Tag Archives: short stories

Marie’s Reading: “Homesick for Another World: Stories” by Ottessa Moshfegh

homesickHere’s a collection of grotesques if ever there was one.

Ottessa Moshfegh’s collection of short stories, Homesick For Another World, presents a series of people who are each alienated and disconnected in their own ways.  Each of them are desperate for some kind of connection with the world or with another person.  The ways they go about forging these connections, however, are weird and damaging and dark.

Only one word comes to mind at first: Grim.  Grim grim grim.  After that comes bleak, I guess.  But there’s also dark humor and a sense of compassion.  The weird, unfulfilled, and misguided characters in these stories aren’t being mocked or gawked at.  Instead, they’re simply presented with all their flaws and desires, with a concise style.

Moshfegh has a real talent for delving into the darkness and coming up with something human.   These stories aren’t always easy to read, but they’re compelling in their strangeness and in their insight.  Each one has an ending or an image or an idea that will sit with you for days.

I loved Moshfegh’s novel Eileen, and you can read my post about it here.  What I said about that book applies to this collection, too: “This is a stark, bleak, sometimes ugly book, but it’s also compulsively readable and deeply affecting.”

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories That Scared Even Me”

Expect to see this one again next Halloween.  Alfred Hitchcock presents: Stories That Scared Even Me.

hitchcock

I picked this up on a whim because I’m a sucker for creepy short stories, particularly those from the 1950’s and 1960’s.  There’s a certain quality to mid-century tales of the macabre and grotesque which make them unique.  The matter-of-fact prose, maybe.  The atmosphere of the uncanny and foreboding, but without the Gothic touches.  Or maybe it’s the way they usually present the weird colliding with the everyday.  They’re suspenseful and play with your mind and expectations.

Men Without Bones had a weird Heart of Darkness vibe.  The creepy, icky melancholy of A Death in the Family by Miriam Allen deFord had me freaked out for a day after reading it.  Party Games was just…ugh, man.  Murder, adultery, aliens, evil kids, monsters, dimension-bending cameras that can send you to hell…this collection has a bit of everything.  Including the complete novella Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham.

If you’re after a short story collection to creep you out in small doses, this would be a good one to try.  Shirley Jackson and Richard Matheson fans should have a look!

–Marie

 

Halloween Read: “Every House is Haunted” by Ian Rogers

everyhouseishaunted

Every story in Every House is Haunted is like an eerie short film.  There are haunted houses, sci-fi experiments, and psychic powers.  What ties everything together is Rogers’ cinematic, absorbing style, and great ear for dialogue.  You’re dropped into these little snapshots of surreal horror, which makes them all the weirder and memorable.  It’s like watching The Twilight Zone.

A cat goes to great lengths to be of service to his household.  An odd sort of spider infests a house through the TV set.  A haunted house is so dangerous it’s on a paranormal watch list.  A group of explorers set forth into the gray boundary between life and death.  A mysterious facility in the desert deals in ancient, dangerous boundary-breaking.  A man inherits the old family house…along with its long-buried secrets.

And that’s just a taste.  There are twenty-two stories in this quirky collection.  A lot of them would be perfect Halloween read-alouds.  Surreal, entertaining, deftly told, this collection has a Halloween treat for everyone.

 

 

Marie’s Reading: “Pond” by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondPond is a collection of first-person stories, told by a woman who lives in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of a village.  Every piece is full of her observations, thoughts, and the detail (sometimes microscopic) of everyday life.

Slowly, page by page, phrase by multi-layered phrase, the narrator’s character is revealed.  She has secrets, she has perhaps something more than just odd habits.  The sense of time is confused, as are the other people the narrator talks about.  There’s a lot left for the reader to piece together and figure out about her.  At the end you’re left with an impression, a feeling, more than anything else.

The narrative voice and the style are wonderfully off-key, just slightly out of tune–the feeling really is one of being trapped inside the head of someone who’s alone way too much.  Or maybe trapped in a small room with that same person, and they will not stop talking at you.

