Posts Tagged short stories

book review: Madame Zero


Madame Zero: 9 stories by Sarah Hall. Custom House| July 2017| 192 pages | $23.99| ISBN: 9780062657060

RATING: ****/5*

In this brilliant collection of dark and strange stories, author Sarah Hall deftly examines relationships, sexuality, existence, nature. She dips into different characters and POVs with exquisite writing throughout, making for a compelling and rewarding read. Leaning into middle age, I’m immersed in existentialism and appreciated the subject matter as well as Hall’s bold, often disturbing and unique writing style.  It’s easy to become engulfed in each story. I prefer to read a short story and let it settle a bit before delving into another. These stories seethe into your mind and you need time to fully absorb the details.

A woman transforms into a fox and her husband attempts to sustain a relationship with her in “Mrs. Fox.” At first he brings her home and tries to co-exist but the fox yearns for freedom. He resigns himself to this new reality. Later, he runs into her out in the woods and they develop a comfortable, respectable bond of sorts. Hall writes: “To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too will pass. All things tend towards transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”

In “Wilderness,” a woman on a dangerous, challenging hike with her boyfriend and one of her boyfriend’s friends [ “Zachary’s prevailing mood was melancholia bordering on despair.”] contemplates her mortality. Hall writes: “The railway tunnel had a strange industrial eeriness, a primed feeling, like its memory of trains hadn’t faded or it was convinced trains were still coming. The clinker ground underfoot like old bones.”

An epidemiologist examines guilt during a deadly viral outbreak in “One in Four:” “The truth is, we’re all so desperate to carry on, but we’re nothing really, just specs on the glass.”

In “Evie,” a woman’s sexually charged behavior turns alarming for her husband. And Hall really delves in. She GOES THERE: “The man on the screen pulled out of the woman. She presented herself, wider. Her genitals were depilated, the flesh dark purple. The man knelt, put his face between her legs and began to tongue the crease. Evie rolled on her back, held her head up so she could still see the screen.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Custom House.

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book review: Virgin and Other Stories


Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux| November 2016| 179 pages | $23.00| ISBN: 9780865478695

RATING: ****/5*

Strong debut short story collection with a dark tone and dark sense of humor. Author April Ayers Lawson, currently a visiting writer at University of North Caroline at Chapel Hill,  grew up in the South with an evangelical background. She grew up in Greenville, South Carolina. It’s easy to imagine that everyone in the South drives around in a pick-up truck with confederate flag and gun rack attending weekly church service. In this story collection she creates a complex image of the South and its inhabitants with rich details and enthralling, layered characters.

In the title story, Jake contemplates the potential deterioration his marriage to Sheila, a virgin when they wed. A teenager becomes tantalized by a mysterious young man living at her piano teacher’s home in “The Way You Must Play Always:” “The love inside her had room to spread out now. It was part nervousness, part desperation, and a little craziness too, and she felt it begin to rush outside of her and around her, leaving invisible prints of itself all over the things she touched: her bag, her books, the keys, the pages of the music she turned.” A woman who befriended a transgender woman at her church takes her son to the woman’s funeral in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling.” This boy recalls how different his mother would be when Charlene would come over to visit: “First I thought WHAT IN THE WORLD did my mother have to put in a diary? All she did was give me assignments, wander around the house wiping things down, drink green tea, and go to stores. She never said anything to me about a diary; then Charlene’s her thirty minutes and my mom is Anne Frank.”

In the best story, a married artist forms complicated relationships with her art dealer and another artist in “Vulnerability.” She’s married to a man who mostly hangs out after work in the garage watching porn on his computer. Of her husband: “Occasionally when I returned from the bathroom at a restaurant I’d come back to find him engaged more happily in conversation with the waitress than he ever was with me; with me he claimed he could be himself, which was depressed.” She creates imaginary relationships in her mind then when she meets the art dealer and another man she corresponded with she plays them off against each other. There’s a dangerous precariousness in her emotions and palpable insecurities: “I knew I had nice legs, and unable to think of anything funny or intelligent to say, my mind sludgy with the clonazepam I chewed like candy and alcohol and th dregs of crumbling fantasy, I shifted then about in hopes that he’d forgive me for not being as smart and inspired and bold as I thought I’d managed to seem in the emails.” Best read slowly to savor and absorb the exquisite details.

–review by Amy Steele

 FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Junot Diaz

MIT professor and Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Diaz kindly agreed to speak with me by phone earlier this week about his new collection of stories This is How You Lose Her. Diaz writes raw, visceral prose that bursts from the page with a gritty intensity. The stories revolve around Yunior, a young smug Dominican as he navigates love in New Jersey. My review here. He’s currently on a 30 city nationwide tour and will appear at Brookline Booksmith on September 19, Harvard Bookstore on September 26 and Concord Festival of Authors on November 3. For other area dates, see Diaz’s website.

