Category Archives: short story collection

Review: This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

15th October 2012

Via Goodreads

*I received this book from the great people at Riverhead Books in exchange for an honest review.

From Goodreads:

On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman* does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness–and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”

Some heralded contemporary writers annoy the hell out of me. They’re authors you can tell think their prose is “pretty” and literary. Except sometimes I don’t know what their sentences are saying, they’re so convoluted. Junot Diaz is the opposite of that. In fact, there are moments when he writes pretty sentences but follows them up with a sentence so profane, I blush to think about it. He grinds the pretty from it, so the reader is constantly aware of two things: We are beautiful. We are ugly.

Using the last line of  a Cisneros poem at the beginning of the collection, Diaz sets the tone and the juxtaposition of love as both awesome and awful: “There should be stars for great wars like ours.”

Diaz’s collection of short stories highlights this duality in every story, every page, and sometimes every paragraph, remembering the newness of love and the heartache of the end. Because, as he says: “[T]hat’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.”

This Is How You Lose Her has women, surely, the women with big tatas, the users, the cheats, the beauties, and the faithful, but it’s also about other kinds of love, maternal love. And Yunior describes how his mother treats his brother Rafa and him:

With me she yelled and cursed and hit, but with him she sounded as if she was auditioning for a role in a Mexican novela. Ay mi hijito, ay mi tesoro.

And Yunior is crass, no two ways about it. But Rafa is worse, physically abusive to his girlfriends with a mean streak as long as the line of sucias that prances into the basement to bed him. Rafa has cancer, though he doesn’t act like any cancer patient you’ve read about.

…he fronted like nothing had happened. Which was kinda nuts, considering that half the time he didn’t know where the fuck he was because of what the radiation had done to his brain…Dude had lost eighty pounds to the chemo, looked like a break-dancing ghoul, had a back laced with spinal-tap scars, but his swagger was more or less where it had been before the illness: a hundred percent loco.

Mami goes the other way:

She’d never been big on church before, but as soon as we landed on cancer planet she went so over-the-top Jesu-cristo that I think she would have nailed herself to a cross if she’d had one handy. That last year she was especially Ave Maria.

Let me repeat: We’re beautiful. We’re ugly. Though in this case, which is which is a bit more difficult to discern. And that last passage, I swear to goodness, is a poem in itself, laced with enough of the profane that I’m not sure whether it’s a prayer or a curse.

And more than anything else, that describes the experience of reading This Is How You Lose Her and about the love in Yunior’s world – it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s obscene, and it’s lovely.

Add this to your shelf or see other reviews on Goodreads. Also, check out this great review at Feminist Texican [Reads].

*This is the only story that doesn’t seem to fit, the only one told outside Yunior’s perspective, with a shift in narrator as well. It’s an oddity I couldn’t quite reconcile with.

 

Review: Love, In Theory by E.J. Levy

27th September 2012

*This book was sent to me by the publisher The University of Georgia Press in exchange for an honest review.

Love, In Theory has the perfect cover, a flow chart of sorts, and I want to illustrate the paths. It says:

Ten Stories

…of love and passion in theory, in fact, in fiction, in love.

…of love and passion and heartbreak in fact, in fiction, in love.

…of love and betrayal and heartbreak in fact, in fiction, in love.

…of love and betrayal between women and women in fiction in love.

…of love and betrayal between women and men and men in love.

But Love, In Theory isn’t romance. It’s love, as it says, in theory. Why in theory? Many of the characters in these stories don’t seem quite sure what love is, or at least they have clicked to the fact that love is not, in fact, birds chirping sweetly and fish swimming around lovers in rowboats.

I have to confess that I haven’t finished this book, but only because I’ve been so incredibly busy. I will say, though, that in the hospital and in hospice, I kept coming back to it. I couldn’t sustain a novel, and it was so nice to pick up a story, read it, and put it down again. As Audra mentioned in her review, the first story “The Best Way Not to Freeze” was so affecting, I had to read it twice.

Then there were moments where the emotion and writing just seemed so perfect:

Panic, she recalls, was named for the god of wilderness. She heads for home.

