“There There”

There There

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Tommy Orange’s debut novel, published in 2018. I read an Alfred A. Knopf first edition from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Modern Native Americans living in Oakland converge on a powwow.

There There never tries to hide its climax. Early on, we know guns and bullets will be smuggled into the powwow and from there, we know there will be shooting and death, so I’m not going to be coy in this review about hiding it, either.

Orange’s writing is solid with refreshingly modern references and deeply effecting moments. Each chapter is named after its central character, some receiving many chapters, some with one. For the most part, I was able to keep the characters straight but near the end, when many of the characters find themselves in the same place, I had a hard time keeping up with who was who.

I wish There There had remained a collection of short stories with overlapping characters and no climatic final event. The book’s greatest strength is its characters. I was surprised by how much I liked each one I met in Part I. I would have read a whole book following their days and thoughts. I was more interested in that than the Reservoir Dogs-esque robbery gone wrong at the end.

If There There insists on having a mass shooting, then put it in the middle of the book right after the Interlude. Finishing a story at the point of a mass shooting makes the shooters the protagonists of your work. Simple as that. If the story ends there, then the story was about them. I would have liked to see the fallout of the event, seen how the country reacted to such a thing (how would America react if Native Americans perpetuated a mass shooting at a Native American event?), and seen how these characters coped and interacted.

This is a first novel and it shows in parts. The dialogue is awkward with page-long data dumps where people express themselves and their feelings with great detail in a way that seems more diary than speech.

An interesting stylistic choice made by Orange is telling different chapters of the same character in different ways: Tony Loneman’s first chapter (p.15) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.142) is in third person, present tense. Calvin Johnson’s first chapter (p.88) is in first person, past tense; his second chapter (p.144) is in third person, past tense. Dene Oxendene and Jackie Red Feather have both of their first two chapters in third person, but Dene’s are both present tense while Jackie has past tense, then present. And so on. Orange has good control of every style and tense, but it was odd that many characters started in first person when the end is told completely in third person. Orange starts us very close to these characters only to pull us further and further away the more time we spend with them. 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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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Post 2/2)

Frankenstein in Baghdad b

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

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[25] Reference:

According to the astrologers, these ghosts were called tawabie al-khouf, the “familiars of fear.”

(p.113)

Searching this term refers back to Frankenstein in Baghdad. Trying to run it through a translator gives me: Toby fear.

[26]

He believed that emotions changed memories, that when you lost the emotion associated with a particular event, you lost an important part of the event.

(p.119)

[27]

“The people on the bridge died because they were frightened of dying.”

(p.123)

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” (Post 1/2)

Frankenstein in Baghdad a

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Ahmed Saadawai’s 2014 novel, winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Translated by Jonathan Wright and published in English in 2018. I read a Penguin Books paperback from the library. 

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3 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Junk dealer and tall-tale-teller Hadi stitches a man out of bombing victims’ body parts. Infused with life from a murdered security guard, the Whatsitsname sets out on a never-ending quest for justice.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is a perfect example of a three-star book; could have been better, could have been worse.

The most interesting idea of the novel, the Whatsitsname, isn’t given much screen time. Chapter 10, which the Whatsitsname narrates, is a five-star knockout, almost a perfect short story in itself. The second half of the book suffered after the excitement of that chapter, wrapping up without much of a farewell to the characters I really liked (Elishva and Hadi) and too much time with the least interesting (newspaper man Mahmoud). The odd meta-inclusion and first-person chapter of “the writer” in Chapter 18 is jarring and doesn’t pay out.

The story moves along with touches of black humor and sharp allegory. Don’t be intimidated by the page-long cast list at the beginning: the narrative reiterates people’s relationships to one another and their roles enough to follow along without checking the list (several of the characters are only in a single scene, as well).

Saadawi has a stylistic tic which might throw some readers – he likes to start a scene with a character, then go back over the past 1-3 days of their life to catch up to where the scene started. As we jump between characters, I was unsure of how much time was passing or if events were happening concurrently. Some reader feedback and a final solid edit could have lifted Frankenstein in Baghdad to a 4-star book, but it’s pretty good as it is. Continue reading

“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 Taiga Syndrome”

the taiga syndrome 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Cristina Rivera Garza’s short 2012 novel, translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana in 2018. I read a Dorothy paperback from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

An ex-detective searches for a missing couple in the Taiga.

The Taiga Syndrome has a dreamy, hypnotic quality. The striking images make emotional (but not literal) sense, leaning on motifs and repetition and not clear plot progression. It’s pleasing for a time, but around page 100, my lack of emotional connection to the characters and events slowed me down. If there had been more than 19 pages left, I might not have finished it.

This feels like the work of an author who has a beautiful style and language but didn’t have a firm statement to make; writing for the sake of writing.

Rivera Garza is bilingual and has translated other Spanish work into English; I’m not sure why she didn’t translate her own writing. If anyone knows why or has a theory, please drop a line. Continue reading

“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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“Mother Night”

Mother Night

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kurt Vonnegut’s third novel, published in 1962. I read a 2009 Dial Press Trade Paperback from the library.

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3 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: There’s a movie? Weird. There’s a movie. Have not seen it, do not plan to.

The Plot:

American Howard W. Campbell, Jr., who spent World War II promoting fascism and hate on German radio (while being a secret agent for the United States), explains how he ended up in an Israeli prison.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t aging well. Or maybe I’m not aging well. Authors and books I used to love are leaving me irritated. When I read Mother Night four years ago, I gave it five stars. This time, it was a struggle to justify three.

Vonnegut tells us the moral of Mother Night in the introduction: “We are what we pretend to be” (p.v). Which means this tale is about a Nazi. Our sympathies are supposed to be with Howard Campbell and I have no idea why.

There are some very good scenes, all involving events during the war (the death of a dog, the hanging of Campbell’s father-in-law, and a scene in a bomb shelter), but the events and characters in the near-present are caricatures and punchlines. Fascist, racist people are portrayed as harmless buffoons and are given more humanity than Resi Noth, who wins the award for most depressing female character I’ve encountered this year (see note [51]).

By the halfway point, Mother Night had me wishing I’d picked up something else from the library.

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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