Recommended Reading: The Mountain, by Paul Yoon

I have read and loved Paul Yoon’s previous books, the short novel The Snow Hunters and Once the Shore, a collection of short stories. The Mountain*, a collection of six exquisite stories, is a gorgeous addition to his body of work.

Each of these six stories is a gem, remarkable since they are all, superficially, quite different. Settings range from upstate New York to the eastern reaches of Russia, from England to China, from the 1920s to slightly beyond the present day. The main characters are men and women, propelled by trauma and circumstance to seek connection with others and answers about their pasts.

In “A Willow and the Moon,” a man, after working at a London hospital during the Blitz, returns to the sanitarium in upstate New York where his mother tended to World War One veterans and succumbed to morphine addiction. Karine, one of the two protagonists of “Still a Fire,” is also a morphine addict, displaced after the Second World War. In France, she nurses Mikel, another displaced person, after a terrible accident; Mikel’s tale of piecing together work and living in a shanty makes up the first part of the story.

Antje is a German expat working in Spain, afraid that her marriage to her a quiet hotel manager is disintegrating. On a whim, she accompanies a hotel guest on a trip to Galicia, in a story of the same name. Further east, Misha and Kostya, the grandchildren of Korean laborers imprisoned by the Japanese, reunite in their native Russia, and find that years apart have changed them both (“Vladivostok Station”).

In “The Mountain,” Faye is persuaded to leave South Korea and return to China, where she begins work at a sweatshop as her past breaks into her body. And in “Milner Field,” a man recalls a story his father told him about his childhood while he waits for the arrival of his daughter at an English country house.

These are bare-bones descriptions of the stories’ premises. Each story is perfectly paced, with details that shine in Mr. Yoon’s clean, measured prose. In these pages we meet the lost and the lonely, trace the gaps left by the missing (often mothers), feel the weight of suffering but not despair. For a short book to contain so much humanity is remarkable. Highly recommended.

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

Last Fortnight’s Reading: April 23-May 6

Looking for the Gulf Motel, by Richard Blanco: I read most of these poems out loud, in the car with my family on the way to my grandfather’s funeral, and was surprised to find myself tearing up a bit. Mr. Blanco (the 2013 inaugural poet) grew up in the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the poems in Looking for the Gulf Motel speak movingly of his family and childhood memories. If you’re looking for a smooth-reading collection with a strong sense of place, I highly recommend it.

Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill: This very short, almost pointillist novel anatomizes a disintegrating marriage, and it’s particularly sharp on motherhood. Recommended.

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill: This 1988 collection, Ms. Gaitskill’s first, could have been written yesterday; its themes of discontent, isolation, and desire still resonate. I’m not sure there’s a single likable character in the book, which makes it simultaneously fearless and disquieting. The writing is very, very good, but I can’t say I’ll come back to this one.

Loop of Jade, by Sarah Howe: One of the best collections I’ve read this year (and I’ve read some great ones). I loved Ms. Howe’s use of form, her facility with language, the sheer variety in Loop of Jade. Ms. Howe was born in Hong Kong and lives in the UK (her father is British, her mother Chinese), and Loop of Jade explores her heritage through narrative and lyric poems. Exquisite, and highly recommended.

Trajectory, by Richard Russo: After last year’s disappointing Everybody’s Fool, I was wary about this collection of four stories/novellas (three can be found elsewhere; one is brand new). However, Mr. Russo is back to form here. Particularly affecting are “Horseman” (a college professor confronts a cheating student and her own past) and “Milton and Marcus,” which features thinly-veiled portraits of Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Recommended.

