Simply put, The Girls is about a woman’s (Evie’s) experience as a young, privileged teen in the 1960s, living on and off in a cult led by a (perplexingly) magnetic and charismatic but volatile man named Russell. Years after several of the cult members famously kill four people, an event Evie narrowly misses being part of, she reflects on her time and relationships on the ranch and attempts to explain what kept her there, as well as relates how she was affected afterward.
I bought this book because of my interest in the cult aspect of it—growing up, I was fascinated by Charles Manson and his Family, Helter Skelter and other true crime stories. (I’ve read a few comments that say if you can get past the “cult stuff,” The Girls is a good book, but that to me is utterly ridiculous, as it is intrinsically tied to this story [and Cline’s interest in writing it]—which is not just what it meant to be a girl in that time. Those books are ubiquitous.) With the same interest, Cline researched Manson’s story and loosely based The Girls on it.
This is essentially what works in the novel: the ability of Cline to recreate not only a decade and zeitgeist during which she was not alive but also to spin a believable and intriguing story of privilege versus poverty, vacuousness versus radical thought, stability versus uncertainty and volatility. Cline’s people are fully realized, from the main characters to the tertiary ones, people who pick Evie up while she’s hitchhiking, for example.
There is also a solid feminist aspect to the novel, which comes through most clearly in her portrayal of the men in the book but works well more subtly, too, in her observations of the women and herself.
One of the interesting things about The Girls is its own strange magnetism. In spite of things that irritated me, I was compelled to stick with it till the end—and it was not a slog but rather an addictive read. Not unlike Evie with her fixation on one of the girls in the cult, I found myself coming back to the book every free moment I had, even while reading was somewhat fraught. You’re propelled through by imagery—not a bad thing, because it’s the imagery that makes things real—and by a desire to find out the whole story. But in this book, that reality was spoiled for me every time I was pulled out of the story by the distraction of the writing.
In my view, The Girls is overwritten—chock-full of descriptive detail that is at first exciting in its reach for truth and in its originality but then unfortunately becomes too much. I felt as though Cline had been taught an excellent thing but in her affinity for it had focused too hard on it. This preoccupation seemed to lead into getting lost in scenes, and I often found myself impatient: get on with the story, I thought, where is the story! Or, I would have cut this; what is the point of this?
The teenage nostalgia, the capturing of the essence of “girlness,” though I related and could imagine it well, felt as though it had consumed Cline a little too much in the process of writing. It makes me wonder if mining herself, as well as her mother’s diary, for the memory of being a teen, made her lose focus, and it might have been better for her to scale back the prose in the revision stage to allow the reader to experience some things in her own way.
Even while I marvelled enough at the pinpointedness of many of Cline’s descriptions, I also found the writing somewhat unpolished, an odd mix of what I consider unskilled (lots of distracting and frustrating filtering, for example, which diluted the prose) yet astute, intelligent, and, again, original and well-imagined. Inconsistent, then.
What I would have liked to have seen is a stronger editorial hand in Cline, a paring down and focusing of the writing. This, to me, would have allowed me to be taken in solely by the story and its people, from beginning to end.
Because of her ability to suss out the essence of things and thus place us where she wants us with well-developed people, I look forward to seeing Cline hone her skill as a writer. I hope her next book demonstrates more focus and a confidence in knowing just how much can be said without saying, so that it not only places the reader in her interesting world but also lets her explore and be led without interruption.
Somewhat sadly, because of work, I haven’t had the time to properly review books in a long time, and if I can’t do it properly, then I don’t at all. So much work goes into a book! It’s not fair to give a wishy-washy review. And I say only “somewhat sadly” because the inability to properly review, aside from causing some guilt, has also allowed me to read for pleasure and nothing else and remind me of the kind of reader I once was: voracious, relaxed, in the moment.
That said, I sometimes miss blogging. And every now and then, a book still comes for me in the mail from a kind and generous publisher, and so I write my thoughts on Goodreads as a thank you, and post on Instagram and Twitter (though there far less often). It occurred to me that there may still be people who find and read this blog, too, so I thought I’d post what I wrote on Goodreads here.
Recently, I received Fever at Dawn from House of Anansi Press (thank you, Laura!) It’s from their international imprint. This slim novel is a sweet and lovely imagining of a man’s parents’ relationship after WWII, inspired by their letters over the six months they knew each other before getting married.
Their lives upended, and separated from their families by distance, death, or the unknown, Miklos and Lili are Holocaust survivors who have just been rescued from Bergen-Belsen camp and transported to Sweden to convalesce in separate hospitals. Determined to cheat death (M has tuberculosis) and find himself a wife, Miklos asks for the names of Hungarian women in the hospitals and begins to write to them. Lili, among others, writes back—and it is this way, as they get to know each other by mail, that M & L quickly fall in love.
Despite the heaviness of the characters’ circumstances, there’s quite a bit of humour, which, while I thoroughly enjoyed it, might have contributed to the book’s overall feeling of being a bit too insubstantial. Yes, this is a love story, not a story of what it was like to be in the concentration camps, though each one’s experience is very briefly but powerfully recounted, as well as some of their backstory. So I understand the focus on the six months of letter writing, the antics of his father in his fervour, the development of the relationship… yet even in these things, I still feel the content could have been a richer, particularly because the author was already taking licence with the story. It’s perhaps the way it is because the author is a film director rather than a novelist.
The nature of the book is a little mixed: the author is himself, relating the story, using the first-person “I” occasionally; the book also includes an epilogue (or afterword, it seems like), but because his story is only based on the letters his parents wrote each other and the stories they told him and is otherwise imagined, the book is classified as a novel.
I do feel the translation—though I haven’t got a clue how to read Hungarian and would thus technically not know if the translation is good—is very good. It’s not awkward, the humour comes through perfectly, the right words seem chosen. Nothing in terms of story itself seems lost.
I’ve always really enjoyed Anansi’s international imprint, and despite my complaints about this book—namely, that I ultimately wish for more depth and content—I still think this book is a good read. The weather, the atmosphere of the hospitals, all is palpable; the characters are very well-written, as individuals and also as groups of convalescing men and women who still manage to function through camaraderie and music despite the unspeakable horrors and near-death experiences they had. Ultimately, the novel’s value lies in compassionately and astutely portraying the resilience and beauty of hope, life, and love in a time of war.
