Blog Tour: Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent

Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent. 272 pp. Harper.

Mendocino Fire by Elizabeth Tallent. 272 pp. Harper.

The son of an aging fisherman becomes ensnared in a violent incident that forces him to confront his broken relationship with his father. A woman travels halfway across the country to look for her ex-husband, only to find her attention drawn in a surprising direction. A millworker gives safe harbor to his son’s pregnant girlfriend, until an ambiguous gesture upsets their uneasy equilibrium. These and other stories—of yearning, loss, and tentative new connections—come together in Mendocino Fire, the first new collection in two decades from the widely admired Elizabeth Tallent.

Diverse in character and setting, rendered in an exhilarating, exacting prose, these stories confirm Tallent’s enduring gift for capturing relationships in moments of transformation: marriages breaking apart, people haunted by memories of old love and reaching haltingly toward new futures. The result is a book that reminds us how our lives are shaped by moments of fracture and fragmentation, by expectations met and thwarted, and by our never-ending quest to be genuinely seen.

Profound yet elemental, Mendocino Fire marks the welcome return of a sage and surprising voice in American fiction.

Hello, and welcome to the blog tour for Medocino Fire, an excellent collection of short stories by Elizabeth Tallent. I absolutely love short stories, but I often struggle with reading an entire collection at a time; since each story stands on its own, I tend to treat them like tiny novels, reading one and then moving on to another book. After finishing the book, I’ll pick up the collection of stories again and read another one or two, then move on to another novel. That’s how I read this collection, a bit here and there between half a dozen other books, and it worked well for me. It’s a solid collection, one that’s a pleasure to dip into from time to time.

MyReview

Each story feels longer than it is, fitting an entire tale, what feels like an entire life, into twenty or thirty pages. At times I almost forgot I was reading a short story collection; I felt like I’d spent so much time with these characters that I couldn’t have possibly read a mere ten pages! This is a testament to Tallent’s economic use of words and, more than that, her uncanny ability to choose just the right words. The right sentence can do a chapter’s worth of work; I’ve always admired writers than can get the point across in such a brief manner (I’m not very good at brief). I’m blown away when I feel ten pages’ worth of emotion after reading less than a paragraph.

The stories are varied in characters — from writers and professors to nomadic youths; from children to parents to deeply, darkly devoted grandparents —  but there’s an underlying sense of loneliness, as though all of the characters can only be understood so much by the people surrounding them. I’ve been hearing a lot about characters’ likability lately; many readers want to like the main characters, and authors seem to rail against this. I fall somewhere in between: I don’t need to like characters (in fact, I can downright loathe them), but I need to care about what happens to them. And in this collection, I really did. I felt immersed in each character’s life; Tallent made me feel like I knew these characters better than anyone else did, and that understanding made me want to find out where they ended up. (Yes, folks, it’s true: reading does built empathy.)

My favorite story by far was “Mystery Caller,” in which a woman habitually (and anonymously) dials her ex-husband’s phone number and eavesdrops on his new life. It asks a moving question: When does love end? (Or, maybe, Does love end?) I also liked “Narrator,” an exploration of a young woman’s affair with an established author and her outrage at their relationship’s lack of “literary resolution” (of course, that’s not the true source of outrage) when he writes about it later. Although many of the tales in this collection moved slowly, the pace felt thoughtful and deliberate. The only one that didn’t really do anything for me was the title story; it was the only one that felt too long and, at least for me, lacked resolution.

I love novels because they remind me of what fiction can do, the beautiful experience of spending so much time with another person, seeing so much of his life. Novels allow for more scenes, more plot twists, more dialogue, and I enjoy being with the same characters for hundreds of pages so that I can really see it all. But I love short stories because they remind me of what words can do, the piercing power they have when strung together correctly, even — or maybe especially —  in small doses. It takes a certain (and rare) sort of focus to write good short fiction, and I always delight when I see it. Tallent is one of the good ones, and I really enjoyed this collection.

OtherInfo

Elizabeth Tallent

Elizabeth Tallent is the author of the story collections HoneyIn Constant Flight, and Time with Children, and the novel Museum Pieces. Since 1994 she has taught in the Creative Writing program at Stanford University. She lives on the Mendocino coast of California.

OtherTourStops

Tuesday, October 20th: Books on the Table

Friday, October 23rd: Bibliotica

Monday, October 26th: A Bookish Way of Life

Tuesday, October 27th: Back Porchervations

Wednesday, October 28th: Olduvai Reads

Thursday, October 29th: she treads softly

Friday, October 30th: M. Denise Costello

Tuesday, November 3rd: Read. Write. Repeat.