Recommended Reading: We Show What We Have Learned by Clare Beams


Clare Beams’s story collection We Show What We Have Learned* is gleefully good reading—and, as the cover suggests, mighty creepy too. I mean that in the best possible way. Horror isn’t my cup of tea, but suspense is another matter.  You won’t find gore in these nine stories, or monsters, really, except those we carry with us. However, each of Ms. Beams’s nine stories (some historical, some slipstream, some contemporary) offers tension so acute that I often found myself squirming in my chair.

img_2833A boarding school’s promise of “transformational education” isn’t limited to the mind in “Hourglass.” An unnamed landscape architect with a talent for making his clients’ desires to rtakes on the project of a lifetime in “World’s End,” but finds himself bewildered by the orders he’s given. A young woman decides to reclaim childhood happiness and demonstrate her own giving nature by taking her elderly grandmother back to the country cabin where they vacationed long ago, but the excursion does not have the effect on “Granna” that she expected. In the haunting “All the Keys to All the Doors,” an older woman in a small town wonders if she could have done more to prevent a horrific act of violence. In “The Saltwater Cure,” a Depression-era Plymouth health resort is the setting for a young man’s coming of age. Two sisters love the same plague doctor in “Ailments.” A teacher falls apart in “We Show What We Have Learned,” while a new bride becomes more and more concerned about her wedding dress (made from her husband’s wartime parachute) in “The Drop.” Finally, in “The Renaissance Person Tournament” we meet another teacher—this one holding herself together as she coaches a promising student.

All nine stories are affecting and beautifully written, the sentences crafted for maximum impact without calling attention to the writing in a way that would pull a reader out of the world of the story. Take just one example, from the opening of “Hourglass,” which drew me in: “With its damp-streaked stone and clinging pine trees, the school looked ideal for transformations, like a nineteenth-century invalids’ home, a place where a person could go romantically, molderingly mad.”

I love that sentence, which I read with an equal measure of delight and apprehension–exactly what I think you’ll feel once you start reading this fabulous collection, which I highly recommend.

And three cheers for small presses like Lookout, which published this book! What small press books have you loved this year?

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

5 Reasons to Read: Heart Attack Watch, by Alyson Foster

5 Reasons to Read Heart Attack Watch

Alyson Foster’s Heart Attack Watch* is a slim book of seven short stories packed with tension. I admired the book very much, so in lieu of a traditional review (always tricky with short story collections), here are five reasons to read Heart Attack Watch:

  1. The tension ratchets up fast: I like this quality in a short story, which doesn’t have the novel’s luxurious length to play with. All seven of these stories feature disasters of different flavors (a heart attack; a blackout; a mysterious tree plague; an unwanted, possibly nefarious visitor’s arrival), and it is a treat to see what a talented writer can create with those building blocks.
  2. The settings are varied and interesting: A Hollywood stuntman worriesIMG_6900 about his longevity in L.A.; in a semi-rural town a bus driver is caught between opposing forces (environmental scientists studying pollution and factory workers fearing for their jobs); on Lake Superior a woman and her husband take their girls to a sand castle competition; in Arkansas, a precocious girl helps her mother run a home for battered women.
  3. You’re looking for stories about mothers and daughters: “Sand Castles,” “The Place of the Holy,” and “Blackout”  investigate the difficult, sometimes devastating love between mothers and daughters; the latter two are the strongest stories in the collection. (And “The Art of Falling” is a touching in its portrayal of a father’s love and admiration for his adult daughter.)
  4. It’s nuanced and smart: These stories demand work from the reader to make connections and fill in missing pieces. The endings of “Blackout” and “The Theory of Clouds” lingered with me for days.
  5. You liked God is an Astronaut: If you were a fan of Alyson Foster’s debut novel (2014; review here), you already know how well she can spin a tale of crisis.

What short stories have you been reading lately?

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

Recommended Reading: Contents Under Pressure, by Ellen Prentiss Campbell

IMG_5925A woman facing an unplanned pregnancy while struggling with her relationship with her own parents; a marine biologist who desperately wishes to become a fish; an older woman bidding her beloved country inn farewell; a young mother grieving the loss of her youngest son; wives contemplating the possible ends of their marriages; a little girl desperate to learn how to ride a bicycle to please her institutionalized father: these are some of the characters in Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s exquisite book of short stories, Contents Under Pressure*.

In each of the eleven stories that make up this slim volume, Ms. Campbell balances precise description with unspoken tension; the result is stories that are spellbinding in their realism.

