book review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

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YOUNG SKINS by Colin Barrett
★★★★☆
Grove, 2015

 

In the vein of authors like Donal Ryan and Lisa McInerney, Colin Barrett has a gift for conjuring quiet scenes from small-town Irish life that bristle with a kind of dormant tension. Young Skins is a collection of seven short stories that all take place in the same town, and often the same pub, with a few overlapping characters, but which mostly stand on their own. Each story focuses on a male protagonist, usually young, all in some way navigating working class life, post-Ireland’s financial collapse.

It’s very rare that I give a short story collection 5 stars; it’s to be expected that in a collection like this, certain stories are going to shine and certain others are going to fade into the background. Though I loved Barrett’s prose throughout, this collection really wasn’t an exception to the rule – there are stories I loved and stories I found to be rather forgettable (though thankfully none I outright disliked).

The Clancy Kid was a strong opening, introducing us to the gritty, bleak backdrop of young love turned to heartbreak that characterizes so many of these stories, as well as the kind of violence that permeates male youth culture. Bait is a tricky one; I’d been loving it, up until the very end where it takes an… incongruously supernatural(?) turn that I still haven’t fully made sense of. (If you’ve read this story, please tell me your thoughts on the ending.)

The Moon didn’t leave much of an impression on me, though this is where Barrett states a lot of the collection’s thematic conceits rather plainly, which makes it a solid addition (a young, flighty woman says to our protagonist at one point “Galway’s not that far[,] but it might as well be the moon for people like you.”) And I thought Stand Your Skin was maybe too thematically similar to The Moon, though Stand Your Skin is the one I preferred.

Calm With Horses, the collection’s magnum opus, is more of a novella than a short story, nearing 100 pages. In my opinion this story stands head and shoulders above the rest, and it’s not just because of its length. I think this is where Barrett is able to really stretch his legs and show us what he’s capable of. Various characters and subplots weave in an out of this one and all dovetail in a satisfying, heart-rending conclusion. I really hope Barrett has a novel in the works.

Diamonds I think is solidly the weakest story that doesn’t offer much that we can’t already find elsewhere. And Kindly Forget My Existence is a fitting ending, where Barrett eschews his young protagonists in favor of two middle aged men who sit down at a pub and discuss their own youth.

So, as with most short story collections, a mixed bag, but it’s worth the price of admission for the stunningly tragic Calm With Horses alone, and the rest of the stories mostly hold their own as well. Dismal and hopeless as this collection is on the whole, there’s an assured beauty to Barrett’s prose that I found very striking, especially for a debut, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

You can pick up a copy of Young Skins here on Book Depository.

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short story reviews: Mr Salary & Color and Light by Sally Rooney

MR SALARY by Sally Rooney              |    COLOR AND LIGHT by Sally Rooney
★★★★★ |    ★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2019    |    The New Yorker, 2019

I want to first say that if you don’t quite ‘get’ the Sally Rooney craze, I don’t blame you – is she really achieving something that other authors are failing to do, or does her writing offer a comfortable familiarity; does her work hold universal appeal or is it uniquely resonant with young people; no one seems to have a very clear answer on any of this – but that said, I think her writing is magic. Normal People took me entirely by surprise, Conversations With Friends is one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read in years, and now these two short stories have solidified her place as one of my absolute favorite authors.

The thing about Sally Rooney is that while her storytelling is incisive and forthright, she always leaves me wanting more – not in the sense that what she offers is lacking, but in the sense that you can instinctively discern that Rooney understands her characters inside and out, backwards and forwards; they feel like living, breathing entities who continue to exist once you’ve ceased reading.  Rooney writes about people I want to know – not in real life, necessarily, although realism is arguably the great strength of her character work – but all of her characters come to life under her perceptive gaze and she excels both at chronicling the internal and the interpersonal.

