Sweet and Low: Stories by Nick White

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I haven’t read a short story collection in a minute, so Sweet and Low by Nick White was a treat: I read it mostly in the ten or fifteen minutes before bed, or in the minutes I spent waiting for something or someone. Sometimes short story writers lose me in this way – I like the first story, but then the second story is harder to get into, and so on. With Sweet and Low I was always able to jump back in and get re-absorbed by White’s writing.

Sweet and Low is full of personal, closely narrated stories about people in the south. Many of the stories deal with sexuality and shame, making it all feel so very American and familiar. The first story is about a woman who, after her husband’s death, discovers he was having an affair with a younger man – a sort of cliche story line that feels real through White’s writing. The second half of the collection is a series of disjointed stories about a single character, from his childhood through adulthood, and dealing with sexuality, family, and loss beautifully.

My main criticism is that from time to time the stories switch from being fully realized and palpably real to having something of a literary magazine flavor which is hard to describe. I love literary magazines, but they have a tendency to celebrate writing rather than stories – some parts of Sweet and Low feel like writing, and some parts feel, brilliantly, like stories. Enough so that I recommend it, especially for those stolen minutes of reading wherever you can find them.

Thanks to NetGalley and Dutton for providing me with a review copy.

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Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

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Here’s the thing: I think Roxane Gay is awesome. I loved Bad Feminist and An Untamed State and I love following her on twitter. I haven’t read Ayiti, her first short story collection, but I’ve bought a copy and it’s on my TBR list.

So it’s hard for me to say this. I didn’t like Difficult Women, which is her new collection of short stories, previously published in various literary magazines. I had already read a couple of these stories in anthologies and magazines, so I wasn’t surprised by her writing style, but all together, this felt like a very underdeveloped collection. It feels rushed and underwritten, like it’s a collection of very first drafts. Instead of growth, character development, and depth of language, we get a collection of stories that are somewhat skeletal, all similarly structured. It’s a collection of stories that tells, and not shows, and in the end, all the characters and their stories blurred together.

Here’s a sentence about two characters having sex in a highly emotional moment in a story, “The Sacrifice of Darkness”: “We were not gentle but we were gentle.” This is an example of writing that tries to convey meaning by becoming overly vague instead of digging deep, and I found it deeply unsatisfying. At best, it’s poetic-and Gay’s writing certainly has its poetic moments-but at worst, it falls short. These characters really aren’t difficult. They are all pain and no depth, and I kept wishing the stories would linger on important moments instead of rush.

I will say I found the last story “Strange Gods” to be very well done. However, I had to read the entire book to get to a story I really loved, so I’ll take a pass on recommending Difficult WomenI’m going to assume that I’m not the biggest fan of her style of short fiction; I think her writing is better suited for essays (like Bad Feminist) and longer works that are more thought out (like An Untamed State). I’m looking forward to reading her forthcoming memoir Hunger, which will also be released 2017. 

Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny

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In Single, Carefree, Mellow, Katherine Heiny has written a collection of short stories about the inner life of unfaithful women. Check out the quote from Lena Dunham on the cover – I was expecting something similar to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Mother’s, Tell Your Daughters, but Heiny doesn’t write about women with the same broadness – Single, Carefree, Mellow is full of stories about a very specific type of woman. The characters suffer mainly from their own boredom. They are mistresses and cheating wives, and they have little remorse, nor does the narrative suggest that they should.

In the title story, the main character, Maya, is a woman waiting for the right time to dump her boyfriend. It’s complicated by the fact that her dog is dying, and she relies on the emotional support. In the end she decides to just stick it out, even if she doesn’t really love him. The two characters show up in later stories, except then the dog is dead and Maya is having an affair with her boss. And she’s still with her boyfriend who bores her. I couldn’t really relate, so maybe that’s my fault for expecting that I was going to.

During her affair, Maya muses about “come facts” – little bits of trivia the men she sleeps with mention to her after sex. Her second story begins with the line: Here is what Maya’s boss said to her after they made love the first time: ‘Did you know that peanuts are one of the ingredients in dynamite? It’s a unique way to play on the “Men Explain Things to Me” frustration. But as far as any other commentary on the relationship between men and women, this collection offers little else except that it all seems miserable.

The characters in Single, Carefree, Mellow are all frustrated by the men in their lives, and the major failing is that Maya’s musing on how men are always telling her silly facts after sex is the only time any of them seem to kick up any fuss. They instead react to their frustration by being cheaters, and that is aggravating.

A lot of readers will dislike these stories just because of the infidelity, and I get that. I’m a little more forgiving with unlikeable or morally questionable characters, but even I got sick of reading story after story of women having affairs. The characters all blend in together into one relatively attractive and dishonest blob of a woman. Heiny has a good comedic voice, and a little more variety in subject matter would have helped this collection along quite a bit.

Many thanks to Goodreads and Vintage Books for sending me a giveaway copy of this novel for review.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell

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Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell is one of those short story collections which has a unified theme, but not in that Chicken Soup for the Soul sort of way. Every story here is an account of what it means when you’re a woman in a world where being a woman can be a thankless minefield of emotional and physical violence and disappointment.

Highlights include: “Blood Work, 1999”, about a bleeding heart phlebotomist, one of the most engaging stories about loneliness I have read. “Playhouse” which was a gutpunch story about rape, which manages to be Important without being overbearing or preachy. In “A Multitude of Sins”, the main character is a woman faced with caring for her dying husband who abused her throughout their marriage. The title story, “Mothers, Tell Your Daughters” is told as a letter from a dying mother to her women’s studies professor daughter about how she did the best she could.

