Book Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer


Author: Z.Z. Packer
TitleDrinking Coffee Elsewhere
Narrator: Shirley Jordan
Publication Info: Highbridge, 2013
Summary/Review:

This is an excellent collection of contemporary short fiction.  Packer is great at quickly establishing characters, and while the stories tend to be more slice-of-life than a traditional beginning-middle-end format, they’re all the better for capturing the nuance of character developments.  Stories range from a conflict among troops of Brownies – one black, one white – to a teenage girl who runs away to Atlanta and is taken in by a pimp, to a boy forced by his father to try to sell birds at the Million Man March.  All the stories are from an outsider’s perspective and thus feel very relatable.  I’ll be looking out for future work from Z.Z. Packer.

Recommended booksKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ****

Advertisements

Book Review: I Think of You by Ahdaf Soueif


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Egypt.

Author: Ahdaf Soueif
TitleI Think of You 
Publication Info: New York : Anchor Books/Random House, 2007
Summary/Review:

This collection of short stories, some of which are connected around the same characters, tells stories of women coming of age in Cairo, London, and New York between the 1960s to 1980s.  As an expatriate tale it’s important to realize that these are the stories of a more privileged class than a representative Egyptian work.  Nevertheless, Soueif’s protagonists deal with struggles including discrimination, failed marriages, and miscarriage.  Souief’s writing style is spare and these feel more like vignettes  than stories.  Her lyrical approach seems to be trying to capture emotions more than stories, but doesn’t go far enough to make a connection with the reader.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann


Author: Colum McCann
TitleThirteen Ways of Looking
Narrator: Colum McCann
Publication Info:  Random House Audio, 2015
Previously Read by the Same Author:  Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic
Summary/Review:

That Colum McCann sure can write!  This collection of four stories shows McCann’s skill at stringing together sentences, developing characters, and creating entire worlds through rich description in just a short space of time.  The stories include:

  • “Thirteen Ways of Looking” – recreates an elderly, retired judge’s last day shifting between his own perspective and what is recreated from surveillance video.
  • “What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?” – an author commissioned to write a New Year’s story begins with the concept of a solitary soldier on duty in Afghanistan but the spirals out control adding additional characters, details, and settings.
  • “Sh’khol”- a woman on the coast of Ireland loses her deaf and developmentally disabled son swimming in the ocean and reflects on her life as she devolves into panic.
  • “Treaty” – an elderly nun once held hostage by a guerrilla insurgency recognizes her captor, the man who raped and tortured her, on television posing as a peace activist.

This is definitely a good introduction to McCann’s writing and if you’ve enjoyed his other works a fine addition to his body of work.
Recommended books: Life Form by Amélie Nothomb
Rating: ****

Book Review: Star Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka


Author: Greg Rucka
Title:Star Wars: Before the Awakening
Publication Info:  Los Angeles : Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2015.
Summary/Review:

A companion piece to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this book contains three short stories about the protagonists of that film immediately before the events of the film.  Finn, then known as FN-2187, goes through rigorous training as a stormtrooper showing great skill and leadership, but the First Order are concerned that he has one flaw: empathy.  Rey discovers an entire ship among the wreckage she’s scavenging and works to get it into flying shape.  Poe, unlike the other who are orphans, remembers the stories of his mother the pilot and his father the foot soldier in the Rebellion, as he is recruited to join the Resistance.  They’re good, concise stories with a lot of insight into the characters.  This is a good book for a Star Wars fan or anyone who enjoyed The Force Awakens.
Rating: ***

Book Review: Walk the Blue Fields: Stories by Claire Keegan


Author: Claire Keegan
Title:Walk the Blue Fields: Stories
Publication Info: Grove Press, Black Cat (2008)
Summary/Review:

This is a collection of stories set in Ireland.  They are contemporary tales but set in rural settings so there are lots of traditional gender roles, repressed emotions, and outcomes that are rather depressing.  Fortunately, there is some humor in this stories that otherwise can be dour.  These stories are well-crafted but I can’t say that they moved me much.
Recommended booksValues, three one act plays by John B. Keane
Rating: ***

Book Review: Vampires In The Lemon Grove by Karen Russell


Author: Karen Russell
Title: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Narrator: Arthur Morey, Mark Bramhall, Jesse Bernstein, Michael Bybee, Kaleo Griffith, Joy Osmanski
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2013
Summary/Review:
This collection of short stories is hard to describe. Not really science fiction, not really fanatasy, not really horror, maybe magical realism, definitely weird stories. Sometimes humorous, sometimes chilling we meet a variety of interesting characters: vampires who realize that sucking blood does nothing so they suck lemons instead, young Japanese women indentured to make silk with their own bodies, a massage therapist who discovers she can manipulate the life of a veteran through his back tattoo, and a guide writer for fans of the whale vs. krill “games” in Antarctica. The stories are all clever and well-written. And each story is matched up with a perfect narrator.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Mysterious New England by Austin N. Stevens


