Category Archives: Literary Fiction

Fresh Complaint: Stories by Jeffrey Eugenides

Fresh Complaint Title: Fresh Complaint: Stories
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 978-0374203061
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Jeffrey Eugenides’ writing has come a long way. Who am I to judge that? His ardent fan. One of his ardent fans, who could not get enough of The Virgin Suicides or Middlesex or The Marriage Plot (weakest among the three and yet, I loved it to bits). One of his fans who cannot stop raving about his new book “Fresh Complaint”, a collection of short stories that shows family love, discovery of the self, adolescence, identity and what it means to be American (well, not all the time) through ten stunning stories (two of them which I found to be off, but loved them nonetheless).

I have also always believed that writing short stories is way more difficult than the novel. Short stories have to be taut. You cannot take liberties with time and space as you would in a novel and that makes them even more difficult when it comes to engaging with readers. In Eugenides’ stories we meet people who are broken, who are whole, who go through life in a daze and some who think they have it all under control and stumble only to realize that this isn’t the life they wanted anyway.

My favourite stories in this collection are “Baster” – which is funny and yet so tragic and also “Air Mail” – which is about Mitchell whose story was left hanging in The Marriage Plot and this story somewhat gives it closure. “Complainers”, the first story in the collection is about dementia, old age and above all of the beautiful friendship two women share over the years. And last but not the least, I absolutely could not get enough of the title story. “Fresh Complaint” is a story that could very well have been a novel. It is the story of a high school student whose wish to escape her immigrant family has consequences on a British physicists’ life beyond repair.

Characters in this collection are not kind all the time. They are just human. Eugenides allows his characters to make their mistakes, live their dreams and see regrets for what they are. He takes you to uncomfortable places and is not apologetic about it. These stories date from 1989 to 2017, out of which eight were previously published (I hadn’t read any). “Fresh Complaint” is a collection of stories that are real, insightful and dark, allowing characters to hide, to be seen and not without some humour as well.

 

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere Title: Little Fires Everywhere
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Little, Brown
ISBN: 978-1408709726
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 352
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I knew exactly what I was getting into as I started reading “Little Fires Everywhere” by Celeste Ng. I had read her first book two years ago called “Everything I Never Told You” and couldn’t wait to start her new one. I can for sure say that I enjoyed “Little Fires Everywhere” a lot more (sorry for that Celeste, though I also enjoyed your debut novel a lot as well). The prose, the description and more than that how life in America is when it comes to consumerism and parenthood at some point mingling together is brilliantly depicted in this novel of dysfunctional families, twisted minds and family ties.

“Little Fires Everywhere” begins with a house burnt down in a closely tight-knit planned community where nothing of this sort would be dreamed of happening by its residents. The idea of well-gated community called Shaker Heights, Ohio, circa 1997 says a lot about the Utopia and unwelcome change and how all if it disrupts the Richardson family’s seemingly happy life, when Mia (a charismatic artist) and her shy fifteen-year old daughter Pearl, move to the town as tenants in the house Mrs. Richardson inherited from her parents.

This triggers events – mainly the differences in their lifestyles and also what is the attitude of the Richardsons when old family friends on theirs decide to adopt a Chinese-American baby – that would one day lead to the Richardson’s own house burning. I am not giving away anything, don’t worry, but all I can say is that this book kept me up longer than I intended those two nights it took me to finish it.

Celeste Ng has this amazing quality of going easy on the reader mostly and then out of nowhere, she shows you the cracks in relationships, the changes as people interact with each other and how explosive it all is under a calm surface. I loved the writing. It is fast and yet bringing out the details of every character – the Richardson family (mother, father and four teenage children), Mia and Pearl (who I loved as the book moved along) and also the other couple – every detail, every sentence is in place when it comes to “Little Fires Everywhere”. The title is so layered – depicting the fires within and the ones that we see. The ones we also feel but deny and move along in life. If you have to read one book this October (while there is still time), make it this one.

 

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby by Cherise Wolas

The Resurrection of Joan Ashby Title: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby
Author: Cherise Wolas
Publisher: Flatiron Books
ISBN: 9781250166586
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 544
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

All Joan Ashby has ever wanted, since she was thirteen in fact, was to focus on her writing, write books and live independently without the care or concern of a husband or children. At the height of her fame and just when she is working on her full-length novel (up until now she has only written short stories), she meets Martin and falls in love with him. They seem to believe in the same things – kids are off the table and that their careers will always be placed above everything else. But of course, things aren’t what they seem. They get married and Joan accidentally becomes pregnant.

Martin then is ecstatic and Joan can sense the betrayal. The shift that takes place because of her pregnancy and how she is just there to raise a family and has to wait for years to work on her novel and what happens when she finally manages to finish the book is the plot of this book, “The Resurrection of Joan Ashby” by Cherise Wolas. It is about the small and the big betrayals of life, of hope, dreams, despair and how the choices you make end up impacting you for the rest of your life.

Let me just go on record and say this: I loved this book. I absolutely loved it. I loved the idea of a book within a book but more than anything else I loved Joan. Cherise Wolas has created a character that will be etched in people’s minds (if they read this book) for a long time. She is almost the new classic heroine who just wants to reclaim her life, one way or the other. The plot may seem pedestrian but it isn’t. Trust me, there is more to it than meets the eye.

The writing is super taut and yet with over 500 pages, it doesn’t seem too long at all. There is so much going on in the book that all I wanted to do was literally gulp all of it and could not stop wanting more. The heroine is just that – a heroine who wants to change her life – Joan wants that resurrection and goes after it at any cost, even if secrets start tumbling out of the closet. Is it a feminist novel? Sure, is and I am glad that it is to a very large extent. Wolas’s prowess is just showing and I hope her next one is out soon enough.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells

All Systems Red Title: All Systems Red: The Murderbot Diaries
Author: Martha Wells
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 978-0765397539
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“All Systems Red” is such a brilliant novella that I wished it never ended, but it did and I was only too happy knowing there is a sequel which I can get to later. It is a space-thriller, a science-opera like nothing else you would have read before. At least I hadn’t earlier. Can a droid have emotions? Can robots think for themselves and be empathetic? Is that even possible? Martha Wells asks these questions in her first episode of The Murderbot Diaries (I love the name of the series by the way) and makes you think as a reader if something like this could be remotely possible in the near-future.

Our protagonist is SecUnit, an AI robot who is not only shy but also quite self-aware. The world is being run by corporates and everything needs to be approved by The Company. These androids belong to the Company and on a planet which is quite distant from ours, a team of scientists are conducting tests. SecUnit is a part of the unit that is conducting these tests. It hates humans and all it longs for is to be left alone. It also refers to itself as Murderbot (now you get the link?). And of course, a mission that isn’t theirs goes wrong and it is up to the scientists and Murderbot to work together to get to the truth.

I am overwhelmed by the writing of Wells. It doesn’t read as science fiction and it so does that you are confused what you are reading at some point, which to me is a great quality to have in a writer. The novella is also funny by the way, more so because of what Murderbot thinks and never says out loud. I found myself laughing in so many places and yet the pace of excitement never dies. The plot is tight and the conclusion doesn’t disappoint at all. Read it for sure! Get the second part as well. You would want to read it right after.