18. ‘Tenth of December’ by George Saunders

I was determined to read more short fiction this month so I decided to take a chance on a book that has been sitting on my shelves for a while. Tenth of December by George Saunders has been universally praised as one of the best, and its author has been in the spotlight as the latest recipient of the Man Booker prize. However, I was a tad underwhelmed with his novel Lincoln in the Bardo. Would my second attempt at Saunders enhance my appreciation? Honestly, it truly did. I found myself enjoying most of the stories in Tenth of December. While I wouldn’t say any of the stories changed my life, I did appreciate the beauty of the writing and the ways Saunders managed to grab my attention.

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These stories are definitely highly accomplished with some rather inventive ideas, some of which have elements of sci-fi. Most are grounded in reality, and Saunders does not shy away from the more painful aspects of every day human existence.  From child abuse to sexual predators to suicide, nothing is off limits here. Despite the dark content, these stories are about being able to find the light. Saunders constructs these tales to help us see the good in humanity. Many of the stories feature characters who are presented with a critical choice that forces them to examine their own morality.

Take the first story in this collection called “Victory Lap” where a sheltered teenage boy witnesses the attempted abduction of the girl next door. Does he follow years of programming by his smothering parents and turn a blind eye, or does he attempt to save her? Moral dilemmas such as this are presented in the context of many different formats. Some of my other favorites in this book include “Escape from Spiderhead” where prisoners participate in experiments where they can fall in and out of love with someone via a flip of a switch. They can also be made to feel an extreme depression resulting in wanting to violently commit suicide. Despite being a work of science fiction, this story is actually about the lengths someone will go just to save someone from harm.

Parenting is another common theme that continues to appear. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” a father desperately wants to give his teenage daughter a lavish birthday just like her upper class friends. Thanks to buying a lucky lottery scratcher, he is able to rent for her living people who are strung up as ornaments. This story of human exploitation takes a hard look at how far others are willing to go to keep up with the Joneses. There’s this constant tension between living a genuinely happy life and needing to put on an appearance for the sake of proving it to the outside world. The subject of class comes up a lot with characters often comparing themselves to those they feel are above them.

My favorite aspect of Saunders’s writing is how he immediately places you into the story with no background information. His stream-of-consciousness style gets you into the characters’ heads. By the time you get a handle on what is happening, you are already hooked into the story. Many of these stories feature children, and they are just as believable as his adult creations. As I mentioned before, the writing itself is fun and inventive. Take “My Chivalric Fiasco” where an employee at a Medieval theme park takes a drug that has him speak in the language of the period. A lot of humor can be found here, some of it dark and at other times laugh-out-loud funny.

The stories in this collection were strong enough for me to continue to read more from George Saunders. For new readers, I think these stories would make a great introduction to his style. Saunders’s central concern is with modern western life, which is not always perfect but does have great beauty underneath its darker aspects.

“Every step was a victory. He had to remember that.” -“Tenth of December”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

 

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Three Graphic Novels by Three Extraordinary Women

For this week, I present another triple graphic novel review! Although these three books are told in three very different styles, they have many similarities. All of them are true stories. Each one is an empowering example of survival. Finally, all three of these books are written by women writers. That’s right, it’s a celebration of three women who shared their lives through the genre of the graphic novel. I can’t even begin to praise how beautifully each of these books was written and illustrated. In fact, I loved each of these so much that it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite from the group.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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I was fortunate enough to find a copy of The Complete Persepolis as the individual volumes can be purchased separately. In the first volume, Marjane Satrapi tells of her childhood in Iran leading up and then following the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The second follows her teenage years after being sent to live in Europe. Although published nearly two decades ago, I cannot even begin to stress its current relevance. Using simple black and white artwork, Satrapi manages to tell her story with both heart and honesty. I cannot even begin to count the number of times I had to stop reading because of a panel that brought tears to my eyes.

The opening chapter titled ‘The Veil’ shows 10-year-old Marji alongside her classmates having to wear the veil that has become mandatory under the new regime. Everyone is made to look exactly the same, schools have been sex-segregated, and bilingual education has been eradicated.

