Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.
why I loved it: “No Good” is a snapshot of cruelty and self-destruction that took my breath away. It’s a reminder of the way love can harm as easily as heal, and its fluid, lovely prose will uplift you even as its plot drags you down. Hala Alyan is a poet, both figuratively and literally, and her grasp of language and the human heart is truly inspiring.
why I loved it: Rufina, the failed actress at the center of “The Little Rogue,” is vain, out of touch, and more than a little silly, but in Kuznetsova’s skilled hands, her unlikeability is also her charm. We are all unlikeable in some way, and this story’s skillful blend of love, pity, and lampooning made me feel intensely connected to a character whose life experience is vastly different from my own.
What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!
Mary Gordon’s wrenching novel of the Spanish Civil War and family secrets that ripple throughout generations is deceptive: each time you expect to settle into one kind of story, whether one of the horrors of war or a more intimate family epic, you are pulled to another. Thankfully, Gordon threads this needle perfectly. There Your Heart Lies is a deeply moral novel that never moralizes; it’s a profound novel absent of profundities; it’s a novel as lovely as it is piercing, and not to be missed.
publisher: Pantheon Books (imprint of Penguin Random House)
publication date: May 9, 2017
length: 336 pages
When this book appeared in my Friday Bookbag over a month ago, I wrote about how off-put I was by the book’s “Millennial vs. Greatest Generation” jacket copy. The novel follows Marian Taylor, privileged daughter of an Irish Catholic family, who seeks to break her family’s cycle of cruelty by disowning herself and fleeing to 1937 Spain to aid in the effort to quell Franco’s (ultimately successful) fascist rebellion. The novel also jumps 70 years ahead to follow Marian’s granddaughter, Amelia, who knows nothing of this history when she moves in to take care of a dying Marian.
To hear the jacket copy tell it, you’d think this was a novel about Marian schooling Amelia about what real problems are like, but thankfully, Gordon’s moral compass is much subtler and truer than that. At the center of There Your Heart Lies are questions of what it means to be a good person and of what it means to renounce privilege–and of whether the latter is ever possible at all.
Despite my generational trepidations, I picked up this novel because of my own interest in the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s subsequent dictatorship, both rapidly forgotten in the chaos of World War II and in the United States’ own anti-communist fervor. (The Republican government overthrown by Franco was left-wing, socialist if not outright communist.) I was not disappointed by Gordon’s treatment of the material, and can say without a shadow of doubt that There Your Heart Lies is one of the finest historical novels I have ever read, especially in its weaving-in with the present day.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the novel, particularly in our current political climate, is its refusal to cave to the sort of moral relativism that forgives homophobia, racism, fascism, and other evils by claiming its perpetrators were products of their time who couldn’t possibly have known better. Gordon sharply rebukes this by imbuing Marian and Amelia with an admirable moral fiber independent of their eras.
The tension in the novel doesn’t come from the reader wondering whether or not Amelia and especially Marian will do the right thing–we know they will–but rather from how they will do good works, how they will prioritize the good that must be done, and how they will survive the toll that being a good person in a corrupt world takes.
If that makes the novel sound unbearably moralistic, I can promise it’s not. The effect is more like complex optimism: we see the horrors of the Spanish Civil War through Marian’s eyes, and then Spain’s more peaceful present through Amelia. We see terrible abuses committed in the name of Catholicism, but also the fragile hope present in Catholic rituals. We see Marian’s gay brother go through painful shock treatments that culminate in his suicide (the catalyst for Marian’s rebellion), but we also see the tender queer love between Marian’s best friends in the modern day, a lesbian couple who fled Germany during the Holocaust.
It has been a long time since I’ve read a novel as ambitious as this one–one that asks ambitious questions, plays within an ambitious setting full of rich historical detail, and juggles two ambitiously good characters that are still, somehow, flawed and not saints.
Wise, then, that Gordon doesn’t attempt heroic feats of language, although the writing is beautiful. Her prose is relatively simple, but the story she tells is not. I turned the final page feeling as hopeful as I felt sad. Sad that we have still not learned the lessons of the past; hopeful that we will edge ever closer, day by day, to justice. 5/5 stars.
My copy of There Your Heart Lies came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.
Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday! The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.
Because this week is my university’s finals week, leaving little time for me to read anything but textbooks, and because this week also contained the incredible viral phenomenon of “Cat Person,” this week’s post won’t be a roundup, but rather a collection of my thoughts on Kristen Roupenian’s firecracker of a story, instead.
date: published online Dec. 4, published in print December 11, 2017
“Cat Person” belongs to my new favorite mini-genre: “bad sex and its consequences.” Bearded loner Robert hits on sophomore Margot while she’s working at a movie theatre, and their relationship quickly gets complicated. Robert’s hot-and-cold texts and Margot’s hot-and-cold responses culminate in one spectacularly terrible date and a last word that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever online-dated, ever.