I’ll say it right off, in case you don’t feel like reading this whole post: Calvin is the best YA book I’ve read in eons. A 17-year-old kid has a schizophrenic episode and thinks he’s Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes. He hears Hobbes with him. There are just too many coincidences for him to think he’s not. He was born on the day the comic strip ended. His parents named him Calvin. His uncle gave him a stuffed tiger named Hobbes. He’s just like Calvin. He has blond hair and had a red wagon. His dad wears glasses. And his first grade teacher’s name is Miss Wood. “How close can you get to Miss Wormwood. Huh? Huh?” And of course, there’s real-life Susie, his ex-friend, or frenemy, with whom he’s grown up and who happens to carry the same name of the indomitable Susie in the strip.
Calvin becomes convinced that if he goes to see the author of Calvin & Hobbes, Bill Watterson, Bill will write a comic with him but without Hobbes, to “properly” end the series and thus cure him of his mental illness. So he sets off across frozen Lake Erie to Cleveland, Susie along for the adventure. (Or is she?)
How to describe the book I read in only a few hours, an epistolary novel (Calvin’s writing the story to Bill)? It’s beautiful! The workings of this kid’s gorgeous, tragically ill mind! (The workings of Martine Leavitt‘s beautiful, creative mind!) I loved how because he’s unreliable you have no idea whether anything is really happening, whether anything but him is real. And whether he’s even on the adventure. And there are even Spaceman Spiff and Stupendous Man episodes!!
A few of my favourite lines:
They say a person my age knows maybe thirty thousand words, so picking the first word out of thirty thousand is the hardest part. After you pick the first word, it weirdly picks the next one, and that one picks the one after that, and next thing you know you’re not in control at all — the pen is as big as a telephone pole and you’re just hanging on for dear life… [Just like writing a story, yes?]
Doesn’t it make you feel kind of awesome that the world is beautiful for no other apparent reason than that it is? Like beauty has its own secret reason. It doesn’t need human eyes to notice. It just wants to be glorious and unbelievable.
Do you ever wonder what life is all about, Calvin? Yeah, I know you do. You’re one of the few guys I personally know who stops to wonder about that. For me — I’ve decided maybe that’s the cool thing about it. Life lets you decide for yourself. I mean, it would be awful if it wasn’t up to us, wouldn’t it? If life said, this is what I’m about and don’t go getting any ideas of your own?
Augh, this book. Read it. It’s such a lovely, imaginative story, and if you’ve been an undying fan of Calvin & Hobbes since you were young, like me, it’s that much more special. The world is a magical place.
*Thank you so very much to Cindy Ma, from Anansi Press, for knowing me and loving like crazy sharing any book she adores. You’re always right, Cindy. Always.
I wanted to do a thorough, good post about this book, but it seems that I can’t find the time to blog. Still, though it’s been a few months now since I finished Where Did You Sleep Last Night, by Lynn Crosbie, I haven’t forgotten it and I’m at least going to write a few words here because it’s stuck with me, as Lynn’s books (and photos) do.
Second, you should know that Crosbie is a huge fan of Cobain, which makes this all the more fun. One might comment on the balls she has to write about him (there is not a trace of disrespect in this book), but I know no one better qualified: when Lynn fangirls, she fangirls hard (Michael Jackson featured in Life Is About Losing Everything so realistically that when I was working on something about the book, I had to ask if everything between her and him in the book actually happened. Malcolm McDowell, prepare yourself!). Research was done, credits are listed. But it’s also a tribute, this book, and Lynn includes an afterword that is both beautiful and heartbreaking. And utterly serious.
What I also love about Crosbie is that she’s an artist writer, by which I mean there’s an element of some other type of creativity at work here; it doesn’t seem as if she just sits at her computer and types out her books. I imagine the process more like when in Harry Potter they put their wands to their heads and glimmering, ephemeral bits of memories floated out. Except that for Lynn, it’s characters and scenes and imagination. And after that, she has to corral these things to form a cohesive story.
Both Life Is About Losing Everything and WDYSLN are like…mixed media. They’re fiction and nonfiction and fan fiction, but also dreams and fumes and sculpture and scars…with the format of a collage in a way, but with enough structure to tell a proper, whole story. You just may not be able to piece it altogether instantly.
It’s all hard to explain because I wasn’t totally sure as I read WDYSLN what was real and what wasn’t, especially in the beginning. Funnily, and I mean that literally, the novel has a page at the beginning that says, “This is a true story.” Sometimes I wondered if I had to be high to read it and get what was happening. But I know Lynn is skilled. Somehow, this book completely works. Aside from the brilliant originality of it and the wordsmithing, and even though you kind of get the impression that she might have just let it all out, however it came out, there is no way that’s true. I feel like it must have taken her ten gazillion hours to craft this book, to get it right, to make it work as a novel though it strains at the boundaries of such a construct.
The Vancouver Sun said, “Crosbie uses language like she invented it.” But I say it’s not as if she invented the language; it’s as though she’s inventing it as she goes along (the way Magneto formed steps as he walked across space in that X-Men movie). The playfulness with words and syntax and meaning is art. She writes love and grit with equal beauty. She writes as though she’s found the way to capture and translate dreams. And like dreams, Lynn wondrously breaks all the rules but leaves us with something nevertheless vivid.
I get the feeling, from having read her stuff and following her on Instagram, that Lynn has lived every second of her life. There’s so much proof of astuteness, observation, experience, thought, wringing out of events for meaning and emotion and joy. There’s not a lazy bone in her stories—every word, sentence, scene is made to work HARD, and consequently we are made to work hard. Her books are no cakewalk—they blur lines and talk about hard things and truth, even while the content sometimes reads as though you’re delirious. But if we agree to follow that to the end, if we agree that sometimes working hard to stay with someone’s creation is totally worth it, we will be wildly—and I mean this literally for this novel—and richly rewarded.
“TEN GAZILLION STARS”: that’s what I wrote when I first finished reading Daydreams of Angels, by Canadian author Heather O’Neill (Lullabies for Little Criminals, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night). I’m slightly embarrassed by this hyperbole now, but that reaction was genuine, born out of my deep appreciation and excitement for wildly inventive writing that smacks almost of improv. That’s not to say that O’Neill didn’t craft these stories carefully and thoughtfully, only that she understands relinquishing control to the literary muse.
Daydreams of Angels is magic realism at its best. It’s original and playful, funny and tragic, wise and clever. It is uninhibited while remaining true. Combined with the delightful ridiculousness are moments of striking reality we can all relate to, which is what keeps this collection from overloading us with only fancy and wit.
