Two Nurses, Smoking, by David Means

In Two Nurses, Smoking, David Means presents us with a series of moments, captured by characters who are transfixed in time for a variety of reasons. Many of the characters are stuck in their grief. Others are trapped in unhappiness. Still others are caught up in lust or mental illness. Readers who read for plots will need to slow down while readers who are in it for characterization may relish these repeated opportunities to reflect along with the characters on moments of perfect recall, last sights, or imagined possibilities.

Some of the standouts from this collection include:

“Clementine, Carmelita, Dog”—Means immerses us in the perspective of a dog. Clementine’s primary knowledge of the world comes through her nose, not language. She smells when her owner develops cancer, but can’t understand why that owner suddenly disappears from Clementine’s world. And she also can’t understand why her next owner, a grieving man, turns her loose in the woods one day. Although she might not know why things happen, Clementine can understand love, family, and belonging. This story will be especially sweet for those of us who have pets.

“Lightning Speaks”—This story features a character, Meg, who appears in at least one other story in the collection. This non-linear story bounces around the disorganized mind of a girl/woman who seeks out love only to end up in an institution. She struggles to communicate with others who dismiss her, by taking the specialness out of her stories or talking over her. By the time her interlocutor realizes that he’s squelched Meg’s efforts to describe transcendence, the moment is lost.

Although I liked the meditativeness of Two Nurses, Smoking, overall this collection kept playing the same note. Many of the (mostly unnamed) narrators were impossible for me to differentiate; they all sounded alike. Means is excellent at capturing fleeting moments of clarity or memory, but I would’ve liked to have seen more variety among the stories. This book is best read over time and not in a single sitting.

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

Shit Cassandra Saw, by Gwen E. Kirby

I always felt bad for the Cassandra of Greek myth. She knew what was going to happen but is cursed to never be believed. If only the Trojans had listened! The resentment and frustration she must have felt pour out in the first story out of the gate in Gwen E. Kirby’s electrifying collection, Shit Cassandra Saw. The stories here are full of things that people wish they could say. It’s a lot of fun to watch the sparks fly.

Some of the standouts in this collection are:

“Jerry’s Crab Shack: One Star” – I love stories in which the narrator is trying to write something for others but can’t stop themselves from revealing everything that’s bothering them. Here, our narrator is ostensibly trying to write up a review about a place where the service was terrible and the food never actually arrived. Each part of the review, however, ends up being full of his complaints about his angry wife, having to relocate to a city where he doesn’t know anyone, and his frustration about being marginalized. It’s a deliciously multi-layered story.

“A Few Normal Things that Happen a Lot” – I relished reading this story. It’s composed of small scenes that start to fit together into a narrative about women who suddenly have the strength to fight back against cat-callers, harassers, and abusers. It’s not long before a lot of men start to walk more quietly and keep their comments to themselves. Kirby also sneaks in a very subtly twist to #NotAllMen that was utterly brilliant.

“Mt. Adams at Mar Vista” – This story was perhaps the most poignant in the collection. The girls of the Mt. Adams softball team are playing the team from Mar Vista, which has recently experienced a school shooting. The adults see it as a return to normalcy. The students feel as though things are anything but normal. The story takes us into the collective swirl of their thoughts about what to say, what they can say, their own worries, how they’re going to get through the game, whether they should throw the game, and on and on. It’s amazing what Kirby is able to pack into just a few pages.

This is an excellent, lightning-fast read that leaves you with plenty of ideas to think about.

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

The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

Why did no one tell me Alexander Pushkin was funny? Before I read this collection, The Captain’s Daughter: Essential Stories (solidly translated by Anthony Briggs), my only knowledge of Pushkin was that he wrote the epic tragic poem Eugene Onegin and that he died at a young age in a duel. The Captain’s Daughter revealed to me that Pushkin also had a fine eye for satire. All three of the stories in this collection—”The Captain’s Daughter,” “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Postmaster”—all have moments of tragedy or near-tragedy, but it’s all balanced with light touches of absurdity and satire.

