line of Suicide’s description in the paperback edition I read:

Edouard Leve delivered the manuscript for his final book, SUICIDE, just a few days before he took his own life.

I had never heard of Leve before reading Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (read it!), which opens with this Leve quote:

I want this epitaph engraved on my tombstone: “See you soon.”

The quote is from his work Autoportrait but could very well have been nested in Suicide, which is a perfect companion book to The Third Hotel; both capture many of the same sensations of memory and finality/incompletion that the living grapple with after death.

Suicide is ultimately more about life than death and there’s a feeling that the “you” being addressed actually may be very close to, if not the same person, as the “I.” No one could ever know this much about another. Spouses don’t have the intricate understandings that Leve asserts about his deceased friend.

The biggest hurdle in Suicide is that the dead man is difficult to like. I feel compassion for his family and friends but no connection or sympathy for him. Leve handles this well, acknowledging that if this man had lived past twenty-five, the two friends would likely have drifted apart and the narrator may not even have thought of him two decades later.

I don’t know. This subject is so tense and upsetting (and Leve’s own suicide creates a wall against criticism) that I’m having a hard time examining the book. There’s a tendency to listen more closely to a suicide. Reverence in a weird way. The idea to not speak ill of the dead is increased infinitely when that subject brought it to themselves.

Any complaint or criticism I can think of could be refuted by saying that Leve has done this on purpose: the story feels incomplete (so is every ended life), the subject seems uneven (so is every human; no one knows anyone as well as they think).

A note: translator Jan Steyn does an incredible job. This book doesn’t feel translated; the language is straightforward and clean, even when handling the intangible. The narrator has a sustained style and voice. Continue reading