She takes the parkway fast, rounds a lake and then another and then she is in the woods. Passing Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, it occurs to Lisa to stop, but she has spent too much time already in this dark wood; she is ready to be done with it. She’ll find no Virgil there to guide her; she’s going to have to make her way alone for now and maybe for years to come, alone, and the thought of this – of herself alone, without Richard, in the vast stretch of time that is her future – makes her, finally, cry.

And this:

Cab rides in New York are like a love affair: one surrenders oneself to the care of strangers, trusting that they will take you to the right place. To the place you cannot get to on your own.

Full of love at its best and worst, Love, In Theory by E.J. Levy is a readable, addictive collection of stories about love, lust, loss, and loneliness.

Check out other opinions or add it to your shelf on Goodreads. Also, make sure to check out the other tour stops!

BBAW 2012: Pimp That Book!

13th September 2012

Today, the goal for BBAW posts is “pimping” a book I feel doesn’t get enough attention. Well, a. I don’t follow rules well, and b. I absolutely hate picking just one of anything, so you’re getting an assortment here.

However, I will focus on a specific type of book. Though it isn’t something I think I’ve ever mentioned here, I wrote short stories once upon a time. I fell in love with them in high school when I read Ernest Hemingway’s short fiction, and I loved the idea of doing so much in such a small amount of space. As an undergrad and later as a grad student, I fell in love with short stories again, particularly because I wanted to improve my own and felt I should read as much short fiction as possible.

Short story collections are difficult to review. I’ll be the first to admit that, and I’ve often wondered if that’s why I don’t come across many on review sites. But my own love of them has never faded. Writing good short fiction requires such mastery in writing (I feel), and they can easily go wrong. But when they’re good? Damn.

So today I’ll highlight my short story writer trifecta (I’m not including Flannery O’Connor because oddly enough, even though she’s a woman, her collections are rather well known. Nor am I including Ernest Hemingway. Ditto.):

Source: Goodreads

Part of what I love about short fiction is the payoff. When you read a novel, sometimes the payoff is long in coming. In short stories, you don’t have long to wait, and the first time I read “Cathedral” [full text link], I sat, book in hand, tears in my eyes. Because Carver’s characters are nothing special. They’re Joe Blow, shallow, jealous, profane, insensitive. They’re you and I on our worst days. But there is some spark, some moment that lifts them from their ordinary lives, and the result is profound.

Start with: “A Small Good Thing”/”Careful”

Source: Goodreads

Cheever. John Cheever speaks to the lost magic and wonder of adulthood. His stories are often called “stories of suburbia,” but in truth, they’re about the humdrum life of the adult, and those ways in which we either fall prey to it or challenge it.

If you’ve read anything by John Cheever, odds are it’s “The Swimmer” [full text link]. And, if you haven’t read it, click on that little linkamajink, stat. Cheever’s stories are rife with internal conflict, but there’s also a sense of wonder in his stories that never fails to amaze me because of the sober subject matter. “The Swimmer” is the story of a man who decides one lazy Sunday afternoon to swim across town in swimming pools. And if that sounds odd, just wait until you see where these swimming pools take him. When we discuss this story in my Intro to Lit class, I have students help me create a map of the pools along with complete descriptions before we analyze this epic journey. It never fails to involve just about everyone (and if you teach, you know how difficult this can be).

Start with: “The Enormous Radio” [full text link]/”The Country Husband”

Source: Goodreads

I would say, of the three, Dubus is the most different. Whereas Cheever and Carver’s characters are isolated, whether they know it or not, Dubus’ characters are so humane. His character sketches are so sympathetic and forgiving of human failings. These are people facing loss of different sorts, and they react in the ways we do or the ways we might want to but cannot or do not.

Again, to focus on one particular story, “Killings” is probably his most anthologized story. A mother and father grieve for their son, and justice is far from being done. Watching his wife is almost as painful as Matt’s own grief, and that grief leads him to act in the only way he can conceive. It’s heartbreaking, and his anger, guilt, and sadness are palpable, urging you to understand and forgive, even if Matt himself cannot.

Start with: “A Father’s Story” [full text link]

******************

So there you have it. The best of the best in terms of relatively lesser-known or recognized short story writers. And if you’ve been hesitant to read a short story collection, I think they’re ideal for bedtime. You can limit yourself to one or two stories without feeling the need to continue and stay up way too late finishing. I’m currently finishing up Junot Diaz’s collection This Is How You Lose Her, and it helps me get ready for bed but also to savor the stories individually.