“The Captain’s Daughter” is the longest story in the collection. Its plot is so compressed that it could easily have been turned into a picaresque novel. This novella opens with some Tristram Shandy-like phrases: “Mama was still pregnant with me when I was enrolled as a sergeant in the Semyonovsky Regiment,” (ARC Kindle edition). Pyotr Andreyvich’s father is very disappointed with his spoiled son and has him transferred from his St. Petersburg regiment to one out in the wild east of Russia to toughen him up. The plan works a little bit better intended when Yamelyan Pugachov launches his rebellion against Catherine the Great. Pyotr has a knack for being kind to people who later feel beholden to him, including Pugachov. This bare summary doesn’t capture Pytor’s madcap adventures on the front. Nor does it capture Pushkin’s pointed digs at pompous officers who don’t know how to fight a war, at weasel-y officers who switch sides at the drop of a hat, and aristocrats who spend money like water. I really enjoyed this satirical slice-of-life look at life where high society crosses with serfs and rebels.

The next two stories are shorter, but also skewer high society and the ways that the high abuse the low. In “The Queen of Spades,” we see into the world of wild gambling, in which aristocrats gamble away estates or win millions of rubles at the turn of a card. The Queen of Spades is an old countess who claims to have a secret to always win. Unfortunately, it’s a secret that ultimately causes her death when another aristocrat with a lot of debt hounds her to give it up. The last story, “The Postmaster,” begins with a lament to the ways that couriers and travelers abuse the postmaster for never having horses ready, not having comfortable enough waiting places, and so on. But the narrator urges us to try and put ourselves in the postmaster’s shoes before launching into the most tragic tale of the three. In this story, the postmaster’s kind, lovely daughter is kidnapped by an aristocrat. In the end, she chooses a life of luxury instead of coming home to her poor, harried father.

I enjoyed reading this collection and would definitely recommend it, not just to fans of Russian literature, but to anyone who likes stories that can transport them to an era. Pushkin very much captures his time and place, and he does it with an unexpected sense of humor. This is one of the best republished classics I’ve read yet.

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

Honeycomb, by Joanne M. Harris

Once upon a time—or as the story begins here, Long ago and far away—there were the Silken Folk. Normal humans can’t see these fantastical, magical insects. The many (mostly linked) stories in Honeycomb, by Joanne M. Harris, tell the story of the Lacewing King, the High King of the Silken Folk, and his long path towards redemption for his early cruelty. More stories interrupt the main narrative to reinforce lessons about common sense, kindness, karma, and being able to see things as they really are. Harris doesn’t quite capture the sound of Grimm and Perrault’s tales, but she definitely nailed the essence of a good fairy tale.

Perhaps it’s their magic or their insectile natures, but the Silken Folk are often oblivious to the pain they cause others—especially to humans who come across their path. It’s little wonder, then, that Lacewing King is demanding, temperamental, and frankly cruel. He only cares about what might amuse him or taking things from others when they catch his eye. And then he flits off, never to be seen again for the most part. He makes enemies the way other people make their morning coffee. In fact, one of those enemies, the Spider Queen, plots against him for most of the book. In spite of his casual cruelty, however, the Lacewing King does manage to capture the love and loyalty of people and Silken folk who later bail him out from his biggest catastrophes.

The first half of Honeycomb is a long set-up. The linked stories and the side stories about politicking farm animals, clockwork creatures and inventors, lots of kings who will never be satisfied, slowly introduce characters and concepts in a universe that alludes to Shakespeare, Norse mythology, First Corinthians, and much more. It all slowly builds to a confrontation between the Lacewing King and three Queens that sees the King put on trial for one of his early crimes. At the risk of spoiling things, the aftermath of the trial sends the King and his adopted Barefoot Princess spinning through the Nine Worlds. The second—and much more melancholy—half is a long struggle for the King and the Princess to get back to their rightful places.

The more I read of Honeycomb, the more I enjoyed it. It took some time to adjust my reading to accommodate the linked stories and the interstitial stories. This book requires a lot of mental juggling to keep all the plots and the characters straight, as well as to read the interstitial stories in such a way that I would see their morals. Having said that, I worry that I’m making Honeycomb sound too challenging and that I’ll scare off readers. Don’t be afraid of this amazing book! Reading it left me reveling at Harris’s artistry and with a whole head full of rich stories to reflect on. This book is as close to genius as I’ve ever seen.

