historical fiction · literary fiction · review · science fiction · short stories

The Archive of Alternate Endings, by Lindsey Drager

I don’t know if other readers do this, but I often create a mental tapestry of plots for the books I read–especially the complicated books with multiple plots. I think of plots woven together to create a story. Lindsey Drager’s unusual and eloquent novel/linked short stories, The Archive of Alternate Endings, defied my usual method of visualizing a story. Part way through the stories (chapters) that make up this book, I had an epiphany. It is as though Drager wrote all of the individual stories that make up the overall book on different sheets of paper, then crumpled them all up together into a ball. Reading this book is like turning the ball around and around in one’s hands and seeing snippets of the stories. This may sound like a confusing story, but I didn’t find it that way at all. The Archive of Alternate Endings is astonishingly clear and I fell in love with what all of these stories had to say while they were all tangled up into one tale.

The chapters/stories that make up The Archive of Alternate Endings bounce around in time from the fourteenth century, in Germany, as two children wander in a great wood after being thrown out of the family house, to Johannes Gutenberg, to the Brothers Grimm, to Edmond Halley, to an American asylum in 1910, to the worst years of the AIDS pandemic, to the far future where a satellite repeats the story of “Hansel and Gretel” in binary, and to the ends of the world we know. And, just like its unusual structure, all of these stories absolutely work in juxtaposition. The collisions between the stories have so much to say about recording stories and the erasure of stories, about tolerance and abandonment, and how small things can have large consequences.

Illustration from a 1909 edition of “Hansel and Gretel,” illustrated by Arthur Rackham (Image via Wikicommons)

While The Archive of Alternative Endings is about all of the things that I listed in the previous paragraph, I found it to be, overall, a story about connections and interconnectivity, even between things that are spread out across vast periods of time and space. The collection of folklore is a strong theme in this book and one of the things that folklorists trade in are motifs: objects, events, and characters that appear in multiple stories. Motifs are a way of seeing the similarities and similar concerns of a variety of societies over time. In Drager’s novel/stories, there are motifs of gay characters cast out by their families, cookie jars, the act of listening to stories, and more. Each time I saw a motif, it shone a spotlight on the that that the same thing keeps happening over and over again. Essentially, we see the story of “Hansel and Gretel” play out repeatedly—but with a twist in who the real villains are—and the act of recording that story similarly repeat through time. The variations make each iteration unique and thought-provoking, while building on the feeling of grief and frustration I felt as I saw parents reject their children so many times. Thankfully, some of the variations introduce much-needed notes of hope, it seemed, just when I needed them.

The Archive of Alternate Endings is one of the most literary novels/linked story collections I’ve read in a long time. There are more places were it resembles a prose poem more than most fiction I encounter, with touches that capture the timelessness and universality of folk tales. Some readers will be frustrated by this collection because it is so different to most novels. But for readers who are, like me, obsessed with thinking about the nature of story, interconnectivity of seemingly disparate stories, and about the deep humanity that fuels our need for stories, this book will be pure intellectual joy. Now that I’ve finished reading it, I want desperately to go force my literature prof and former English major friends to read it so that we can talk about it. I loved every word of this strange, beautiful, emotional book.

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historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Snow in May, by Kseniya Melnik

It’s a little black-hearted, but I suspect that we read stories about hard luck and bad decisions because they remind us that at least things are as bad as they are for the people in them. I thought about this a lot as I read the stories in Kseniya Melnik’s collection, Snow in May. I didn’t set out to read hard luck stories when I picked it up; I just grabbed it off the shelf at my library because I liked the cover. But then, I should have known that I’d get a stiff dose of hardship from any piece of fiction set in the Soviet Union or Russia.

Some of the stand outs from this collection include:

“Love, Italian Style, or, In Line for Bananas.” This story features a hard choice. On the one hand, the protagonist can choose a night of passion with a visiting Italian athlete (and face the inevitable consequences of consorting with capitalists). On the other, she can do her duty to her family in Magadan and stand in nearly endless queues to secure foods and goods that she can only buy in Moscow. Unfortunately, it appears that Fate is making things even more difficult for our protagonist: she has the worst streak of luck in her entire life.

