This installment: an exploration of Good Samaritans in action (nf); short stories set in Leningrad, Chechnya and beyond (f); the latest Pushcart (nf); swimming, HIV and teenage angst (f); a picaresque, surrealistic ride (f); and a broke taxidermist plus brain transplants–another wild ride (f).
Strangers Drowning by Larissa MacFarquar
A long subtitle: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help. It’s a fascinating subject. Here are folks who would make that decision to sacrifice their own child if two others could be saved. Examples include a family which dedicates their lives to lepers in India, a couple who adopt many special-needs kids, and a woman who gives away most of her income to the needy. (I have to admit that I gobbled up these life stories but skimmed much of the thoughtful explorations of the historical, sociological, and philosophical underpinnings of such actions.)
The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra
Linked short, stories which take place in Leningrad, rural Chechnya, and (way) beyond via an absurd, homemade rocket ship. Spying, censorship, conscription—all the hallmarks of the Soviet regime—come into play. Sometimes the results are tragic, sometimes very funny, and often a mix. (I love that Slavic melancholy; my husband John used to characterize the Russian people with the following phrase in a thick accent: “we could be heppy if we veren’t so sad.”) What a landscape Marra evokes, with its rusting fabricated “birch” forest, its toxic lake, and the lush meadow that masks a minefield. Sometimes a bit overwhelming and if I were a drinker, a shot of vodka would help it go down, but I loved it anyway.
Pushcart Prize XL—Best of the Small Presses
I look forward to this fat paperback compendium every year because otherwise I might never see these stories, essays or poems, and they’re all so high quality. Some by well-known authors like Wendell Berry and Anthony Doerr, but all from relatively obscure publications like Cave Point and Glimmer Train Stories. A few favorites: Zadie Smith’s story about an aging transvestite doing battle in the Clinton Corset Emporium. And a piece by Doerr about an old log cabin in Boise, ID, an imagined look at the family that lived there long ago, and the nature of home. Don’t be daunted by the heft; just dip in and out and be surprised by joy around every corner.
Dryland by Sara Jaffe
Julie at 15 in the early ‘90s moves through her life with familiar teenage angst. The unacknowledged family shadow: her older brother Jordan, a former Olympic swimming champion, has been living in Berlin for 3 years, out of touch. She ends up on the swim team, has to overcome self-sabotage but finds meditative solace in the water. She connects with an old friend of Jordan’s, learns her brother is gay, and gets a sense he’s HIV-afflicted. She also comes to terms with her own sexual leanings. This stripped-down telling feels absolutely authentic and I appreciated access to Julie’s interior journey towards painful yet necessary truth.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
One of those really odd books that both tickled and confused me in turn. An eccentric auctioneer nicknamed Highway narrates his story in a singular voice. His greatest coup is to sell his old teeth, replaced by dentures, as if each tooth comes from the mouth of a historical or literary figure. He gets rich but then is brought down by his estranged son Siddhartha. Famous names are mish- mashed (like Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges,) and some of the most surrealistic sounding scenes actually occurred and are documented with photographs. Bigger than life, picaresque and ridiculous, Highway leads us through the trajectory of his adventures with unflagging spirit. Don’t try to figure it out; just go along for the wild ride.
The New and Improved Romie Futch by Julia Elliott
I almost gave up on this one at first because it was so gross and hyperbolic. But I kept slogging through the swamp (sometimes literally) with horror-fascination and then I was hooked. Romie is a broke taxidermist who signs up for an experimental program that inserts chunks of knowledge into his brain. Now his vocabulary is positively baroque but the side effects, the weird atmosphere of the institution, and its apparently sinister motives are a considerable downside to the much-needed stipend. Romie’s also on the trail of Hogzilla . In the brave new world of GMOs pigs do have wings and this terrifying behemoth proves a formidable opponent. Pretty ridiculous but what a story, and I found myself rooting for Romie with vigor.
Back next Monday.