Novel with a cliff

Image of book cover: The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
Colm Toibin is still a favorite.

The Blackwater Lightship is a short novel about a 1990s Irish family, years fallen out, who come together when one of the siblings is near the end of his life from AIDS. The main character, Helen, must try to put aside deep pain and anger to be with her mother, brother, and grandmother, and in the week they co-habitate, confront the past. The dialog is raw and direct, and the setting, a house on a cliff overlooking the sea, complements the tone.


Crowd-Sourced Short Story Recommendations

Illustration of The Semplica Girl Diaries by George Saunders

This list was culled from a twitter feed by Lisa Lucas, who asked people to respond with their ONE favorite short story. I entered these into a spread sheet and should have separated first and last names, but I didn’t and so you have the odd name format. The original tweet thread is here: Lisa Lucas’s thread about short stories

Mambo Sauce | Acker, Camille
Zimmer Land | Adjei-Brenyah, Nana Kwame
Do You Know Where I Am | Alexie, Sherman
The Future Looks Good | Arimah, Lesley Nneka
What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky | Arimah, Lesley Nneka
Safe Passage | Ausubel, Ramona
Paul’s Case | Cather, Willa
Sonny’s Blues | Baldwin, James
The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D | Ballard, J.G.
The Lesson | Bambara, Toni Cade
The Johnson Girls | Bambara, Toni Cade
The Persimmon Tree | Barnard, Marjorie
The School | Barthelme, Donald
Fiber | Bass, Rick
Sign of My Own | Bender, Aimee
Quiet Please | Bender, Aimee
Loser | Bender, Aimee
Dr. H.A. Moynihan | Berlin, Lucia
The Immortal | Borges, Jorge Luis
The Library of Babel | Borges, Luis
Distant Episode | Bowles, Paul
The Veldt | Bradbury, Ray
All in a Summer Day | Bradbury, Ray
There Will Come Soft Rains | Bradbury, Ray
Pacific Radio Fire | Brautigan, Richard
The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye | Byatt, A.S.
Racine and the Tablecloth | Byatt, A.S.
Distance of the Moon | Calvino, Italo
The Fat Man in History | Carey, Peter
Bicycles Muscles Cigarettes | Carver, Raymond
A Small, Good Think | Carver, Raymond
The Bees | Chaon, Dan
Why I Live at the PO | Welty, Eudora
The Man in a Case | Chekhov, Anton
Gooseberries | Chekhov, Anton
About Love | Chekhov, Anton
The Lady With the Little Dog | Chekhov, Anton
The Wife of His Youth | Chestnutt, Charles
Hell is the Absence of God | Chiang, Ted
Story of Your Life | Chiang, Ted
Omphales | Chiang, Ted
Story of An Hour | Chopin, Kate
One Holy Night | Cisneros, Sandra
Eleven | Cisneros, Sandra
The Southern Thruway | Cortazar, Julio
White Angel | Cunningham, Michael
The Point | D’Ambrosio, Charles D.
End of a Struggle | Davila, Amparo
The Necklace | DeMaupassant, Guy
The Breakthrough | du Maurier, Daphne
Paper Lantern | Dybek, Stuart
We Didn’t | Dybek, Stuart
Black Box | Egan, Jennifer
Twilight of the Superheroes | Eisenberg, Deborah
Flying Home | Ellison, Ralph
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank | Englander, Nathan
Robert E. Lee is Dead | Evans, Danielle
A Rose for Emily | Faulkner, William
The Machine Stops | Forster, E.M.
American Hippo | Gailey, Sarah
The Goldfish Pool | Gaiman, Neil
Girl on the Plane | Gaitskill, Mary
A Romantic Weekend | Gaitskill, Mary
The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street | Gallant, Mavis
The Pedersen Kid | Gass, William
Betty and Veronica | Geddes, Luke
A Jar of Emeralds | Giles, Molly
The Yellow Wallpaper | Gilman, Charlotte Perkins
City Visit | Haslett, Adam
Collected Likenesses | Hatley, Jamey
A Full-Service Shelter | Hempel, Amy
Sing For It | Hempel, Amy
In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried | Hempel, Amy
My Father’s Mask | Hill, Joe
The Lottery | Jackson, Shirley
Like Mother Used to Make | Jackson, Shirley
The Tooth | Jackson, Shirley
Elizabeth | Jackson, Shirley
The Open Window | Jackson, Shirley
The Beast in the Jungle | James, Henry
Interesting Facts | Johnson, Adam
China | Johnson, Charles
Emergency | Johnson, Denis
Car Crash While Hitchhiking | Johnson, Denis
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden | Johnson, Denis
Control Negro | Johnson, Jocelyn Nicole
The Girl Who Raised Pigeons | Jones, Edward P.
The Devis Swims Across the Anacostia River | Jones, Edward P.