I can see how a short story collection about women’s experiences, told without sentimentality, can seem to some people to be too much: too pointed, too feminist, too whiny. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters does not try to hide the fact that women are the focus, the hero, and the antihero all at once. There is sexual assault, woman being gaslighted into disbelieving their own experiences, young girls being preyed upon, but don’t confuse this with making man the villain. Men are simply on the outskirts of narrative focus, whether they are villainous or kind. (From the title story, my favorite part of the book: “All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them. That’s how I saw things as a young woman, that was my women’s studies. Now I’ve come to know that women are like vodka poured over men, who melt away like ice cubes.”)

There is also the general human experience in these stories full of loneliness and alienation and grit. The stories are mostly set in rural and suburban places among working class people. Mothers, Tell Your Daughters reminded me of cowboy movies with a twist.

“The Fruit of the Pawpaw Tree”  ends the collection on a hopeful note, the preceding stories making the sentimental love story somehow new and refreshing.  A little sweetness after so much difficulty. (“Susanna has not been expecting that she would wake up one day, and find that life had gotten easier, that coffee would smell better, that tomatoes would peel with less effort…”). Even when the stories are upsetting, the collection itself culminates to a sort of redemption, a reflection on the quiet ways that life makes it up to us, how all of our pain can sometimes lead to tasting something sweet and new. By the end, the point of the stories isn’t that it’s hard to be a woman, but that being a woman is a fine, strong thing to be.

 

Short Stories, Literary Bros, and My Girlfriend, Margaret Atwood: May 2015 Round Up

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I recently listened to the New Yorker Fiction podcast episode where Gary Shteyngart reads Lorrie Moore and immediately went to the library to take out Self Help, Moore’s first short story collection. I really admire writers who get famous off of their short stories. There’s no money and very little readers to gain from being a writer of short stories, but the fact that we’re still talking about writers like Lorrie Moore with such reverence shows that there is still something magical about a story that can be life-affirming, funny, and sad all in one sitting.

I liked Self Help a lot, but it’s very much a collection by a young writer. One of the stories is called “How to Be A Writer”–about a young woman being a writer. If I never have to read another story about a writer being a writer, I’ll be happy. It just screams I’M A WRITER WITH NOTHING TO WRITE ABOUT. Otherwise, I can’t wait to read more from Lorrie Moore; she seems to be a foreshadowing of my favorite newer short story writers, like Aimee Bender, Miranda July and Aryn Kyle, and I think I have a lot to learn from her.

After that I read the short story collection Tenth of December by George Saunders, which I resisted for a long time. There was a lot of hype surrounding this book when it first released. I read the title story for a writing class in college and I just hated it so much. Re-reading it now made me realize that I was wrong–“Tenth of December” is a good story. I think my annoyance back then was that it was just that: a good short story, and yet people were talking about how George Saunders was the best living short story writer of our time like it was pure fact. Blergh.

If you haven’t noticed, lately I’m into reading books mainly by women–and I think this was a medicinal measure to cure me of the yuckiness I was feeling in the book world; it was getting to me that male writers get titles such as greatest and genius a little too easy while so many women writers are being overlooked. Many women writers can write just as good a short story collection as George Saunders (I’m discussing one of them right above!). I’m tired of taking writers like Saunders so seriously all the time while all of my favorite writers (women) get called quirky.

What I realize now that I didn’t realize in college is that none of that–none of the hype, the think pieces about diversity in publishing, my own personal annoyance about LitBros, et al–have anything to actually do with George Saunders’ writing, which is good. I should stop comparing every short story writer I like to Miranda July (A very “Quirky” writer), but No One Belongs Here More Than You is basically my favorite short story collection, and Tenth of December reminded me of it in some ways. The joy in both collections is seeing the banal turned extraordinary, or the extraordinary turned banal, see: “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” my personal favorite from Tenth of December. (A close second is “Victory Lap”)

Saunders’ work seems to focus a lot on class anxiety in America, but in a way that is funny just as often as it is tragic. I recommend it to anyone who may be new to reading short story collections, because the writing style is very conversational.

When I was at the library picking up a copy of Self Help I stumbled upon a beautifully designed indie-published book called Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm. The book is about a woman named Leah, whose brother went missing when they were both young. It goes in and out of past and present, and although it seemed full of potential, I didn’t love it. I reviewed on Goodreads:

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Ain’t it a shame.

I needed something short and sweet after that, so I reached for some YA: Legend by Marie Lu, which I reviewed here. I will be reading Prodigy soon.

I’m reading Life Before Man by Margaret Atwood at the moment. It’s not my favorite Atwood. It’s about a love triangle between some miserable 70s hipsters who work at a museum. How many douchey hipster men has Margaret Atwood dated? I feel like we could swap some stories. At this point in my Atwood reading adventure I am just antsy to get through the 70s and reread The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it when I was in high school, and you all know how I feel about dystopian. I am getting impatient to get to it, but next up after Life After Man is Bodily Harm, which I guess I will write about in next month’s round up. At this point I feel like I have traded my relationships with douchey hipster men for a monogamous relationship with Margaret Atwood. It’s an improvement.


 

Hey, thanks for reading. How’s the Goodreads challenge going, you ask? Not great, Bob.

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Just kidding, it’s fine, except I’m four books behind and that is crazy to me since I feel like I’m reading a lot. I wanted to get ahead a little bit so I could spend some time later in the year reading longer books, like The Stand or Game of Thrones both of which have been wearing holes in my to-read pile but are just too damn long. The biggest mistake I made in 2014 was choosing to read IT by Stephen King as my one long book. That book was a clusterfuck, and I won’t get that month of reading back. It’s such a commitment, you guys! #goodproblems

So, what did y’all read this month? Feel free to write to me in the comments, by email at saltwaterbookreview@gmail.com, or on Tumblr if you have any books you NEED TO DISCUSS!! (I know that feel.)