The internet went nuts, both because it’s a “lowbrow” story published in the “highbrow” New Yorker (a characterization I think is debatable), and because it’s a story that hits a nerve in the midst of acrid conversations about sexual harassment and assault.
I absolutely loved this story. I can see and even agree with many of the criticisms leveled at it–I saw several tweets that compared it to the internet’s craze for photorealistic art, which is criticized for capturing reality without actually commenting on it–but “Cat Person” pushed my emotional buttons regardless, and it put a college-age female protagonist on the pages of the New Yorker–something I thought could only happen on a frigid day in hell.
I loved Roupenian’s characterization of Margot and Robert as selfish people going through the motions of something that can bring out the worst in people: dating. I didn’t see it as condemning men–though, predictably, some men have taken it that way–but rather, as condemning a system that treats women (particularly white women like Margot) as prizes, and men as entitled to those prizes after certain mechanical motions have been performed.
Shameless plug: I explored similar themes in my short story, “Attention,” which was recently published in Cat on a Leash Review. In “Attention,” closeted lesbian Ingrid dates a man because it’s easier than articulating her own desires; in “Cat Person,” Margot dates Robert because it’s easier to be pursued than to pursue. That exploration of the self-preservation and selfishness that women cultivate in a sexist world is bottomlessly interesting to me.
Perhaps most importantly, as I mentioned above, the thing I loved most about “Cat Person” is the tantalizing promise of the New Yorker opening itself up to new kinds of fiction. I’ve devoured the New Yorker’s nonfiction sections for years, but I often find their fiction suffocating in its sameness. “Cat Person” isn’t boundary-shattering, but it’s certainly boundary-pushing, and I hope it opens the door for more women writers and particularly more women of color writing about experiences deemed “lowbrow” because they aren’t happening to the white upper-middle class. (It’s rarely admitted, but you know it’s true.)
And one last note: Can we talk about how ridiculous it is that there’s wonderful realistic fiction for children and teens, and wonderful realistic fiction for older adults, but rarely anything for people in their early 20’s? And that the stuff that is out there is usually about ridiculously wealthy Brooklynites and not ordinary folks? If you’re 18-24, “Cat Person” is worth reading for its demographically-appropriate protagonist alone.
What were your thoughts on “Cat Person”? What short fiction have you read and enjoyed this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!
Darcie Wilder’s stream-of-consciousness, internet-steeped debut may be difficult to parse, but it’s ultimately rewarding. Acidic, explicit, disturbing, and sometimes profound, literally show me a healthy person is an experimental novel with staying power.
Read my full review below.
literally show me a healthy person by Darcie Wilder
You know how every few years a book comes along that’s being marketed as the “future of the novel,” or even “the future of the written word,” yet somehow–year after year–the tried-and-true format of the novel persists? That’s because most stories are best-told the usual way. But literally show me a healthy person is the exception that proves the rule. Free of chapters and traditional paragraphs and unbound from grammatical convention, the 97-page novel’s experimental style feels like an extension of its raw subject matter, and not a pretentious gimmick.
Protagonist Darcie yo-yos between fury and apathy, drug abuse and sobriety, hopelessness and dark optimism. Her mother is dead, her father is cruel and neglectful, her boyfriends and exes drift in for sex and out for anything resembling intimacy. (Whether the novel’s “Darcie” is a thinly veiled version of Wilder herself or an entirely new creation was unclear to me.)
And…that’s it. Other things happen, but indistinctly and out of order. I normally hate feeling so alienated from the plot, but in Wilder’s skilled hands, the effect is intimate. “im the kid you’re thinking about when you look at your friend and hope they never have kids,” Darcie informs the reader, referring to her own parents; the tone rests on a knife’s edge between real pain and pity-me flippancy, a blend that’s all too familiar in the internet age.
literally show me a healthy person may be thin on plot, but it’s thick on voyeuristic dread. Each snippet of text feels like a missive to somebody, and the myopic focus on Darcie heightens the effect: we only know her side of the story, just as we can only really know our own. It’s a novel that feels genuinely of its time–a response to rapidly evolving technology that can isolate as easily as it connects.
The framing may be new, but literally show me a healthy person has the clear DNA of that evergreen literary sub-genre, the sex, drugs, & rock ‘n’ roll book. But where’s there’s usually something wistful about those stories–in a world with no consequences, I think everyone secretly would want to be a beautiful, drugged-up genius–Darcie’s one-night stands, alcohol binges, and experiments with drugs are portrayed as shattering acts of self-destruction, not wistful at all.
Darcie’s just sad. She’s your cool Instagram friend who’s actually a complete mess; she’s the drunk girl with day-old makeup that you see having sloppy shouting matches in bars. She’s led a legitimately horrible life filled with horrible people. You want to slap her as much as embrace her: can’t you see what you’re doing to your life? Yes, she can see, but she still doesn’t know how to change.