While both of her novels beautifully showcase her prowess at character development, these two short stories prove that she still has a lot to offer in just a few short pages.   Color and Light follows a young hotel receptionist Aidan who meets an enigmatic screenwriter named Pauline that he becomes drawn to.  Mr Salary is told from the perspective of a 24-year-old woman named Sukie, who’s in love with a 30-something man named Nathan, a family friend that she’s lived with for years.  Both stories are brief snapshot pieces – we get a bit of background, but we don’t learn these characters’ life stories, nor do we need to.  Each story crackles with sexual tension, although it would be dismissive to reduce them to this one element – Mr Salary is noteworthy for its macabre undertones, as Sukie’s obsession with death mirrors her sexual obsession with Nathan, and Color and Light probably has less of a straightforward romantic trajectory than anything else Rooney has written.  The inevitable romance between Aidan and Pauline isn’t really inevitable at all, as it develops – Aidan’s interest in Pauline isn’t sexual as much as driven by a desire to understand and be understood, a theme that underpins all of Rooney’s work.

If you like stories about flawed, lonely, emotionally distant people, told with honesty and lively, absorbing prose, I’d implore you to give into the Rooney hype.  Everything she writes somehow moves me, saddens me, and delights me all at once.  I will say, I’ve noticed a sort of divide between people who loved Conversations With Friends and found Normal People underwhelming and vice versa (personally, I just love it all), but if you do fall into this dichotomy, I’d recommend Mr Salary to those who preferred Conversations With Friends and Color and Light to those who preferred Normal People.

Read Color and Light on the New Yorker website here, and pick up a copy of Mr Salary from Book Depository here.

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.

book review: Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh

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HOMESICK FOR ANOTHER WORLD by Ottessa Moshfegh
★★☆☆☆
Penguin Books, 2017

 

Ottessa Moshfegh has to be one of my favorite writers that I discovered in 2018; My Year of Rest and Relaxation both thrilled and unsettled me, and after I finished that I proceeded to devour her debut novel Eileen. So it was with optimism that I approached her short story collection Homesick for Another World – I was looking forward to more delightfully awful antiheroines and sardonic humor and a heightened awareness of the mundane. Be careful what you wish for, I guess?

What made Eileen‘s titular protagonist and My Year of Rest and Relaxation‘s unnamed narrator so fascinating wasn’t just the fact that they weren’t particularly likable people; their thorny exteriors were a result of two distinct tragic backstories, whose ramifications Moshfegh deftly explored throughout the course of each novel. It turns out that bite-sized stories about awful characters doing awful things and thinking awful thoughts are so much less interesting when their behavior isn’t rationalized or contextualized in that same way. Reading story after story about humanity’s capacity for cruelty starts to feel like a shtick after a while, like a party trick that’s worn out its welcome. It’s easy to become desensitized when you feel like the author’s main objective is to shock you.

Two stories stood out to me: The Beach Boy follows an older married couple returning from an island vacation, only for the wife to die unexpectedly as soon as they arrive home. Unpalatable as this couple may be, like all of Moshfegh’s protagonists, we actually are able to get invested in them before the story takes a turn for the macabre. And A Better Place ends the collection on a positively eerie note, telling the story of two young twins who are convinced that they weren’t born on earth, and to get back to that other place, they need to either die or kill someone. I think it speaks volumes that the best story in the collection is the one that’s least like the others; A Better Place is wildly inventive and not quite as grounded in gritty realism as the others, but still dark and twisted and more haunting than the rest of the stories combined.

That’s two out of fourteen that made an impression on me. The rest honestly just blend together. Moshfegh has such a unique voice as a writer that shines through all of the stories in this collection, but rather than bringing me the same kind of offbeat joy as her two novels, this collection just started to make me miserable after a while. Apparently my average rating for all these stories was 2.7 stars, but I’m rounding down due to the dread I felt about picking this back up when I wasn’t reading it. I’m still going to read everything Moshfegh writes… I’m just hoping for more novels from now on.

book review: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories

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THE PENGUIN BOOK OF JAPANESE SHORT STORIES edited by Jay Rubin and introduced by Haruki Murakami
★★★☆
Penguin Classics, 2018

 

I spent a while with this collection and I think on the whole it’s stronger than the sum of its parts. Apparently my average rating for these 34 stories was 3.35 stars, but it still feels like a 4-star collection to me, because it absolutely got its job done: introducing me to a number of authors whose work I’m interested in exploring further.