Judgy McJudgerson

9th February 2012

 

I don’t often read the posts on Book Riot, but today I noticed Amanda from Dead White Guys had a new post up on Book Riot titled “Confessions of a Newbie Independent Bookseller.”

The article discusses quirks of working in such a specialized place and the types of books people come in requesting. She shares one particular confession I loved:

I Don’t Judge Your Taste in Books
When I get a customer who wants a recommendation, I usually ask what the last book was that they loved so I can see what they’re looking for in a book. Sometimes there’s a pause, an embarrassed shifty-eyed gaze to the floor. A mumble of, “well, I read a lot of teen books, like, Hunger Games and stuff…” Independent bookstores can have a reputation for being snobby places where the books are “curated” out the ass- where you won’t find a best seller anywhere, but where you can definitely find the collected works of David Foster Wallace. I’m sorry if you’ve had that experience at other indies, but honestly- I don’t care what you read. If you want to add to your collection of mermaid erotica, I’ll help you. You want to read the next Twilight? I’ll help you. Looking for a how-to on building your own yurt? You’re the coolest! Let’s do this. There’s no judgment.

However, one person in the comments talks about how he or she does judge a person by what he or she reads. Unfortunately, this type of book shaming is not confined to bookstores. Frankly, I experience this all the time, and I’m sure it’s partially because I am so plugged in to the bookish world and bookish people. More often than not, this judgment comes from someone without a literature degree, someone who is very serious about serious literature.

Please understand I am not saying that an individual without a literature degree cannot criticize books. What I am saying is I do have those qualifications, and I still don’t feel the need/desire to lecture people about their reading choices. I have two degrees in English, one undergrad, one grad. I’ve read most of the big guns. I know literary terms many people do not. This does not make me cool; in fact, it puts me in a very low wage-earning category. I can talk a book to death if I want or need. But here’s the truth: that ain’t fun. I know I’m playing fast and loose, using “ain’t” and cliches and telling you this, but come on: Reading should be the least judged thing we do. We’re reading. In 2009, I remember reading that the average American reads one book a year. If you’re here, you’ve probably already hit that number this year. Whether that one book is a Harlequin romance novel, Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, or James Patterson’s newest, it’s better than no books read this year.

I’ll level with you: I read, no, I devoured the Twilight series. Granted, I knew they weren’t quality writing, but I didn’t care. The story drew me in, no matter how ludicrous parts of it were. I mention this because this is the most criticized reading choice for many. You may not like it, but guess what? Those books enticed people who had never read an entire book for fun to read several – several long books, no less.

My best friend reads at least 80% paranormal romance. We were talking about Goodreads the other night, and every single time she mentioned what she had been reading, she explained her choices away. This is an intelligent teacher and mother of three. The fact that she does read with all that going on is impressive to me. I know she isn’t a big fan of mysteries just like I’m not a big fan of paranormal romance. When we do read the same book, it’s that much more fun. We are diversifying our book stock, making us more interesting.

My reading list includes classics, contemporary literary fiction, an occasional chick lit, and tons of mysteries. I love mysteries, and sometimes even if I know it’s not the best mystery I’ll ever read, I keep reading. Why? Because it’s still enjoyable. The act of sitting down with a book is pleasurable and calming to me.

Maybe part of my ire has built up because I have seen non-readers turned into readers using books others might discount. Most of the students who have entered my classroom have told me they hate reading. They don’t dislike it or find it boring. No, they tell me they hate it. I make it my mission to turn at least one of them on to reading. How do I hit that target? I find out what they enjoy, and I give them a book that aligns well with those interests. Nine times out of ten it works, and I love being part of that person’s life in some small way. If that means putting The Hunger Games in the hands of one student and Madame Bovary in the hands of another, I’m perfectly ok with that. For those of us who truly love books and reading, why would we have it any other way?

So my big question is, have you ever felt judged for your reading choices? And WHY are we allowing others to guilt us? I won’t be had. Come look at my bookshelves and judge away. I dare you.