This installment: a magical teen fantasy (f); dysfunctional Greeks in America (nf); more from Rakoff–delicious (nf;) African American in the ear (CD-f); expats in Japan– short stories (f);and South Indians in Cleveland (f).
Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente
How this got categorized as SF I’ll never know. It’s Russian folklore played out in Communist times and through the Siege of Leningrad. Marya watches as each sister is claimed by a suitor who fell as a bird and rose as a man just before he came to the door. Then it’s her turn, and the Tsar of Life sweeps her up. He’s fierce, demanding, and compelling and takes her on incredible journeys. I recognized many of the references and was especially fascinated by the role Baba Yaga plays. Anna Akhmatova’s poems grace each part. Atmospheric, full of sensual details, a plunge into a world of magic shadowed by grief.
Kookooland by Gloria Norris
I can’t get enough of these memoirs: growing up with “impossible” parents and living to tell the tale with verve. Gloria’s father Jimmy was Greek and he never let her and her sister forget it, dictating behavior, clothing, and lifestyle with a heavy hand. He also dominated his wife who wanted to flee but couldn’t do it. Jimmy was a scam artist with big dreams, including owning a winning racehorse, and the kids were often dragged along and became participants. Gloria escaped via college and became a very successful screenwriter. The family’s exploits and disasters sometimes left me gasping, but despite all the dark material (which you now know I relish) I could feel Gloria’s love for her kin. Ain’t life amazingly paradoxical?
The Uncollected David Rakoff
I’ve loved this writer from my first exposure via his witty, poignant vignettes on This American Life and mourned his death in 2012. So I pounced on this collection and reveled in his company yet again, with pieces from magazines, interviews with Terry Gross, and even his last work in verse which I revisited with pleasure. Lots of surprises, like assignments from Outside magazine; Rakoff was basically an indoor cat so his take on the challenges of wilderness coping is especially funny. And his essays on encroaching cancer heartbreaking. His voice is incredibly articulate, self-aware, and graced with glissandos of gay-speak. And I’m so glad for the chance to hear it one more time between covers.
Five-Carat Soul by James McBride
I read this first in book form and couldn’t quite connect but knew in the the ear it would work. Which on CD indeed it did. Short fiction with two longer pieces. The title refers to a rag-tag musical band of kids in a benighted community known as “the bottom,” mordantly funny. And another tkaes place in the zoo where animals know they are the “higher order” and can communicate in “thought-speak.” Note: they refer to humans as Smellies—gives one pause. Rich, spirited language throughout.
The Island Dwellers by Jen Silverman
Most of the protagonists in these short stories are marooned on solitary psychological islands, partly because they’re neurotic but mostly it’s a cultural gulf. In Japan they struggle with work, relationships, and misreading clues. In NYC they are artists and writers—god help them—floundering to make their mark. The absurdities of performance art get a good satirical workout here. Silverman is also a playwright and the set-ups and dialog reflect this vividly.
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
Harit in Cleveland works in “men’s furnishings.” Teddy, a coworker, is a warm, gay busybody and his only friend. Harit’s sister has died and at night he puts on a sari and lipstick, trying to comfort his mother who’s been subsumed by grief. Ranjana works in a proctologist’s office (yes, Dr. Butt) and at night, lonely in her long, arranged marriage, she writes escape fiction. Her son at college is love-struck at last, but is it the right girl? Somehow all these characters converge and finally come into their own. Touching, funny, and surprising.
Back next week.