Sour Heart: Stories

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Thank You to Random House Publishing Group for providing me with an advance copy of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT – Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories is a collection of connected stories following Chinese immigrants living in New York. There is a heavy emphasis on young, female characters, who are trying to understand both their new country and their parents, who lived through China’s cultural revolution.

LIKE- I grew up in a middle-class, culturally diverse neighborhood and many of my close friends are Chinese. Despite experiencing diversity in my life, I’ve realized that my reading selections are not as diverse as they could and should be. I’m grateful that Zhang’s Sour Heart: Stories found its way to my TBR Pile.

I was most interested in the parts that focused on the family relationships, specifically the differences between growing up during the Cultural Revolution and this new generation, that is growing up in America. There is a huge challenge with regard to communication between the generations. The challenge isn’t limited to the generations, it also comes with the different perspectives of the immigrants. Although they all arrive in America with little in way of possessions or money and they meet as strangers sharing a cramped apartment, each family does come from a different background and brings their unique perspective. Zhang’s stories are filled with a huge variety of character experiences.

My favorite story was the last chapter, one dealing with the title character who has been nicknamed Sour Heart for her love of sour foods. In the last story, she is an adult examining the relationship she has with her relatives, both her parents and relatives in China. It’s complicated and includes so many layers. How do you bond with blood when you live so far away and have had such differences in your life?

DISLIKE– As much as I admire Zhang’s storytelling, I have to admit that I felt a disconnect. I found the sections of the girls trying to fit in to their American schools, to be less engaging. Some of their behavior and frank sex talk didn’t ring true to my childhood experience and it was hard to connect.

RECOMMEND– Yes. Sour Heart: Stories was uneven for me, but I’d still recommend it. I’ve not been exposed to many other fictional stories on this subject and for diversity reasons, Sour Heart: Stories is a worthy read. When I was engaged in Zhang’s writing, she absolutely shined and I felt moved by her characters and prose. I look forward to discovering more of her writing.

Wicked Wonders

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Thank You to Tachyon Publications for providing me with an advance copy of Ellen Klages’ short story collection, Wicked Wonders, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOT– In her short story collection, Wicked Wonders, Ellen Klages explores a variety of themes; such as pregnancy in space, teenagers caught in a parallel world of classic board games, and what to do with a twenty-year old ham that has been aging in the basement of your childhood home. Wicked Wonders contains stories in several genres, including high fantasy, science-fiction, and literary fiction. Klages writes stories that are hilarious, heartbreaking, and unforgettable.

LIKEWicked Wonders is my first experience with Klages’ writing. Although I now realize that she is well-known and award-winning, I had not heard of her prior to this collection. I have added all of her books to my wishlist = must read more now! Wicked Wonders is marvelous. Klages has a unique world-view and her stories are both fresh and surprising. While reading this collection, I felt a range of emotions, from laughing to crying and everything in-between.

I loved that Klages included background info on all of her stories, explaining her inspiration for each. As a fellow writer, I felt relieved to find a kindred spirit in Klages with regard to how she becomes fixated on certain things, especially during research, and that her writing process is a little scattered. She’s an amazing writer and hearing about her process gives me hope!

The entire collection is strong, but here are a few of my favorite stories.

The Scary Ham – I didn’t realize this was non-fiction as I was reading it, but Klages confirms that this story was autobiographical, about her cleaning out her childhood home after her parents died. In the basement, her father has kept an expensive ham that he has been curing for two decades. Klages and her sister decide to throw a funeral for the ham. It’s hilarious. Having dealt with more than my fair share of family death and cleaning out homes, I can relate. I’ve never found a ham, but there are weird secrets lurking when you start emptying a house, and if you don’t laugh about it, you’d probably cry.

Echoes of Aurora– Jo returns to her childhood home after her father dies and meets a mysterious woman, who moves in with her. This story is beautiful and unexpected. I loved the story world, with Jo’s family having owned an arcade in a lakeside tourist town. The arcade has not been maintained over the years and it’s filled is unusual vintage machines. This mysterious story is a constant battle between decay and life.

Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s – Rachel is grounded on a Friday night at her Catholic boarding school and her evening is rather dull, until the new housekeeper, Mrs. Llewelyn, invites her to play a game. I loved the creativity in this story, with Rachel finding herself lost in a board game world. Clue is my all-time favorite board game, so I got a kick out of being included. This story is funny and sinister.

Goodnight Moons– Zoe has dreamed of space travel, and after years of hard work and good fortune, she has been picked to go on a colonization mission to Mars. It’s suppose to be short-term; years, not a lifetime. However, while Zoe is in space, she learns that she is pregnant and that changes everything. It’s hard to choose, but this may be my very favorite in Wicked Wonders. It stuck with me. It made me feel uncomfortable. The part that is troublesome is the reactions that Zoe receives regarding her pregnancy and the shift in her life. Baby aside, other choices now cease to be her own. Her wishes and dreams cease to matter. It’s terrifying.

DISLIKE– Nothing. Klages is such a gifted writer, I can’t wait to read more of her stories.

RECOMMEND– Yes, yes, yes!!!! Klages is the best “new-to-me” author discovery that I’ve made in a long time. I have a serious crush on her writing style. I enjoyed the diversity of the stories included in Wicked Wonders. I don’t often read fantasy or science-fiction, so it was great to step out of my reading comfort zone.

The Dinner Party and Other Stories

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Thank You to Little, Brown and Company for providing me with an advanced copy of Joshua Ferris’ The Dinner Party and Other Stories, in exchange for an honest review.

PLOTThe Dinner Party and Other Stories, is the first short story collection from award-winning novelist, Joshua Ferris.