“Closed Fracture.” In this story, a Russian immigrant to the United States receives a phone call from his best friend from childhood. The call functions like Proust’s madeleine and sends the immigrant on a long journey back through his memories to the winter he broke his leg and his life diverged from his unlucky friend’s.

“Our Upstairs Neighbor.” In this story, a young woman attends a somewhat ludicrous concert in honor of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest singers. The singer never shows. When the young woman asks about him, she learns that her grandfather knew him. Her question to her grandfather about why the singer didn’t show elicits a long, meandering story about the singer via her grandfather’s life. He argues that, to understand the now, we have to know everything that came before.

While the stories in Snow in May didn’t knock my socks off, I enjoyed how many of them linked together to share a multi-generational family story of surviving under the last decades of the Soviet Regime and the first decade of the Russian Federation. Everyone hustles to get a better life for themselves and their relatives, only to stumble or rise when Fate or Luck intervenes.

Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
Nearly all of the stories in Snow in May are set in Magadan, Russia, between the late 1950s and the early 2000s. (Image via Wikicommons, cropped by me.)
historical fiction · literary fiction · review · short stories

Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich

Trigger warning for rape and suicide.

I am continuing my out-of-order dive into Louise Erdrich’s collections of interlinked stories featuring characters on an Ojibwe/Chippewa reservation somewhere in the Dakotas. Love Medicine is one of the earliest of these; it includes stories originally published as far back as 1984. Several of the stories in this collection is, as the title hints, about love. But this collection also revolves around love’s darker implications: jealousy, grief, and unrequited love.

Love Medicine spans 1934 to 1985. Over the course of the novel, I saw two sides form up. On one side is the sprawling family of Lulu Nanapush. On the other is the equally sprawling, but more dysfunctional, family of Marie Lazarre Kashpaw. In between these two women is Nector Kashpaw. Nector was in love with Lulu before he literally bumped into Marie and, somehow, ended up married to her. Nector loves Lulu for the rest of his life. He also loves Marie. Marie loves him and is jealous of his love for Lulu. Lulu also loves Nector, but her love is more expansive than either Nector’s or Marie’s. This tangled, mostly unspoken web affects the original trio and appears to affect generations of their descendants.

The novel begins with a story that encapsulates much of the emotional range of the rest of Love Medicine. June Morrissey is traveling back to the reservation. The last of her money was spent on the bus ticket. At one of the stops, she meets a man and decides to have sex with him. After the act and the man suddenly falls asleep on her, June slips out of the warm truck and walks away into a snowy night. She ends up freezing to death. This first story shows us sexual need, a hint of addiction, and death by either misadventure or suicide. As the collection progresses, we see these actions and emotions repeated in variations.

In some stories, it seems as though characters were doomed because of their DNA or their parents’ sins. In others, we see characters wrestling deeply with grief for their lost loved ones. We also see a deeply broken culture—a recurrent theme in Erdrich’s novels. These characters have nothing to turn to when they have no idea what to do next. The local Catholic church is warped by brutal mysticism. No one knows the old ways anymore. So many of the characters are just following their emotional impulses. These emotions can be deadly; people drown in them. And, as one character tells us later in the collection, drowning is the worst death for a Chippewa.

Love Medicine is depressing. Though there are moments of humor to lighten things up, this collection is like having one’s face pressed up against a window to watch miserable people on the other side and not being able to look away for relief. The scholarly literature I read when I was helping students do research on The Round House has taught me that Love Medicine is an important book in the overall series. In the end, Love Medicine is a hard book to read but necessary, if one is to fully understand the world Erdrich created.

literary fiction · review · short stories

That Time I Loved You, by Carrianne Leung

Trigger warning for suicide.

Years ago, I read Sherwood Anderson’s collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio. The collection moves from character to character, all residents of the same, small town, revealing their secrets and thoughts. It ripped away myths about idyllic life on Main Street, America. Like Winesburg, Ohio, Carrianne Leung’s collection of linked stories, That Time I Loved You, also destroys a lot of the nostalgic, idealized ideas we might have about suburban life: especially when one of the main characters reveals that the Canadian suburb they live in as recently experienced a series of suicides.