Curated by Jay Rubin and introduced by Murakami, this collection is arranged thematically rather than chronologically: there’s a section on natural and man-made disasters, a section whose stories are unified by the theme of dread, and a section on the values of Japanese soldiers, among others. Jay Rubin writes in his forward that he wanted this collection to reflect his personal taste rather than serving as a more generic primer to Japanese lit, and for better or worse I think that shows: I didn’t understand why every single one of these stories was chosen, but I did feel like I got a clear sense of Rubin as a reader, and why shouldn’t an anthology say something about its editor?

There were three main standouts for me:

(1) Dreams of Love, Etc by Kawakami Mieko: A woman is invited into her neighbor’s house, and her neighbor confesses that although she loves playing the piano, she’s unable to play a certain piece straight through when someone is watching, and she entreats the protagonist to sit with her until she’s able to play the piece perfectly. Compelling, sensual, and subtle, but still rewarding.

(2) Hell Screen by Akutagawa Ryunosuke: The talented but contemptible painter Yoshihide is commissioned to create a folding screen that depicts Buddhist hell. As he’s unable to paint an image that he hasn’t seen firsthand, he inflicts torture on his apprentices. The climax, though it’s easy to see it coming from a mile away, still somehow manages to shock, with horrifying imagery that isn’t easily forgotten.

(3) Insects by Seirai Yuichi: Set against the backdrop of the bombing of Nagasaki, Insects follows an elderly woman whose lifelong love had died fifteen years ago, after having been married to another woman. Brutal and tender all at once.

There are a handful of other noteworthy stories worth mentioning. The story that opens the collection, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga reads like a film noir mystery but ultimately takes a philosophical turn, ruminating on the conflicting values of the East and the West. Factory Town by Betsayaku Minoru is wry and clever and achieves a lot with its brevity. American Hijiki by Nasaka Akiyuki provides a frighteningly honest look at Japanese post-war psychology. And of course, Mishima Yukio’s Patriotism and its graphic, visceral depiction of seppuku will probably haunt me to my dying day.

But I have two main criticisms of this collection: one about its composition and one about its selection. While I enjoyed the thematic arrangement, why oh why weren’t the stories’ publication dates readily accessible?! All the dates were listed somewhere in Murakami’s introduction, but it took a lot of flipping back and forth and I would have liked the date listed alongside the title, author, and translator. The second and larger criticism is that only 9 of these 34 stories are by women, so needless to say we can do better than a mere 26%.

Still, I found this to be a really solid introductory collection for anyone looking to expand their horizons and discover some new favorite Japanese writers, some seminal and some more obscure.

Thanks so much to Penguin for the copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

mini reviews #3: short stories, memoirs, and novellas

I don’t always feel like writing out multi-paragraph reviews for every single book that I read, but I do post all my reviews – long and short – over on Goodreads.  I’ve started transferring these mini reviews over onto my blog in groups of 5 – you can check out the first two installments here.  Next up:

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YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT by Daniel Kehlmann
originally published in German, translated by Ross Benjamin
★★★★☆
date read: October 25, 2018
Pantheon, 2017

A delightfully sinister novella that essentially puts a bunch of tried and true horror tropes into a blender but still rewards the reader with its almost unbearably tense atmosphere. Though the creepy house in the woods setting does most of the legwork – I’m afraid this won’t be winning any awards for creativity any time soon – it was a fantastically entertaining way to spend an hour. The translation is excellent; really poised writing that convincingly unravels with the main character’s mental state.

 

535225THE WHOLE STORY AND OTHER STORIES by Ali Smith
★★★★☆
date read: October 15, 2018
Anchor, 2004

This is a rather unassuming short story collection that gave me such joy to read for reasons I don’t know how to articulate. Only my second Ali Smith and I reckon it’s not one of the more essential ones to read but I really enjoyed this.