In “Depth Perception,” from which the collection’s title phrase is drawn, a young woman struggles to find the right time to tell her partner that she is unexpectedly pregnant; meanwhile, her adoptive parents’ marriage is a quiet shambles. “Lily operated like a seismograph sensing the shifting plates beneath the surface of her parents’ relationship,” Ms. Campbell writes.

Fractured or troubled marriages appear in several other stores, like “Peripheral Vision,” in which a couple dresses as Jack and Jackie Kennedy for a Washington, DC Halloween party. Behind her mask, Meg wonders if she should leave her husband, and an encounter with a fortune teller doesn’t clarify matters.

The sense of place is strong in all stories; some are set in Washington, others in a small Pennsylvania town in the foothills of the Alleghenies. One of my favorites is “Shade Gardening,” set in Washington in 1962. A young couple, devastated by the death of their young son but holding their family together for the sake of their other child moves into an unusual house just before the start of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s a tender but unflinching portrait of a woman’s grief and resiliency.

Ms. Campbell’s main characters are women and girls from a range of social classes, backgrounds, and ages; I was delighted by the freshness of each story, the graceful writing that makes storytelling look easy, but is in fact the hallmark of a very gifted author. This collection is highly recommended.

I also recommend this gorgeous essay by Ellen Prentiss Campbell, “Creative Defiance,” at Fiction Writers Review.

*I received a copy of this book from the author for review purposes, which in no way affected the content of my review.

Recommended Reading: Music for Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai

photo (54)Last year I read and loved Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Hundred-year House (Ms. Makkai was kind enough to agree to an interview, too), and so I was delighted to read that a collection of her short stories would appear this summer.

Music for Wartime is that collection, and it’s excellent. In well over a dozen stories spanning more than a decade of her writing career, Ms. Makkai traverses a wide landscape of emotion, space, and time, drawing from her family’s history (some of the strongest pieces in the collection are very short family legends) and her own power of invention.

In one story, an elephant dies mid-act in a small town during the 1940s, ushering in some very strange weather and serious questions for the local pastor. In another, a reality-TV producer steers contestants into producing perfect soundbites—and maybe toward falling in love. In “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” a professor accidentally shoots an albatross, and the hefty fine is just the beginning of her bad luck.

Often funny, often sad, and always graceful, these stories are linked by themes of art and war, or at least violence, as you might suspect from the title. You’ll find painters, sculptors, violinists, circus performers, and even Bach within these pages. It’s a tribute to Ms. Makkai’s virtuosity that it’s very difficult, often impossible, to tell which stories are earlier efforts and which are more recent. I was only disappointed when I turned the last page.

Boston Readers: You just missed Rebecca Makkai at Newtonville Books and Harvard Bookstore—sorry about that—but if you’re trekking up to Vermont this summer, you can hear her read in Burlington at Phoenix Books on July 28th at 7p.m.

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

Recommended Reading: Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night, by Thisbe Nissen

Like William Adama, I am not a loaner of books. A giver of books, surely, but a loaner, no. When I hand over a book, I assume it’s gone forever, and if I really like it, I pick up a new copy for myself. This quirk is based on my own foibles: I am terrible when it comes to returning phone calls, emails, and good books.

Luckily for me, my friend Amy is a much more generous soul. When she came to visit me in the hospital (and when a friend sees you looking that bad and still gives you a hug, she’s a keeper), she brought her favorite book, Thisbe Nissen’s collection of stories Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night, to keep me company. [Amy and my neighbors Katie and Elena also performed many miraculous acts of cooking and kindness over those ten days, for which I am eternally and profoundly grateful.]

It’s simply wonderful. Every story is engaging, every character wholly realized. One story might make me laugh, and another might make me feel like my stomach had fallen to my feet. These are tales of the perilous nights and days of youth, ranging from cold midwest college towns to the Nevada desert and Manhattan’s apartment landscapes. And I’d almost forgotten the pleasure of reading short stories; like biting into a perfectly ripe pear, with the accompanying satisfaction of finishing the whole thing in one sitting.

That said, I can’t wait to read Ms. Nissen’s novels. Thanks Amy!