Bennett does such strange and beautiful things with words.  It’s like poetry, almost.  You have to pay attention to every word.  This isn’t one to skim.  Here’s a quote, to give you an example of the voice and style:

“Look here, it’s perfectly obvious by now to anyone that my head is turned by imagined elsewheres and hardly at all by present circumstances–even so no one can know what trip is going on and on in anyone else’s mind and so, for that reason solely perhaps, the way I go about my business, such as it is, can be very confusing, bewildering, unaccountable–even, actually, offensive sometimes.”

Detailed, poetic, at times uncomfortable, Pond is a great choice if you enjoy reveling in language.

I was reminded of The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry while I was reading Pond, mostly because of the first-person, perhaps slightly unhinged narration.  The Divry book is more humorous in tone, though.  I also thought of The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, for the loneliness and anger in the narrative voice, though that one is a linear story.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “The Wonder Garden” by Lauren Acampora

wonder gardenI found out about The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora book during last month’s meeting of the Simply Books! book club at the library.  The reader’s description piqued my interest (quoted from our meeting minutes):

 This novel is made up of a series of linked stories set in an old-money suburb called Old Cranbury.  Each story focuses on the  various eccentricities of the rich and weird inhabitants.  It’s elegantly written, and Acampora manages to inhabit each character fully.

The reader also went into a bit more detail about the “eccentricities”–the artist who creates realistic-looking foamboard insects to cover a house in the neighborhood as part of an art installation, the father-to-be who has a mystical experience while building a tree house that leads him to a spirit quest.  I was hooked.

It’s Winesburg, Ohio for a new era.  A book of grotesques, just like that one, people who strive and want and are stuck in different ways.  But add the oppressive wealthy suburban aspect, the kind that demands conformity.  And then there’s the creative element, humor, and deft characterizations that Acampora brings to Old Cranbury.

Acampora delivers a lot of insight about society and what it’s like to be under scrutiny in one way or another.  To have your own little reality behind your windows, where you can create your own little world safe from prying eyes (like the woman in The Virginals, who, along with her husband, speaks, dresses, and decorates her period home as though it is forever 1740).

Each story blends humor and pathos, the everyday takes on a creative spin or is presented from a different angle, and the attention to detail is great.  These are small, intensely focused stories (none more so than the one where a real estate agent is stuck at an intersection, and starts to see it as a welcome break), reflecting the tightly narrow focus of the characters.

The Wonder Garden is darkly funny, populated with wonderful characters, and incisive in its depiction of the needs and preoccupations of moneyed suburbia.

If you enjoy this book, I’d suggest you try Rebecca Makkai’s work.  The quirkiness and pathos would be a good fit, particularly in The Hundred Year House.  As the reader from book club said, John Cheever would be a good choice, too–there’s that same bleakness and dark humor, some weirdness, and focus on the lives of middle-class suburbanites.  Try The Stories of John Cheever to dip a toe in.  Mrs. Bridge by Evan S. Connell, about a lawyer’s wife in 1930’s Kansas City succumbing to boredom and loneliness, might be good as well, as would Sinclair Lewis’s work (Main Street or Babbitt).  I already mentioned Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which might also appeal if you like the “book of grotesques” angle. If you want to go darker and more hopeless, you could try the disturbing but poignant Knockemstiff by Donald Ray Pollock, which focuses on the sad, poor population of a small Midwestern town.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl” by Mona Awad

13 waysWhen I put down 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, I felt like Mona Awad had exposed something deep and true and uncomfortable.  By turns when reading I was amused, disgusted, pitying.

The book is a series of interconnected stories about Elizabeth, a woman on a quest to lose weight.  We follow her from her teenage years up through her twenties, getting snapshots of where she is on her journey.  She’s never happy with herself, always afraid to have her picture taken, always obsessing over every morsel consumed or piece of clothing worn.  When she does start to lose weight, she still can’t see anything but a fat girl.

Through black humor, sometimes surreal descriptive power, and biting nastiness, Awad examines women’s relationships with their bodies.  I completely agree with the blurb, which says, in part:

Mona Awad simultaneously skewers the body image-obsessed culture that tells women they have no value outside their physical appearance, and delivers a tender and moving depiction of a lovably difficult young woman whose life is hijacked by her struggle to conform. As caustically funny as it is heartbreaking.

