“Netsuke”

Netsuke

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Rikki Ducornet’s 2011 novel, published by the fantastic Coffee House Press. I read a first edition paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A married psychiatrist beds everyone – waitresses, tax consultants, clients, men, women.

This, my friends, is what I wanted American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to be.

Netsuke is separated into two parts – the first from the psychiatrist’s point of view (in all his arrogant assholery), the second giving perspective to his wife Akiko and two of his clients (who believe they are his sole affair). Ducornet moves between first person and third person with subliminal ease. The writing itself is beautiful, the language graphic and unflinching. There is a thinly veiled madness here, even when our narrator speaks of the simplicity of dinner or his wife’s decorations. 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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“The Perfect Nanny”

The Perfect Nanny 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Leila Slimani’s 2016 novel, translated by Sam Taylor and published in English in 2018. I read a Penguin Books paperback from the library.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A beloved nanny kills two children under her care, to the horror and confusion of all.

Calling this book The Perfect Nanny gives the wrong impression. The title/cover combination made me think I was getting a melodramatic Hand That Rocks the Cradle thriller. In French, the title is Chanson Douce, which translates to “sweet/soft/gentle song” or “lullaby” and suits the story so much better.

Because of the quote on the back comparing it to Gone Girl (and, perhaps, because of my misunderstanding of Gone Girl), I thought this was a mystery. I thought we were being led to assume the nanny (Louise) was the killer, but it would be revealed that someone else (her disappeared daughter, the younger nanny she befriends, her older lover) had broken in and committed the murders, framing her. Louise’s name is not used in the first chapter (where we see the aftermath of the attack) but she is the killer and I think Slimani wants us to know this from the start; the story is not a mystery, it is an exploration of stress and weakness and the weight of social expectation. And it is very good.

The Perfect Nanny is mostly told in present tense with the occasional bit in past tense. The chapters are 3-5 page vignettes, sometimes with a name at the start (Stephanie, Rose Grinberg, Jacques, Hector Rouvier). At first, I thought these names were suspects. Now, I’m not sure why they’re there. They are not needed; we quickly understand who is being discussed and their relationship to Louise. If they are supposed to be represent the people who caused extreme stress to Louise, then why don’t we get chapters titled Bertrand Alizard and Wafa? (If anyone has ideas on the reasoning behind the chapter names, I’d love to hear them!)

The book is most powerful with the characterizations of Louise and Myriam (the mother of the murdered children). Both women are filled with complexity and nuance and Myriam’s pain, the horror she receives for pursing her loved career, hits so hard.

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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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“My Year of Rest and Relaxation”

My Year 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, released in 2018. I read a first edition hardcover from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A young New York City art gallery employee wants to sleep through her life. No dreams, no memories, just blessed blanks to fill out the days. A questionable therapist assists her in her quest.

I tried reading Moshfegh’s first novel, Eileen and though I loved the straightforward, caustic narrator, I realized after a hundred pages that there wasn’t enough story to keep me going. It kept circling a situation I wasn’t interested in.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation has a similar swirling plot and sardonic lead, but this time it worked for me. I love New York City stories (and podcasts and movies… I love the rhythm and humor and intelligent fuck-you-ism of NYC artists). I intensely connected to the narrator, so much that it took me until page 188 to realize she hadn’t been given a name.

A note of warning: this is a don’t-try-this-at-home story. Some elements may be upsetting depending on where you’re coming from. The narrator takes fistfuls of pills constantly with little consequence; the dangers of addiction or overdose is not what this book is about. This is not Less Than Zero. It’s not some after-school-special cautionary tale. It is a book for people who don’t need warnings against tying plastic bags around their heads. I respect that. I respect this book’s respect for me.

There’s a Fight Club vibe here: a friend who often appears as though “summoned” by the narrator’s thoughts, the inability of the narrator to know what she’s doing when “asleep”, the unnamed narrator in general… I was expecting a twist that (thankfully) did not come. My Year stands on its own, as its own thing.

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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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“Convenience Store Woman”

Convenience 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel, translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Grove Press in 2018. I read a copy from the library.

Buy the Book.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Keiko Furukura, a happy convenience store employee, has never been interested in dating or finding a “real” career. Pressured by friends and family, she approaches a recently-fired co-worker with a proposition.

What a delightful little book! Convenience Store Woman reads like a novella, with no chapters or parts (only section breaks) and can easily be finished in one or two sittings.

Our main character Furukura observes human behavior as an outsider; early on in life she realizes her idea of rationality and common sense upsets others and tries her best to get along in the world without drawing too much attention. Her family loves her, she suffered no abuse, this is just the way she is. It’s a great set-up and a refreshing character to spend time with, especially for anyone who prefers to focus on tasks over communication. Continue reading

“His Favorites”

His Favorites pic

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kate Walbert’s 2018 novel. I read a first edition Scribner hardcover from the library.

Buy the Book.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

After the accidental death of her best friend, fifteen-year-old Jo is sent to a private boarding school where she becomes a favorite of her charismatic English teacher.

A slim but rich book. Every character feels vivid and alive, even those who hardly get any screen-time (Jo’s classmates, especially). Walbert could have written a fantastic Secret History-length book with this cast and plot.

And maybe that’s the problem (if a four-star book can be said to have a problem): Walbert keeps the timeline shifting as she tells Jo’s story. In 149 pages, only a handful of episodes are shown to us, some broken up between multiple sections. It works and I like this book quite a lot, but I might have liked it more (in the all-time favorite competition category) if the story was presented in order – beginning with Stephanie’s death, then going through Jo’s first year at boarding school.

But ultimately, what His Favorites reveals itself to be justifies the style and I don’t want to rag on something that’s this good.

Main character Jo is the type of dryly funny, sarcastic (but dedicated) teen that I would have loved to been friends with. She feels realistic and layered – smart, but still young.

There are some hard scenes where I had to put the book down to take a breather because the story Walbert tells is so true and infuriating and sad. The bulk of His Favorites takes place in the late seventies, but it still rings true.

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“Pin”

Pin pic

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

An early one by Andrew Neiderman, published in 1981. I read a first edition paperback with a cool cover.

Buy the Book.

4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: Yes and it’s totally eighties-low-budget-horror fun.

The Plot:

Two teen orphans continue living in the family home – along with the brother’s closest friend, an anatomical dummy named Pin.

For what could be cheesy schlock, Pin is written shockingly well. I’m used to pulp-paperback-horror having some awkward writing (see notes [1], [3] of The Fog’s review…)  but Neiderman is a damn good writer.

The two siblings, Leon and Ursula, are genuinely complex characters. While the story is told from Leon’s point of view (which makes the reality of many events questionable), we see Ursula’s conflict and feel for the messed-up situation she’s been raised in. This poor young woman is genuinely trying her best. Leon, the narrator, is a twisted piece of work but the story is so far off the rails that it’s sort of fun to be on the ride with him.

Pin also hits one of my sweet spots: the majority of the book takes place in a single location with a very small cast. Has anyone made a weird stage play out of this? Continue reading