Amy Steele: What attracts you to writing short stories?

Junot Diaz: There’s something about their fragmentation. There’s something about their awesome intensity that really just does it for me.

Amy Steele: What are the greatest challenges in writing short stories vs. writing novels?

Junot Diaz: When it comes down to it, they’re two entirely different forms. The novel is a marathon in many ways. At least what I’ve written is more of a marathon. The short stories, in my mind, require an entirely different calibration. The short story’s so much about silence and the novel’s so much about how much you put into your world.

Amy Steele: It seems that not many authors can do both short stories and novels well. And many choose to do one or the other.

Junot Diaz: I’m not sure, myself, if I’ll write anymore short stories. I think I’ve burned myself out for a while.

Amy Steele: Do you think writing short stories is a more difficult format?

Junot Diaz: I don’t know. It’s just time for me to go back to the novel. To spend more time in that longitudinal form, in that more expansive form.

Amy Steele: Did you set out to write thematically based stories for This is How You Lose Her or did it end up that way?

Junot Diaz: I started it from the beginning. A book like this does not come together by accident. You set yourself up right from the start. You try to get all the stories to work together, to get all the basic scenes in play and have the arc intact. I had the idea for the overarching story first and then I had to fit the other stories in.

Amy Steele: Why did you think it would work better as stories than as a novel?

Junot Diaz: I just think they’re totally different forms. It’s a different game. It’s like asking why kickball vs. hopscotch? In our minds we think of these forms as directly related but it’s not so clear when you’re creating them how connected they are. there was something very useful and constructive about all the silences between the stories. There is a way that a reader reads this collection that the reader is going to ask important questions. They’re going to provide a lot of answers themselves. In a novel, there’s a lot less fragmentation. A novel is less a game. A book like this is more of a game that asks a person’s help to participate in the assemblage.

Stories have a way at the end of reminding us of how short our lives our but also just how irrevocable some of the moments in our lives are. You can’t regain them. Stories have a lot of finality in them. Where novels save all of its finality until the end.

Amy Steele: When I read your stories or novels, I become immediately immersed in the culture, which I suppose is the point but I find it so impressive and not easily done. How did you develop such a contemporary structure that seems simultaneously simple and complex?

Junot Diaz: There’s a part of me that knows the interface and what lies behind it and there’s this voice, conversation, vernacular—that’s just interface. That’s what the reader connects with. If someone’s interested in narrative, in the way a story works, they look behind the mask. My approach is always to hide the complexity. To do everything possible to distract, to misdirect that this is an artifact. That it’s highly provisional, highly contingent. And there’s a part of me that’s just nerdy. I love puzzles.

Amy Steele: What do you like about Yunior?

Junot Diaz: He’s incredibly complex. I wrestled with him because he’s so difficult. He has a suite of charms. But in other ways he’s sort of brutal. There’s a sensitivity and an intelligence and a cowardice and a self-obsessiveness that works for me.

Amy Steele: How did you develop him as a character?

Junot Diaz: He’s been with me for a long time. I’ve always liked the idea of a character who would allow me to talk about the way that masculinity and the way that race and the way that culture and the way that American-ness works from the inside. He’s so smart and so honest. He’s a wonderful observer. He has kinda cool judgments. But all those credits means there’s gotta be a lot of hurt and a lot of damage.

Amy Steele: What makes a good story?

Junot Diaz: A whole combination of traits for me. What matters most is a believable human character by which we mean contradictory and conflicted.

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STEELE INTERVIEWS: author Robin Black– If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This

If I Loved you, I Would Tell You This is an exquisitely crafted, eclectic collection of short stories by Robin Black. Diverse characters and Black’s unique style and an eye for the darker side of humanity spring forth from the page. Recently, I spoke with Robin about her writing process and her debut collection of short stories.

Amy Steele [AS]: What do you like about writing short stories?

Robin Black [RB]: In a way I think that there are parts of short-story writing that tap your brain like doing a crossword puzzle or jigsaw puzzle because you’re working within a limited space and every part has to be the right part.

I think novels, even though it shouldn’t be this way, are more forgiving in a way. But since I’ve written some stories that have done well and one novel, that is really bad, it’s easier.

AS: What are the challenges in writing short stories?

RB: The biggest challenge in short stories is compression and re-learning that. In novels, a lot of it is about expanding things and following possibilities. At least it is for me. In short stories you really are asking yourself, “Do I need this?” or “Do I want this?” or “Should I use this space for something else?” or “Is this really relevant to the story?” In novels, you can have these long digressions. My stories are long. I pretty much have forgotten how to write a story under 8,000 words.

AS: How does your teaching affect your writing and writing affect your teaching?