If literally show me a healthy person has a fault, it’s that it’s slightly too honest. There were constant discussions of cum (yep! this book is very explicit!) when I wanted a little more plot; Darcie’s repetitive self-destruction is at times, well…repetitive, just like those patterns are in real life, but not how I like them in fiction. I also think the beginning is the weakest part of the book, which is unfortunate, because it ups the risk of people setting it aside.
Then again, if you–like me–lose countless hours to writing and un-writing texts and social media statuses when real life is too much to take, that honesty might be literally show me a healthy person’s most appealing quality. This novel hits a nerve. 4/5 stars.
I purchased this book myself and I was in no way compensated for this review.
Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.
Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!
Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.
Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.
Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?
Source: the library
Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.
Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.
Source: the library
Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)
See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!
I always struggle with gift-giving. I hate the pressure to buy extravagant gifts that no one will really use, and buying gift cards can feel like a total cop-out. So, this year, I’m trying something new in my Christmas shopping–and no, it’s not buying giant teddy bears for everyone on my list, per the photo above.
Instead, this year, I’m trying to shop exclusively for books, clothes, and consumables like chocolate and tea for friends and family. In my experience, these items are easily usable, even if that use is regifting, which I’m actually okay with–especially for books, since the more readers, the merrier! Since I know I’m not alone in trying to cultivate better gift-giving habits, I thought I’d share some of my favorite book-themed gift ideas here.
If you don’t celebrate Christmas, but do celebrate another holiday with gift-giving traditions–or you’re just really into giving gifts!–nothing here is Christmas-specific. Bookmark and gift-give away in this or any season!
A lot of people love to cook (myself included), but even folks who don’t can appreciate tasty food–which is why cookbooks are such a great gift. Cookbooks tend to fall into two categories: the “yes, you can actually make these recipes!” cookbooks, and the “no, these recipes aren’t practical, but the writing/photography/etc. is SUPER pretty” cookbooks. Either one can make a great gift if you’re thoughtful about it!
Does your intended recipient love to travel? Find them a cookbook full of authentic recipes from their dream destination (complete with pictures), and even if they don’t cook any of it themselves, they’ll know what to sample when they visit.
Does your intended recipient follow dietary restrictions? Instead of mocking them for it (which is a really crappy thing to do!), find a cookbook that caters to those restrictions. It’s a thoughtful gift that might help them find new delicious things that are safe/allowable for them to eat.
RedBubble nerd merch!
RedBubble.com is a site where artists create beautiful fandom designs for all kinds of items, from T-shirts to laptop stickers to coffee mugs. In my experience (and unlike many other “nerd”-oriented sites), their apparel is actually good-quality, too! Searching for authors like Oscar Wilde, Audre Lorde, and Stephen King turns up great stuff.
If your intended recipient is a teen (or adult!) who loves The Hunger Games, Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle,or Divergent, those fandoms seem to have a particularly active literary RedBubble presence. And, of course, there’s always Harry Potter.
Don’t assume that a particular quote, author, or fandom is too obscure to appear on RedBubble, either. If you know someone who’s really into a thing, there might be an artist on the site who’s just as obsessed!
A well-thought-out list
Maybe it’s a list of your favorite reality TV shows hand-written inside a card, or a collaborative Spotify playlist shared with your friend group, or an email full of suggestions on what book to check out next from the library. Whatever the format, there’s a reason that curated lists are always such a lovely gift: the effort involved in making them (and sometimes vulnerability, if you’re putting your near-and-dear media choices on the line) is a real sign of love. And if the recipient doesn’t appreciate that, well…it might be time to pare down your inner circle.
If you share a favorite book with the intended recipient, try creating a music playlist for your favorite characters! I remember this being really popular for Twilight and Hunger Gamesships, but it could work for less fandom-oriented books, too. Speaking from personal experience, some of the music might look cringey in 5 years, but there are always real gems on those lists, too.
If your intended recipient has very different tastes from you, try compiling a list of “things I’d never read/watch/listen to that I still think you’d love.” If you do it with a sense of humor (or maybe even a gentle roast of your friend/relative’s weird, trashy, or pretentious tastes!), it’s a nice way of showing that person that you pay attention to their interests, even if you don’t share them.
What are your favorite gifts to give and receive? Let me know in the comments!
“A short story is the ultimate close-up magic trick – a couple of thousand words to take you around the universe or break your heart.” – Neil Gaiman
Introducing Short Story Roundup: a new feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you on Wednesdays. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.
why I loved it: “Say, She Toy” is the story of an android in the form of a black woman designed to bear the pain and abuse intended for real black women. It’s exactly as brutal and clarion as you’d think, and if you read only one piece of fiction this week, make it this one.