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

Burning Girls and Other Stories, by Veronica Schanoes

Schanoes blends contemporary and historical fiction with a fine layer of folklore-flavored fantasy in Burning Girls and Other Stories. These stories made me shiver, made me thrill, made me think; I really enjoyed spotting the references to punk classics in them. I really enjoyed this collection so much that I would happily recommend it to fans of Angela Carter and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, who like to write on the dark side of folk tales.

Some of the standouts in this collection include:

“Among the Thorns.” This story leads out the collection with a heart-breaking tale of long-burning revenge. The protagonist of the story hears that not only was her father murdered by villagers while on his peddling route, but that those same villagers gleefully retell the story of the murder to show their anti-Semitic cred. I love a story of Jewish revenge.

“Rats.” Writing about addiction is hard, especially when writers want readers to empathize the addicts. Here, Schanoes turns the torment of addiction into a story of a girl born with rats clawing at her from inside who eventually meets a boy who also has rats inside. This horrific modern folk tale is further blended with a true crime story that punk fans will instantly recognize.

“Emma Goldman Takes Tea with Baba Yaga.” In another story that blends actual history with folklore, we see the anarchist Emma Goldman fight against despair in post-revolutionary Russia. She had agitated all her life for change, workers’ rights, and free love—but she never made much headway in the United States and the revolution had gone sour by the time she was exiled to Russia. One day, after going for a ramble in the woods, Goldman is offered an extraordinary deal by Baba Yaga. Will Goldman give up hope for a kind of shadow power?

I really enjoyed this collection, even if many of the stories were downright frightening. I will certainly keep an eye out for future collections from Veronica Schanoes.

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

Attrib. and Other Stories, by Eley Williams

Finding an author with a vocabulary as extensive and creative a vocabulary as Eley Williams is a treat. That vocabulary is on full display in Williams’ collection, Attrib. and Other Stories. Most of the stories here feature characters who are drowning in sensations and love, so much so that Williams’ words are put to spectacular use describing what many of us think of as indescribable emotions.

The lack of names and action—and the repetition of motifs like starlings—makes it hard to distinguish between the stories. This sounds like a criticism, but it really isn’t. I admit that most of the time I’m reading for character and plot but, with this collection, I got to revel in the waves of words Williams unleashes. Instead of plots, the stories here tend to center on moments in which the characters are overwhelmed or nearly overwhelmed by colors, sounds, loss, and especially love. Over the course of the collection, we meet a Foley artist who is trying to find the right sound to evoke the Creation of Eve, a child who gets lost trying to identify all the colors in people’s eyes, a Tube passenger trapped in an embarrassing moment, a lover who meditates on bees and birds just after waking.

After so many books where my attention was firmly fixed on what happens next, reading Attrib. and Other Stories was a refreshing experience. I had to slow down my reading pace and pay close attention to the word choice and even the punctuation, as the prose sometimes slides in and out of poetry. It’s amazing what Williams can get words to do. Honestly, I’ve never seen anyone come as close to expressing what’s it’s like to let one’s mind wander in free association from word to word, or what it feels like to be obsessed with finding the right word for a comeback, or what it might be like to find a soul mate.

Where the Wild Ladies Are, by Aoko Matsuda

Trigger warning for brief domestic violence.

In one of the stories in Aoko Matsuda’s collection, Where the Wild Things Are (smoothly translated by Polly Barton), a character reads Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. This classic children’s story captures the character’s imagination but, in the end, the character is shocked when the creatures start to chant their love and desire to eat the protagonist at the same time. Although this isn’t the first story in the collection, this moment helped me realize one of the major themes in these linked stories. Matsuda’s stories show us characters who find happiness and purpose in letting go of social constraints. Wild things need to be wild, this collection tells us, even if they’re not sure they’re wild yet

A narrative starts to appear after the first few stories in Where the Wild Ladies Are. Character names start to reappear. Soon, we see Mr. Tei recruiting for a company that no one can remember the name of. This company—which we later learn is staffed by living and dead employees—seems to be the latest incarnation of a whole host of Japanese folk lore and myths. One department hires out Child-Rearing Ghosts. Another manufactures incense that has extraordinary powers. Thankfully, Matsuda included a series of notes at the end of the book that has brief summaries of all the stories and texts that are referenced in the stories. It was nice to know the backstories of all the supernatural characters and ghosts that show up in Where the Wild Ladies Are.

