Sunday, March 22, 2015

Annihilation (by Jeff VanderMeer)

Sometimes the experience of reading a book becomes entwined with the book itself. So it is with Annihilation, which I read during a long sleepless night in the ER with an extremely sad-and-in-pain three-year-old. (She fell out of bed and broke her clavicle.) This felt appropriate.

This is book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy, a contender in the 2015 Tournament of Books, and a recommendation from my book besties Wendy and Chris. It was a compelling read, very tense, with a wonderful unreliable narrator. You know how I feel about unreliable narrators. Plus, the setup was basically The Andromeda Strain, a fun association, even if it went ultimately in a completely different direction (into what you might call sci-fi or speculative fiction).

It's so full of creepy moodiness, and the night at the ER was so unpleasant and exhausting, my reaction to this book isn't all that intellectual, it's just an overwhelming feeling of a sort of pleasurable ookiness. I've heard mixed reviews of the next two books in the series, but I will probably read them anyway, because I want more of whatever this experience was -- minus the ER stuff, of course.

For more cogent intellectual analysis, tune into the ToB tomorrow, where it is competing against An Untamed State. No idea how that would go; I think I would pick Annihilation.

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Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Best American Short Stories 2014 (edited by Jennifer Egan)

I am really not a short story reader, historically speaking. I often feel like a short story requires a not-insignificant investment, but then ends just as I'm really getting into it, making the experience of reading it somewhat unsatisfying. For this year, though, I decided I wanted to give the form another try. In particular, I wanted to see what was happening in the world of contemporary short stories.

I'm so glad I did. This collection, edited by Jennifer Egan, was a great reading experience. I read approximately one short story per day, which gave me some time to reflect on what I'd read or, in some cases, re-read it. It's also inaccurate to say that these ended just when they were getting going -- some of them seemed to compress a novel's worth of information into them, and most of them were rounded off satisfyingly.

I'd had a vague notion of the contemporary short story as always being the Joycean short story, which focuses on an almost imperceptible inner shift in one of the characters. ("The Dead," which is of course a wonderful story, being a prime example.) I didn't think of short stories as being particularly heavy on plot -- for some reason I thought plot was out of fashion. But a lot of these stories have plotlines and plenty of action, so what did I know.

To get into specifics, let me talk about some of my favorites. The first knockout for me was Peter Cameron's "After the Flood," about two people taking in a family whose house has flooded, which brings up painful memories. The ending of that one is subtle and perfect (and yes, sort of Joycean). Another one I loved was Joshua Ferris's "The Breeze," about a woman who wants to make the most of a perfect spring day in New York. In her intro, Jennifer Egan describes it as "a series of scenes that don't quite add up -- and often seem to contradict each other -- as in a cubist painting, [evoking] a larger whole without ever quite pinpointing it." It's a wonderful and accurate description.

"Hover" by Nell Freudenberger is a slightly surreal portrait of a divorced preschooler's mom, which has wonderful touches like her son's pet bag of flour. "Evie M." by O.A. Lindsey is one I re-read multiple times -- it's about a servicewoman who's come back from war to work in an office, and it's written in a quite original, haunting style. (The war story that immediately followed it in the collection is good, but suffers by comparison.) "This Is Not a Love Song" by Brendan Mathews felt a bit contrived at the beginning, but the strength of the ending and the slighly unreliable narrator saved it for me. "God" by Benjamin Nugent, about a member of a fraternity who has feelings for one of his frat brothers, is another one where the ending really helps make it.

"Next to Nothing" by Stephen O'Connor and "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullen are both painful and haunting. I would read an entire novel about the peculiar sisters Ivy and Isabel from "Next to Nothing" -- the author describes the sisters as absolute rationalists "who entirely lack fellow feeling." Reminded me obliquely of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.  And finally, the last story in the collection is Laura van den Berg's "Antarctica." Not only do we share a last name, which makes her automatically awesome, but this story (about a woman whose research scientist brother is killed in an explosion in Antarctica) is wonderfully compelling and original.

There are a bunch of other good ones too -- these aren't even all the good ones! My least favorite is  probably "Medium Tough," which feels super contrived. (Half his body is super pumped up, the other half is weak and malnourished. He's a pediatric brain surgeon with one hand who competes in arm wrestling contests with the other hand. And he has a pregnant married girlfriend who may or may not be carrying his child. None of it felt real to me at all.) "Charity" starts great and has an interesting shift in the middle, but the ending is weak. "The Night of the Satellite" is trying way too hard to have a piece of satellite serve as a relationship metaphor, and the relationship is not that interesting.  "Madame Bovary's Greyhound" is an interesting idea and well done, but somehow didn't grab me -- maybe I need to re-read Madame Bovary to appreciate it more.

Finally, I want to mention "Mastiff" by Joyce Carol Oates, which reminded me strongly of an Oates story I know well, her retelling of Chekhov's "The Lady with the Pet Dog." The similarity is not the dogs, it's the way that both stories are about the inner romantic life of a female character, with a lot of telling-not-showing that really somehow works.

I loved reading each story, taking notes on it, thinking about it, and sometimes going back to it. I think this is a wonderfully curated collection, and I'll almost certainly pick up the 2015 edition of this anthology at the end of the year. This also inspired me to dig up one of my own short stories and outline an ending for it. Maybe I don't dislike short stories after all!

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Monday, March 02, 2015

An Untamed State (by Roxane Gay)

With this, I have read five books for the Tournament of Books. I may have time to squeeze in one more before the end of the first round; we'll see.

This book was difficult to put down and I tore through it in two days. It's the story of a Haitian-American who, on a visit home to her parents, is kidnapped and brutalized for two weeks. It flashes between her captivity, her relationship with her husband "before," and her attempts to deal with "after." It is not an easy book to read, as you can imagine.

Reading this immediately after Americanah, though, it suffered in comparison. I felt it lacked subtlety. I don't mean that the plot is too dramatic, but I mean in its depiction of the characters, who are never quite fully-realized, and its depiction of Haiti, which also feels somewhat limited. If I had read these two novels in the opposite order, I may not have felt this way.

The central relationship of the novel is that between Mirielle and her husband Michael. They seem to have a terrible relationship in every way--before she's kidnapped, it's just fighting (neither one comes across well) and sex. After she's kidnapped, it's like his assholishness reaches new heights. It's kind of cathartic, but it's also hard to care about him at all except that you kind of want him to suffer. Mirielle is seriously flawed too, but in compelling ways; she's a much better character.

The ending, too, I had some issues with, as it seemed a bit too pat in certain ways. Vague spoilers ahead, RSS readers. I found it difficult to believe in the whole Emma situation, and the scene at the restaurant wasn't exactly implausible but again was an example of the lack of subtlety I felt throughout.

I know I'm saying a lot of negative stuff about what is, in the end, a very powerful novel. But I'm just trying to put my finger on why, despite its raw power, it didn't fully work for me.

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