Whotcha reading?

61NR514KCRL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_So, although there is some significant messing around in my schedule right now, I’m also doing plenty of reading (naturally), and when I don’t have my nose working through the reading-through-the-whole-AP-style-book project, I’ve also been reading some fun stuff as well.

I tackled Mixed: An Anthology of Short Fiction on the Multiracial Experience (Chandra Prasad, ed.) another collection of short stories, this time from the perspective of living a multiracial experience, and this was pretty good. It seemed a stronger collection than my earlier short story experience, and it was so interesting (to me) that the one common concern for the authors in this collection was the life-long question of identity. If one is of a multiracial family, where does one really belong? It seems to be a very frequent and real challenge for people who have different parents from different ethnicity groups, primarily because (I think) people feel like they have to pick “sides” in terms of a racial identity.

So, some great stories in this collection from writers with all kinds of backgrounds, POC and otherwise. I enjoyed this read.

51RcFw8xmTL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I did a fast (and very funny) read of Nina Stibbe’s novel, A Man at the Helm (2014). Such a hilarious book, primarily because the author seems to have lived a lot of the same experiences as I had as a child, and so she cracks me up. I’ve enjoyed her other book, Love Nina (2013), a fiction (?) collection of letters that she sent to her parents when she was doing her first nanny job, and there’s one more fiction title out there somewhere that I’m going to track down. I just love Stibbe’s writing. (Ooh. Just found another  title (An Almost Perfect Christmas (2017)…) I’ll add it to the list…)

I tried to read Toni Morrison’s novel, Paradise but wow. It was so confusing, and even though I got about halfway through the book, I still hadn’t the foggiest idea who some of the characters were, so I admitted defeat. Strange as I’ve loved Morrison’s other work: Sula (1973), Beloved (1987), and Jazz (1992), but there you go. Can’t have a home run every time.  (Actually, this title (Paradise) was the last title in the Beloved trilogy (consisting of Beloved, Jazz and Paradise), so I’m not quite sure why I found it to be so confusing… It might have been my Monkey Mind to blame.  🙂 )

And then, non-fiction-wise, I’m close to finishing By the Lake of Sleeping Children, a non-fiction read of work by Luis Alberto Urrea (whose work I tend to adore as can be seen here (review of The Devil’s Highway [NF 2004], here (review of Across the Wire: Life and Hard Times on the Mexico Border) [NF 1993} and here (review of novel Into the Beautiful North [F 2009]). This particular title is about the time Urrea spent getting to know the people (and the society) who end up living in this huge rubbish dump on the border of Mexico and the U.S. near San Diego.

Stuck between two different countries and with no way out, Urrea shows how hard their lives can be, as well as how they can find some small joy throughout their time. It’s an astonishing read as you know these folks have the same goals of life as anyone else: good health, worthy employment, happy relationships but how to achieve those goals when you are the poorest of the poor? What would be your escape?

The good thing about Urrea’s writing is that he doesn’t write down about these families, and he doesn’t pity them. He treats everyone with equal respect and although their lives may be very very hard, there is no sentimental approach to his descriptions of their day-to-day activities. It’s very neutral and balanced, and I really appreciated that.

So that’s the summer so far… I hope you’re having an awesome summer as well. 🙂

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The Best American Short Stories 1999 – Amy Tan (ed.)

file-3I’m usually not the biggest fan of short stories, but I’m making an effort to read them because so many people actually do love them and so I’m trying to see if perhaps my (limited) view could be swayed somewhat. I could be wrong. (Shock. Gasp. 🙂 )

It’s hard to go astray with any of the titles in the book series, “The Best American FILL-IN-THE-BLANK”, usually published each year and edited by a notable author who curates all the selections inside each edition. There are books that celebrate travel writing (see 2000 [Bill Bryson], 2011 [Sloane Crosley] and 2016 [Andrew McCarthy*]), science and nature writing, short stories, and others and although they have a tendency to be heavily rich white male in their offerings (through design or accident), you can usually steer your way through that by your choice of who the book editor is. For example, this one was edited by Amy Tan which, to me, ups the odds of there being a more diverse selection of writings inside.

(It’s not always true to form, and there are some (white male) editors who choose a diverse selection and vice versa, but generally speaking, the older the edition the more likely it is to be a white European-centric volume.)

All that to say, I enjoyed this anthology and Amy Tan’s selections. As with any collected volume of works, there are going to be some hits and misses, but on the whole, this was a good selection of writing and a good read. Tan has curated a collection that’s pretty evenly split between male and female authors, but for some reason, it’s heavily swayed towards white people (16 out of 21 stories had white authors).