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We are then introduced to Marji’s family, a close-knit group of progressive thinking individuals. Unfortunately, their lives rapidly deteriorate as Iran descends into war. Anyone caught not following the new laws are brutally tortured and killed. “Decadent” western behaviors such as wearing makeup or throwing a party are outlawed. Following the story through the eyes of a child works extremely well as Marji exerts her headstrong nature in the midst of this turmoil. I liked the ways she chose to rebel such as listening to punk rock music and reading different philosophers. At the age of 14, Marji’s parents makes the difficult decision to send her to Austria for the chance at a better life.

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My favorite panel (of course)

The second half covers Marji’s years in Europe. Overwhelmed by the new freedoms she has in Austria, she in unprepared for a different set of trials. Marji struggles with ridicule, abandonment by her European family, and culture shock. After dealing with heartbreak, Marji turns to drugs and ends up on the streets. Her story comes full circle after making the decision to return to Iran as an adult to finish at university. After successfully rebuilding her life, Marji leaves Iran for Europe permanently.

Persepolis is an important work for understanding the ridiculous and oppressive nature of a government through a young girl’s eyes. Beyond its exploration of oppression, what truly makes this book outstanding is the humanity at its heart. Great moments of sadness and pain are mixed with a great sense of humor. Marjane is a fallible person like the rest of us. You can’t help but be drawn to her and feel for her life story.

“One can forgive but one should never forget.”

 

Becoming Unbecoming by Una

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If my recommendation of Persepolis made you want to go online and order, then my review of Becoming Unbecoming will make you drop everything so you can find a copy tonight! Although I finished this one in a day, I had to stop at points along the way due to my overwhelming feelings about the material. Una uses different artistic techniques to tell her story that is both heartbreaking yet beautiful at the same time.

Becoming Unbecoming is Una’s memoir that explores sexual abuse towards women. The book alternates between her own memories of being a victim of sexual abuse with the true history of the Yorkshire Ripper, a serial killer who murdered and terrorized several women during the 70’s and 80’s. Prior to reading this book, I had no knowledge of this piece of English history. I did my research and was appalled by the inadequate handling of the case by the Yorkshire police. This case predated the use of computers, meaning information on the case had to be written manually. The investigators were unprepared for a case of this magnitude, leading to mistakes resulting in the killer staying at large much longer than if they had had the necessary resources. The murderer, Peter Sutcliffe, was actually interviewed nine separate times before finally being arrested in the case. Una uses the Yorkshire Ripper as an example of how predatory men were viewed at the time along with how society would place blame on the victims. As a result, many cases of sexual violence went undetected, and many victims kept the abuse quiet.

Una weaves several strands together at once to talk about her life. At the core of this story, is the lonely young girl who was sexually abused and didn’t have the voice to speak out. There was a fear from all young girls at the time, not only of being hurt, but also of the shaming they would face at coming forward. At the time, everyone thought the Yorkshire killer was only murdering prostitutes who maybe deserved their deaths. The misguided notion that “bad things don’t happen to good people” followed girls like Una around like a heavy weight. If you were the victim of a sexual predator, then you must be a whore and had it coming. I would like to say that we have evolved in our understanding of these matters and have eradicated this type of misguided thinking.

I would like to say that anyway.

As I mentioned before, the artwork is beautiful. The drawings are mostly black and white with red being used throughout to elicit anger. I also love how the young girl carries around a comic dialogue bubble with no words in it, like a garbage bag containing the unspoken trauma. Again, I can’t say enough about this book. As a therapist, I highly recommend Becoming Unbecoming. It is a powerful work that helped give a voice to the silent.

“I may indeed be brave, but maybe that’s missing the point.”

 

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

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If you’re going to find copies of my first two recommendations, you might as well also grab Alison Bechdel’s poignant memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Known for her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, Bechdel chronicles her life in a small town living with her family in a large Gothic house. Often comparing her household to the Addams family, the young Alison defined her childhood by the creepy mansion, her distant father, and the funeral home that was the family business.

