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Review: Snow in May: Stories by Kseniya Melnik

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My Interest

The cover is honestly what attracted my interest! Isn’t it beautiful? I am reading seasonally this year so I was torn–was this a winter title (snow) or a Spring title (May). I went with snow being winter. As you know, if you read here regularly, I’ve actually been enjoying my dynamic duo of reading nemeses–short stories and essays. Chalk it up to COVID quarantine, old age, or whatever, but I’ve been plowing through them. That said, when something is described as “Achingly beautiful” (Kirkus) I’m inclined to give it some side-eye and approach it warily. Good thing I didn’t see that phrase before I started reading!

The Stories

“…I continued to think about how luck is distributed among the living–a subject I’ve been ruminating on often lately. I began to understand why Tolyan might be so eager to get in touch with me. For him, the years when our paths ran parallel to each other were the peak of his life. I could only imagine to what legendary proportions our youthful friendship had grown by now in his imagination. For me, however, these years were a takeoff strip, not the flight” (p. 54).

Also if you read here regularly,  you know back in the Regan years I studied the Soviet Union extensively for my bachelor’s degree. These stories are set at various times in the Gulag city of Magadan. The cast of characters, their stories, and the back-drop of their town make this collection a fascinating read.

“Now, with her heavy makeup and low bun of hennaed hair, she felt like a matron about to receive some Soviet medal she didn’t deserve” (p. 201).

From Zoya in 1958 rushing into marriage with a soldier to flying with the Italian soccer team in 1975 to the 1990s lives of a Soviet-Russian expatriate aviation investor and a fellow Russian, a mail-order bride, both across the Straight in Alaska–the land of the free, this collection discusses the ordinary lives of the people of Magadan. A school rumba competition, a piano recital, the tenor who became a nonperson and was rehabilitated share pages with the entrepreneurial grandma who joins a line in a Moscow store for a chance to buy a child’s Finnish snowsuit as well as with love-starved engineering students Tolik and Tolyan. The luck of ordinary people in this not-so-ordinary town reveals so much about Russian life outside of Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg again now). The ordinariness of the lives is what drew me in and kept me reading. It was like being there with them.

There was ONE disappointing moment (a sadly predictable one) but otherwise the whole collection was wonderful.

Snow in May: Stories by Kseniya Melnik

My verdict

3.5

I took it down from 4.0 due to that one moment.

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Review: American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

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Helen Ellis came to my attention via her essay on how the husband didn’t want a divorce like his wife thought–he just wanted the dining room table to be clean and clear of clutter. Helen is like David Sedaris, and Bailey White–born to be beloved by NPR listeners. While her book, Southern Lady Code was a collection of humorous essays, American Housewife is a collection of short stories. Like the Haruki Murakami collection, I turned to this earlier this week, American Housewife was available when I ran out of audiobooks. Unlike the Haruki Murakami collection, I’m glad I did. Her writing just plain delights. Add in one story told in epistolary form, a fabulous cover, and you’ve got me completely hooked. Did I mention the author is a pro poker player? Or that her husband vacuums glitter in one story? Now I just have to talk myself off the ledge for liking both Chardonnay and wainscoting….

“I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.”

My favorite of the stories was Dead Doormen. Not because of the doormen, but because I’d LOVE to see that penthouse apartment! I’d love to go through that library of gardening books the late mother-in-law carefully annotated as she grew her terrace garden over the years. A four-bedroom penthouse in a coop by the park in NYC with a terrace garden, fine artwork, and original furnishings kept in museum quality. What’s not to love?

“Just because it’s gorgeous outside doesn’t mean you have to go outside.”

Hello! Welcome to Book Club is part Mafia, part sorority, part dream vacation. An elderly New York Grand Dame funds it all, and a Talbot’s store manager gives everyone her employee discount, add in a couple of “failure to launch” young people thrown in with the 50-60-somethings who comprise the world’s most privileged book club and you have a book club you won’t forget. The thing about Book Club is, you must pick your Book Club Name. “Mary Beth” is not pleased that “Bethany” encroached on her name, so no more anything like “Mary” or “Beth.” These gals will have you “elbow-deep in the onion dip” and grateful for the cocktails, “please and thank you.”

My Novel Was Brought To You By the Good People at Tampax imagines a world in which writer’s receive corporate sponsorship, but all the compromises that demands. I took it as a rift on the way publishers today seem to demand certain insertions in novels that pay homage to political correctness, or now, woke-ness. Maybe I’m right? It was quite a read, regardless of my guess.

