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This installment: [but before I begin, come see my show at the Fairfax Library next Thursday, 5/22 at 7:30: “My Hundred Dresses and What’s Underneath Them”]. And now for what I’ve been reading: an elegiac, candid memoir of bereavement; back in the South Seas with Troost—and RLS; a haunting novel set on a Scottish island; a stunning short story collection; Mankell in Africa; and surrealistic short stories mixing SF and humor.

 

   Holding Silvan: a brief life by Monica Wesolowska

 

Her labor went fine but the baby emerged with serious problems and it soon became obvious he wouldn’t be long for this world.  What a heartbreaking tangle of emotions and decisions.  Weslowska, a writer as well as a bereaved mother, brings us along with intimate, vivid candor : the hospital personnel who helped or hindered; the friends and relatives who tried to give comfort; the incredible poignancy of loving a scrap of a being you know will be gone too soon yet willing that Silvan’s muffled suffering end with grace. Beautifully depicted.

 

   Headhunters on my Doorstep by J. Maarten Troost

 

I enjoyed his previous book about living on beautiful but benighted Kiribati in the South Seas.  Now he returns to the region, tracing the stomping ground of that explorer of yore, Robert Louis Stevenson. Troost is now sober, married to his then girlfriend, and a father.  Booze beckons but he manages to outrun it, literally—exercise being a necessary diversion.  He swims with sharks, gets the requisite tattoo, and entertains us with adventures and witty commentary along the way.

 

   Orkney by Amy Sackville

 

It’s a peculiar pairing, the 60 year old literature professor and his strange, beautiful student, but he’s besotted and off they go on a honeymoon to this isolated island off Scotland. He’s starting a sabbatical and supposedly doing research on old tales of enchantment but ends up with her as his subject of study and overwhelming obsession. She’s a terrible cook, has terrifying dreams, and spends much time alone by the sea though she says she can’t swim.  He knows little about her origins except that her father disappeared early on.  Could she be a Selkie, that mythical creature part seal part human? Haunting, atmospheric.

 

   Bobcat and Other Stories by Rebecca Lee

 

I want Rebecca Lee to be my friend and tell me her stories—that’s what this stunning collection feels like. She puts in all the details I want to know, with fondness even in the saddest circumstances, and I’m never conscious of “writing”—it’s just juicy communication.  Examples of some content:  a Romanian fiancé who has a family back home, and the weird professor who gives poor Margit a technique to get overcome the hurt.  An eccentric, famed architect and his acolytes.  An American female friend drafted to find the right wife for Min in Hong Kong. Each story a jewel!

 

   A Treacherous Paradise by Henning Mankell

 

Mankell is a fascinating, prolific Swedish author who writes both mysteries and novels, many set in exotic locations. In the early 1900s, Hanna, poverty-stricken in Sweden, makes her way to relatives on the coast. They’re dead, it turns out, but she ends up as a cook on a boat, marries a seaman who dies, and jumps ship in Portuguese East Africa-- staying aboard would be too painful. She has some funds, finds lodging in a hotel that’s primarily a brothel, and eventually marries the brothel owner.  He dies and she ends up a rich, powerful, but lonely and haunted woman. The rampant racism embedded in colonial society disturbs her deeply. Hanna, a survivor, isn’t a totally sympathetic character, but the story is very compelling and dramatically reveals the roots of rebellion that reshaped Africa soon after.

 

   Sorry Please Thank You: Stories by Charles Yu

 

A mix of science fiction, philosophical inquiry, and sly humor—a strange package indeed. In the first tale, the protagonist works for a company that offers pain relief. He’ll experience the sensations from root canal to your grief over the death of a dear one. Another reports on computer game events like “real life;” In it they entreat a minor god named Fred with an umlaut over the e.  More odd material: a love-struck zombie in the mega store WorldSmart, a device that might deliver your desires but you better be careful what you wish for, and big Pharma tackling the market share of Dread, now that they’ve conquered Depression. There’s almost a graphic novel quality to these stories, but the words deliver the sinister cartoon perspective very effectively.

 

Back next Monday (and come see me at the Fairfax next Thursday 5/22 for my storytelling show).

 

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