Marie | Jones, Edward P.
The Dead | Joyce, James
Araby | Joyce, James
The Dead BY | Joyce, James
A Pitch Too High for the Human Ear | Kennedy, Cate
Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters  | Kim, Alice Sola
Girl | Kincaid, Jamaica
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption | King, Stephen
You, Disappearing | Kleeman, Alex
A Temporary Matter | Lahiri, Jhumpa
The Third and Final Continent | Lahiri, Jhumpa
White Noise | Lanagan, Margot
The Boat | Le, Nam
Love and Honor and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice | Le, Nam
The Ones who Walk Away from Omolas | LeGuin, Ursula K.
Stone Animals | Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners | Link, Kelly
The Paper Menagerie | Liu, Ken
Real Women Have Bodies | Machado, Carmen Maria
Help Me Follow My Sister Into the Land of the Dead | Machado, Carmen Maria
The Husband Stitch | Machado, Carmen Maria
I Only Came to Use the Phone | Marquez, Gabriel Garcia
A Tree A Rock A Cloud | McCullers, Carson
The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas | McKnight, Reginald
A Magic of Bags | Mecca, Jamilah
Patriotism | Mishima, Yukio
Death of a Chieftain | Montague, John
Boys | Moody, Rick
People Like That are the Only People Here | Moore, Lorrie
Vissi d’arte | Moore, Lorrie
Dance in America | Moore, Lorrie
Peole Like Us Are the Only People Here | Moore, Lorrie
The Way of the Apple Worm | Muller, Herta
Passion | Munro, Alice
Vandals | Munro, Alice
Meneseteung | Munro, Alice
The Bear Came Over the Mountain | Munro, Alice
Queenie | Munro, Alice
Gravel | Munro, Alice
Fiction | Munro, Alice
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage | Munro, Alice
In the Land of Men | Nelson, Antonya
The Gift of the Magi | O Henry
A View of the Woods | O’Connor, Flannery
Good Country People | O’Connor, Flannery
A Good Man is Hard to Find | O’Connor, Flannery
Guests of the Nation | O’Connor, Frank
My First Confession | O’Connor, Frank
I Stand Here Ironing | Olsen, Tillie
Ineffectual Tribute to Len | Orner, Peter
Geese | Packer, Z.Z.
Wants | Paley, Grace
Goodbye and Good Luck | Paley, Grace
Solo on the Drums | Petry, Ann
The Tell-Tale Heart | Poe, Edgar Allen
The Cask of Amontillado | Poe, Edgar Allen
Brokeback Mountain | Proulx, Annie
The Ascent BY | Rash, Ron
Cat Person | Roupenian, Katie
Kindred Spirits | Rowell, Rainbow
Reeling for the Empire | Russell, Karen
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves | Russell, Karen
Empire | Russell, Karen
Orange World | Russell, Karen
Proving Up | Russell, Karen
All the Names They Used for God | Sachdeva, Anjali
For Esme, with Love and Squalor | Salinger, J.D.
The Last Wish | Sapkowski, Andrzej
Tenth of December | Saunders, George
Escape from Spiderhead | Saunders, George
Sea Oak | Saunders, George
The Semplica Girl Diaries | Saunders, George
Love and Hydrogen | Shepard, Jim
Gimple the Fool | Singer, IB
The Prairie Wife | Sittenfeld, Curtis
The Old Forest | Taylor, Peter
The Death of Ivan Ilyich | Tolstoy, Leo
Mrs. Silly | Trever, William
Opa-Locka | Vandenberg, Lauren
Harrison Bergeron | Vonnegut, Kurt
The Quiet Man | Walsh, Maurice
Aftermath | Waters, Mary Yukari
The Blind Country | Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine | Wells, H.G.
A Worn Path | Welty, Eudora
The Best of Betty | Willet, Jincy
The Wedding | Williams, Joy
Bullet in the Brain | Wolff, Tobias

Review: Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise

** spoiler alert ** Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise asks readers to abandon preconceived ideas about what a novel should be and allow three characters to share their own specific experiences that (tangentially) center on a failed high school romance. There have been some recent examples of this type of multi-perspective novel, including Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. These types of novels require a concerted effort to understand what core truth will hold its parts together. And Susan Choi’s novel fits into the category, though not as successfully.
The first half of the novel is about Sarah, one of the teens in love, who attends a prestigious arts high school. She meets David; they have a powerful sexual connection but are unequipped to relate beyond the physical, and things fizzle after they have a public act of sexual congress in their school hallway.

