Saturday, June 24, 2017

Anklet and Other Stories by Shome Dasgupta

When well done, fiction and travel share the ability to move you beyond your comfort zone, challenge the steadfastness of your boundaries, and give you a new lens for interpreting yourself and that which you take for granted. In Anklet and Other Stories (Golden Antelope Press, 2017), author Shome Dasgupta transports us to Kolkata, India, and invites us, in ways at once tangibly real and magically surreal, to unsettle ourselves in the most fundamental of ways.

The edges we confront in these taut and memorable stories are always organic to the setting - a mystical and fable-like cautionary tale of a boatman on a holy river, a tense altercation in Kolkata's impossibly snarled traffic, or, as in the lovely "Tagore's Kiss," the collective tension in a cafe when a cultural norm is transgressed - but they also powerfully transcend place to more universal experiences. In "Samosa," the narrator stops to witness a homeless man upon the street and pities him, but then, despite his vehement protests, becomes the object of pity and scorn himself. The shift is profound, and visceral. Another favorite, "This is my Head," is a nuanced and beautifully written portrait of a young person's first real encounter with age, illness and death. The disruptions also often have magical elements - blackbirds dropping from the sky, marking our foreheads with their beaks, a young man who is unable to keep himself being thrown backwards across a room - which both engage our imaginations and accentuate our discomfort in the most wonderful of ways.

I highly recommend the collection for literary short fiction fans, and also call the reader's attention to the gorgeous sketches by Indira Kalyan Dutta in the body of the collection which perfectly complement the stories. It is always a special pleasure to welcome an author back to the blog - my thanks to Shome Dasgupta for a complimentary review copy of Anklet and Other Stories. Learn more about his personal story and the background of the collection in "A Story Behind the Stories" at Deep South Magazine.

Happy reading!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

How to be Human by Paula Cocozza

We lived for a time in the countryside in Western New York. The wide open land and sky were nothing less than thrilling to this suburban girl, and for the many years we were there, not a single day went by that I didn't experience that awe anew. We realized quickly that there we were nature's guests, and not the other way around. Our yard was regularly traversed by turkeys, deer, snakes, and a little red fox who would trot blithely across the lawn and down a trail, the formality of house and property lines and mowed grass mere aberrations in a larger, untamed territory, At night, it was even more clear that this world did not belong to us. We would hear coyotes echoing across the fields, an otherworldly noise like nothing you can imagine. And if you have never heard it before, the scream of a fox calling for a mate will send you running to the phone to summon the police because surely a woman has just been murdered nearby. Could such a bloodcurdling sound come from the same charming fox who looks so soft and companionable in the early morning light?

In How to Be Human (Metropolitan Books, 2017) Paula Cocozza's beguiling fox lives closer among people, regularly haunting the backyards of a row of London townhomes abutting untamed urban space of their own. His presence alarms most of the neighbors who are quick to entertain plans to call the exterminator. Mary is the exception. Her engagement recently broken, Mary has lived alone for the last months, and is still struggling with the breakup. She is depressed, her job is in jeopardy, and now that Mark is gone, she really has no meaningful human relationships. She alone observes the fox and sees his beauty, sees that they are connected.

One night, Mary is called upon to sit for the baby next door, and soon after runs into Mark on the street. These two experiences - the tenderness of her feelings for the baby, the visceral reminders of Mark - begin to break something open in her, and this breaking comes to a head the following weekend where she must confront both again at the neighbor's barbeque party. That night, following the party, the baby mysteriously appears on her doorstep, and havoc ensues. Mary and the fox become closely and extraordinarily bound in a suspenseful and remarkable relationship, forcing her to confront her demons.

I loved every moment of this remarkable novel. Paula Cocozza writes beautifully of Mary's moments of intimacy with this wild creature, detailing fox movements and behaviors so subtle and surprising you imagine she has lived this experience firsthand. I loved, too, that the fox had his own voice, that we read from his point of view through poems of sorts, with fox phrasing and fox cadence. Above all, I loved that the novel brought us right up to the edges of it means to be wild, what it means to be human, to what extent those boundaries can soften, and where the limits must always remain. Highly recommended if ever you have been enchanted by a fox, or any wild creature at all.

I received a complimentary copy of How to be Human from the publisher.

Happy reading!

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Marlena by Julie Buntin

Marlena, Julie Buntin (Henry Holt, 2017)

Catherine is a straight-A scholarship student at a prestigious private school, but when her parents' marriage falls apart and she moves with her mother and brother to a remote, rural town in Northern Michigan, an alluring new friendship offers Cat an opportunity to reinvent herself. Unlike Cat, Marlena is exciting and edgy, irresistible yet dangerous, and the girls, each broken in different ways, form a deep bond that both saves and destroys them.