Author: Austin N. Stevens
Title:Mysterious New England
Publication Info: Dublin, NH: Yankee Incorporated, 1971
Summary/Review:

On a visit to Brattleboro this summer I was reminded of the story “Wings Over Brattleboro” from this compilation of stories from Yankee Magazine about the creepy, weird, and unusual in New England.  I remember enjoying these stories as a preteen – although I probably never read the book end to end – so I decided to check it out for some spooky October reading. I was a bit disappointed, as many of the stories are written in the bland, straightforward prose of mid-century magazine writers that don’t do justice to their subject.  But many stories stick out, some I remember from decades ago, and some are new delights.  These include the wandering Old Leather Man,  some eerie ghost tales, Micah Rood’s blood-stained apples, the loss of the Willey Family to a landslide that spared their house,  lots of unusual carvings and structures that predate European colonialism, ghost towns, the Borden family murders, and  of course, a violent bird war over Brattleboro.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Selected Shorts: Lots of Laughs! by Symphony Space


Author: Symphony Space
Title: Selected Shorts: Lots of Laughs!
Publication Info:  Symphony Space (2005), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN:  0971921822
Summary/Review:  This collection is something I downloaded randomly from Overdrive and it was suitably entertaining.  There are seven stories and they are all read – or performed – in front of a live audience reminiscent of the storytelling on the Moth Podcast.  Stories include:

 1. Subsoil by Nicholson Baker Read by Thomas Gibson

2. Farrell’s Caddie by John Updike Read by Charles Keating

3. Jamaica by David Schickler Read by Isaiah Sheffer

4. Chivalry by Neil Gaiman Read by Christina Pickles

5. Nachman from Los Angeles by Jhumpa Lahiri Read by David Rakoff

6. On the U.S.S. Fortitude by Ron Carlson Read by Laura Esterman

7. Fatso by Etgar Keret Read by John Guare

My favorites include “Jamaica” where a man gets his head stuck in the banister and has to sit in on his wife’s book club and “On the U.S.S. Fortitude” about a doting mother raising children on an aircraft carrier (Esterman’s reading of the story probably improves the story concept a hundredfold).

Recommended Books: Best of Modern Humor by Mordecai Richler and The John Cheever Audio Collection by John Cheever.
Rating:

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladiesby Jhumpa Lahiri


Author: Jhumpa Lahiri
Title: Interpreter of Maladies
Publication Info: Mariner Books (1999)
ISBN: 039592720X

Previously read: The Namesake

Summary/Review:

Lahiri’s collection of short stories demonstrates that she is one fine writer.  The stories – mainly set in the Cambridge/Boston area or in India – cover some common themes such as the meetings of peoples of different cultures, strained relationships, and children with a growing understanding of the adult world.  The last theme is best demonstrated in “When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dine” told through a child’s perspective of her parents’ Pakistani dinner guest and how that leads to her coming to terms with sociopolitical realities.  The first story “A Temporary Matter” ends on an act of cruelty that is a real kick in the gut.  Indeed, many of these stories demonstrate the downside of human nature and so the reader shouldn’t read this for a pick-me-up.  Yet there is unexpected joy as well as in the last story “The Third and Final Continent” about an Indian immigrant and the elderly woman who rents him a room which has a surprisingly upbeat ending.

Recommended books: The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami, The Deportees: and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle, and A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Rating: ****

Book Review: The John Cheever Audio Collection by John Cheever


Author: John Cheever
Title: The John Cheever Audio Collection
Publication Info: Harper / Caedmon Audio (June 2003)
ISBN: 0060554835

Summary/Review:

Preparing for career week in high school, the guidance counselor asked what type of job I wanted to have.  I told him I wanted to be an author.  He asked what type of writing I wanted to do, and I replied that I wanted to write stories based on the suburban experience.  “You should read John Cheever,” he suggested and then assigned me to an internship with the local newspaper.  Of course, I didn’t listen to his suggestion and didn’t read John Cheever until now (with one exception).

I was drawn to the Audion Collection from an episode of To The Best of Our Knowledge which featured clips of the stories read by Meryl Streep, Blythe Danner, George Plympton, and Cheever himself among others.  I am pretty amazed by these scenes of middle-class life in post-WWII America.  The stories describe a time gone by but still very familiar as it captures an era that was coming to an end in my childhood.  Cheever captures the everyday grief, mundacity, and petty jealousies of his characters.  Sometimes his stories take on a surreal Twilight Zone feel as in “The Enormous Radio” where the titular device broadcasts the conversations of other residents in an apartment building or “The Swimmer” where a man attempts to swim home through all the backyard swimming pools in his neighborhood on a journey that takes years.  There also is a time an O’Henry feel in stories like “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” where in an ironic twist a poor elevator man requires more gifts than he knows what to do with.

The stories are grim, the characters are unlikable, but there’s something in the gritty humanity of Cheever’s stories that make me like them and want to read more.  Credit should be given to the voice actors who bring these stories to life as well.


Recommended books:
Rating: ****