LIKE– I can’t think of another author who writes stories that leave me feeling riddled with anxiety. I say this in the best possible sense, as Ferris leaves me feeling rattled and affected: His stories move me. I often pause to admire his creative descriptions or phrasing, and the way he writes short, sharp sentences that punch. He’s just so darn talented!

This is a fabulous collection, but I want to comment on a few of my favorite stories.

The Dinner Party – Everyone experiences friendship fall-out, but where the blame lies, is usually subjective. Amy and her husband have invited Amy’s long time friend and her husband over for dinner, but they never show. As they wait, Amy and her husband ( unnamed), make catty comments about their “friends” and bitch about them, often being quite cruel. Eventually as the night grows late and their phone calls go unanswered, their grumpiness turns to worry. Amy’s husband drives over to their friend’s house, only to discover that their friends, have thrown their own party on the same night. Rather than scuttle away, the husband decides to enter the party and be confrontational, especially when he finds other mutual friends at the party. The Dinner Party is often hilarious, but also holds a mirror up to our human tendency to gossip and complain about others, even those we consider to be friends.

The Valetudinarian – This story is hilarious and unpredictable, following a grumpy senior widower, Arty, as he experiences a birthday surprise. The characters really pop, they’re quirky, fitting with the Florida setting. Arty is a bit of a mess and desperate for attention, even if he has to get it through negative behavior. I couldn’t help but both like him and shake my head at his antics. This story was so unexpected and funny.

The Pilot – This one made my stomach knot and gave me anxiety. Leonard is a budding screenwriter and he has been invited to a Hollywood wrap party with highly influential people. This could lead to connections and his big break, but Leonard can’t seem to shake his worries. He’s paranoid that he wasn’t meant to be invited in the first place, he stresses over what to wear, he worries over the other people invited, et…he just can’t seem to relax. This level of tension is continued through the entire story and it’s infectious. The worst of it, is having lived in Los Angeles and been around industry friends, Leonard is a character that I know well.

A Fair Price – Jack needs help moving his stuff out of a self-storage unit and he hires Mike, a middle-aged man who has been recommended by Jack’s gardener. The two men couldn’t be any more different. Mike is quiet, blue-collar, and rough around the edges. Jack is white-collar and concerned about manners. Right off the bat, Jack feels that Mike hates him. To make matters worse, Mike reminds him of Jack’s abusive step-father. As the morning progresses, Jack magnifies every perceived slight and soon, his anger towards Mike grows out of control. I loved the pacing in this story, the building of a sense of danger. Jack’s internal dialogue is both funny and unhinged.

DISLIKE– Nothing. The collection is very strong, although there were a few stories that were less memorable than the ones mentioned above.

RECOMMEND– Yes! If you’re a short story fan, The Dinner Party and Other Stories is a fine collection, and if you are unfamiliar with Ferris, I’d like to direct you to any of his novels. He’s a gifted storyteller and a must-read author.

American Housewife

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I was browsing in Powell’s City of Books, when Helen Ellis’ short story collection, American Housewife, leaped off of the shelf, demanding to be read. Just take a minute to admire the awesome cover. It looks just like a photograph of my mom from the 50’s. if my mom had cotton candy hair. Those glasses, that tangerine sweater-set, the enormous curlers = if a book can be judged by its cover ( and I like to judge), I know that Ellis’ stories are going to take me on a fun ride.

PLOT American Housewife is Helen Ellis’ collection of short stories, all involving the title subject. What defines an American housewife? Ellis’ housewives are smart, snarky, and occasionally highly disturbed.

LIKE– Ellis is a fabulous writer with a gift for crafting unique sentences. For example, here is a sentence regarding the discovery of a new independent bookstore, that absolutely delighted me: from How to Be a Patron of the Arts =

It’s like you’ve found a unicorn grazing next to the dry cleaner that a friend told you could get cat barf out of cashmere.

It made me laugh-out-loud-

For five minutes-

In an airport.

Ellis fills all of her stories with this type of humor. There wasn’t a single clunker in the collection, but there were standouts. Here are the ones that I thought were stellar.

What I Do All Day – A less than three page laundry list of the activities that the narrator does in her typical day as a housewife. It’s hilarious, but what I admired most is Ellis’ pacing, and the way her story builds to the climax of forced dinner party conversation. As an American housewife myself, I found the idea of justifying my day to be extremely relatable.

Dumpster Diving with the Stars – The narrator, a not-quite-famous writer, goes on a reality show that involves dumpster diving and challenges akin to Antiques Roadshow. I loved all of the pop-culture references, including John Lithgow as a contestant. The title rocks, and makes me wonder if a show like this has ever been pitched. Yes, is the likely answer.

The Fitter – The narrator’s husband is a famous bra fitter, with women angling to make him their next husband, while his wife is near death, after first having a mastectomy. Although there is humor in this story, it was very dark, and the emotional pain of the narrator was palpable. The ending was very much a surprise.

My Novel is Brought to you by the Good People at Tampax – A cautionary tale of an author who signs a contract with Tampax to endorse their products in her novel, and then faces a combination of writer’s block and procrastination. She learns that Tampax will not accept excuses, and that not just her writing, but basically her life, is theirs, until she fulfills her contractural obligation. This made me feel paranoid about my own writing schedule. Miley Cyrus and Paula Deen make appearances as poster-children for reinvention.

DISLIKE– Nothing. American Housewife is a highly-entertaining collection by a gifted writer.

RECOMMEND– YES!!! Helen Ellis is a treasure, and I will be on alert for more of her stories. I can’t recommend this author or American Housewife, enough. A fabulous story collection!