Most of the stories carry the tone of fairy tales, and there are a few liberally riffed upon actual fairy tales, such as Pinocchio (“Bartók for Children” is an exceedingly clever version that carries the same kind of inventiveness as the original, only O’Neill does it better) and Red Riding Hood (“The Wolf-Boy of Northern Quebec”).
As the title of the book vaguely suggests, some stories include angels, heaven, the devil, and even Jesus. In one of my favourite stories, “The Gospel According to Mary M.” (yes, that Mary M.: “Other people’s parents said I looked like a whore…”), Jesus is a Grade Six kid with what Mary’s mom calls “inner strength—a real screw-all-of-y’all attitude” who one afternoon finds the contents of his juice box mysteriously changed to wine (“‘Tell me if this apple juice doesn’t taste funny to you,’ he said”). Jean-Baptiste (haha), who says that Jesus has a Messiah complex, and Peter and Judas also feature on the playground.
Once when we were all in the back of the schoolyard and Judas was explaining to us where babies came from, Jesus positively spazzed out.
Now I knew all about that baby stuff, even then, and I knew that Judas was fifty percent full of crap, but if I piped in with my corrections, he’d be all “Excusez-moi, Professor Been-Around-The-Block,” so I made sure to keep my mouth shut.
But Jesus, on the other hand, started having a complete breakdown. He said that Judas was a liar and that if a woman hears someone whispering in her ear in the middle of the night and if she sits up and looks around and no one is there, she’ll be pregnant by the morning.
Interspersed throughout the collection is a series of connected stories featuring Grandfather and Grandmother (which have been radio-featured), who delight their grandchildren with fabrications narrated to us by the granddaughter. These stories are hilarious, for both the tales and the children’s reactions, and are about where babies come from (they’re washed up on shore by the waning tide, with their bums sticking up out of the sand so women can rescue them [“Where Babies Come From”]); dying and coming back to life and what happens in between (“Heaven”; the dead are all hustled onto trains: “The angels sorted through everyone, rushing about and chain-smoking cigarettes—for as it turned out, in heaven, smoking was good for you”); and about when Grandfather was a ladies’ man on the Isles of Dr. Moreau and dated a cat-girl, a deer-girl, and a swan-girl, and finally settled on the monkey-girl, Grandmother.
In other words, O’Neill fantastically succeeded in what she set out to do:
The collection I kind of conceived as a whole. I wanted it to be seen like one of those old anthologies of children’s literature that I used to get for Christmas in the ’70s. They would just have little chapters from Dickens novels and then a fairytale, and then an Aesop fable and then a story from the Bible. So I wanted it to be like one of those big children’s compendiums but then they would all be dark and for adults and with my own sort of twisted, perverted, little trademark things stuck in there. (Source)
Trademark, indeed. The collection is the misfit she often writes about but which has through obvious honing of her craft managed to find its own cool place. This book of imaginative, often reimagined stories is in a league of its own, not only with its original stories but also at sentence level. I dogeared so many similes and metaphors because they’re like nothing I’ve read before—in a good way that absolutely thrilled me. As a writer, I appreciate the hard work she’s done to cultivate this skill, which has totally paid off—so much so she makes it seem easy.
For example: “The old man was careful with his life. As though it were an egg balanced in a spoon in a children’s race”; “Little O brought Joe’s awful black cat to the vet. It was always messy looking and out of sorts, like a kid that had just had a turtleneck pulled off its head;” a bear in the first story, “The Gypsy and the Bear,” spins “balls around as though he was God deciding where to put what in the solar system”; and “they slammed the book shut, like a folk dancer pounding his foot on the floor to announce the end of an act.”
Streetlights are, from above, like strings of pearls; a boiler bubbles and burps all night long as if it had a huge meal and now has indigestion; a young girl with three brothers finds herself lacking (“It was as though there wasn’t enough material left to make another boy and so I got made”) and compares herself to the “last funny cookie on the tray that there wasn’t enough dough for”; and “The surface of the moon on a clear night looked all dented, like it had been out drinking and driving and had now lost its licence after a crash.” There are tons more, connections you might not think to make but strangely seem almost obvious when you read them.
As I hinted at the beginning, this book isn’t all fun and games. Artfully blended in is an also observant insight into the darkness of being human. O’Neill writes about poverty, loneliness, feeling like a misfit, the misery of being unfulfilled, abandonment, the mid-century views of motherhood, and especially the way girls and women are made to feel by the expectations of society.
“The Saddest Chorus Girl in the World” is a particularly tender story about vulnerability, objectification, and sadness. The final story, “The Conference of the Birds,” tells of a family of six on welfare (not the only story in this collection that deals with poverty of some sort), and though it’s well-balanced and told with humour and a rather sweet ending that focuses on the way we can survive by being close-knit and positive, it too was tinged with sadness for me.
In all, Daydreams of Angels is a brilliant exploration of imagination, desire, and finding one’s place in the world, a collection that left me feeling satisfied yet hungry for more. I have yet to read The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (soon!) but already, I’m looking forward to whatever O’Neill wants to write next.
I have a thing for the Deep South. I’ve never actually been, not yet, but I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read set there. I listen to New Orleans blues. I’m addicted to the show The Originals. I season food with Slap Ya Mama. The place lends itself to magic both literally and figuratively, though some people might not call it that. For me, the mystery of the bayou, the pervasive sense of something otherworldly, the dark underbelly, the bewitching blues, and especially the lore — as well as the swampy, humid, mossy, crawling atmosphere, are some of the best things in literature. That’s why when Sam at ECW Press offered me Cauchemar by Alexandrea Grigorescu, I said yes. (Thank you, Sam!)
And at first, as thrilling as the book sounds, I actually had trouble getting into it. I’m sure it was due to my expectations more than to the writing, but I wanted more…what? voodoo? and less relationship. More sax and less sex. But I kept at it (and I don’t usually do that) and increasingly became compelled as things got weirder: growing, pulsing cracks in the walls, biblical plagues, glimpses of an albino reptile, throats choked with black feathers, snakes writhing out of the plumbing, visions that blur the lines between real and spiritual so you can’t tell one from the other.
Hannah is left alone after the death of her adoptive mother Mae, with so much to figure out about herself, her past, and her home, but when her birth mother steps in, a witch with the power to hold men under her spell in a way that makes them alarmingly decrepit, things start to get really creepy, including with Hannah’s boyfriend, Callum. It was all enough to make me genuinely uneasy.