I think Elizabeth comes off as “lovably difficult” because of her obsession with her body image.  Most women will get it–get precisely where she’s coming from, why she’s so worried and angry and compulsive and mean, constantly judging herself and other women.  Even if this doesn’t reflect everyone’s personal experience completely, we can all understand it at least in part.  The twisted relationship with food and enjoyment, the competition and joylessness, the never feeling quite good enough.  Most people will find something that rings true.

Most of the stories are told through Elizabeth’s eyes, her view of herself and her struggle with weight and her perception of herself.  She even goes so far as to constantly change the name she’d like to be called (Lizzie, Beth, Liz, etc.).  But even when the point of view is from those close to Elizabeth, mostly men, the focus is squarely on her body and how they perceive it, how it does or doesn’t measure up in their eyes.  Elizabeth as person inside that body barely even registers.  And that is pretty  heartbreaking.

Not an easy read, but one with lots going on and really fantastic use of language.  Awad strikes a deep chord, and does it with humor and incisiveness.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “American Housewife: Stories” by Helen Ellis

american housewife“Hilarious” and “Demented” are the words which immediately come to mind when I think about Helen Ellis’s collection of stories, American Housewife.  All the tiny obsessions that make up the everyday life of a housewife are illustrated in exaggerated fashion.  The extremes in these stories are blackly funny and insightful, satiric and fun.

The Wainscoting War is a good example of the black humor Ellis uses so well.  It’s also a really great illustration of the way women of a certain class fight, and what they fight over.  The satire is fantastic in the last story in the collection, a tale of what it is to be a writer in the 21st century as well as about Big Brother corporations–My Novel is Brought to You by the Good People at Tampax.

Like all good humor, Ellis’s stories contain very sharp and pointed commentary about upper-middle-class suburban womanhood, the women that spring to mind when you think “American Housewife” nowadays.  Wealthy ladies who lunch, who go to book clubs and spend a lot of time planning dinner parties.  Those attributes get shaken up a little here.  I loved the Patricia Highsmith or Shirley Jackson-esque darkness and insight of Dead Doormen, about a housewife in a deluxe apartment whose life revolves around housekeeping.   The equally dark and cutting Hello! Welcome to Book Club starts off fun, and then quickly spirals downward as the delightfully twisted monologue of a book club hostess introducing a newbie goes on.

Also included are a couple little gems of lists, like Take It From Cats and What I Do All Day.  Ellis is brilliant at one-liners, every one is a masterpiece. I also think this is one of the very best book covers I’ve seen in a long time.  Perfectly suited to the material.

–Marie

 

“Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales” by Yoko Ogawa

I don’t want to alarm you, but they’ve traced the post.  And it’s coming from inside the house.

when a stranger calls

My house, to be more precise.  Since my days off coincide with both Halloween Eve and Halloween this year, I decided to take a break from my usual day-off tasks like eating cinnamon peanut butter directly out of the jar while I watch internet videos and tell you about a chilling collection of eleven interconnected short stories: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa.

revenge-elevendarktales

Last year I read Ogawa’s sweet novel of friendship and math, The Housekeeper and the Professor.  All of the spare and elegant language, poetic images, and attention to detail that made that book so charming and lovely is used in Revenge to create chilling imagery, melancholy and angry and desperate characters, and an atmosphere of sheer creepiness.

These stories flow into one another elegantly, so easily that it takes you a moment to realize what the connections are, until the ending flows back into the beginning with a shared image between stories.  Each story stands on its own, as well, but you definitely need them together to get the entire picture.

If you enjoy moody, kind of sad, old-fashioned horror movies, like the wonderful The Orphanage (El Orfanto)you might like this collection.  They’ve got the same tone, and even share a few themes, like loss and revenge.

Happy Halloween Eve, everybody!

–Marie

“The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology” edited by Christopher Golden

I’m over that rough bout of Zombie Fatigue from a couple Halloweens ago.  The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology proved a fantastic and refreshing tonic for this Halloween.

new dead

Every piece is a gem.  No matter what kind of zombie story you like, there’s probably one here for you.  A few stood out to me as particular favorites: Lazarus by John Connolly, Family Business by Jonathan Maberry, and The Storm Door by Tad Williams.