This has got me wondering whether this emphasis on white authors is primarily because most of the stories that the guest editor in question is going to read (or find) are those from authors who have already published their work (in literary journals and/or similar).

This seems to be common as many authors are (or have been) caught up in the engine of grad school writing programs (the “publish or perish” syndrome) — students are rewarded by high grades from profs (majority of whom are traditionally older white males) who think “this student writes just like me and it’s awesome!” So it’s like a vicious cycle of some kind and since grades are almost everything in grad school, no one wants to rock their own boat too hard so they stick to the “same old same old” as it’s the safest way to get through class…

Hear me out on this theory (and it’s only a theory): For most people, going to grad school is only possible, really, if you have some money/time to spare, and so I’m wondering if the low diversity numbers are due to the fact that disproportionately high numbers of POC simply do not have the luxury of that choice to attend a grad school with prestigious authorial faculty (even more $$$) and so on up the educational pipeline. Poorly-funded school systems also tend to disproportionately impact minority and under-represented kids (which means that the kids might not have the same academic or other support system)…

I don’t know, but just thought it was interesting to ponder for a while. What do you think?

Back to the book: Diversity-wise, this anthology included work from a Dominican-American, someone who is Chinese-American, an Indian-American, a professorial type from Tibet (now living in the US), and a guy from Bosnia (now also living in the US).) Perhaps I should be wise to remember that the title of the series is the “Best American….” !!

Of the stories that I liked, I thoroughly enjoyed the work of Lorrie Moore (whose work I will be searching for more to read), and then I thought that the others were all a bit same-y in the end, although they were a nice same-y.

Therein lies the biggest problem for me with regard to short stories: since most tend to be generated either during or after going through grad school writing programs, the authors are taught to write in a certain way to get the “A” grades, that certain way being determined by the students’ professors who also have previously also spent their time in the grad school engine and so it’s a big self-feeding circle in the end.

I could be wrong with this pondering, and this is not to say that I didn’t enjoy the read. I did, especially when I was exposed to very different authors than my usual choices. Perhaps that was what was challenging: that some of these stories were very different in both structure and form than my typical fare. And yet, I’m usually ok with post-modern endings, inventive structural decisions and other experimental offerings. That I finished the whole book would support that I enjoyed the majority of the read. I’m just contemplating what my expectations were in contrast with the final product.

Whatever the reason(s), in the end this was a thoughtful read that led me down plenty of other rabbit holes on-line. It’s always good to learn, and this title certainly helped to expose me to different authors and approaches.

I wonder if you (as the reader) have a similar experience of “same-y” when you read a book of short stories all written by the same author. (Toddles off to the TBR shelves to see what else I have…)

(This title is off the TBR pile. Go me. 🙂 )

  • The very same Andrew McCarthy who acted in John Hughes’ inimitable Breakfast Club from the 1980’s. He’s all growed up now. 🙂 )

Story-Wallah: Short Fiction from South Asian Writers – Shyam Selvadurai (ed.) (2005)

book416After having fully immersed myself in authors and writing by African-American writers during February, I thought it would be fun to continue reading other POC authors and writings from around the world, so browsing through the TBR shelves (go me!), I came across this title and thought it would fit the bill perfectly.

I’m not sure where I ended up hearing about this title, but the stickers on the book lend credence to the fact that it’s probably used as a textbook in a world literature class somewhere or other, and regardless, this was great fun to read.

As the whole book title reads, Story-Wallah: A Celebration of South Asian Fiction, this was an anthology of writings and authors from Southern Asia and featured a wide range of writers from the well-known (such as Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith) to the slightly less well-known (at least to me). They were all originally written in English (I think) and all fiction, and the range of the short stories was quite astounding. I loved it. It was like eating candy in a pick-n-mix as you (I) never really knew what was coming once I’d finished a story. There wasn’t a bad one in the whole anthology, and I adored almost every page that I read.

As Shyam Selvadurai writes in his introduction, “The stories jostle up against each other . . . The effect is a marvelous cacophony that reminds me of . . . one of those South Asian bazaars, a bargaining, carnival-like milieu. The goods on sale in this instance being stories hawked by story-traders: story-wallahs.”

Edited by Selvadurai, it’s a perfect read for a monkey mind (comme moi right now), and I thoroughly enjoyed almost every story, even taking notes of a few favorite authors to dig into at a later date as their included short stories were so strong.

Authors ranged from locales across the Southern Asia diaspora, from Sri Lanka, India, Great Britain, USA, Trinidad, Fiji and others, and explored (as GoodReads says) universal themes of identify, culture and home. I fairly gobbled this read down, and am going to keep it on the shelves for another read at another time. Yes, it was that good.