Friday, November 6th: Raven Haired Girl

Monday, November 9th: Lavish Bookshelf

Tuesday, November 10th: Dreams, Etc.

Wednesday, November 11th: You Can Read Me Anything

Thursday, November 12th: The Well-Read Redhead

Friday, November 13th: Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews

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(Im)Partial Reviews: Second Installment

It’s that time again: time for me to tell you a bit about the books that I just couldn’t slog through. I tried, I really did, but I love reading and refuse to ruin my favorite pastime with books that just aren’t doing it for me. Here goes!

High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates. Mysterious Press. 224 pp.

High Crime Area by Joyce Carol Oates. Mysterious Press. 224 pp.

Let me start by saying that I usually enjoy Joyce Carol Oates. I haven’t read a ton of her work, but I’ve enjoyed the stuff of hers that I’ve read…until now. My first exposure to Oates was as a college freshman; we were assigned “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I found it chilling then, and thinking back on it still terrifies me. The other work of hers that stands out in my mind is “ID,” featured in The Best American Short Stories 2011, which I also enjoyed.  When I saw High Crime Area was an offering on Edelweiss, I thought I’d finally pick up a collection of short work solely by Oates. And I just…couldn’t stay interested. I got about halfway, and although a couple of the stories were somewhat chilling, none of them grabbed me or made a lasting impression. I still think Joyce Carol Oates is a talented writer, but the stories in this collection just weren’t for me. I can’t read well-crafted sentences if they don’t say anything interesting.

Carniepunk. Gallery Books. 433 pp.

Carniepunk. Gallery Books. 433 pp.

This was billed as an “urban fantasy anthology” in which every story took place at a circus. I think there’s a lot that can be done with a circus setting (if you read my review of The Night Circus, you know I’m dying to visit that fictional venue), but these stories fell flat for me. Many of them were based on characters from series that I hadn’t read, but none of them interested me enough to make me want to check out the related novels. After a few attempts, I let this one fall by the wayside.

Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline. St. Martin's Press. 352 pp.

Betrayed by Lisa Scottoline. St. Martin’s Press. 352 pp.

Okay. Last one (for now). I got a review copy of this one at BookCon, read the first fifty pages, and jumped ship. The writing is overly simplistic and inconsistent; the main character sounds like a lawyer at times (which she is) but at other times her thoughts and words are those of a precocious middle schooler. The “mystery” was just getting started when I gave up, and I considered sticking around to give the plot a chance, but I hated the writing too much to continue.

Aaand that’s my latest list of books you should probably leave unopened. Until next time!

Summer Reading List: Short Fiction

This one will be fairly short and sweet because, sadly, I didn’t read much short fiction this summer. Every time I pick up a collection, I feel like I’m connecting with humanity in a way that longer fiction doesn’t manage quite as often. Part of me thinks that short fiction can accomplish things that longer works can’t — or perhaps merely in a different way — but I also admit it’s possible that I’ve just been reading some high-quality short story writers!

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 198 pp.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 198 pp.

First up: Interpreter of Maladies. Although I brought my Kindle, I wanted to bring a slim print copy of a book on our trip to Disney World. I’d owned this book for years and hadn’t gotten around to reading it, but I’ve been trying to read more Pulitzer Prize winners lately (I’ve got a shelf of them and have maybe read half). And on a five-day vacation jam-packed with activities — not to mention the strain of traveling with a toddler — I finished the book. (Yes, it’s short. But I was busy hanging with Mickey, so I’m surprised I found the time.)

The stories have varying topics, but they all deal, in some way or other, with India: an Indian driver transporting a family of American tourists, second-generation immigrants who strive to marry their parents’ customs with the wildly different American ones they find themselves surrounded by, a young American boy cared for by an older Indian couple, etc. My grandfather is a first-generation Italian immigrant, but he moved here very young, so I don’t have much firsthand experience with the immigrant experience. However, the sign of a good writer is that they can transcend personal experience, and Lahiri manages that with flying colors.

For the Relief Of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander. Knopf. 205 pp.

For the Relief Of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander. Knopf. 205 pp.

A friend bought me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I (stupidly) thought I’d have time to read after giving birth to my son, so I packed it in my hospital bag. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t even read a page.) I got around to it a couple of months later and was blown away by Nathan Englander’s talent and the way his stories moved me. When I saw a copy of this collection at a library book sale, I had no choice, really, but to buy it.

Some of the stories in this volume felt long and/or slow to me; I actually found myself flipping ahead to see how many pages I had left in a few stories. But by the time I got to the end of each one, though, I was glad to have read it. My heart aches for Englander’s characters, which always surprises me a little bit because I have nothing in common with them. He’s a master at taking a unique experience and translating it into something universal, and I look forward to reading even more of his work.