RB: My teaching makes my writing much better. I find teaching incredibly stimulating and exciting. Every time I read someone else’s story in whatever shape it’s in, I always figure out things about my own work also. I always learn. I think that for a lot of us that are probably not going to be in the student role anymore, teaching is just as good for that. I hope my students get a lot out of it. I know I do. And I do think being a practitioner helps in the teaching. The assignments I give my students really grow out of my own struggles which are ongoing. One weird thing about writing is you learn how to do it and you never learn how to do it.

AS: What do you teach?

RB: I’ve taught general creative writing classes, undergraduate and graduate level, and I’ve taught short stories. I do individual coaching and have done some weekend workshops where the points I’m teaching are very applicable to short stories or novels. I try to make it that whoever’s taking it gets something out of it. I also teach non-fiction. I write memoir essays. So I teach that as well.

AS: How do you decide whether to tell a story in first-person or third-person?

RB: That is one of the things I work hardest on and every story I go back and forth and more and more I end up in third-person. It’s always a question for me of how to tell the story best and what would be gained by having it in first-person because you lose a lot. You lose some distance. You lose some perspective. Most of the time, I feel that the central character is not the best person to tell the story. Usually they don’t have enough insight to do it. I don’t want them to be that smart, I don’t want to be that wise and I’m not trying to create an unreliable narrator. So I want a narrator who has a bit of wisdom about the situation.

AS: Where do you get most of your ideas?

RB: They’re not autobiographical. I’m not someone who goes through life and has things happen and thinks, “That would make a great story.” I actually really admire people who are able to do that because I’m not. Every story in there has some sort of spark of something that did happen to me. There’s a story about a neighbor and a fence [“If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This”] and there actually is a fence in my driveway. There’s a story about someone having electricity in the water and we actually did have our water electrified.

AS: Why did you want to tell that story about the woman and the father connection [“Gaining Ground”]?

RB: That’s one that I have no idea how exactly it came together although there are some autobiographical aspects in there. We did have electric water. My father did not kill himself. He died six months before that. I’m sure I was working through all kinds of stuff but for me the way that happens in stories is the way that happens in dreams. I can go back over them and see my obsession or my psyche but it’s all really changes and it’s really similar to dreams for me.

AS: The story, “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This,” about a woman with cancer who has an inconsiderate, selfish neighbor who builds a fence that abuts in front of her house is told in an interesting style. How did you develop it?

RB:That one came about out of a real emotional impulse. Our neighbor built a fence that basically as in the story is in front of our front door. I couldn’t get over the fact that he could be that mean. I had this impulse to talk to him about it and then I realized that I didn’t care about him enough and I didn’t think he could learn anything. He was past caring. That was really wanting to talk to someone and that is why it is one person talking to another character. Emotionally there’s a lot of truth in that story.

AS: Can you talk about the woman with the prosthetic leg and the woman who was jealous of her [“Pine”]?

RB: That’s sort of a soccer mom story and I had one season of being a soccer mom. There was another mother there who kept inviting me to join support groups with her. It was clear to me that this was a woman who felt like there was something missing in her life. Again in that weird dream way, the way that came out in the character is that she’s literally missing a limb. But the way it started was someone who was in some way incomplete. Also, the people you meet through your children who are not necessarily a person you have anything in common with or would choose to spend time with but that’s part of the child-rearing years.

AS: What attracts you to writing about the darker side of people?

RB: I’ve always been drawn to how people cope to tragic situations. I grew up in a family whose grandmother was paraplegic. Around the time I went back to writing, I also had some losses in my own life. I think the stories for me were, in a way, trying to work it out and look at situations where people were grieving and write them into a more optimistic position.

AS: How do you decide which stories to put into a collection and what do you think makes a great short story collection?

RB: The reality of my stories is that they were not written to be read together. They were written over eight years and they were published separately. When I was writing them, I was not writing for a collection. I was writing each one to write the best story I could write. When I submitted a collection, I submitted the best stories I had. I wrote one more after I’d already submitted it. I have mixed feelings that they are in a collection. A lot of times I wish I could put a label on them that says, “Read one a week.” I didn’t write them to be read like a novel. I think in a way it does the stories a disservice to read them that way. I like that they are all together but I think that my collection would really benefit from people reading them [slowly] and [spaced out].

AS: What inspires you to write?

RB: I like to observe and share it. I want the words to be good because that’s the way to communicate. It’s that I saw something about the way people react and I think it’s cool and I want to describe it.

Robin Black is a graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her essays and stories have been published in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Bellevue Literary Review, and other publications. She lives in Philadelphia.

Title: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories
Author: Robin Black
ISBN: 978-1400068579
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Random House; 1 edition (March 30, 2010)
Category: short stories
Review source: publisher
Rating: 5/5

more information at Robin Black website

buy at Amazon: If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories

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