I’ll say this of Grigorescu: somehow she was able, using everyday words, to conjure up an atmosphere so spooky that I felt equally compelled and repelled. I was torn between staying up too late and tossing the book out the car window as we drove (I stayed up late, like Melissa, in the bath, and had to reheat the water three times). It’s hard to describe the feeling, really: kind of the residue after you watch a horror movie, say. Except so mesmerizing at the same time!
Cauchemar is a thriller movie begging to be made; I hope someone with the power to make it, and make it well, comes across the story and see its potential. And I don’t get this feeling from it sounding like it was written with that intent; no, I get it from everything being so vivid and visceral and real—from the legions of insects to the decrepit men to the unborn baby to the crossed fingers and hissing of the neighbours to the voodoo magic and heavy heat and window-crashing crows—that I had to take a shower after my bath. The veil between this world and the next is far too thin in this book for you to rest comfortably with sweet tea.
Cauchemar is a nightmare, a love story, a tribute to Southern cookery, a frightening bestiary, the grip of the moody bayou, a powerful conjuring of the dark magic that buoys the swamps of the Deep South. And Grigorescu is a literary sorceress—who has possibly hung out with the Louisiana witches, because she evoked them something strong in this book.
This review is part of a blog tour sponsored by the publisher, ECW Press. For the complete list of tour stops, see below. For more information, click HERE. For a guest post from the author, Alexandra Grigorescu, click HERE.
“Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, Punzel, we’re going to live by the sun and seasons.” He picked me up and spun me around laughing. “Our days will be endless.” With my father’s final notch, time stopped for us on the twentieth of August, 1976. —From Our Endless Numbered Days
Anansi never disappoints. This Christmas, I received a package from them with the ARC of Claire Fuller‘s debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days (due out in March and present on at least eight “most anticipated books” lists) plus two candles, a tin of chicken, matches, a ball of twine, batteries, and survivalist lists of what to pack for a trip into “the interior.”
They’ve read the book. They must know it’s a winner. But did they know just how appropriate their package would be? Did they know that after I finished the book, when my husband, dog, and I went to the woods for our walk a couple of hours later, I would feel convinced that I needed to bring the candles, matches, and a blanket in case something happened? We tramped through the forest and I could not shake off the feeling that I was still in the novel. I stumbled through the snow behind my husband, breathlessly, seemingly endlessly, describing the story to him.
Our Endless Numbered Days is told to us by Peggy, who is 18. When she is eight, she is taken from her home by her survivalist (or, Retreatist) father, from London to a remote European forest. At first she thinks they’re on a short trip to “die Hütte” [the cottage]—a camping trip, as they’d done in their backyard while her mother was off giving piano concerts in another country. But her father wishes to avoid people on their trek, and when they finally arrive at the small, hidden, ill-equipped, ramshackle cabin, he tells her that the rest of the world has ended, and everyone else is dead, and it is not safe to venture beyond the borders he sets. And she, having little concept of her father’s designs, believes it all.
For nine years, Peggy and her father live off the land, almost starving, then adapting but only just surviving. The events that transpire are utterly engrossing. But increasingly Peggy’s father shows alarming signs of deterioration and mental illness, and we wonder how this could possibly all end well.
The story alternates between the time of these nine years and the present, which in this book is 1985, when Peggy has returned home and discovered the world is not ended, after all. We know, then, early on that she survives the ordeal, but breathtaking tension remains as she relates her story, even as we deduce and suspect (I did not find this spoiled anything), and then confirm, with horror, the reality and disturbing effects of what transpired.
I’m telling you right now, this is the best book I’ve read in ages. I cannot remember the last time I spoke aloud at a book, with volume, or if there has ever been a time when, no matter how great the book was, I actually told someone they needed to leave me alone till I finished. I’ve wanted to, of course.
Yesterday, reading near the end, I said aloud, “Oh God, oh my God…” and my husband said, “What, what? Did you forget something important?” And I just shook my head, my eyes wide, my hand over my mouth. “Oh God,” I said, muffled. And he said, “Ohh, is one of your book characters having difficulties?” Which is from The Simpsons and made me kind of laugh, but I was unable to remove my hand from my mouth. I was between worlds; I felt—and this will sound like hyperbole—like I’d been punched. No, not the hurt, but the recovery, from the surprise and holy-shitness of it (yes, I’ve been punched before).
And then, a few minutes later, I said, “No. NO. No, no, no, no, noooo…” I knew, I had suspected, but to hear a character come to her own realization, for me to have my suspicions confirmed, for the realizations to dawn on me slowly as the book progressed, horrifyingly so…it was all very intense. And when my husband started talking to me about his beer brewing process, which he’s very excited about and which is his own passion, I squirmed and I held my breath and I smiled and I told myself, HE is more important than your book…but then I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I said, showing him, “I just have one and a half pages left,” and he said, “Oh, okay—” thinking I meant I would shower and get ready to go out after those pages, and I blurted, “NO, please. I mean, I have to read these now and then you can talk to me. I’m sorry, I-I just need to finish, I’m in the story…” And, bless him, he put up his hands and backed away slowly.
I didn’t close the book for a few minutes after I’d finished. I sat processing. I thought of so many things at once. Is it typical that once you finish a book like this you immediately start looking for flaws? You review the story and the events over and over and look for holes or things you can object to. Every time I came up with something, Fuller had it covered (read: I got this) by something else. I thought of objections others might have with regard to the story, but I always had something solid to counter them with.
All day yesterday, I thought about the book. I had been so there, alongside Peggy—or as her, I don’t really know. The atmosphere, the setting, the details…everything was so palpable that it feels like memory.
This is Fuller’s first novel, did I mention? Penguin was the highest bidder of three, and the book’s going to launch in eight countries this year. She even quit her job:
“It feels like a big risk,” she said. “The book will come out but I have no idea how well it will sell. It is amazing and I can’t quite believe it. It is still rare for this to happen to new authors. It’s amazing and it must mean that they think the book is sellable—they are a business at the end of the day. If the book doesn’t sell I probably have two or three years and then I might have to go out and get a job. We have decided it is worth taking the risk.” [source: Hampshire Chronicle]
Duh. Totally worth it. I’m already slavering over her as-yet-unborn second novel and can’t wait to meet her someday, and I am not alone. It’s tough to believe OEND is a debut novel. I admired the prose—which Kirkus Review called “translucent”—sentences like, “The forest smelled heavy and dirty and sorry for itself”—though, taken out of context, perhaps things lose a bit of their lustre. But the rhythm of her writing, the structure and organization of the story, the way important things are revealed throughout but not too much, not too tellingly, her power to evoke surroundings that are so real you are transported, and the way Fuller was able to reach deep into the human condition and translate things so that we relate, even not having experienced what Peggy does first-hand—all of this is expertly done. This book is going to be big, okay. Award-winning. Or I’ll eat my survivalist candles (the dog ate the canned chicken.)