At first, I wasn’t sure about Where the Wild Ladies Are. The first story was a little long. Others in the collection I read with my eyebrows all the way up—especially the story about the woman who has so much jealousy that she buys cheap and/or easily repairable things that she can throw at her husband or destroy during her regular rages. It was strange to read an entire series of stories all about letting go of restraint to embrace their wilder emotions. So much of the literature I read features characters learning to stifle their passions, to “grow up.” I enjoyed seeing character go the other way for a change.

Linked short stories are my favorite type of short stories. Novels will probably always be my favorite kind of narrative, but I appreciate how varied linked short stories can be. The focus doesn’t have to stay on a small group of characters. Instead, we can see how characters’ own arcs brush up against others’. Also, as a frequent mystery reader, I really love watching for clues about the overarching narrative. It’s like a bonus story on top of all the other ones. Where the Wild Ladies Are is a terrific example of the genre.

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

Good Citizens Need Not Fear, by Maria Reva

Technically, the apartment block at 1933 Ivansk Street, in Kirovka, Ukraine, does not exist. The building was made of leftover material from its neighbors. It doesn’t appear on the official rolls. Consequently, its residents have a hell of a time getting heat, electricity, and other utilities. This lack of documentation also serves as a metaphor for the characters in Maria Riva’s brilliant collection of connected stories, Good Citizens Need Not Fear, who tend to fall into the cracks of Soviet and post-Soviet life.

The first half of the collection, which contains stories set before the fall of the USSR, was my favorite. For all the terrible absurdity and brutality, there was always the hope that the fall of the regime would make life better for the characters. I hoped that Daniil would be able to move out of assigned housing that he shares with far too many relatives (“Novostroïka”), that Konstantyn the Poet would no longer be persecuted for a joke, and that Smena would be able to openly listen to music from the west instead of secretively creating “Bone Music” (named for the historical recordings made on X-rays).

The stories in the second half—set in an independent but far from settled Ukraine—were harder for me to get through. I knew enough of history to realize that these characters with already marginal lives wouldn’t have much to look forward to unless that managed to ride the coattails of a rising oligarch. In “Lucky Toss” and “Roach Brooch,” characters scramble to keep themselves fed by cannibalizing anything of value. “The Ermine Coat” is particularly unsettling because of its subtext. It’s never stated directly, but there are hints that the narrator of this story is being prepared to support her family by going overseas and engaging in some kind of sex work.

The last story, “Homecoming,” features two recurring characters returning to 1933 Ivansk to witness the final collapse of a building that wasn’t supposed to exist in the first place. I had already noticed a theme building around the idea of foundations and systems, but this last story really brought home the idea that structures are only as good as their foundations. Communism was rotten. It was so riddled with inconsistencies, human error, human spite, and logical contradictions that it couldn’t last. Post-Soviet capitalism is so rapacious and unfair that it is equally doomed. Just like 1933 Ivansk, the only way forward is to tear everything down to rubble and start over.

Good Citizens Need Not Fear is an excellent collection of stories that I enjoyed for Riva’s deadpan humor and the way characters would walk in and out of the stories. I love a good collection of linked stories. The fact that they’re set in the Soviet Union/Ukraine meant they were just that much more interesting to me. Unlike a lot of Russian writing, this collection is not unrelentingly grim. There are disturbing moments and Kafka-esque scenarios, but things never got downright miserable or dreary. I enjoyed this collection quite a lot.

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

A Sportsman’s Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev

A Sportsman’s Notebook (also called A Sportsman’s Sketches) contains short vignettes and stories by Ivan Turgenev, written in the 1850s and 1860s. Unlike many of the Russian classics we’re familiar with in English, this collection is not packed with Sturm und Drang. Rather, Turgenev’s narrator takes along on his travels around the Russian countryside, from forests to marshes to meadows, inviting us into his conversations with the strange people he meets while hunting.

The “stories” in A Sportsman’s Notebook are rarely complete stories in the way we’re used to. Most of them center on a conversation the narrator has with landowners and serfs. (The stories are all set before the emancipation of the serfs in 1861.) As the narrator rambles around the Orel Oblast in western Russia, he is frequently invited into the ramshackle manors of down-at-their-heel gentry. Sometimes darkness or bad weather lead him to seek shelter in sheds and offices with the lower classes and serfs. These are some of my favorites in the collection because the narrator often pretends to be asleep, so that he can listen in. My absolutely favorite story in the collection is one where the narrator “sleeps” under a bush near some teenaged serfs as they swap knowledge, half of which is folklore but treated as useful woodlore by the group.