All in all: Both are worth reading. Excellent collections that are touching and well written.

Review: Search Party: Stories of Rescue by Valerie Trueblood

Search Party by Valerie Trueblood. Counterpoint. 256 pp.

Search Party by Valerie Trueblood. Counterpoint. 256 pp.

I started reading this book months upon months ago, but I’m a multiple-books-at-a-time reader, and something usually ends up falling by the wayside. Sometimes it’s because the book doesn’t hold my interest, sometimes it’s because something shiny comes along, and sometimes it’s just a wrong-place-wrong-time sort of thing. I’m not sure what took me so long with this one…probably a combination of the last two. I remember reading “The Finding,” the first story in Search Party, and being pleasantly surprised by it. I read the next few stories and sort of drifted away from the book; when I picked it up again, I couldn’t believe I’d waited so long to read something so wonderful.

Search Party is a remarkably strong collection of stories. I enjoy short fiction but, as I mentioned in my review of Lorrie Moore’s Bark, I think some of the recent stuff is highly overrated. Not this collection, though. “The Magic Pebble” and “The Stabbed Boy” just about broke my heart with their bits of tragedy; “The Blue Grotto,” a tale of a babysitter whose overnight charge has a 105-degree fever and requires a trip to the ER, terrified me; “Later or Never” (about a caretaker) and “Street of Dreams” (about a father shepherding his homeless family) were poignant vignettes; and the opening of “Who Is He That Will Harm You” reveals its events, little by little, until the full scene pops startlingly into your mind’s eye.

The main disappointment for me was the final — and titular — tale. At 45 pages, it creates a slowly-dragging finish to what is otherwise a smooth-moving collection. It’s not a bad story, but it keeps adding new elements just when you think it’s going to wrap things up. This was the only story in the book during which I found myself flipping ahead — multiple times — to see how much I had left. Don’t let that one downfall steer you away from this book, though, because you’d be missing out.

All in all: One of the better story collections I’ve read recently. I still haven’t decided whether to send my copy to a friend or not. I want to share it but also feel like keeping it for myself, which is high praise.

Review: Bark by Lorrie Moore

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 208 pp.

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Knopf. 208 pp.

I’ve been thinking about my short story preferences. It seems that a lot of collections that get rave reviews from others do nothing for me. There’s this dry, detached style that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, and I don’t see what all the fuss is about. It makes me feel like a bad reader, because I’m talking about stuff published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and literary publications like Tin House or One Story. Side note: I’ve found stories to love in all of the aforementioned publications, so please don’t think I’m knocking them. It’s just that sometimes I read something and think, You’re a world-class journal and can choose from the best of the best, and this is what you chose to run this month?! And then I wonder if I’m missing something because it falls so terribly flat for me.

This, sadly, is how I feel about Lorrie Moore. Is she a bad writer? Not in the least. But her writing makes me feel…well, nothing. You know, sort of like Priscilla Lopez sings about in A Chorus Line. Moore has a solid vocabulary, sure, and she tells stories about real things happening to real people, and her work isn’t bad, per se. I just wouldn’t recommend it. And I can’t put my finger on why. I’ve read short fiction — by greats like Hemingway as well as by current writers like George Saunders, Aimee Bender, and virtually the entirety of authors featured in The Best American Short Stories 2012 — that has blown me away. I crave short fiction that just needs to be devoured and that, by the end, leaves me stunned by what I’ve just experienced. For me, with the exception of one story, this collection didn’t come anywhere near my admittedly-high standards.

A bit more (more/Moore! ha!) about the collection itself. The stories are mostly realistic (“The Juniper Tree” features a seance-y scene that’s sort of dreamy and surreal) and focus on the personal aspects of the everyday: marriage, divorce, single parenting, mental illness. Basically, this is a collection of people surviving all the things life throws as them. Although the subject matter isn’t bad, the characters aren’t likable. And I’m not talking about that King Joffrey, love-to-hate-them kind of thing. I simply didn’t care about any of them. (Maybe liking characters is too important to me. I’ll have to examine this in a future post.)

The one exception: “Wings,” an excellent story about a struggling musician past her prime who gets close to an elderly neighbor in the hopes of being left an inheritance. It’s full of people looking for something — or someone — to use, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s got the heart of a novel but the length of a short story, and it really stands out.

All in all: If you’ve enjoyed Moore’s other work, you’d probably enjoy this. (I read A Gate At the Stairs, and the style is the same.) Personally, though, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Blog Tour: Our Love Could Light the World by Anne Leigh Parrish

Hello, and welcome!