“Fertile as a Duggar”

How to be a Patron of the Arts tells of both how to avoid writing and how to make a life for yourself when you are a stay-at-home, childless wife of a loving husband, while going everywhere with gay male friends. Too much to love here.

The Wainscoting War is the battle of wealthy apartment dwellers with a shared landing. It becomes all-out war both by email and by actions. Unforgettable. And, remember, “the only thing with less character than Chardonnay is wainscoting.”

Pageant Protection is a somewhat troubling, dark-humored account, of “rescuing” and “relocating” child pageant victims. It is stressed that the child supposedly applied for this help, but it depicts child abduction all the same. I get it–child pageants are horrendous. I hope pageant Moms who might stumble upon it get the message–or at least take photos of their daughter(s) sans makeup, flipper, wigs, hairpieces, and all the rest.

“Inspired by Beyonce, I stallion walk to the toaster.”

Among the short stories are little bits of essay or free form verse or jottings–How To Be A Grown Ass Woman lists qualities, actions, etc. I loved it.

Most of all, in all of Helen’s writing, I love that she is happily married to a successful man who seems to adore her in return. The little rituals she talks of–sitting with him as he changes out of his suit, even taking him breakfast in bed, are fun and loving. Who wouldn’t want that life in that apartment with that garden, those books, those friends, and all the rest.

An American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis

My Verdict

4.0

 

You can read more by and about this author here: NPR Book Review of American Housewife by Hellen Ellis.

My Review of Southern Lady Code by Helen Ellis

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Japanese Lit Challenge # 14 Review: after the quake: stories by Haruki Murakami

Note: The author insisted the title of this book be in lower case letters!

My experience reading this author’s work has not been very satisfying. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is the only one I’ve finished. It was interesting enough and I gave it a good review, but I haven’t given it a thought since finishing it several years ago. Although it would be heresy according to his fans, I’m again left with words and phrases like, “Is that all?” “Really?” or “Weird,” and “Over-rated.” Mostly, I’m left feeling that I’m too stupid to “get it.” Like with math.

I started listening to this short story collection when I had nothing else on audio. It met two goals–one of my personal reading goals for 2021 to read more short stories and it worked for the Japanese Lit Challenge for which I still had nothing in at the library. Plus, it was only about 4 hours. Predictably,  an e-audio book I was waiting on hit my account the next day. I determined to finish this collection though. Maybe I would finally understand what makes this author so revered?

As the title indicates, the stories all take place after the horrible 1995 earthquake in Kobe. 6 stories tell of of quirky, odd, even somewhat perverted people. I skipped one story after incest seemed to be coming at me. People afraid of refrigerators or obsessed with bonfires, giant frogs,

The stories in this collection are:

“UFO in Kushiro”-– Man’s wife leaves him. Man goes on trip. Man meets women. Woman tells dirty story involving a bell and  bear.

“Landscape with Flatiron” The one with the refrigerator-fearing man and the bonfire freak. They mention literature.

“All God’s Children Can Dance”–skipped it do to looming incest.

 “Thailand” In which a perfectly normal doctor arrives for a medical conference in Thailand, meets her jazz-enthusiast driver and eventually the story gets around to another round of bears and sex.

 “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” Too weird for words.

“Honey Pie” More bears. UGH

I’m thinking I’ll add Haruki Murakami to my “don’t bother again” list with Dickens and a few other authors. Life is to short….

My Verdict

3.0

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Review: The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe for Aus Reading Month

My Interest

I was almost late to the Aus Reads Month party so I knew I had to pick carefully to get it read in time. [I still failed.] I have a couple of friends I could have asked for their own recommendations of what to read from their country, but I felt that was almost a silly question. I imagined myself sputtering to someone requesting a “typical” American novel to read. I dug around on the internet, finding lists of Australia’s best or newest or shortest or longest reads. I looked at the Amazon previews and then chose this collection of short stories that are somewhat related.

The Story

Here is how Amazon describes this collection:

Set among the surf and sandhills of the Australian beach – and the tidal changes of three generations of the Lang family – this bestselling collection of short stories is an Australian classic. The Bodysurfers vividly evokes the beach, with the scent of the suntan oil, the sting of the sun and a lazy sensuality, all the while hinting at a deep undercurrent of suburban malaise.
From first publication, these poignant and seductive stories marked a major change in Australian literature.

Various stories were related, it is true. A few (Body Oil being one) were mostly related. One did not “work” to me (Looking For Malibu). Most told slightly depressing tales of weary people who did not seem real but who were surrounded by often vividly described scenery, scents, or feelings. Many, I’m sure, would earn the sobriquet “gritty” even if no one was killed, overly drunk, or similar at the time of the scene.

