Thursday, January 27, 2011

Review: Forgetting English by Midge Raymond

The eight stories in this slim collection revolve around the theme of displacement. The sense of alienation underlying all these stories is literal; all the main characters are away from home, usually in a foreign country. But the sense of alienation becomes metaphorical because the women in these stories are emotionally wounded, alienated from their former lives and from themselves. Each has experienced an unsettling emotional situation that causes her to flee from home. Most of the stories begin well after a heartbreak of one kind or another, a husband’s affair, a lost job, the end of a romance.
Forgetting English refers to the characters presence in non-English speaking countries, namely Tonga, Africa, China. The title is interesting also because most of the protagonists seem unable to forget their troubled pasts, they are unable to “get on with their lives,” as a self-help book consulted by the narrator of “Rest of World” instructs.
The endings of the stories do not provide easy epiphanies or even the hard won insights of suffering. Many of the stories end with a single image that reflects the protagonist’s emotional state; The image of a female penguin mourning the loss of her chick in “The Ecstatic Cry,” or the memory of touching the cold face of a stone figure in “Translation Memory.” Only “Never Turn Your Back on the Ocean” ends on a positive note, the narrator following the sound of a man’s voice in the dark.
Together these stories express a deep longing for connection among characters who have somehow become estranged from themselves and others. The overall tone is one of melancholy and reflection. I prefer short collections of short stories, because, like the stories themselves, they can be read in a shorter space of time, the effects of each story accumulating into one complex experience. This collection is emotionally and stylistically consistent, and the events of these stories accrued to create the sense of a weary traveler who wants to return home, only she doesn’t know where that is.
You can purchase the novel here.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Currently Reading

1. Correction of Drift by Pamela Ryder (FC2)
2. The Possessed (Actually, Jason is reading this, but I picked it up and it's good)
3. Bleak House, Bleak House, Forever Bleak House (loving it!)
4. The Private Patient (not really. I need to go pick it up from the library. Then I will be reading it.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin Review

I just finished We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and my timing couldn't be more canny. Or is it uncanny? In any case, as I surfed the internet this weekend for news and updates about the shootings in Arizona, my fictional mind was entrenched in this story about a high school shooting and the fallout for the family. Narrated by the mother of the school shooter, Kevin, the novel is a series of letters to her husband, Franklin. The letters allow her to investigate her own role in Kevin’s crime. The novel is, from the outset, an interrogation of our culture’s tendency to blame the mother, but the novel doesn't let her off easy. She is telling the story from her own limited perspective and so she is, by definition, unreliable. But she also doesn't let herself off easy, continually questioning how she might have mothered differently.
The novel is incredibly well-written and compelling. The style is neither overwhelming nor flat. The narrator has a tendency to be strident, but her tone and language are consistent with her position in the novel. Overall, I found the novel interesting. 
Did I like it? As a writer, I admire it. Shriver embraces the ambiguity and she doesn’t let her narrator, or her readers, off the hook. Every mother will find at least one small thing to identify with in this novel, and that identification will be horrifying. As a mother, I couldn’t help but study myself and my child’s behavior a little more closely as I read this novel.
As a reader, I’m not sure I would recommend it to another reader. It is not enjoyable or pleasurable or entertaining. Reading this book was like living in the world since the shootings on Saturday. While reading this book, you can’t pretend that bad things don’t happen; in fact, you have to confront that reality. And, what’s more, you have to live the reality of bad things, without any of the good things to offer needed relief.
I can, however, recommend two other Lionel Shriver novels: The Post-Birthday World and The Female of the Species. The Post-Birthday World is the more lighthearted of the two. The novel begins on a significant birthday and takes as its departure a kiss. Two narrative paths take off from this moment: one in which the main character goes home to her boyfriend, who never knows; and a second narrative, in which she leaves her boyfriend and begins a new life with the man she kissed on her birthday.
The Female of the Species focuses on the later life of a famous anthropologist. Narrated by her longtime assistant, it follows her as she returns to the site of her first big discovery, and then as she falls in love with a much younger man.

All of Shriver’s novels are well-written. I never found her style overdone or distracting, though she is given to Britishisms, even when her characters are American. She tends to gravitate to the darker side of life, and ambiguity. The stories she creates are compelling. I plan on reading her latest novel, So Much for That, soon. But right now I need a break. Time to go watch some TV. 

Short Story Collections by Women

In 2011, I want to read more books by women actually published in 2011. I'm forever trying to catch up and, like many things in my life, it just ain't going to happen. So, instead of trying to catch up (which I'm still going to try to do anyway, knowing I will fail), I'm going to try to read a lot of books published in 2011.
Dear readers, will you help me? Please recommend books that were published in 2010 or are about to be published in 2011. By women. I am going to begin by focusing on short story collections, but I will expand that.
I love to read, and I have strong opinions, so I decided I'm going to post reviews here regularly, along with continued commentary about my life in general.
Watch this space for a Lionel Shriver recap, coming soon.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Why I Cry or Get Weepy: One Mother's Explanation

There are many reasons why one (i.e. Me), might become weepy or cry, sob even, for no apparent reasons. But, lo, there are reasons. Let me walk you through them.

  1. Bad things have happened. 
  2. Bad things have happened that involve children. 
  3. Bad things have happened and the reasons for these things are so complex that I feel overwhelmed, because I don't even know which one to feel bad about first.
  4. Bad things have happened and the people who suffer as a result are so widespread and the reasons for their suffering are so complex that I don't know who to sympathize with and so I sympathize with all of them. 
  5. I become afraid the bad things that have happened elsewhere might also happen here. 
  6. I become afraid that the Reasons Given for the happening of bad things might overlap with things I have done or thought, and thus that I, inadvertently, might cause bad things to happen.
  7. I sympathize with the people who also may have contributed to or have failed to stop the bad things from happening. 
  8. I sympathize with the people who do bad things.
  9. I look around me & I despair.
  10. I look around me & feel grateful.