That I could not pick up another book to read yesterday and haven’t been able to so far today is testament to Fuller’s power as a storyteller. Not only do I feel I haven’t read something as effective as this novel in ages, but I also feel it will take a little while for me to believe I can read something as good next.
Random House is still very kindly and generously sending me free books. I guess it’s because they know that when I love a book, even if I can’t review it (new clients mean extremely limited time; also, just so you know, this isn’t what I’d call a review), I can’t keep it to myself and will at least tweet and FB about it. Bless them for thinking that’s enough.
So they sent me Murakami’s upcoming story The Strange Library (12/2014). What a delight this book is! I appreciate when people understand that experiencing a book doesn’t just mean reading the text. It’s everything, from introduction to running a hand over the back cover when you’re done.
This gem of a book came wrapped in plastic. So already the heart’s pounding because you’re going through the motions of unwrapping a gift. At least, I get this feeling when I’m having to remove an exciting product from whatever it comes in: there’s that anticipatory moment, you know? So I pulled at a corner of the plastic with my teeth.
Anyone who’s seen the latest Murakami books knows that Chip Kidd‘s been given more creative freedom. Vellum and cutout covers, cool graphic and illustrative design, and then this, which at first appears to be in a protective cover and then gives the impression that it might read like a notepad.
But once you lift up and pull down the covers, the pages turn as a normal book. I folded the covers at the back page, and used the top cover as a bookmark the one time I put the book down. Note in the photo above the line along the spine: For internal use only. It’s in the story, but here I think it has a double meaning.
The Strange Library is a highly imaginative story that showcases the joyful creativity of Murakami and the superb translation skills of Ted Gossen. One might ask how I know it’s a great translation, and okay, I don’t with regard to the original. But in English this book reads very well: the words seem perfect for the telling. I read quite a bit of translated literature (I love it), and when it creates what I think is the right tone for the story and author, it’s succeeded.
So I adored this beautiful little book from start to finish. A young man goes to the library and is sent to the labyrinthine basement he didn’t know existed, where a crotchety old man wants his brains. Thus, he’s kept prisoner until he can read and memorize three books (on tax collecting in the Ottoman Empire) he’s given, in order to make his brain “creamy.” A wraith-like girl and a man in a sheepskin round out the cast of characters, as well as a starling, a frightening hound, and the young man’s mother.
It’s a dreamlike tale with a very likable and sometimes humorous narrative voice, and gives the impression that Murakami let his imagination drift without censorship. Yet, even in its simplicity and brevity, it also carries a strange, at first unidentifiable weight. About After the Quake, a collection of short stories, Murakami said, “I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love.”
This story is exactly that, actually. I don’t think it’s a story or a fabulously designed book just for story’s or design’s sake. I don’t have a problem with it if it is, but I’m certain there’s more to it. Like a good short story, The Strange Library leaves me to figure out the white space. Which of course I won’t reveal here, because your experience of it would be partly ruined. Already, though, I want to read it again, and just skimming through it, things begin to take on even greater meaning.
And now I also want more Murakami. The more of him I read, the more I learn what it means as a writer to be creative, imaginative, yet grounded in truth.
The recent article in the Guardian about US students requesting trigger warnings on works of literature that could potentially trigger memories and feelings of trauma has been circulating with rather diverging opinions. This type of thing resonates differently with people depending on their experiences but also on how they’ve dealt with them. Nevertheless, comments are generally polarized, with little variation: mainly, by those who think trigger warnings are valuable and even necessary and those who staunchly disagree.
Steven Beattie, writer and critic and author of the blog That Shakespearean Rag, is one of the latter. He strongly disapproves of the idea of literature with warnings. He wrote:
“A draft trigger warning policy from Oberlin, quoted in Inside Higher Education, used Achebe’s acclaimed text as an example of a work which might require a warning, saying the novel was ‘a triumph of literature that everyone in the world should read. However, it may trigger readers who have experienced racism, colonialism, religious persecution, violence, suicide, and more.'”
FOR FUCK’S SAKE!
LIFE might as well come with a trigger warning.
Literature’s entire PURPOSE is to deal, honestly and forthrightly, with difficult and traumatic experiences in a fictional context. Doing so helps build empathy and understanding. It can also help people who have experienced similar trauma recognize that they are not alone. It need not be subject to warnings that it might trigger emotional responses in its readers. That is the POINT.
I’m inclined to agree, and I take it one step further: not only does it help people realize they are not alone and also many times show characters overcoming their issues, but it also can help the reader deal with their PTSD or triggers. The thing is, trauma and emotional distress is often specific to the individual, whether it’s regarding experiences of war, suicide, rape, murder, miscarriage, infidelity, bullying, loss of a loved one (including a pet), and even, yes, even vomiting. Where do we draw the line in being considerate of others’ sensitivities, or else risk every piece of literature having some sort of warning?
While considered by many a courtesy, I see TWs as yet creating the view that most literature is dangerous, something to be feared. There are few people in this world who have not suffered some kind of trauma, and then those who would deem some traumas worse or more valid than others—as do the warnings. Literature becomes rather unjustly categorized. Putting warnings on potentially disturbing literature not only segregates the work but also insults it and the author, sends the message that while authors have the right to write what they are moved to, they may be penalized for it. TWs do a great disservice to the literature in preforming people’s opinions and setting the tone for the reading experience, as well as pre-empting certain lines of discussion that more fully treat the literature. They strip readers of their ability to make their own, uninfluenced decisions, and ultimately prevent readers, even those who might experience triggers, from a more enriching experience. This cheats the author, too, whose work it was to write a story that people could relate to and that evoked emotion. And all of these sound suspiciously like the issues of censorship. Perhaps most important, putting warnings on literature comes too close to coddling and actually even setting apart trauma sufferers as Others, rather than empathizing.