The suicides, which all happened within weeks of each other, surprise many of the suburb’s residents. Over the course of the stories in this collection, we learn that many of these residents thought that they were the only ones with ineffable psychological problems. We learn about the kleptomaniac, the woman who longs for a child but can’t get pregnant with her husband, another woman who believes her flowers are talking to her, and others. One might expect that That Time I Loved You would center on the suicides and treat them as a mystery to be solved. This collection doesn’t do that. The suicides really are unconnected and the time is coincidental.

Instead, That Time I Loved You struck me as a coming-of-age story for the teenaged characters. The teenagers, in the midst of the adults’ turmoil, fall in and out of love, wrestle with the obligations of friendship, whine, complain about each other whining, and on and on. There were stories here that remind me why a lot of older people get so annoyed by the overwhelming emotions of teenagers. We’ve learned perspective since we were their age; not every emotional upset is as world-ending as they believe. Listening to their worried and problems made me want to reach into the book and yell at them to get a grip. My irritation, however, triggered an epiphany. I remembered that, to someone who has only been on the planet for 13, 15, or 17 years, breaking up with a first love really does feel world-ending.

That Time I Loved You is an unsettling read but a useful one. It reminds us how deeply people feel below respectable facades. There is no such place as a perfect small town or suburb because we all have things we wrestle with that we really don’t want other people to know about. It fits in the sub-genre of collections, like Winesburg, Ohio, that pushes us into another person’s shoes and forces us to walk around in them. It’s an uncomfortable practice, obviously, but one that we periodically need to do to maintain a healthy sense of empathy.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

literary fiction · review · short stories

Mothers, by Chris Power

The short stories in Chris Power’s collection, Mothers, range across the world, from Sweden to Mexico. Though the settings are varied, many of the stories revolve around two themes: betrayal and unacknowledged traumas from the past. None of them are comfortable to read; some are even a bit frustrating. That said, all of them are interesting portraits of characters who don’t know what they want, who can’t have what they want, or who have to deal with characters like the other two types. 

Two of the standouts from this collection, for me, are:

“The Colossus of Rhodes” – This story has more than one trick up its sleeve. At first, it seems as though the narrator is comparing his present vacation to Greece with his wife and child with a trip that he took when he was a child. But then things take a sinister turn when a stranger assaults the narrator-as-a-child. More disturbing incidents follow, only for the narrator to turn the whole tale on its head. He says he has evidence that these things did happen, even if nothing happened quite like he says it did. In the end, we have to wonder what really happened and why the narrator wrestles so much with that long ago trip.

“The Haväng Dolmen” – Readers won’t have much sympathy for the pretentious academic at the beginning of this story, set in the Swedish countryside near a Neolithic dolmen. He is only there because his archaeologist colleagues said the site was worth seeing, even if it’s not the narrator’s period of interest. Once the narrator sets out to see the dolmen, he starts to feel as though someone is following. There’s no one there whenever he turns around. It’s only near the end of the story that we finally learn what’s haunting this brusque, solitary man. 

Mothers also features three connected stories about a Swedish woman named Eva. We meet her as a child, as a young woman, and as a mother (the last through the eyes of her husband). Taken together, the three stories are a long arc of misunderstandings, lies, betrayals, and mental illness. Eva never seems to know what she wants, frustrating everyone around her with her capriciousness. Curiously, it’s only when her husband takes a turn as narrator that we find out why Eva is the way she is. But, like the husband, we have to ask whether or not Eva’s behavior is forgivable. We have to wonder if it’s possible to reconcile the hurt a person causes with understanding that they can’t not hurt people and that they only do it by accident. Perhaps its only possible with the kind of double-think Eva’s husband develops over the years.

Mothers is a challenging read. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that touches the emotional snarls these stories do. While things are resolved (at least somewhat), I still feel unsettled by this book. Readers who like to practice armchair psychiatry will love this collection. Readers with their own unresolved traumas may want to shy away; all of the stories powerfully evoke un-resolvable emotional conflicts that these readers may not want to invite into their brains.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

literary fiction · review · short stories

The Dark Blue Overcoat and Other Stories from the North, edited by Sjón

36417302The stories in The Dark Blue Overcoat are written by authors from every Scandinavian country, including the Faroe Islands. At least two of the authors are indigenous. They are also translated into English by a complement of translators. Under Icelandic author Sjón’s direction, the stories take us across the north from remote villages to cities, ethnic Scandinavians to immigrants—all with a distinctly un-hygge sense of fractures in culture and society.