The melancholy Lazarus, about the man Jesus brought back from the dead, is deeply affecting.  It’s not often you get to hear Lazarus’s side of the miracle, the way Connolly writes him it’s tough to feel anything but pity.  He’s a man who has been pulled back from the great mystery, and he’s no longer fit for the living world.

Jonathan Maberry’s Family Business, a tale of brotherhood and loss and growing up in the Rot and Ruin made me cry.  Benny’s brother Tom is a zombie hunter, but not in the way other bounty  hunters are in this universe.  Instead, Tom works for families, and his motivation isn’t the money or some kind of blood lust.  While the idea that zombies are just people with a terrible, devastating disease has been done elsewhere, I don’t think I’ve ever read it done with such emotional truth.  The character voices and the descriptions of the zombies, as well as the sense of place of the Rot and Ruin, are also great. (Learn more about the Rot and Ruin series here)

And finally, The Storm Door by Tad Williams.  Atmospheric (right down to a thunderstorm!), creative, dark, and genuinely frightening, this is a spin on zombies I haven’t seen before, something more in the line of possession.  Wonderfully done with a classic horror feel.

As I said, though, every piece included in this collection is wonderful, each piece unique.  What Maisie Knew by David Liss is creepy and disturbing and sad, Twittering from the Circus of the Dead by Joe Hill is scary and stylistically interesting, Delice by Holly Newstein is a gory old-fashioned revenge tale.  Kids and Their Toys by James A. Moore is suitably gross and is pretty bleak, with a Stand-by-Me sort of vibe.  But with a zombie.

Whatever kind of zombie story you like, whatever kind of horror you’re into, whatever style appeals to you, The New Dead has probably got it.  If you too have grown tired of zombies, you might find this collection as refreshing as I did.

–Marie

26 Books to Read in 2015: #1

Finally, I’m getting around to: A Book You Own But Haven’t Read.

I chose Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson.  Not only because I’ve been meaning to read it for years, particularly after finishing Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, but also because it’s delightfully slim.

winesburg, ohio

Written in 1919, Winesburg, Ohio is a cycle of short stories all about a small Midwestern town at the turn of the twentieth century.  More particularly, about the people who live there, especially the ones who somehow live on the periphery.  Anderson’s dedication reads:

To the memory of my mother, Emma Smith Anderson, whose keen observations on the life about her first awoke in me the hunger to see beneath the surface of lives, this book is dedicated.

“To see beneath the surface of lives.”  That’s precisely what this book allows the reader to do.

We see tales of wasted lives, of tragedy, of sexual awakenings, of striving for meaning and never finding it.  We watch people being unable to articulate what they need, and the unspoken knowledge that even if these people could articulate their desires, they probably wouldn’t be fulfilled.

I’ve been trying and trying to think of something to say about this book other than that it affected me deeply.  And by that I mean made me really depressed.  There’s a bleakness to these stories.  Stylistically, Winesburg has its flourishes here and there, but for the most part it’s natural, simple, and intensely focused–you can see the influence Anderson had on writers who came after him, such as Faulkner, Hemingway, and Updike.  There’s a humanity and a realism to each piece that makes you want to cringe.  At least, that was my reaction to many of the stories.

There’s a voyeuristic feel to these tales.  You’re peeping in the windows of this town, prying off tight lids and seeing what’s kept inside.  It’s bittersweet and complicated and you come away feeling as though you’ve seen and heard things you shouldn’t.  Hence the cringing.  The cringing is aided by how well small-town life is nailed, the good and the bad.  Mostly bad, since you’re with characters who live on the edges of everything.

Winesburg, Ohio.  If you want some meaty but depressing small-town stories, you should give it a look.  Uplifting it is not, but everything about it feels very real.  You could also have a look at the post I wrote about Main Street by Sinclair Lewis–though Anderson’s work doesn’t have the same satire or humor to it.  I found myself making comparisons between the two as I read.

So we’re now midway through August.  Four months remain in 2015.  Let’s do a Challenge Progress Check-In:

Book Challenge

I…have a lot left to read.

Welp.  Might be time to really buckle down.  Put the nose to the grindstone. Get down to business.

And cheat.

Stay tuned!

–Marie