I’m not saying that people who want trigger warnings are weak and should sac up. I am saying, however, aside from what I think TWs do to literature (above), that we have to question what’s behind the avoidance. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, this isn’t really about the literature, but rather ourselves. We all have our own ways of dealing with trauma, our own levels of emotional depth of experience, of preparation for dealing with it. But the significant issue in this particular case, regardless, is fear.
For 15 years I suffered from such severe panic and anxiety attacks that I became physically paralyzed at times, and also unable to do many things, like ride public transport or drive on the highway, or go many places, like parties or movies or the theatre or the fucking food court—even out for a walk on our street. Several childhood traumas led to this. I understand fear. And triggers. And I get what it’s like to live in fear of being triggered. It can be completely debilitating. It is a strain on you and those you love. It’s torture.
I understand that trigger warnings on books are meant to alert people so that those who don’t want to read don’t have to, or they can try and prepare themselves. The thing is, again, literature, art in general, reflects us, the good and the bad. If we try and cover all the bad to help people avoid triggers, that doesn’t leave us with much for English class. Fear limits us. Instead, why can’t we take the opportunity in studying the literature to examine and question the issues within, even take a stand or be moved to action? to strengthen ourselves?
Confronting and acknowledging trauma and the feelings that arise from it is, ultimately, helpful. I can say this from experience. It facilitates mental and emotional health and fosters knowledge and the learning process. Discussion about it is also good thing—this is (isn’t it?) why we go to university or college in the first place—to learn, to grow, to question. While it worked to promote equality and discourage stigmatization, university, for me, was never a safe place (not only because I was one of the very few non-Dutch students and also the only Catholic in a Protestant school at the time); it was yet meant to challenge, and by god, it did. As one reader of Steven’s comment pointed out, challenging and triggering are two different things. This is true, but applying trigger warnings invariably negates challenge. Instead, it leaves us with only benign literature.
When I was in uni, one student refused to read Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage for our contemporary lit class because, once he found out what it was about, he said it would insult his Christian beliefs. This guy not only segregated himself but missed out on a formative experience because he assumed what the book was about and what Findley was saying with it: he remained fearful of being questioned, which meant he was never prepared with valid answers. I see this as somewhat similar to what I’m discussing here: by avoiding literature, we stunt ourselves.
Literature that examines the dark side of what it means to be human is a gift. In a classroom, it’s a tool we can use to gain perspective and understanding, to broaden our knowledge of issues, to intelligently form defensive and offensive positions, to cultivate empathy and space for healing. By applying trigger warnings, we close the doors on bettering ourselves. We perpetuate avoidance, fear of both the known and unknown. We cut off opportunity to dialogue about culture, power politics, heinous crimes, human tragedy, all part of the lives we lead. We separate ourselves from others who have suffered. We label people as too fragile. We label authors as offensive. We categorize literature as threatening or safe. We change the point of literature entirely. In that case, why take the class at all?
I have a good reason for reading mostly short stories, aside from the fact that my leisure time is limited (and I thoroughly enjoy them). It’s also that I have trouble focusing on novels. Few of them keep my attention for long, and I don’t say that to be snotty or judgemental of the writing or story: no, it’s likely the self-diagnosed attention deficit disorder that I’ve acquired over the last couple of years. I struggle daily with this issue; it’s a wonder I get anything done at all.
Along comes the hugely intimidating, then, Goldfinch, touted ecstatically by some and emphatically loathed by others. I think that’s a good sign, myself. A book that polarizes opinions so strongly has to be worth checking out—at least, if you like to participate in book chat. And I do have a thing for fat books, mainly the look of them, I admit. As an editor, I also fear them. Will I find that at least 100, 200, pages could have been cut?
But like McCarthy’s The Road, which I avoided for a while because the first paragraph annoyed me (in the end the book made me so enthusiastic for McCarthy that I bought and greatly appreciated much of the rest of his stuff), I finally bought The Goldfinch, hardcover and all, because I found I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was keeping me up, even not in hand. I barely knew what it was, beyond the tweets I’d seen. I hadn’t read a review (still haven’t). The night I bought it and took it home, I actually felt a huge sense of relief. Some might say there’s a sense of Fate in that—indeed, it’s a major theme in the book.
The next morning, it won the Pulitzer (just like The Road!). Rather than putting me off, as some awards can, the accolade only inflamed my curiosity. Still, I’ve read a grand total of only eight Pulitzer winners, not counting the ones I tried and couldn’t finish. I was yet iffy about the whole thing (What if it’s stuffy? What if it disappoints me? How big is the text? How wide are the margins??).
Christ: this is an awfully long preamble to my “review,” but I tell you all this because getting past one’s often rational fear of big, potentially dense books is the first significant step to allowing oneself to experience something truly good. I opened “Fats” to the first page and began to read, even though I was in the midst of three other, quite good books, though sadly I didn’t miss them when I put them down at night.
The Goldfinch begins with an immediately intelligent, engaging, descriptive first-person voice that at first glance made me apprehensive again (Dickensian narratives, which once enthralled me as a child and teen, can lose me now) but then tricked my wariness into rapt attention by starting near the end of the story (ooh, mystery!!) and then with the questionable line: “Things would have turned out better if she had lived.” I say questionable because who knows if this would have been true, considering all that follows? And how full is this line of guilt, regret, and loss? Thus begins the beginning, when our narrator, Theodore Decker, is thirteen. We understand he’s telling this story years later, which works well.
The structure of this book, how carefully constructed it is, is one of its best features. Without the plan, we would perhaps not be so intrigued at first bite. Secrets would lose their potency, surprises would unravel before their time. I cringe to be so cliché, but The Goldfinch is beautifully, thoughtfully wrought—like a painting with its layers.
Within minutes of starting, we have a clear sense of Theo’s relationship with his mother, and their social status—just before the museum they are visiting together on a school day (Theo has been expelled) explodes. Bombs: a terrorist attack, they later say. Theo is left crabbing through the debris, disoriented, only to meet a dying elderly man who mysteriously gives him a ring and a destination and entreats him to take with him the titular painting that has fallen off the wall—its own grand character throughout the book right to the last words. This, together with the loss of his mother, ultimately turns our narrator’s life upside down. And this is where the questions of Fate and choice apply.
