20 books of summer (ii)

From the razor-sharp short stories of Lucia Berlin to the surreal tales of Helen Oyeyemi, my summer’s been filled with great reads.

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This summer I moved from Chicago to New York for a short publishing program; loving the city and fearing I’d not return were I to leave, I decided to stay after the program ended. I’ve just moved into a sublet in Brooklyn, with the hope of signing a lease in Queens later this year or early next.

I barely read anything in June or July, but I’ve been making up for lost time this month as I job search and enjoy my life’s last stretch of unstructured free time. I plan to do a wrap-up post next week, and over the upcoming weeks I’ll write more about the books I’ve loved the most. For now I wanted to speed through two highlights I won’t cover later.

Going into June I’d hoped to complete Cathy’s 20 books of summer challenge, and while my reading list has changed, I did have the chance to read many of the short story collections on my TBR (works by Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, and more). I especially enjoyed Helen Oyeyemi’s What is Not Yours is Not Yours and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women, both of which aren’t easily grouped with other collections I finished.

 

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Evocative and sharp, the stories of A Manual for Cleaning Women vividly portray the joys and pains of everyday life. In neat prose Berlin lends a voice to women in the Southwest as they navigate difficult terrain such as divorce, alcoholism, death, and existential angst, all the while seeking pleasure and solace in small miracles. A widowed school teacher reinvents herself on vacation in “Todo Luna, Todo Año,” while two sisters cope with the sorry state of their lives at a beachside resort in “Grief.” The best pieces are reflective and autobiographical, reading more like literary personal essays; the opening story fully renders the author-narrator’s fleeting connection with a Native man at a laundromat, and there’s nothing else quite like it in the collection. Berlin has a talent for descriptive prose, but her plotting tends to be a bit predictable. Favorites include “Angel’s Laundromat,” “Stars and Saints,” and “A Manual for Cleaning Women.”fullsizeoutput_331a

Strange and surreal, What is Not Yours is Not Yours provokes thought and amazement at every turn. Across nine loosely interlocked tales a wide cast of characters, mostly queer and of color, navigate an alternate reality full of fantasy, violence, and desire. Teenaged puppeteers rapidly fall in and out of love with each other, a tyrant tries to literally drown out dissent in his kingdom, a son frets over taking his father’s place as maintenance man at a labyrinthine hotel. All the pieces are saturated with secrets and center on the motif of lock/key, question/answer; each moves at a dizzying pace, contains stories within stories, and ends ambiguously, without having resolved its many conflicts. Favoring shock, symbolism, and non sequitur, Oyeyemi has a flair for the absurd. Favorites include “is your blood as red as this?”, “drownings,” “freddy barrandov,” and “if a book is locked.”

I’m keen to check out more of these authors’ work, and if anyone has any suggestions on where to turn to next, especially with regard to Oyeyemi’s large body of work, I’d really appreciate them!

Likewise I foresee myself focusing on (auto)biography & memoir in September, CanLit in October, nonfiction in November, and essays in December, and I’m always open to suggestions on what to read next.

7 thoughts on “20 books of summer (ii)

  1. Thank you for your sharing. I love short stories and have put these two books on my reading list. Actually I like your whole list and I am impressed by your themed reading by month. Since your reading theme in September is (auto)biography & memoir, I recommend The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy. I read it in July and like it. I also read Island by Alistair MacLeod and will read his No Great Mischief later.

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  2. Based on what you’re reading, I wonder if you are a fan of Kelly Link. I enjoy some of her short stories, especially “Stone Animals,” but find that some of her works feel unfinished.

    One of my favorite collections of short stories is called For Sale by Owner, written by Kelcey Parker.

    So, how are things going in New York?

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  3. Michael, just wanted to stop by and say that I hope your transition into New York is going well! I think I know what publishing course you’re referring to, I have friends who’ve done it, I think. I hope the job search and all of that has been okay, I feel like any place would be lucky to have someone who’s as well-read as you and someone who pays attention to issues of oppression, intersectionality, privilege etc. (though I understand the job market can be awful no matter how awesome you are, so also wanting to make space for emotions like that). I’ve wanted to check out both of these collections so I will try to soon. Meanwhile, happy reading! And sending you strength.

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