Bechdel explores the distant yet close relationship she seems to share with her father, a man she may have more in common with than she initially realizes. Struggling to figure out her own identity results in some hilarious awkward moments along with the development of several obsessive-compulsive behaviors. While at college, Bechdel’s sexuality slowly begins to emerge. Her coming out to her family doesn’t go as expected, as she learns her father had some secrets and conflicts of his own. When he wasn’t teaching English classes, running the funeral home, or redecorating the house, he would often be having sexual relationships with some of his male students. While it works as a coming-of-age story, at its heart Fun Home is about the deeply conflicted relationship between a father and daughter.

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The true strength in Bechdel’s memoir is the way she moves the story back and forth through time. Although the truth about her father doesn’t emerge until she’s an adult, we get to see the implications on the family from the very beginning. Clues to the secrets her father is hiding are apparent from a very early point; however, since we are viewing so much of it from a child’s point-of-view these revelations happen for us long before they do for Bechdel.

The narration and artwork work together quite well. Bechdel has a gift for crafting powerful images that compliment the text. Another aspect of this book that I loved was the use of classic literature. Bechdel’s father owned a massive library and often different books are used to help move the story forward, sometimes predominantly while other times as background to a particular scene. I was so impressed with the brilliant way that Bechdel manages to conclude the story in much the same way as it began. She is truly a gifted writer and artist.

All three of these novels deserve to have their own individual review. Each one is brilliant in its own ways, and I barely scratched the surface of each one. As I look back over this triple review, however, I can see how they all fit together quite well. All three present powerful illustrations with honest words, giving voices to those that will be silent no more.

“I suppose that a lifetime spent hiding one’s erotic truth could have a cumulative renunciatory effect. Sexual shame is in itself a kind of death.”

 

Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

 

 

 

Why the Short Story is the Perfect Art Form

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart.”

This quote by the great Haruki Murakami captures my endearing love for the perfect art form that is the short story. There’s just something wonderful about short stories, so I thought I would examine this literary phenomenon in more detail.

Defining”short story”

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How does one define a short story? Merriam-Webster provides the following definition:

an invented prose narrative shorter than a novel usually dealing with a few characters and aiming at unity of effect and often concentrating on the creation of mood rather than plot

Sounds accurate but exactly how many words constitute a short story? As with a great many topics, there are various opinions. According to Writing World, a ‘regular’ short story should be between 1,000 and 7,500 words. This number falls in between the shorter word count of micro or flash fiction and the much longer novelette. On another note, I have used the word novella but never novelette. That word just sounds like a book that is supposed to look really cute. Over at Bookfox, I learned some interesting information. Edgar Allen Poe, who apparently knew a thing or two about the short story, said that it had to be something readable in a single sitting. No disrespect Mr. Poe, but I know of lots of short stories that took me several sittings to finish. Bookfox does compare the average word counts of some of the most famous short stories in history. It does appear that Poe did keep his word count fairly short.

A short story is so much more than figuring out the word count. While a novel provides a through examination in characters’ lives with significant buildup, short stories serve as mere glimpses that have to convey a certain atmosphere. In many ways, the creation of a short story is more challenging than a longer work as there is not as much time to build the mood. You really have to get right to business. Poe stated that “a short story must have a single mood and every sentence must build towards it.” This leaves little room for wasted words.

Growing up on short stories

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Typically, we are introduced to the world of short fiction in high school. While we would be assigned the occasional novel or play to read, most of the fodder of English courses consisted of reading short stories. I may not have a lot of joyous memories of high school, but it was the setting that sparked my love of literature. This affair did begin with the short stories I read in my younger days. Some of favorite works included Ray Bradbury’s hauntingly beautiful “Homecoming,” the delightfully frightening world of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and the exquisite “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”by the legendary Ursula K. Le Guin. Stephen King once said that “a short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” I remember falling in love with these authors through these short little love affairs. After all, you never forget your first!

The power (and challenges) in short fiction

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Neil Gaiman once said that “the short story is still like the novel’s wayward younger brother, we know that it’s not respectable – but I think that can also add to the glory of it.” I think Gaiman makes an excellent point. Most writers are not considered true masters of the craft until they have published a novel. However, some of my favorite authors have made their living from publishing short stories. Kelly Link is a perfect example. She writes some of the most magical tales I have ever read, and she has never published a single novel. Although he has been immortalized with his novels about futuristic firemen and dark carnivals, Ray Bradbury spent the majority of his career mastering the art of the short prose. In fact, his advice to writers was to write one short story a week for a year, believing that it’s impossible to create 52 bad short stories. His incredible work ethic is definitely an inspiration!

