Paperback Pick – The Color Master

I saw in the New York Times that Aimee Bender’s latest masterpiece is now out in paperback, perfect for summertime beach bags.

The Color MasterThe Color Master

Aimee Bender

Aimee Bender’s collection of stories satisfied all my desires. Powerful, dark, magical, engaging and filled with unforgettable images.

Not surprisingly, I was most moved by the stories containing magical realism, especially “The Color Master,” “The Devourings,” and “Appleless.” Bender has an amazing ability to immerse readers in an alternate universe while making it seem all too real. These stories touch me emotionally and their “truths” are more real to me than a story set in my own backyard.

“And in it all, the sensation of shaking my fists at the sky, shaking my fists high up to the sky, because that is what we do when someone dies too early, too beautiful, too undervalued by the world, or sometimes just at all — we shake our fists at the big, beautiful, indifferent sky, and the anger is righteous and strong and helpless and huge. I shook and I shook, and I put all of it into the dress.”

I was pleasantly surprised that her more realistic tales held the same kind of resonance for me. “The Red Ribbon,” “The Fake Nazi” and “The Doctor and the Rabbi” are excellent examples of short stories that stand alone as full-bodied, if incredibly lonely, works of fiction.

“It is so often surprising, who rescues you at your lowest moments.”

I’ve determined that I will pretty much follow Aimee Benderwherever she goes. Immensely satisfying.

For more of my Aimee Bender love, read:

My review of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and Food for Literary Thought.

 

The Art of the Short Story

I never set out to make 2013 the Year of the Short Story, but my reading choices have gone that way. In the first two months of the year, I’ve read four story collections and have quite a few more on my To-Read list.

It’s not as if this is a new genre for me. I’ve always appreciated great short stories. I would, in fact, argue that a great short story writer possess all the skills of great novelists and then some. After all they have to pack all the character development, story arc, subtext and emotional subtext of a satisfying story into a much more confined space. In short stories there’s no room to let a character “grow on” a reader or to allow them to “warm up” to a situation.

Some writers do this through shock. Aimee Bender and Karen Russell take their characters and stories outside of normal reality, grabbing our attention with women who can spin silk through their fingertips or teenagers with piano-keys for fingers. Others, like Elizabeth Berg, write about characters so completely familiar they could be our neighbors, sisters, or even ourselves.

For me, the key to a successful short story collection is a sense of completeness. Whether it’s one paragraph (420 Characters) or a novella (A Good Man is Hard to Find), I want a beginning, middle and end. I want to feel invested and satisfied, but still wanting a little bit more.

So far this year, I’ve read some hits and misses in this genre.

Vampires in the Lemon GroveVampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

4 stars

Given my absolute love for Aimee Bender, it seems that Karen Russell should be a perfect read-alike. She too throws reality out the window if it gets in the way of her storytelling. She invests her characters with strange powers and physical deformities that defy natural laws. She writes strong women and young people and skewers traditions and politics effortlessly. But, I have to be honest, I came to this collection with a bad taste in my mouth from Swamplandia!, which was decidedly underwhelming for me.

Now I think I might be a convert. This collection started slow for me, with the title story leaving me cold, but it just kept getting better and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know how to classify her writing – is this magical realism? modern fantasy? satire? I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I know that I was entertained and turned inside out and forced to allow my brain to travel down new paths.

These stories span the globe, many different eras and a variety of socio-economic conditions, but at their heart, they all investigate lonely people in search of connections. I think I am now ready to go back and read her first story collection and keep an eye open for whatever she has in store for us next.

 

there once was a wifeThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
2.5 stars
Dozens of short stories about people (mostly women) whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. There is real honesty here. I had no trouble picturing the world in which these people live. And, in a few places, I was arrested by a moment of brilliance or a character I would have liked to continue reading about. But then the story would end. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling.

I will say that this book was brought more vividly to life by the wonderful discussion it inspired, both on Goodreads and on WordPress, captured perfectly by my book-loving friends Cassie at Books and Bowel Movements and Claire at Word by Word.

this is how you lose herThis is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
4 stars
I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself but I will say this collection is held together both my love and by the primary narrator, Yunior, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I didn’t like him, but I still really liked the writing.

 
The Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: Stories
By Elizabeth Berg
3.5 stars
Listening to these thirteen stories, read by author Elizabeth Berg, was like having a really clever friend along for car rides. I was often amused, seldom bored and mostly inspired to find someone who gets a certain type of woman so completely. As the subject of the title story suggests, many of these stories are about food and weight issues. Berg wisely intersperses other issues, but when I say she gets a certain type of woman, I mean that she gets those of us for whom food is a daily issue. Judging by her proficiency and popularity, there are a lot of us. I haven’t read all that much Elizabeth Berg, but she certainly seems a pleasant way to pass the time.

Food for literary thought

BEFORE YOU READ THE REST OF THIS POST, close your eyes and think about your favorite authors. I’m talking your “go-to” writers, the ones you’ve read and possibly reread. Can you say, “I’ve read almost everything written by so-and-so?”

This morning, the moderator of one of my Goodreads Book Clubs asked this very question. (Thanks Deb at Bound Together.) Without having to think too hard, I immediately answered.

I have several adored authors. If I had to choose a few whose books consistently blow me away, I’d go with:

Toni Morrison whose latest book in coming out in May. I know she’s not for everyone, but I love her voice and the way magic and ghosts and folklore are just woven into every story.

Ann Patchett because she’s smart and her settings are incredible and she can really craft a sentence.

Geraldine Brooks for historical fiction. No need to say more.

Aimee Bender is a newbie for this kind of list. But her books and short stories take me to such interesting places that I can’t wait to see what she has in store next.

As I prepared to post my comment, I realized that I had chosen all female authors. Frankly I was surprised. If you had asked me yesterday whether I preferred male or female authors, I would have refused to answer such a ridiculous question.  Of course I also have male authors I follow closely – Colum McCann and Dennis Lehane come to mind immediately.

I want to believe I read blindly when it comes to an author’s gender. But I’ve read multiple articles in the past month on the gender gap in literature and they have me questioning my own literary assumptions.

In a wonderful New York Times article by Meg Wollitzer, On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women – NYTimes.com, she writes:

But the top tier of literary fiction — where the air is rich and the view is great and where a book enters the public imagination and the current conversation — tends to feel peculiarly, disproportionately male. Will the literary habits of a culture change as younger readers take over?

I certainly don’t classify as a “young reader,” but I do believe I buck the male dominated trend.

  • According to my Goodreads stats, 51 of the 88 books I read in 2011 were by women. (I realize this is only one year of reading so it doesn’t prove much, but it’s all I’ve got.)
  • 9 out of the 10 books on my “Best of 2011” list are by women. http://alenaslife.wordpress.com/2012/01/03/bestbooks2011/ Again, it’s one year of many, but those are the numbers.

I want to believe that none of this matters. I want to assume that the above-mentioned authors are not my favorite because they are women, but because they are fantastic writers. But it’s given me food for thought today.

Now think back on the authors you chose as your favorites. Are they all one gender? Or, did you have some of each? Does it matter?