This third-person narrative is about Sarah’s breakup agony and her pain when beloved drama teacher Mr. Kingsley mines the Sarah/David relationship with some repetitive trust exercises the whole class must watch, “So much of what they do, with Mr. Kingsley, is restraint in the name of release. It seems they have to throttle their emotions to have complete access to them.” (These excruciating scenes recall the brainwashing episode in the movie The Master, where nascent Scientologists make Joaquin Phoenix run into a wall over and over again). Eventually, Sarah is demoted to the crew that takes care of the costumes and lighting. In her castigation, Sarah is out of Kingsley’s protective embrace and left to the wiles of a troupe of students from England, and their teacher, Martin, who were invited to put on Voltaire’s Candide and end up scandalizing the program with a bawdy performance that causes the show to be cancelled.
The writing in this first part is stylized and energetic, “By and large, the girls grow increasingly serious as the boys grow increasingly ludicrous. The girls no longer walk, they glide, they skim, they slice” and Sarah’s honest observations about the limits of the teenage perspective and the perils of thwarted romance leave readers with an assumed understanding of the facts.

The second part of the novel knocks those facts down. Here, a character only barely mentioned, Karen, is out to avenge herself because she’d been unfairly excised in Sarah’s published novel. That’s right, Part One is not an omniscient close narration of Sarah’s story, but Sarah’s own words ripped from her life, molded into art, by her. In Karen’s view, Karen and Sarah were in a friendship that has been unfairly kept from Sarah’s novel. Karen regards herself as a person with impeccable memory and precise language. She relies on dictionary definitions and word origins to bolster her arguments; they are proof that she is the better thinker, that she knows herself better than Sarah knows Sarah via the novel. Yet Karen reveals that she has read only 131 pages of Sarah’s book, which, if true, means that she isn’t responding to the text as much as she is the erasure of the friendship and the weight it deserves.

Carefully recalling the details of both stories, the “real” novel becomes more metafictional exercise than cohesive story. While it is supposedly a correction to the record from the artifices of Sarah’s novel, Karen’s account farcically manipulates the characters, twelve years later, into performing in a bad play. To achieve this, Karen finesses an alcoholic, abased David into letting her manage the details of his theater productions; she insinuates herself into a starring role in the play; she lures novelist Sarah to come be her dresser for old time’s sake; she eagerly awaits the arrival of playwright Martin, the former teacher from the fiasco that was Candide. For Karen had had a sexual relationship with Martin, who had been over forty at the time she was sixteen, and after he returned to England, stopped communicating with her. As payback, she will surprise him as his co-star. And she has a surprise for Sarah, also payback for being abandoned by Sarah in their lives and in Sarah’s novel. Karen’s accounting of all this feels like bent nails cobbling together a manic convergence of all the pain from her past. Karen will not be a side character. No way.

Karen’s final paragraph could have been the end of the book, but Choi wasn’t content to stop there. Instead, a third voice emerges, one not yet heard from in either Sarah’s or Karen’s sections. And while the facts of Karen’s story aren’t pushed aside, this new perspective adds confusion that destabilizes Choi’s novel further. At minimum, a successful reading experience asks that the reader be gratified that the effort yields some satisfaction, if not enjoyment. A challenging text can be a revelation, even if it requires some thumbing back through the pages. Yet if there are no markers to a truth, it is nothing in the end more than a game. That is the fate of Trust Exercise. A strong first half buffeted by a frenetic rebuttal might have been enough. But some of the power of that interplay was blurred by the coda.

Colm Toibin on The Novel

“The novel is not a moral fable or a tale from the Bible, or an exploration of the individual’s role in society; it is not our job to like or dislike characters in fiction, or make judgments on their worth, or learn from them how to live. We can do that with real people and, if we like, figures from history. They are for moralists to feast on. A novel is a pattern and it is our job to relish and see clearly its textures and its tones, to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put into place…. A novel is a set of strategies, closer to something in mathematics or quantum physics than something ethics or sociology. It is a release of certain energies and a dramatization of how these energies might be controlled, given shape.”