Here are two passages that did not leave me depressed or weary:

Just beyond the Gosford exit warm spring whiffs of eucalypt pollen and the fecund muddy combustion of subtropical undergrowth suddenly filled the car with the scents of the holidays. (The Bodysurfers [title story])

The electric cleansing of the surf is astonishing, the cold effervescing over the head and trunk and limbs. And the internal results are a great wonder. At once the spirits lift. There is a grateful pleasure in the last hour or softer December light. The brain sharpens. The body is charged with agility and grubby lethargy is washed away. (The Stingray)

An occasional worthwhile observation helped to move a story along, such as this one in After Noumea:

Brian picked her at once as a nosy bourgeois person.

This was possibly the most astute judgment in the collection.

My Thoughts

The people felt like worn-out factory workers. The place felt worn out. Both of these seem wrong in a post World War II setting in a young country with vast natural resources and gorgeous coastline. Was this intentional? Most of these stories were actually good reading–just not very happy or uplifting. Such stories have their place. They did evoke, I suppose, the time and place of their setting. I could hear and feel the see–just couldn’t get to know the people. I could sense the emotions of the flat, unreal characters which sounds contradictory, but isn’t. The characters lacked a personality but still had emotions. I think that must be a talent for a writer. I imagine he did not want the personalities to overwhelm the stories which were, after all, supposed to be about their time at that place.

The Bodysurfers by Robert Drewe

My Verdict

3.0

Click here to read my earlier Aus Reading Month post

#ausreadingmonth

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Review: Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

 

 

My Interest

I’ve had really good luck with Reece Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Book Club picks, so I thought maybe I can like short stories she picks? Well, Shut the Front Door! I finally read a collection of short stories that I loved! Ok, I loved MOST of them, I liked the rest. This does not happen in my life!

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The Stories

The eight stories in this collection are unrelated, but all have something to do with Haitians–either in Haiti or in the diaspora. They are easy to read, not dripping in ridiculous symbolism, and, best of all, are informative as well as enjoyable. That is not to say they are Pollyannish. This may be Reece’s bookclub, not Oprah’s, but they are not all sunshine and unicorns. The bad stuff though is at levels normal people can take in without needing therapy.

 

“Sometimes you take detours to get where you need to go.”

(Dosas, p. 32)

In Sunrise, Sunset, we meet life at both ends of the spectrum. Jude, a baby, and his grandmother Carol, who is descending into Alzheimer’s apparently.  His mother, Jeanne,  has postpartum depression and can’t lose her baby weight. But Carol’s life is spinning sadly out-of-control just as Jude’s life is starting. This story moved me the most. It was the longest–I wondered if it had started out as a novel or novella-to-be.

Hot Air Balloons showed us the passion and righteousness of the college years. Neah and Lucy, from different parts of the same world, both come to grips with their culture–what it is to some and what it is to themselves. Very moving.

The Gift shows us regrets, tragedies, changes in perception.  Thomas, whose “voice was radio deep,” endures the unendurable. Anika, who was in love with him, now paints birds–even the Antillean mango birds who fly backward, to try to move on.

“These half-assed outsiders, these no-longer-fully-Haitian-almost-blan, foreigner-type people, these dyaspora with their mushy thinking, why does it all come back to one kind of love to them, the kind of love you keep talking about rather than the kind of love that shatters you to pieces? Don’t these die-ass-poor-aahhs, these dyaspowa and dyesporen, these outside minded kings and queens, know that there are many other ways to show love than to be constantly talking about it? ‘Of course I love her,’ she said…’That’s why I am so rough on her'” (The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special, p, 58-59.)

I could write pages on each of these stories. Just read them. They are a fast read, but a fulfilling read.

Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat

 

My Reviews of Other Reece Witherspoon/Hello Sunshine Book Club Picks:

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The Guest List: A Novel by Lucy Foley

 

 

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Next Year in Havana: A Novel by Chancel Cleeton

 

 

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Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

 

 

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Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

 

 

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Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal

 

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Review: Mothers Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell (short stories)

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The Short Stories

I rarely read short stories–they’re either too long or too short for my taste. I admit I did not read all of the stories in this collection–some were just too disturbing. This collection was nominated for a prestigious award and was touted as a “Book of the Year” by NPR, which is how I learned of it. Then I saw the cover, which is perfect, and decided to read those I could tolerate.

“…reasonableness and positivity can feel like a kind of bullying.”