It's a compelling if sometimes wrenching story. Buntin writes convincingly and often beautifully about the intensity of teen-hood and the complexities of female friendships, and I was drawn in by every subtle shift and nuance in Marlena and Cat's relationship.

Marlena is well worth reading for this alone, but what especially set the novel apart for me was Cat's keen self-awareness, both as a damaged adult looking back, and within the story as it unfolded. As drawn as she is to Marlena, Cat knows they are not quite the same. Something is always held back, the tension determining their fates.

Check out this insightful interview with author Julie Buntin over on Book Talk.

Happy reading (and listening!)

I received my complimentary copy of Marlena from the publisher.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Two by Tin House

Little Sister by Barbara Gowdy (forthcoming from Tin House, May 2017)

What happens when an everyday life is suddenly infused with magic?  Rose Bowan has many blessings - steady if not especially lucrative work managing the family second-run movie theater, an aging mother whom she loves, but who needs increasing supervision due to dementia, a reliable but predictable long-term boyfriend. Not exactly glamorous, but a good life nonetheless. One day, during the height of a particularly unstable Canadian thunderstorm, Rose leaves her own body and finds herself inhabiting someone else - a woman caught up in an unraveling affair. Rose is terrified at first, but as the storms continue and the inhabitances become more frequent, she is drawn further and further into the mystery of this woman, Harriet.  Though very different than herself, Harriet also reminds her of her little sister, who died as a child. Rose sets out to find Harriet in real life and save her in a way she couldn't save her beloved sibling. By reaching out to this other troubled soul, Rose is able to reconcile with her past and break open her present. She, too, is saved.

I very much enjoyed this charming and unique novel. I loved Rose, I could very much relate to her reliance on habit and routine, and I was drawn in to the power of the magic - not so much by the inexplicable circumstances of the storm episodes in and of themselves, but by how the events intensified and deepened her relationship with Harriet. I found Little Sister to be a lovely, moving and suspenseful book. Look for it in bookstores next month.

Swimming Lessons, by Claire Fuller (Tin House, 2017)

I have been eagerly awaiting Swimming Lessons practically from the moment I finished Claire Fuller's prior novel, the exquisite Our Endless Numbered Days.  Like Little Sister, Swimming Lessons, too revisits the past to find healing in the present.

Twelve years ago, Ingrid Coleman disappeared, leaving behind two young daughters and a philandering, book-hoarding novelist of a husband. All these years later, aging Gil thinks he sees Ingrid and follows her, falling off a pier in pursuit. The accident brings his daughters home to oversee his care, and in doing so, forces the family to address long-simmering resentments, betrayals, and misunderstandings.

Interspersed through the novel are letters from Ingrid, each tucked away in one of the many books Gil so diligently collects for their marginalia. They are raw and beautiful letters, telling her truth of the marriage, the story she never spoke aloud to him, the things she knew that he didn't think she did. The emerging narrative of the letters pairs brilliantly with the present story as it unfolds, and there is a particular delight for the reader, too, in the notations telling us which title the letter is placed in.  Beautifully written, captivating in its structure, and so observant of the complicated relationships that exist inside families, Swimming Lessons is a book to lose yourself in, which I happily did.

I received a complimentary review copy of Little Sister from the publisher, and purchased my copy of Swimming Lessons.

Happy reading!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

An Elegant Theory - Noah Milligan

What if life, like molecules of light, existed as infinite possibilities rather than in specific points in time?  This question is the elegance of Noah Milligan's An Elegant Theory (Central Avenue Publishing, November 2016).

Coulter Zahn is a doctoral student with an impossible thesis proposal: he is going to definitively and mathematically prove the shape of the universe. His professors have warned him against pursuing this fruitless line of research for fear of derailing his studies and his career, his pregnant wife is increasingly frustrated by his obsession and chronic unavailability. Yet he is unable to let it go, day after day sitting alone at the university computer, hitting "enter" after "enter," one by one testing each and every possible yet ultimately rejected equation.

All his life, Coulter has also experienced inexplicable lapses - but as the baby approaches and his work feels more futile, his stress escalates and the fugues come more and more frequently. Coulter snaps, the consequences are unthinkable, and his life fractures.

Which is his real life? Which is false? Are both simultaneously real, or altogether false? I enjoyed being drawn in by the puzzle, carefully studying the clues: Is real Coulter the Coulter of the first or third person point view? Could seemingly lapse vignettes come together to form a coherent alternate reality? Is each fragment an entire reality of its own? I loved entertaining all the possibilities, though struggled to be convinced of the emotional probability that our otherwise relatable protagonist could have done a terrible thing... or maybe I just hated to think so. Embracing uncertainty proved to be the best strategy - an intriguing and engaging novel for inquisitive readers and believers in the multiverse.

I received a complimentary copy of An Elegant Theory from the author.

Happy reading!