What follows is an unmoored young man’s anarchic journey into adulthood, fuelled as much by his obsession with The Goldfinch (which he has kept paranoically hidden) as by drugs, alcohol, and his friendship with inimitable Russian street urchin Boris. Blackouts and casual sex and dodgy art and furniture dealings, and more death…but also passion and love and knowledge and wonderful, wee Popper (Popchik), the dog who doesn’t die, contrary to my fears of what role this dog would play throughout. Themes of guilt, belonging, social status and self-identity, desire and obsession, and honesty are intertwined, but not so heavily that one might get lost or overwhelmed. Most of all, the story explores the human condition through obsession, the quest for identity, and the power of human weakness. We can all relate to some degree.
How could I resist such a compelling narrative related by a young, modern-day storyteller so extraordinary in his classical personality, with his intriguing philosophical angst, and even so typically prone to dizzying self-destruction? How could I roll my eyes at Boris, the bestie who provides the sometimes laugh-out-loud humour with his manner of speech, and, we discover, orchestrates the twists in the novel? And what about Hobie, who, while somewhat stereotypical, warms the cockles with his affable demeanour, elbow patches, cologne of furniture glue and varnish, and dimly-lit hodge-podge of a house full of antiques? Yes, the names too are slightly stereotypical, but they work because they seal the characters’ personalities appropriately, in the same way a banana peel seals in its fruit.
You can read the synopsis of The Goldfinchhere. But even if you’ve read other lip-smacking novels about books or art or antiques or mysterious or nefarious goings on, or musing, philosophical orphans, or all of the above combined (I was reminded of a modern-day David Copperfield sometimes)—even if the story sounds familiar in any way, you won’t feel as though you’ve read The Goldfinch before. The voice and mood are…different.
I couldn’t help but be in awe of the writing as well as the story. Tartt struck me as some kind of prodigy. (Granted, I haven’t yet read anything else of hers, but having read the synopsis of The Secret History, and an article on its cult following, I’m getting the gist of where her intelligence and propensities lie and am willing to bet her other books betray such a glut of worldly knowledge as well. I mean, she’s either exceedingly well-versed in literature and art and culture or she’s damn good at faking it—and I very much doubt the latter.)
In fact (I find this out while writing this post), Barry Hannah, a writer-in-res at the University of Mississippi while Tartt attended, accepted her into his graduate short story class while she was only a freshman. “She was deeply literary,” he said. “Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.” She published The Secret History to major critical acclaim in 1992 (it sold out its first print run) when she was twenty-nine.
Watching an interview with Tartt and looking up images of her, I peg her as a compelling, intense woman, deep and thoughtful, seemingly reserved (her clothes and hair, her pose on the back of the book). But at the same time I get the impression that her exterior is housing a bit of a ruffian, perhaps Boris-like even, the country-raised child with sagging socks who maybe smoked behind the shed at nine and always has a swear on her lips that she has to stop herself from letting fly. Tartt says that she wants people to find reading her books fun—and that, I think, along with how she says it, is telling.
As a reflection of Tartt’s knowledge and research, The Goldfinch is also enriching, which for me is partly what makes it so much fun. It truly delivers on that literary promise of taking you out of your bed or armchair and dropping you in various countries and worlds (underworlds too) the likes of which you probably won’t otherwise experience. Amsterdam is as visceral as Vegas and New York. We learn how to restore antique furniture, and the history of, well, a great many things. Foreign languages grace the pages (very few, thankfully), and references to artists and their paintings, especially, can send you Googling (they did me, anyway).
But don’t let me give you the impression is book is work. It’s not, I tell you. Though Theo’s time in Vegas with Boris does run somewhat overlong, there is yet a point to it. Though sometimes you may feel that Tartt might have got somewhat authorially rather than storily (I think I made those two up, but you get the gist) lost in her writing, you come to appreciate it because she’s just so damn good at writing. It’s like, I was thinking, when you’re emailing someone you really enjoy, and thus you take the time to include all the details, all the thoughts. You compose rather than dash off. So in the end, while I did feel there were bits that made me feel I was losing my grip, I appreciated them too because they rounded out things. The reader has a full experience. She took the time to make sure of it.
It’s not often, by the way, that you may feel impatient. Generally, I had to force myself to slow down while I read, and not because I had felt tempted to skip parts, but rather because it was so exciting I wanted to cram it all in at once. I brushed my teeth with it. I read it under streetlights while waiting to pick up my sister from work. I took it out for the five minutes I had a smoke break. This ADD brain of mine was at least temporarily cured, my reading funk ended.
What I’m trying to say is that Tartt’s writing is beautifully crafted. She has an excellent, intuitive sense of which words to use that will properly evoke a sensory reaction. Nothing about this book is unskilled or lazy. It’s masterful, really, both in its scope and craft. It’s kind of like the Bible: you know how people say the Good Book’s got everything? In The Goldfinch, there is mystery, intrigue, humour, love, death, friendship, betrayal, history, and vivid characterization. But it’s all knit together so well it’s not overwhelming. You don’t even notice the page numbers. What you come away with is not a sense of your own triumph (OMG I MADE IT THROUGH!!) but rather a sense of Donna Tartt’s impressive coup. And that you were gone for the duration of this book and now must resituate yourself in the real world. Don’t worry if you feel like Theo emerging from the explosion or his fever-soaked delirium in Amsterdam.
I recently had the privilege of being featured on Project Bookmark Canada’s site as a Page Turner. What this means is that I wrote about what the project is, what it means to me, and how it ties in with my profound love of CanLit. And then I donated $20 to help the organization—spear-headed by author Miranda Hill (Sleeping Funny, one of my favourite story collections)—put up bookmarks across Canada for the nation’s literary enrichment and cultural heritage.
You can read the post here (apparently, Google gets pissy if you duplicate content, so I can’t post it here as well). And you can donate, too, if you like!
Back forty: n. wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this morning—I only know that it far exceeded what I could have imagined. My husband of 11 years woke me up with the best birthday card I’ve ever received. I was ugly crying before I even got out of bed. Then he led me around the house while I found and opened 50 gifts. Forty of them were wee baggies of candy with slips of paper describing beautiful, touching reasons he loves me. I was, still am, overwhelmed by them. It’s really amazing to see yourself the way someone who loves you see you. The rest of the gifts were treats to spoil me with. There was lots more ugly crying in my pjs and tons of bear hugs and so much freaking happiness!
