Last Week’s Reading: January 22-28

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January 22-28, 2017: A sci-fi classic, a new feminist classic, vignettes in verse,  a much-awarded novel worth the hype, and thirty-year-old poetry that’s still fresh.

We Should All Be Feminists, by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie: The perfect primer on feminism, eloquent and brief. This would make an excellent gift for high school students in need of a brief introduction to the concept and will rally, I think, those who hesitate to call themselves feminists.

The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin: I’ve had this 1969 sci-fi classic  on my shelves for twenty years, but I’m rather glad I didn’t read it at twelve. Though short—my mass-market paperback is 300 pages—it’s dense, complicated, and incredibly intelligent. Genly Ai is an envoy from a group of planets (think the Federation, but more abstract) assigned to persuade the inhabitants of the planet Gethen (translated, it means Winter–it’s essentially a populated Hoth) to join the Ekumen. Gethenians have a complicated system of etiquette and honor called shifgrethor, but even more confounding for Ai is their lacked of fixed sexuality; they are neither male nor female (all characters are called “he,” a convention Ann Leckie reverses in the excellent Ancillary Justice). The world-building is sublime, the pace of revelation superb–we struggle to understand this culture as Genly does, and in the process Ms. Le Guin asks us to think deeply about exploration, friendship, and patriotism. Highly recommended.

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff: The world lost a funny, sad voice when David Rakoff died in 2012 at the age of 47. If you loved his essay collection Fraud (I did), you’ll find this book quite different–it’s a short novel made of vignettes in verse. It’s grim and witty at the same time, a catalogue of cruelties and kindnesses and most of all, I think, our vulnerabilities. Those looking for an unusual reading experience should pick it up.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz: Deserves every accolade it’s received, and then some. I put off reading this novel because I have limited patience for the male bildungsroman, but my expectations were confounded. Oscar is lovable and tragic, but the story doesn’t belong to him alone; Mr. Díaz takes long excursions into the backgrounds of his mother and sister, giving the book a roundedness and depth I didn’t anticipate. Yunior, the narrator and sometime authorial-alter-ego, is a fantastic narrator, steeped in nerd culture, frenetic, profane and and so full of life that it seems he’s physically propelling words across the page (even in the footnotes). I loved, loved, loved this novel.

To The Quick, by Heather McHugh: Heather McHugh’s wordplay (see “Etymological Dirge”) is fantastic, almost dizzying. This 1987 collection is beautiful and smart and tough. These poems will cut you to the quick. Need proof? Just read “The Amenities.” 

Recommended Reading: The Best American Short Stories 2016 Edited by Junot Díaz and Heidi Pitlor (series editor)

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I love The Best American Short Stories anthologies; usually, I’ll have one around for quite awhile, dipping in from time to time when I want to read a story but don’t want to commit to a novel or a whole collection.

This year, though, I read The Best American Short Stories 2016* cover to cover, and I’m soimg_0839 glad I did. Like many writers, I subscribe to a rotating cast of literary magazines, but it’s impossible to read them all—unless that’s your job. Guest editor Junot Díaz and series editor Heidi Pitlor read many, many stories and chose twenty for this year’s anthology. Their choices are diverse in style, length, subject, and authors’ identities. This is a stellar collection, and I highly recommend it.

While I’d be happy to read any of these stories again, and Junot Díaz’s introduction is not to be missed, standouts (to me) included:

  • “Apollo” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: In Enugu (a city in Nigeria) a man looks back to his childhood, when his friendship with a family servant his own age ended disastrously. “Reading did not do to me what it did to my parents, agitating them or turning them into vague beings lost to time, who did not quite notice when I came and went.”
  • “The Letician Age” by Yalitza Ferreras: A girl and geology, tragedy and family, love and a volcano. “Yet once in a while a person explodes out of her bedrock and becomes someone else.”
  • “For the God of Love, for the Love of God” by Lauren Groff: Tensions simmer as two friends and their husbands share a house in France. “She’d never met a child with beady eyes before. Beadiness arrives after long slow ekes of disappointment, usually in middle age.”
  • “Bridge” by Daniel J. O’Malley: “His mother’s words found a home in his mind the moment they left her mouth.” A boy, supposed to be studying, watches as an elderly couple prepares to jump from a bridge. Absolutely killer last line, which I won’t quote.
  • “On This Side” by Yuko Sakata: A changed figure from a man’s past returns asking for help, or maybe to confront him. “The first thing he felt on the staircase was a knot forming in his stomach, a forgotten seed of guilt he didn’t care to inspect, and now it was threatening to grow.

Two other stories, “Cold Little Bird” by Ben Marcus and “Gifted” by Sharon Solwitz, scared the heck out of me. The first is about a little boy who suddenly and totally withholds all affection from his parents; the second is about a woman whose son becomes critically ill. That’s not really what they’re about, of course–that’s just the framework, but let me tell you: chills. I had to go eat a piece of chocolate after “Cold Little Bird.”

And if you haven’t yet read Louise Erdrich’s excellent LaRose, you can get a taste here; her story “The Flower” is adapted from the novel.

Finally, one of the best parts of these anthologies are the Contributors’ Notes at the end–each includes a short bio of the author and some background on how the story came to be written and published—whether dashed off in a day or labored over for years and dozens of drafts. Fascinating.

Have you read any of the “Best American” anthologies? Do you have a favorite to recommend?

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.