–Colm Toibin (from Mark Athitakis’ Fiction Notes blog) #books #purpose

March 2018 Wrap-up

Force of Nature by Jane Harper. A follow-up to Harper’s The Dry, an Aaron Faulk mystery set in Australia. Force of Nature does not quite live up to the first book in the series, but it’s still a solid mystery with good characterization and plot.

This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Connell. A family saga and romance that gives readers a multi-perspective experience. It might not all come together, but the individual chapters show us the characters’ inner lives and overall, it’s a fun and sweet book.

Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag. Best read of the month. This a novella about a Bangladesh family who comes into some wealth after living in sparse poverty for decades, and what happens to the family’s disposition when they’ve grown accustomed to doing and buying whatever they desire. Do not read any spoilers for this book, just jump in. This book appears to be the only of Shanbhag’s works that have been translated into English. I hope that soon more work will be available.

Hoping for a more productive reading month in April.

February 2018 Wrap-up

The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher. Published in the mid-1980s, this is a well-crafted family saga about a widow and her three self-concerned children. She wants to return to her childhood village for a last remembrance, and none of her adult children will come with her. Over the course of several months, we are allowed to look back at her life during wartime, new marriage, true love, and the devastating loss of her parents. The back story is rich and interesting; the modern story, less so. All in all, it is a fine book, but unremarkable.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro. This novel is a booktube darling, but it is a book where a greater context, how the characters fit into the modern post-9/11 world, is lacking. A woman isn’t terribly satisfied with her lackluster marriage (kind husband who doesn’t know how to communicate his needs nor be curious enough to ask her, and the main character, who forbears and then withdraws.) The second she meets a writer who can talk to her via email about theology and literature, she is snagged into a cozy world of infidelity. The letters they write back and forth aren’t particularly interesting. She shows him poetry (which I like) and he makes some comments. In the long run, the relationship peters out and she writes a sermon about it, a sermon I found unpersuasive.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti. A teenage daughter slowly learns about the fate of her dead mother and the ribald life of her father, Samuel. He has been shot twelve times, and each bullet hole symbolizes one of the adventurous stories. He is a criminal, unconcerned with society, unable to make many friends, and trying to hold on to his daughter. The action scenes are fun to read. Overall, the book comes together, though again, I like the old timelines better than the contemporary one.

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam. Here’s a novel of infidelity that is truly mired in the politics and social class struggle of 2012. It’s the summer before the presidential election, so the world hasn’t yet been inflicted with Trumpism, but you can feel it coming when the protagonist has an affair with a funder of right-wing causes that have insinuated themselves into U.S. politics. The characters are richly drawn and the main character is deeply flawed and guilt ridden. He’s a one-hit wonder cartoonist, teaching at a writing conference. If you’ve ever been surrounded by writers, you will recognize some of these types of people, some talented, some not, but a good portion who are neurotic and jealous of the success of others, and scared of losing luster. It’s a funny novel, but also buttressed by deep melancholy. And it’s a more moral novel than Fire Sermon.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The purpose of this novel is not to adjudicate the corruption of the legal system of the South, but to show how being falsely convicted and jailed for a rape can harm the already tenuous bonds of a rocky marriage. It is not perfect, but deeply moving and honest. The couple, Roy and Celestine, grapple with realities as best they can, neither failing but neither succeeding.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Fourteen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell. A memoir that expertly weaves together chance encounters and illnesses that could have caused the author, O’Farrell, to die. These range from an almost-drowning to encephalitis. The chapters are not arranged chronologically, but they do all culminate in a devastating final essay about O’Farrell’s daughter. This is some of the best writing I’ve read in a long time.


Page 112 evaulation: Thoughts

Shawn the Book Maniac came up with a fascinating tag for his booktube channel that is based on a French prize wherein the judges bestow their prize solely on the text of page 112 of the submitted materials. He has several variations on the tag and one is the ‘totally blind’ version where his viewers send him the text of page 112 for three books and then he decides whether or not he’d read the book on that page alone. It’s fun to watch his reaction to the texts and think about how subjective reading tastes are.

But it gives an awful lot of weight to one page that may or may not be indicative of the greater novel or even the author’s body of work as a whole. The thrill of choosing what book to read next is based on so many influences. I would hate to write off an author entirely based on three hundred words.

The motto of this exercise should be, “They’re only books.” I do enjoy these videos and hope they keep going for as long as it’s fun for the booktuber.

Link to Shawn’s latest 112 video where I submitted three excerpts.