While the narrator provides a bit of authorial distance, the introduction to this republished edition of Turgenev’s stories explains that they are based on the author’s own life at Spasskoye, where he lived with his tyrannical mother. It’s not surprising, then, that many of these stories show the bleakness of serfdom. Many of the serfs the narrator meets have been subject to bizarre acts of autocracy: sudden transfers, dictated clothing, refusals to allow them to marry, constant attempts to change how they work and farm with disastrous consequences. And yet, the narrator only finds one person who is willing to help right wrongs in the hinterlands—and he’s only willing to do so for a fee. Everyone else the narrator talks to falls into two camps. There are the ones who are, if not content, unwilling to change things. The others, thankfully more rare, take advantage of the stagnation and bewildering bureaucracy to make little kingdoms for themselves where they can skim off any profits. The system is so broken in rural Russia it was no surprise to me how fatalistic everyone was.

I can understand the affection that this collection still has for readers, even more than a century. Unlike so many of those Russian classics that we know of without having read them, with their high drama and philosophy, A Sportsman’s Notebook is a slice of life in a vanished world. As I read it, I was charmed by the descriptions of the wild places the narrator visits. It’s clear that the narrator and Turgenev loved nature. I was less charmed by the people, who are rarely shown to their advantage, but I feel like I learned a lot about the conditions that lead to the terrible upheavals of the twentieth century. The men that the narrator meets are the grandfathers and great-grandfathers of revolutionaries. There’s so much more that can be said about A Sportsman’s Notebook, but I don’t want to blather. I’ll simply say, if you’re looking for something that will show you the real, vanished Russia of the Tsars, give this book a try.

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

Illustration by Peter Petrovich Sokolov for one of the stories in A Sportsman’s Notebook (Image via Wikicommons)

Underground Women, by Jesse Lee Kercheval

In the author’s note at the end of Underground Women, Jesse Lee Kercheval explains that some of the stories in this collection are born from her habit of hanging out in libraries with obscure books (some of which appear in this collection). Odd facts inspired her to write about characters abandoned by history or society, many overlooked for most of their lives until someone takes an interest in their welfare. These themes play out over and over here. So much so that I might inspire us to check up on the “characters” we may run across in our own lives.

I enjoyed many of the stories in Underground Women, but here are the ones that really stood out to me:

“A Story Set in Germany.” One of the things I like about stories is that they let us dive into someone’s life in a way we wouldn’t normally be able to. This story is actually told twice. The first version reads like an anecdote someone tells to their friend about that time they took a trip to a foreign country and fell in love with a handsome stranger. In the second version, we get all of the details that are left out of the first telling. These details are the kind that only a very, very close friend would learn, probably after a bottle of wine or two. This story is brilliantly constructed.

“A Clean House.” I am of two minds about this story, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Depending on how you read this one, it might be a story about an elderly woman with severe osteoporosis and failing health finally lets go of the possession and concerns that hold her to her past. Or it might be about the way that, when someone elderly starts to decline or passes away, the next generation ruthlessly clears the slate. My opinion of the story’s meaning changed almost paragraph to paragraph. But then, should it even be possible to sum up a life in a tidy lesson?

“The Dogeater.” Like other stories in Underground Women, this story was previously published. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t fit the collection’s overall theme of misunderstanding and neglect of the old. Also like other stories in this collection, “The Dogeater” starts out looking like one kind of story and ends up being something different. We begin with an elderly man, all on his own, being interviewed about an embarrassing and troubling incident. As the story draws back its veil, we learn that this man is confused about his world but not in the way we expected. There is a method to his madness, one that comes from further away than I could have imagined.

Underground Women begins with “Carpathia,” which Kercheval wrote for a micro fiction exercise. It’s last paragraph hints at what the rest of the collection will be about, but I didn’t pick up on it because of my annoyance at micro fiction (I want more words!). The rest of the stories were much longer. They were long enough for me to settle in and get to know the characters. They have rich backstories that made them seem more real than a lot of other short stories I’ve read. I ended up really enjoying this collection, for all its melancholy.