Saturday, September 14, 2013

Short Story Super-Review

Hello again. Lately I've been reading a lot of short fiction collections, and I figured it might be better to lump reviews of them all together since I can't quite write a full review of a book of stories (I mean, I tried it with Tenth of December and it turned out okay, I guess).

xo Orpheus
Thanks, NetGalley!

This is a short story collection of myths rewritten by a bunch (re: 50) of authors. I have a strong interest in mythology, so this seemed like a great idea. And certainly there were parts of it that were a great idea. But it's a big collection (50 stories and almost 600 pages); not every story was interesting or well-done. I will confess that I skipped through quite a few of the tales, especially if the original myth was one I didn't know (which accounts for a large percentage of the book's end stories).

Collections like this are difficult to review. I could go through and tell you about each one, but that's exhausting and boring and I didn't even read them all. So here are a few highlights: "Anthropogenesis, Or: How to Make a Family", Laura van den Berg: a retelling of the Norse creation myth; "Devourings", Aimee Bender: This one claims to be a take on Cronos, but it ends up being a beautiful, sad tale about giving and taking and love. As enchanting and haunting as all Bender tales are; "Galatea", Madeline Miller: This one is a story from the point of view of Galatea, the statue created by Pygmalion. Also very sad, but very good; "Wait and See", Edith Pearlman: I have no idea what myth this is supposed to be. The book says it's the myth of human pentachromats, but I am not familiar with such a myth nor can I find one. So let's just say it's an original tale about a boy who can perceive far more colors than a normal human.

"Birdsong from the Radio", Elizabeth McCracken: This one is about "child-eating demon, Greek/Lamia", and is a story about a mother who loses her children and starts eating loaves of bread that she imagines is them. I keep saying that all of these are "sad and beautiful", but this is the case; "Narcissus", Zachary Mason: This one tries to rectify the (what the author believes is) flawed myth compilation of Echo and Narcissus. What can I say? Tragic and sad and heartbreaking but beautiful; "Lost Lake", Emma & Peter Straub: A Persephone tale. The authors (father and daughter) mention that the story kept wanting to lengthen itself, and I could feel it. Kind of disappointing as a short story, but very promising as a sketch for a novel. Wouldn't mind reading more.

It's not a terribly consistent collection. Looking back at the table of contents, I'm surprised by how many stories I actually didn't finish because they're boring. But the ones I put forward as my favorites were fantastic, certainly making the whole thing worth the effort. I just wish there had been a little more precision in the editing of the collection; maybe instead of 50 stories, we could have had 20. Or 25. Something.
My rating: 3.5/5

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt / Willful Creatures
Okay, so I've admitted it before and will admit it again--I'm a bad book blogger. I read these two collections, loved them, but forgot to write down which stories I liked so that I could talk about them in a review. Oops. Here's what I have to say about both of these books together: Aimee Bender's short stories remind me a lot of George Saunders': they're occasionally hyperreal, sometimes overflowing with some element of unreality, but they always manage to evoke simultaneously the beauty and the despair of the world around us. Heartbreaking, evocative and lushly-written.
My rating: 4.5/5

The Color Master
This book marks my third go-round with the short fiction of Aimee Bender, and I have to say that I came away from it feeling a little less satisfied than I did in my first two experiences. There is something dazzling about Bender's stories, at once beautiful, lush and desolate, hopeless. They're addictive and enchanting when she gets them right. Unfortunately, there were too many that didn't quite manage to correctly make use of her winning formula of realistic despair and magical realism.

Bender's collection is divided into three parts, and without a doubt is part three the strongest section--this is where she groups all of the stories that are vaguely unreal (or occasionally obviously unreal), including my three of my favorites, "The Devourings" (which also appears in the new collection xo Orpheus of retold myths), "Americca" and the titular "The Color Master" (which appeared in the anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, a collection of retold fairytales.

"The Red Ribbon" actually might be the best story in the bunch, and it appears at the beginning of the book, with four other stories that range from pretty good ("Faces") to sort of good ("Appleless" and "Tiger Mending"). But part two was a drag--the stories here are pretty long and devoid of magic, both in the literal sense and in the sense of "spark". I don't mean that the stories are bad, exactly, but they didn't have that same beautiful feeling of a feverish dream sequence I've come to expect of Bender.
My rating: 4/5

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
Coming to a decisive statement about my opinion on this collection of short stories is difficult. It's my first go-round with Karen Russell (though I've owned her Swamplandia! for about two years and never read it). I had heard good things about her short stories (and less-good things about her novel, which is why I'm avoiding it for now), so I figured it would be best to start here.

There are ten tales here, and there isn't really a bad one in the bunch. That's the good news. They're all interesting and well-written and vaguely George-Saunders-y in the way that they all seem to take place in weird, not-quite-real places (for example, an alligator-wrestling park, a camp for people with sleep disorders, and a beach with giant conch shells on it). They're pseudo-fantastic tales, not quite magical realism because there's nothing actually impossible about them. And they're all good.

So, my problem with them then is how they feel when they're done. I have read some non-fantastical short fiction (but lately my interests have been veering that way, so that's what I've been doing), so my conception of how a short story works is that everything is contained in that brief tale. And that's not the vibe I get from these.

Each story feels like it's been excerpted from some longer novel, and I wanted to know more. That's not necessarily the function of a short story collection, but would be great for a Karen Russell sampler if all of these were, in fact, longer works.

That said, there are some stories that the format works for. In particular, my favorites are "Z.Z.'s Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers", "from Children's Reminiscences of the Westward Migration", and "The City of Shells". I felt satisfied but curious at the conclusion of each of these tales.
My rating: 3.5/5

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