 

 

34848808THE ONLY GIRL IN THE WORLD by Maude Julien
originally published in French, translated by Adriana Hunter
★★★★☆
date read: September 18, 2018
Little, Brown, 2017

The Only Girl in the World is every bit as disturbing as you’d imagine, but it’s also the single most inspiring story of resilience that I’ve ever read. This is what I was hoping Educated was going to be; the difference for me is that Maude Julien seems to have an appropriate amount of distance and perspective from her horrifying past, whereas Tara Westover’s story still felt too close to allow for much analysis. The Only Girl in the World certainly is description-heavy, and it’s not until you head into the home stretch that you see the ways in which her childhood impacted the person she was to become, but it’s well worth the wait, especially in seeing how her feelings toward her mother shift over time. Only recommended if you can handle reading about very extreme cases of mental and physical abuse; it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.

 

16032127REVENGE by Yoko Ogawa
originally published in Japanese, translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★★☆
date read: August 26, 2018
Picador, 2013

Revenge is a gentle and unsettling collection of interconnected short stories focused mainly on death and grief and an inner darkness that plagues its eleven different narrators. Both melancholy and macabre in tone, these stories range from heart-wrenching to disturbing, each narrated in an eerily calm and poised tone. This was absolutely engrossing and I’m keen to check out more of Yoko Ogawa’s work.

 

25733983LAB GIRL by Hope Jahren
★★☆☆☆
date read: August 24, 2018
Knopf, 2016

This is a textbook case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me.’ I understand the appeal, and in a lot of ways I’m thrilled about this book’s mainstream success (women in STEM fields and healthy, platonic relationships between men and women are two things we need more of in media), but there were only so many loving descriptions of trees I could take after a while. There was just too much science and not enough human interest to keep me engaged, and while I wouldn’t say you need to be knowledgeable about biology to approach this book, a certain amount of interest would be helpful, and I just don’t have that, at all. And the audiobook was a mistake; the author narrates it with a positively bizarre amount of melodrama (like, actually in tears at multiple points, and I’m sorry if that makes me sound callous but I really don’t react well to overly sentimental narration), so I can’t say it was a pleasant listening experience… But anyway, really not a bad book, just not my kind of book.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think?  Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

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Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★☆☆

Macabre and often grotesque, Things We Lost in the Fire is a short story collection that puts a literary spin on the horror genre, in which Mariana Enríquez’s beautiful prose compels you to explore the darkest corners of contemporary Argentine society. In a collection that ranges from ghost stories to psychological horror, at times the distinction between these two horror sub-genres isn’t entirely clear-cut. To what extent is this horror real, and to what extent is it a psychological manifestation? This collection is characterized by a sort of toxic obsessiveness, and Enríquez never shies away from showing the most horrible and cruel aspects of human nature. Each story is fueled by a tense urgency that pulls you in and leaves you wanting more – but this was part of the problem, for me.

There’s a sort of dissatisfying ambiguity to each of these narratives, and I found myself constantly wishing Enriquez would go a bit further. The open endings work at times, and add to the uneasy atmosphere (Adela’s House and The Inn are good examples), but at other times the ambiguity serves only to frustrate. I was sure I would end up giving this collection 4 stars at first, waiting for that one story that would wow me and justify the high rating, but I kept finding story after story to suffer from that feeling of incompleteness.

Favorites were: The Intoxicated Years, The Inn, An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt, and Adela’s House. Least favorites were: Under the Black Water, Things We Lost in the Fire, Spiderweb, and Green Red Orange.

Ultimately: recommended to horror fans who (1) aren’t easily triggered – there is some seriously disturbing stuff in these pages – and (2) don’t mind ambiguous endings. Enríquez’s strength is the unsettling atmosphere that she so expertly evokes; this collection is really for readers who are willing to enjoy the journey rather than spend the whole time looking for answers.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you Netgalley, Hogarth Press, and Mariana Enríquez.

+ link to review on goodreads