A recent short story that has become popular is “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian. This tale of a very bad date went viral, launching Roupenian into literary stardom. Of course, writing one great short story does not equal overnight fame. Most authors of the short story go through countless rejections before finally getting published. In his early days, Stephen King would hold on to every single one of his rejection slips as reminders to keep churning tales. He ended up doing alright I suppose.

A short story has to accomplish the same goals as a novel: grab your attention, make you feel emotions, and arouse your curiosity about what comes next. This can be much harder to achieve with fewer words. It’s almost like going out on a first date. You have very little time to make a good impression so you better bring everything you have to the game in order to land a second one. Novels are like marriages or long-term relationships where you have a lot of time together, see the ups and downs, and truly know every little detail. Short fiction is more of the “love at first sight” variety, as you want your breath taken away. When done properly, a good short story can be just as enduing as your favorite novel.

Short stories are everywhere!

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How does one get a hold of some short stories. Fortunately, they are everywhere! My advice is to look up some of your favorite authors and see what short fiction they have published as a collection. Some of my personal favorites include Haruki MurakamiKelly Link, and Neil Gaiman. Most likely, many of your favorite authors have penned a short story collection or two. There is also a wide selection, in every genre you can imagine!Speaking of variety, you can purchase books that have several short stories from many different authors. You can even find several short stories online for free! Classic Shorts has dozens of stories you can peruse from the masters. You can even find free contemporary fiction on the web. I found several short stories from Murakami just be searching.

I read a great article the other day about an invention in France that is coming to America. Short Story Dispensers are special kiosks that will print a very short story for free. This is so cool! I hope someday I come across one in my wanderings.

Alright, so maybe I have convinced you that short stories are fabulous. Go out an find some now. Maybe reading a few will inspire you to create some of your own. I will be posting some blogs throughout the month of April centered around the perfect gift that is known as the short story.

“When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you.”-George Saunders

What are some of your favorite short stories? Are you a writer of short fiction yourself? Sound off with a comment below!

14. ‘Death with Interruptions’ by José Saramago

There are some books that move you so much that you must make it your life’s purpose to read every single work by that particular author. For me, José Saramago belongs to that elite group of special authors. I picked up Death with Interruptions because I was intrigued with the premise so I did some research into its author. Saramago, winner of the Nobel Prize, has been universally applauded for his exceptional and exquisite writing. I learned that this book doesn’t even come close to the ones recognized as some of his best. If that’s the case, then I am in for a real treat as this novel is one of my favorites for the year.

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The story is set in an unnamed country and begins at the start of a new year when people stop dying. Although people continue to be sick and age, death has disappeared. At first, everyone is excited at the prospect of being immortal. Then reality starts to sink in. First, the undertakers no longer have work leading the government to make pet burials and funerals mandatory. Next, people begin cancelling their life insurance policies. Nursing homes become too overcrowded forcing families to have to care for their own. As the struggles of caring for the elderly and the sick become too much, people begin secretly transporting them across the country’s borders where they can finally be put to rest. Saramago does a fantastic job of exploring the political and religious implications of what would happen if people stopped dying.

“Whether we like it or not, the one justification for the existence of all religions is death, they need death as much as we need bread to eat.”

After a few months, death returns but has decided to take a different approach to taking lives. One week prior death, that person will receive a violet envelope in the mail. This will allow that person to make final preparations before the end. Some actually use this time wisely, others try to lose themselves in complete debauchery, and some commit suicide to show death that they can die on their own terms.

“Words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be, soap bubbles, shells in which one can barely hear a whisper.”

If you have never read anything by Saramago, let me warn you now that his writing style is very different from other authors. He uses long sentences that become their own paragraphs with plenty of commas. Saramago also doesn’t use quotation marks. When two people are talking, he will switch to the other person by capitalizing the first letter of their speech. It took me some time to get used to his style, but it helped that I had just read another book that didn’t follow the norm. Another interesting aspect to his writing is that characters actually are never given proper names. I know it sounds crazy, but believe me it works. My advice is to just have patience with Saramago because he is so worth the effort!