Some of the standout stories from the collection include:

“Don’t Kill Me. I Beg You. This is My Tree,” by Hassan Blasim and translated by Jonathan Wright. This story features an Iraqi refuge in Helsinki who now works as a bus driver. We know him only as the Tiger and it isn’t long before we learn that he received asylum under false pretenses. In this story, the Tiger is haunted by what may be the ghost of a man he murdered in an orchard before he fled the country.

“May Your Union Be Blessed,” by Carl Jóhan Jensen and translated by Kate Sanderson. What I love most about this odd little story set in the Faroe islands is that the main text of the story—a gossipy family history full of sex—is immediately contradicted by corrective footnotes full of academic references to what “really” happened in the Ryggalt-Hermanson family. I could feel the amused smirk on my face the entire time I was reading it. Also, I am always a sucker for archly written footnotes.

Geirangerfjord_(6-2007)
Obligatory fjord photo (Image of Geirangerfjord, Norway via Wikicommons)

“San Francisco,” by Naviaq Korneliussen and translated by Charlotte Barslund. This story moved me most. Here, Fia, a Greenlander, makes her way across the United States on a mourning journey after the death of her lover, Sara. This one of the longer entries in the collection, giving us plenty of time for Fia to reveal the shame she feels about her sexuality and her overwhelming guilt at possibly causing Sara’s death in a motorcycle accident. When Fia arrives in San Francisco, a place she knows as a safe, open city for LGBTQ+ people, there’s a small glimmer of hope that Fia might be able to become confident in her sexuality.

Some of the stories are stranger than others. Some are distinctly poststructural or supernatural. At the end of the book, I was left with the impression that Hamlet’s Danish rot had spread across the region. There are a lot of broken families here, and a lot of alcohol abuse. Readers looking for comfort on cold winter nights should look elsewhere. But readers for whom Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen is not unsettling enough should enjoy this collection.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 9 October 2018.

literary fiction · review · short stories

Judge Walden: Back in Session, by Peter Murphy

38651108To paraphrase Oliver Wilde, the law is rarely pure and never simple. This is certainly true of the stories in Peter Murphy’s Judge Walden: Back in Session, his second collection of stories to feature the conscientious and thoroughly decent Bermondsey judge. In each story, we see Judge Walden wrestle with tricky points of law and do battle with the civil servants who constantly look for ways to cut costs to get “value for money for the taxpayers.” Best of all, these stories have a gentle humor to them that I think would make a brilliant BBC series.

A couple of favorites from this collection include:

“Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.” The case before the bench in this story involves a market stall seller of vintage goods who is accused of selling bootleg records. The accused maintains that the records are authentic recordings by a local jazz band. The Crown contends that they’re a bad rip off of an American jazz group. There’s a reason why plagiarism and copyright cases are all decided on an individual basis, both in the United States and in Britain. They’re fiendishly complicated and sometimes comes down to the smallest details. The comic turns the case takes reminds me a bit of an actual court case from the US, where musician and songwriter John Fogerty played his songs back to back in the witness stand to convince a jury that he didn’t plagiarize himself.

4a
A British judge’s wig (Image via Chancery Wigs)

“Mortifying the Flesh.” This story is a little less light hearted than the others in the collection because of the nature of the case. It is the kind of case that the newspapers drool over. A vicar has been accused of using church funds to pay for his sessions with a dominatrix. His defense is that the sessions are a form of devotion, because he’s having someone flagellate him. Even though it’s not as amusing as the other stories, I really liked the tricky points of law that Walden has to think his way though. There are laws that can guide him, but they’re out of date and/or too blunt to use in this particular case. We tend to forget that the courts are where laws are put to the test, to see if they really work and can deliver justice in a nuanced world.

The stories are longer than the usual length expected; they might almost qualify as novelettes (if I knew were the cut off was). Because they’re longer, we get treated to more development of plot and character than we usually get in short stories. In fact, the stories contain enough content, I think, to support a limited run series. There are several scenes that I would love to see performed, especially the ending of “Arthur Swivell Sings Cole Porter.”

I loved the legal issues, the skirmishes with the civil servants, and the humor that threads through these stories. I enjoyed this book so much that I want to go back and read the first collection of Judge Walden stories.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 1 October 2018.