I put 40 years of life behind me today. This was never going to be a big deal—until a couple of months ago when suddenly it was. Before that, I laughed about it. It sounded ridiculous. After all, I still thought I was going to be in my thirties forever, invincible, even. I look younger than forty, I think younger, I act younger, I feel younger. But as the days passed, I suddenly found myself saying “forty” with emphasis, like this: FORTY. It sounds fat and old and ominous. Rationally, I know it’s not. But now I feel left behind by time. As though it’s passing without letting me do and be and have the things I want now. It’s leaving me in the dust. I don’t want to turn 50 and never have been on a tropical vacation! I wanted things to be different by now! But there’s no point in denying it: you can’t think that the day before. It’s happening whether I’m ready or not.
Over the past few months I’ve found myself questioning everything, unable to make decisions because what I once knew and liked and saw and did no longer hold the same certainty of interest. Whereas I simply went for the things I always went for, because they were me, now I’m not so sure about what I like and want to do and where I want to be. I’m not so sure of who I am. Plus I’m…softer. Just a little. Okay, ten pounds. Anyway, I’m in the process of some major shift (with any luck it will be more than just a gravitational pull of skin). I’m changing. I FEEL IT. I’m in the back forty, that wild or rough terrain adjacent to a developed area (the fifties, seventies, nineties?). This isn’t the time I’ve got everything figured out, even after thirty years. Hang on, Self, you’re in for a bumpy ride (that will likely, hopefully? never end!).
Today, though, instead of grabbing the sick bag, I’ve decided to raise my arms in the air and yell “Yeehaw!” That might be the Jack Daniel’s talking already, but it’s also reflective of the choice I want to make. For this new time to be fun. For the bumps to be so ridiculous I’m airborne and laughing. Hello, 40, and welcome! Let’s be fabulous. Let’s write better stories than we did in our thirties—and publish. Let’s go on that tropical vacation we’ve never had. Let’s help others write better stories. Let’s read more fantastic books out of which we’ll get more because we’re older and wiser and more empathetic. Let’s just do everything, only better, because now we can. Let’s celebrate!
That’s a pretty good segue into what I want to do next. One of my favourite things to do on my birthday is give. It makes me feel good, of course, and I love the anticipation and seeing others happy. I bought my sister and my husband a gift for today. They don’t know it yet (unless they’re reading this post or I’ve given it to them already). Admittedly, neither gift was a book, but that’s only because today I didn’t want to be predictable—to them.
To you, I’m going to be somewhat predictable. First I’m going to list forty books on my shelves that I really love. They’re not all of my absolute favourites, of which I have an insane number, and they’re in no particular order. They’re just forty books I very much enjoyed for various reasons.
Second, one of you will receive a SIGNED (to you!) copy of Sarah Selecky’s superb collectionThis Cake is for the Party! (Finalist for the 2010 Giller, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, CBC Bookie Award for Best New Writer, and Globe 100 Best Canadian Fiction). No, it’s not a new book, but it’s a great book. The writing is crystal clean, strong, evocative, and memorable. This book did so much for me, I can’t even tell you, not least of which was to introduce me to Sarah, a wonderful, beautiful, talented woman who has inspired me, hired me, and made me a better person. I’m celebrating with her cake.
To win: comment and tell me your best birthday ever. I’ll pick one of you and let you know you won. And then I’ll send you the book. (If you’d like to comment without entering the contest, you can! Simply let me know you don’t want to enter.)
Thank you all for reading and supporting and encouraging and sharing the book love!
Forty Books I Recommend
The Carnivore, by Mark Sinnet (ECW Press)
The End of the Alphabet, by C.S. Richardson (Anchor Canada)
Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan (Thomas Allen)
The Bear, by Claire Cameron (Doubleday Canada)
A Blessed Snarl, by Samual Thomas Martin (Breakwater Books)
Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine (Europa Editions)
Hyperbole and a Half, by Allie Brosh (Simon and Schuster)
Ablutions, by Patrick deWitt (Anansi Press)
Sandra Beck, by John Lavery (Anansi Press)
Dead Politician’s Society, by Robin Spano (ECW Press)
The House on Sugarbush Lane, by Méira Cook (Enfield and Wizenty)
On Sal Mal Lane, by Ru Freeman (Anansi International)
The Kept, by James Scott (HarperCollins)
The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride (Riverhead Books)
The Outlaw Album, by Daniel Woodrell (short stories) (Little, Brown)
A Land More Kind than Home, by Wiley Cash (William Morrow)
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce (Anchor Canada)
The Book of Lost Things, by John Connolly (Simon & Schuster)
The Beggar’s Garden, by Michael Christie (short stories) (HarperCollins)
Sleeping Funny, by Miranda Hill (short stories) (Anchor Canada)
Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell (short stories) (Coach House)
Clear Skies, No Wind, 100% Visibility, by Théodora Armstrong (short stories) (Anansi)
Radio Belly, by Buffy Cram (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
Bird Eat Bird, by Katrina Best (short stories) (Insomniac Press)
The Divinity Gene, by Matthew Trafford (short stories) (Douglas & McIntyre)
A Matter of Life and Death or Something, by Ben Stephenson (Douglas & McIntyre)
And Also Sharks, by Jessica Westhead (short stories) (Cormorant)
All We Want is Everything, by Andrew F. Sullivan (short stories) (Arbeiter Ring Pub)
The Miracles of Ordinary Men, by Amanda Leduc (ECW Press)
Once You Break a Knuckle, by D.W. Wilson (short stories) (Penguin Canada)
Bull Head, by John Vigna (short stories) (Arsenal Pulp Press)
Pilgrims, by Elizabeth Gilbert (short stories) (Penguin)
I Want to Show You More, by Jamie Quatro (short stories) (Grove Press)
Tenth of December, by George Saunders (short stories) (Random House)
We Live in Water, by Jess Walter (short stories) (Harper Perennial)
How to Get Along with Women, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (short stories) (Invisible Pub)
Welding with Children, by Tim Gautreaux (short stories) (Picador)
The Help, by Kathleen Stockett (Berkley Trade)
Bobcat, by Rebecca Lee (short stories) (Hamish Hamilton)
The Odious Child, by Carolyn Black (short stories) (Nightwood Press)
Shit! Am I at forty already?? (SEE WHAT I MEAN?)
There are so many I missed. There may be some overlap but you can check my reviews page, and also always feel free to ask me for recommendations. I have SO MANY to recommend beyond these forty here.
Thank you again, everyone, for reading! I look forward to your b-day stories!