The reality of Death with Interruptions is that the novel is actually two distinct stories. While the entire first half serves as a social satire on humanity’s relationship with the idea of death, the second half is entirely focused on two specific characters in what suddenly becomes a love story. Death who insists that her name is actually “death” with a small “d” becomes the most fascinating character in the book. After becoming frustrated when a death letter she sends out keeps coming back unopened, she pays this person a visit in human form. I refuse to spoil anything further in regards to plot, but I will say that the last fifty pages are what truly amazed me about this book. The writing is just beautiful, simple as that.

In fact, I love this author so much that I already bought two more of his books. Hopefully I will be reading and reviewing Blindness and The Double in the near future. Until then, I hope you all enjoyed this week’s review and are continuing to love this little adventure known as life.

“Even death, faced with the option of death or life, she would choose life.

 

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Sound off with a comment down below. 

 

My Favorite Female Writers

Did you know that March is Women’s History Month? Originating out of a small-town school event in California, it has now been recognized annually in the United States since 1987. This celebration is all about honoring the significant contributions by women in history, culture, and society.

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Look out Darcy, this blog is about the ladies!

To celebrate Women’s History Month, here are some of my favorite female writers. These women serve as inspirations for knocking down doors. Click the link to view all of my posts featuring that particular author.

Jane Austen

It would be wrong to not include Lady Jane on this list, since I’ve read the majority of her works. Selecting a favorite Austen novel is quite complicated, as my favorite typically shifts depending on which one I last read. Pride and Prejudice is a must, but I do love the maturity and growth of Persuasion. Her Gothic satire Northanger Abbey is a lot of fun too.

Shirley Jackson

You never forget your first! I fell in love with Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and discovered there is so much more terrific fiction out there. I highly recommend We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House. Her short fiction is quite insane but in a good way.

Jeanette Winterson

Nobody writes like Jeanette Winterson! Her words flow so smoothly, and her narratives are beautifully constructed. She comes up with some truly unique ideas. I think Written on the Body is one the best love stories ever crafted with such a brilliant premise as the reader is kept clueless as to the narrator’s actual gender. I also recommend The Gap of Time, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play “The Winter’s Tale.”

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Girl Power!

Jean Rhys

If you disliked Rochester, this prequel to Jane Eyre will make you downright loathe him. This novel tells the story of Antoinette, the lady who becomes the “mad woman in the attic.” I enjoyed this novel immensely as it explored issues of both racial inequality as well as power relations in marriage. Wide Sargasso Sea works as a postcolonial response to Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel. Now that the character of Bertha has been fleshed out for me, I’m willing to give Jane Eyre another read.

Ursula K. Le Guin

I recently finished rereading the original Earthsea novels. Le Guin showed that women can write fantasy and science fiction just as well as any male writer (in fact, better in many cases). Like Shirley Jackson, I fell in love with Le Guin’s writing after reading her incredible short story “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I plan on reading more of her fiction in the near future.

Kelly Link

I’ve read a couple of short story collections from this author, and I loved her style. Link combines fantasy and horror into reality and creates something truly memorable. Pretty Monsters is Link’s first short story collection targeted towards young adults. These nine short stories are as charming as they are mind-bending. Attempting to guess how any of these stories will end is an act of futility as Link always takes you in unexpected directions. Although this book is aimed at young adults, the stories certainly do appeal to a larger audience as grown-ups will find a lot to enjoy here.

Ali Smith

Smith is another author I’m curious about exploring further. I really enjoyed her stream-of-consciousness style of writing in The Accidental. I’ve read the synopsis for There But For The so hopefully will be able to read that one soon.

Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a nineteenth-century writer whose work is extremely powerful. She explores sociological and feminist issues in her writing, making some bold statements in regards to equality. Her short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a chilling psychological study of a mind driven to madness. I have a copy her novel Herland about a utopian colony entirely populated by women. I hope to get that read this year as well.

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What women writers would you recommend? Sound off with a comment below!