I’m happy to be a part of TLC’s blog tour for Our Love Could Light the World, a collection of related stories by Anne Leigh Parrish. Here’s the synopsis:

LightTheWorld


You know the Dugans.  They’re that scrappy family down the street.  Their five children run free, they never clean up after their dog, and the husband hasn’t earned a cent in years.  You wouldn’t want them for neighbors, but from a distance, they’re quite entertaining.


This book is a slow burner. When I started it, I thought, Gosh, this is dry. I’m not connecting much. But I kept reading, and I’m glad I did. The Dugans are like every other family in America. And at first that seemed like a bad thing. Like, Yes, I see the problems this family has. The same ones as any other family. But, just like any other family, the closer you get, the more invested you become in their troubles. And as I spent more time with the various characters in this book, I cared more and more about what happened to them. I saw where they’d been and where they were going, and I was glad to be along for the ride.

There’s a lot happening in here, and chances are, there’s nothing you haven’t seen before: divorce, remarriage, alcoholism, affairs, kids getting into trouble, hopes being formed, dreams being shattered. The thing that makes this collection strong is how well the author knows her characters and how she manages to portray their everyday lives in a way that is at once both simplistic and poignant.

I’m glad I stuck with this one. If you need an overarching plot, this probably isn’t for you. But if you’re at all interested in human nature — or even just looking for a glimpse into another family’s day-to-day life — you ought to enjoy this. It’s sweeping and personal at the same time, showing how one decision can affect so many other events, and I hope it will make you think about your loved ones and how your actions affect them.

OtherInfo

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Anne Leigh Parrish’s debut novel, What is Found, What is Lost, is forthcoming in late 2014 from She Writes Press.  Her first story collection, All The Roads That Lead From Home, (Press 53, 2011) won a silver medal in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards.  To learn more, visit her at www.anneleighparrish.com

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OtherTourStops

Monday, January 6th: Bibliophiliac
Tuesday, January 7th: Knowing the Difference
Wednesday, January 8th: girlichef
Thursday, January 9th: Lavish Bookshelf
Friday, January 10th: Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Monday, January 13th: Good Girl Gone Redneck
Tuesday, January 14th: 5 Minutes for Books
Wednesday, January 15th: Cerebral Girl in a Redneck World
Thursday, January 16th: My Bookshelf
Friday, January 17th:  Too Fond
Thursday, January 23rd: Kahakai Kitchen
Monday, January 27th:  Booksie’s Blog
Wednesday, January 29th: Broken Teepee
Monday, February 3rd:  A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall
Monday, February 10th:  The Lost Entwife

Review: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

ThereOnceLivedAGirl

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. Penguin. 171 pp.

I’m pretty sure this book wins the Longest Title I’ve Ever Seen Award. I mean, look at that cover. It was designed by a clever artist, that’s for sure, because it couldn’t have been an easy feat fitting all that text in such a small space.

Even though I know now how prolific Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is (by the way, get this: my spell check thinks her first name is misspelled, but not her last), I had no idea who she was when I first encountered her. One of her stories — I can’t recall the title, but it wasn’t in this collection — was featured in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, an excellent collection of retold fairy tales edited by Kate Bernheimer. When I saw this collection on NetGalley, I thought I’d give it a shot even though I couldn’t recall whether I’d particularly liked Petrushevskaya’s story.

There Once Lived a Girl… is a collection of plaintive stories about all kinds of people. In her insightful introduction, Anna Summers writes,

In place of the heroic new men and new women, Petrushevskaya offered a cast of pathetic characters barely holding themselves together.

Summers is right: many of these stories do have undertones of survival. From the woman grateful for a one-night affair in “A Murky Fate” to the messiness of “Ali-Baba” and the anger of being locked out by a former lover in “The Impulse,” there’s also a lot of exploration of sexual dynamics and the impermanence of relationships. Other stories focus on the struggle to make ends meet, untraditional family structures (the titular child whose mother is also her aunt, for instance), and the never-ending quest to better oneself. My favorite story was “The Goddess Parka,” which was dreamlike and sudden and beautiful. It reminded me a bit of the hazy feel of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled.

The style is difficult to discuss because this is a translated work; it’s hard to say how much of what I read was Petrushevskaya and how much was Summers’s interpretation of her words. This is a difficulty I’ve often had with Russian literature: it has a sort of dry, detached tone that is all its own. I’m not sure, however, whether this is due to the translators I’ve encountered or whether it’s a characteristic of the particular Russian works I’ve picked up. I don’t dislike it; I’m just not entirely sure where it’s coming from. And since I can practically guarantee that I’ll never be fluent in Russian, I may never know.

All in all: I found this interesting. Even though it’s not a new favorite, I’m glad I checked it out. It’s good to expand your literary horizons every once in a while, right? (Plus, it’s short, so there’s not a high level of time commitment.)