What I've Been Reading
REFUND by Karen E. Bender
This is my new favorite short story collection. I didn't want this reading experience to end. The stories are unified by themes of money, it's effect on the characters and how they learn to live with or without it. The writing is exquisite and compelling and assures the reader they are in the hands of an accomplished author.
In "Reunion" a terrifying event occurs when Anna Green attends her twentieth High School Reunion. Afterwards, she begins to notice the fragility of her life and the world around her. "She looked out the window, and all she saw was determined innocence - the bullish SUV's parked in the driveways, testament to dreams of safety, of endless oil; she looked at the houses of her neighbors, flocking here, to the edge of the desert, the only place they could afford in Southern California; she saw the development vanishing violently in a wildfire, in a terrorist attack." Looking for safety, she carelessly tries to bond with someone who shared the traumatic experience.
In "The Third Child" the protagonist is confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, a third child she did not need or want. "She pressed her lips to her baby girl's soft head, this one she wanted to love, and she understood, clearly, that she did not feel capable of loving a third child. She had given everything to the others." Although she suffers after eliminating the pregnancy, her inner strength wins out, defeating her fear and sadness.
In "Refund" a couple sublet their New York City apartment while they pursue temporary teaching jobs in Virgina. They intend to use the profit they will make to send their three-year-old child to a school they cannot afford when they return to New York. Then 9/11 occurs and the tenant suffers through the tragedy and becomes highly emotional, then demands her money back. "You have forgotten about me. I have not forgotten about you. You were lucky. You were out of town. I had to endure your apartment. I can still feel the dirt on my skin." When the couple and their child return to New York, they realize the damage and terror the city, and especially their tenant, have endured.
The language in all of these stories is mesmerizing. It will draw you in, pin you in place, and you will finish craving more.
WE NEED NEW NAMES by NoViolet Bulawayo
NoViolet Bulawayo has produced a novel both intimate and immediate to our times. From beginning to end her story is elegant and deeply informed. It is hard to believe this is a debut novel as Bulawayo's writing is brilliantly assured and accomplished.
It begins in Zimbabwe as seen through the eyes of ten-year old Darling and her friends. The world they navigate is terrifying in it's brutality but these scenes contrast with the children's humor and endurance.
Halfway through the novel Darling moves to America and we see it all fresh through her eyes. The book raises questions about what it means to be American or to be African, questions that can't be answered. But we do discover insight on what it means to be an immigrant in modern day America.
This book is so poignant I can not do it justice here on this page. Just read it. You won't be disappointed.
THE ISLE OF YOUTH by Laura Van Den Berg
I must confess that I am partial to short stories, their ability to hone in on a character and take you for a ride in a moment of their life. Laura Van Den Berg has nailed the art of short story telling in this crazy-good collection. These are stories of women who have failed somewhere in life and are struggling to stay above the surface. They are all distinct voices, but share a common thread of questioning, searching for a happy ending. I was wrapped in each one of their worlds and left them only reluctantly.
In The Isle of Youth, twin sisters reunite under questionable circumstances, but both are running away from something dark.
In Opa-Locka, two sisters are weighed down with a past that ripped their family apart and we wonder if either one will survive.
Antartica tells of a woman searching for answers in the death of her brother and must confront the reality of him as she discovers the truth.
In some stories, grief rises like smoke, in others it's a flash flood. Either way, the journey through each one is brilliant.
THIS IS NOT YOUR CITY by Caitlin Horrocks
These are remarkable and captivating stories. Each one offers us a character marred by life and caught in bitter circumstances but coming to terms with what life has given them. Horrocks writes with superb skill and precision and the reader finds themselves virtually occupying the space of the characters.
In The Lion Gate, an older woman craves motherhood as it passes her by. "she was forty-three years old, and she was terrified that someday had become nearly too late. The ache she'd felt for the last two years at every baby on the bus, every child in the park, had sharpened to pain, reproachful and insistent."
In It Looks Like This, a young woman's life is disrupted as she must devote most of her time to taking care of her disabled mother and the reader learns of her life from a term paper she writes to her high school teachers in order to earn her diploma despite being home with her mother. The character handles this situation with an amazing stoicism and candor and the story may make you weep.
In my favorite, World Champion Cow of the Insane, a young couple suffers true love in small town northern Michigan. I loved reading through the nuanced details of their life, the clarity of Horrocks' writing is captivating. "She would think that too much happiness, too early, made a person distrustful. She would think that watching too many sunsets over water could spoil a person, that too much summer poisoned the winter after. That summer, though, the summer she and Charlie Brindell were both twenty-two and very much in love, the rule never occurred to her." So much does Robin not trust her fortune that she almost sabotages it all. But true love wins out.
Not one of these stories lacks emotional depth and writing that you'll wish would go on after the last page. I'll admit that lately I've become partial to short story collections. But this one shouldn't be missed.
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik
This story reads like a slow burn, captivating, but with a low fever of terror and mystery. It's a haunting, quiet story about Jacqueline, a young refugee from Liberia. In the beginning we don't know why, or under what circumstances she has come to this small touristy Greek island. But as the story moves forward we get to know her and are given hints about her previous life and about how far she has fallen.
When we first meet Jacqueline, she is living in a cave recessed into the rocks of a beach that is accessible only at low tide, trying to remain invisible. She lives day-to-day, surviving, and this is where the author meticulously and magically shows us the person that is Jacqueline, struggling to maintain an elegance and gracefulness amid the squalor she finds herself unable to escape.
It's not until the end that all is revealed. So if you're after a thrilling, action filled story, this might not be for you. Instead, this story is woven together into an exquisite tapestry of words. The prose is elegant and discerning.
"The sunlight was a pale orange cobweb spread across the island. The beauty of that view was unavoidable. The sheer vastness of it. The sun changing shape as it entered the water – contracting and expanding. St. Irene was radiant, was burning. The far islands were shuddering silhouettes, purple and black and infinite."
Matsik is brilliant at pulling us through this tempered story to an astounding ending. On every page the reader is drawn closely into Jacqueline's inner turmoil and feels her tremendous courage and determination to survive, to hang on, even through a a growing madness. You will remember this story long after you finish.