Posts Tagged stories

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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book review: Music for Wartime

music for wartime

Music for Wartime By Rebecca Makkai.
Viking| June 2015|223 pages |$26.95| ISBN: 978-0-525-42669-1

Rating: *****/5*

“The last picture hurt her physically: Michael down on one knee, Vanessa’s hand in his, his mouth goofily open in what must have been song. Bridesmaids clapping and laughing, Vanessa’s eyes rolled back in embarrassment or ecstasy or both. Michael had never looked at Melanie with such silly abandon. She’d always found him hollow in a pleasant way, like a Greek urn. It was a silence and melancholy she’d attributed to his losing a wife.” [“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”]

What an exceptional, stunning and creative short-story collection. Rebecca Makkai seamlessly changes voice and point-of-view for her stories: male [“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”], female [“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”], varied ages [“The Worst You Ever Feel” is told from a young boy’s perspective.], races [there’s Celine, the Asian musician in “Cross”] and sexual orientation. She transports to varied times and places with ease.

“The November Story” focuses on the producer for a reality dating show: “The casting directors are great at spotting borderline narcissistic personality disorder, the kind that makes you just crazy enough for great TV but not crazy enough to destroy a camera with a baseball bat.” In Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart,” Makkai utilizes dark humor: “As much as I didn’t believe his optimism, I was glad he wasn’t giving up. I constantly pictured him hanging himself from the closet rod of his cold little apartment, or drinking something medieval and poisonous.” A woman confronts betrayal in “The Museum of the Dearly Departed.” Makkai includes three stories about her family’s history in 1930s Hungary including “Other Brands of Poison (First Legend).”

Brilliantly written, the stories are dark, moody, atmospheric and completely engrossing. This is short-story writing at its best. Read slowly to truly savor this talent.

purchase at Amazon: Music for Wartime: Stories

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book review: Almost Famous Women

almost famous women

Almost Famous Women: stories By Megan Mayhew Bergman.
Scribner| January 2015.|256 pages |$25.00| ISBN: 978—1-4767-8656-8

Brilliant concept and exquisitely written. This short story collection focuses on intriguing, bold and remarkable women from history. It’s edgy historical fiction. These women lived life as they chose to live it which likely made them misfits and outliers during their lifetimes.

Author Megan Mayhew Bergman envisioned the voices and back-stories for some truly unique women. She conducted extensive research and utilized her extraordinary imagination and creativity. She gets into the psyches of these women. She provides a voice. She imagines their hopes, dreams, desires, triumphs and disappointments. She plays around with point-of-view. It’s all exhilarating and works amazingly well in this format. There’s brilliance, heartache and triumph throughout these pages.

Included are the tragic stories about Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter and Oscar Wilde’s niece. Other stories tackle the final years of Gone with the Wind actress Butterfly McQueen; the heyday of daredevil and motorcycle trick-rider Hazel Eaton and interracial girl band the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

In “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” Mayhew Bergman writes of the conjoined Hilton sisters, Violet and Daisy–a side-show act for many years. One twin married, the other wasn’t allowed. Daisy recalls their story. How they were discovered. How they lived. How they were individual women but shared many aspects of the same body. “Our voices could be like one. I could feel hers in my bones, especially when she sang—a strong quicksilver soprano. We were attached at the hips and shared blood, but no vital organs. Four arms, four legs—enough to make a man give a second look.” These women remained mostly positive despite their circumstances. “There were no secrets. Imagine: you could say nothing, do nothing, eat nothing, touch nothing, love nothing without the other knowing.”

Cross-dressing Standard Oil heiress Joe Carstairs races boats and romances women in “The Siege at Whale Cay.” Told by her live-in lover: “What exhausted Georgie about Joe’s guests was that they were all-important. And important people made you feel not normal, but unimportant.”

In the tempered, melodramatic story “Norma Millay’s Film Noir Period,” the author creates a scenario for Norma Millay who lived at her sister’s estate for decades. Norma worked as a successful stage actress for quite some time. In the shadows? Jealous of her successful sister, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Unknown. Modern day example perhaps J. Lo and her sister Linda Lopez, a well-known New York disc jockey. “Norma curls next to her sister in the chair, as she often does, wriggling one arm behind Vincent’s back and laying a cheek on her bony shoulder. When she breathes in, her sister’s claret-colored hair falls across her face, and she feels deep love tinged with resentment, like the pure ice leaching red dye from the river.”

“A High-Grade Bitch Sits Down for Lunch” depicts the resilient and determined Beryl Markham, the first certified horse trainer in Africa. She’s struggling financially to start her new venture: “She never ate much. Meager eating was good for keeping her figure, and her figure was an asset, on a horse and in the bedroom. She wanted to look good in clothes and out of them.”

Rating: ****/5

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Simon and Schuster.

purchase at Amazon: Almost Famous Women: Stories

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This Close: book review

this close

This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. Publisher: Graywolf Press (2013). Stories. Paperback Original. 192 pages. ISBN 978-1-55597-636-1.

The Report, the debut novel by Jessica Francis Kane, is one of the best novels I’ve read. So well-crafted, I didn’t want it to end. Now Kane has this story collection. Could I get engulfed in these stories as I had in with The Report? Writing stories requires skill and balance. A good story is one that the reader continues to contemplate long after reading it. Unlike a novel, one has to get to the point quickly. One has to develop characters within a limited time frame. Kane is a strong writer who doesn’t use flowery prose. She writes to reveal every aspect of a person, examining them with a fine lens. She writes what many might think but may be afraid to express. These are honest, reflective stories about precarious, stressful situations.

“Double Take” finds college classmates gathering to mourn a friend—a wildly successful attorney– who accidentally drowned while vacationing on Fire Island. They reminisce and then promise to keep in touch with the friend’s mother. Years later, Ben, who’d been roommates with Mike, awkwardly visits Mike’s mother when he’s traveling cross-country.

“He was happy. He was a black-and-white movie made over in Technicolor. He was a years-dormant Christmas cactus suddenly in bloom. He worked long hours, but still had time for a book club. He was reading fiction for the first time, he told friends, after far too much case law.”

“Evidence of Old Repairs” focuses on a woman in denial with her alcoholism.

“Her mother had been an alcoholic, her grandmother one as well. Did this explain Sarah’s problems? Sarah didn’t think so, despite all the rhetoric of the age. She poured another drink. Two hours later the salad was soggy confetti instead of the elegant strips it was meant to be and Sarah, looking deep in the white plastic bowl, knew this was a metaphor for her.”

A woman shares a home with her elderly father but they’re far from confidants in “The Essentials of Acceleration.” She lives a rather solitary life. Did she disappoint him by not following an academic life as he had? Driving functions as a metaphor for her goals and her relationship with her father.

“My mother loved books, my father is a professor, our house is full or bookshelves, but I am not a reader. I read more than the average American, according to the newspaper, but it’s not for me an essential activity.”

“I am the neighbor you don’t know. The neighbor who doesn’t do anything wrong, but for some reason you just don’t like her very much.”

Kane examines grief. The death of a child in “Next in Line.” How does one handle losing a child? What are her relationships like after her daughter’s death?

“To be a woman in the world after the death of a child. How to explain this? It bears some resemblance, perhaps, to being newly married or newly pregnant. You are in a brand-new, all-encompassing state, and yet the rest of the world is oblivious.”

“She always moved to music: She laughed a lot. But wouldn’t it be harder to lose someone you knew better? Is losing a toddler just losing a dream?”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Graywolf Press.

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