Naturally, some authors were more favorite than others (as is typical in a wide-sweeping anthology), and I made notes to make sure that I track down more work by Salman Rushdie, Monica Ali, Zadie Smith, Farida Karodia, Hanif Kureishi, and Shani Mootoo, but there are loads more from which to choose.

It’s a big book (>400 pages), but it’s extremely readable and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. Highly recommended in almost every metric. 🙂

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(Above) – This is what is generally accepted as Southern Asia, but the book travels more widely than this…

Merle and other Stories – Paule Marshall (1983)

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Picking up another Virago (from this shelf), this was a collection of short stories and one novella by African-American author Paule Marshall. I have had this title on the shelf for decades, but this one made the cut when I was searching for books for Black History Month. I am so glad that I finally read this one, as I think I’ve discovered a new favorite author. I’m delighted about this.

There are several stories in this collection, all with the same entrancing writing in them. Marshall is an artist in her writing, in her turns of phrase, and how she crafts her sentences. Truly a joy to read for me.

The common theme between all the stories was one of a state of imbalance and of power. Who had it? How was it handled? What upset it and what was the impact of that? Several stories dealt with a narrative based on the dichotomy of older man/younger woman and the issue of who had the power over whom. Each story was focused on this set up, but each story was very different from the others so it wasn’t pure repetition.

As I read each story and met the characters, I watched the balance of power change from one to the other. At the start of the story, it was clear who was in charge, but then some catalyst would occur to offset the balance, and then your view shifted – who had the power really? All this is very subtly approached and it’s very shadowy so you, as the reader, aren’t really aware of these undercurrents until afterwards, when you’re thinking about the story. Marshall is a really good at this structural formula here without being obvious.

So what  does the power struggle between the two characters represent? Does it reflect the struggle between old and new? (There were significant age differences for several characters in the stories.) Was it male vs. female? This was a silent power struggle and so did it represent the changing power of feminism vs. the established world?

It’s an interesting debate and with no clear answer which makes this a really provocative read. Loved it, and will definitely pick up more Marshall. (I just happen to have a couple more on the Virago shelf…)

Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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The Shell Collector – Anthony Doerr (2002)

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This was a collection of short stories that was pure joy to read. (I know! Short stories and I don’t usually get on very well.) Author Anthony Doerr is a well-established fiction writer and has been widely published, and from this offering, it’s absolutely clear why he is. He is a sickenly perfect writer in every stretch of the imagination, and I just thoroughly enjoyed every story and every page.

My experience with short stories is mostly composed of reading short stories that end too soon with reference to their endings or sometimes don’t even finish. Sometimes I feel that the typical short story only tells half a story (and that authors use Po-Mo as an excuse to explain that) or it feels unfinished in some way. But that was not this experience at all.

Doerr’s stories are perfect in every way. (I know – high praise.)  As in any collection, there are some pieces that are stronger than others, but even the weaker ones were great. (It was a question of tiny degrees, I think.)

Look at this writing:

“[The young girl] trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a fourteen-year old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate…”

And this description of a fair ground:

“At the fairgrounds, we saw them in the parking lot inhaling the effluvium of carnival, the smells of fried dough, caramel and cinnamon, the flap-flapping of tents, a carousel plinking out music-box songs, voluptuous sounds bouncing down tent ropes and along the dust of the midway. Wind-curled handbills staple-gunned to telephone poles, the hum of gas-powered generators and the gyro truck, the lemonade truck, pretzels and popcorn, baked potatoes, the American flag, the rumblings of rides and the disconnected screams of riders – all of it shimmered before them like a mirage, something not quite real…” (p. 97, “For a Long Time This was Griselda’s Story”)

Just look at the lusciousness of some of those phrases: “effluvium of carnival”, the “plinking” of the carousel, the curled staple-gunned handbills, the “disconnected screams” of the riders. Swoon. It’s not often that you get to enjoy this high quality of writing…

The stories are diverse, but seem to have a common theme of living with the natural world: a man who lives on an island studying shells who becomes a reluctant healer, a lady who had an experience in her younger life and becomes a spirit healer of sorts, a group of US fishermen compete in an international fishing competition… There was also an ongoing theme of water (sea, lake, snow, river) and the creatures who live in it. Each story was down-to-earth and each story was so exquisitely written that it was a joy to read.

I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but this really was a great collection to read. I highly recommend this title if you’re looking for fantastic fiction writing with good plots. Stories were as long as they needed to be and the plots were compelling. This was great.