These stories are “gritty,” or “earthy”–I think those are the usual euphemisms for stories in which the mother’s boyfriend molests the daughter. That seemed to be mostly what these stories were about. Loser men figured in too. Loser men who treated women like crap, and women who were proud of taking that crap and living to tell. In short, this is a collection of stories on White Trash–people stuck in poverty because they don’t have the brains God gave them when it’s time to make choices.

“As I saw it, those men were just picking up where your daddy left off. He would have kicked your asses plenty if he’d been around. How was I supposed to figure out by myself when you children needed beating? How was I supposed to have the energy to beat you?”

Sex pays the light bill. Sex gets the car fixed. Well, she’d have had to learn what a man wants sometime–why not now, seems to be the only comment the mothers in these stories would have made on their daughter’s forced loss of innocence. And, later on, they’d just say “You’re a middle-aged woman, too old to hold onto a childhood grudge.” A grudge about a rape, a #metoo moment. While privately they might have given 10 seconds to re-thinking it all:

“Maybe I thought it would’ve been selfish to say, Hell, no, you can’t kiss my eleven-year-old daughter.”

Sadly, there’s a vast swath of the American population who live like this. No, not merely in trailer parks, but also in worn-out houses, grandmothers’ basements, uncles’ garages, and cousins’ unwanted campers. They live in apartments and duplexes, townhouses, and the occasional carport in wide spots in the road, in small towns, mid-sized cities, big cities  and otherplaces in the Rust Belt, the Bible Belt, the potato fields of Maine, the potato fields of Idaho and all of This Land.

“All the men added together made the solid world—they were the marbles in the jar, and women were whatever sand or water or air claimed the space left between them.”

The men do hard physical labor or kill bugs or waterproof basements or drive semis or stand by an assembly line. Or do nothing. The women may do the same or they may wait tables or cashier groceries. Work is part of their lives, especially if it involves being payed under the table. Cheap coffee, cigarettes, and beer are daily necessities. Domestic violence, substance abuse, confusing geneologies, and lack of parental involvement round-out the picture. No one likes to see anyone get “above themselves” or to get “the big head.”

“Of course I was proud of you going to college. Any mother would be. I didn’t think it needed saying.”

And when you went away to college, you abandoned all of us.”

They stand in line to pawn a nail gun or an air compressor, to get a title loan on a pick-up truck or to to get a fake nail filled.  If they like you, they’d give you the shirt off their back, but they’d also kill you if you look at them funny. Salt of the Earth if it wasn’t for the bad sex decisions, the fist fights, and the yard dogs kept on chains.

“Men inhaled great swaths of oxygen, exhaled smoke and sweat, so sometimes I could scarcely catch my breath.”

This is poverty, but not a romantic kind of poverty. The Joads were better off enduring the grapes of God’s wrath. These folks are too stubborn to change, too stubborn to get an education, too stubborn to move for a better job. These stories accurately relect the miasma and fog of their lives, and let us feel the lack of what academics call “empowerment.”

If you want to read about extreme disfunction, come away more depressed than you already were, then this is your book and these are your stories. If you live for Oprah’s book choices, this is your short story collection. In spite of not liking the story lines in these stories, I would like to read something else by this author.

My Verdict

3.0 Stars

For another take on girls in poverty see:

 

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Girlchild: A Novel by Tupelo Hassman

 

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Review: Paris For One by JoJo Moyes

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When I learned that Jojo Moyes had  new book out I was excited. Then I saw the dreaded words “...and Other Stories.” I’m not much for short stories. So, I put it into the car cd-player thinking I’d give it five minutes  and ended up sitting in the driveway listening longer than my drive!

 

The Good

Paris for One was super! This is actually a novella. The characters were wonderful, the story believable. I loved it. I hope there will be a follow-up–a sequel a few years after the story.

Crocodile Shoes–I laughed hard and had to share it with my daughter, who did her first “real job” presentations this week. Read the story and you’ll understand.

Holdups–A sweet, funny, scary holdup? Of course!

Last Year’s Coat–Married love at it’s best. And I can’t stop thinking about a coat my Mom “endured” so we could have what we wanted.

Thirteen Days With John C--Like in the old days when someone would meanly tell a wrong number caller that “he just left with his wife…” and let the person agonize.

The Christmas List–I adored this. It, too, should have been a full novel or novella. And there’s a tiny connection in the story you may just wonder about that makes it all even more intriguing. Listen carefully–a throw away line by the cabbie about his …..[no spoilers].

The Bad

A Bird in the Hand–Should have stayed on the hard drive or in the drawer.

 

Rating

3.75 Stars

Sadly, she’ll always be judged by  Me Before You

I’ve loved every book of hers I’ve read so far.