Office Girl

Office Girl by Joe Meno by Joe Meno
ISBN: 9781617750762

This novel takes place during a snowy Chicago winter in 1999. This means no one has a cell phone, or talks much about the internet, or the “new normal” of our economy. Odile and Jack, the twentysomething protagonists, talk about art and crappy jobs and wondering when or if what they think of as their real lives will start.

The things bored twentysomethings have always talked about, right? Only here it isn’t annoying — maybe because it’s the past and so we see the characters in action instead of watching them update Facebook with their suffering and ennui — it’s charming, in that “can you remember when?” sort of way.

Really terrible things don’t happen in this book and arguably really amazing things don’t happen either, though you think and perhaps hope they will. (But I didn’t want a sappy ending.) It’s winter in Chicago and there is so much snow muffling the sounds of the city. Snow brings a certain quiet, a softness to sounds and temporary transformations of the landscape and this is the perfect setting for Jack and Odile, because they can’t commit to anything too loud, anything beyond the temporary. They lack the ability, and mostly lack the willingness, but strugle on in hopes it won’t always be the way it is now.

Reading their story reminded me of how, when you are younger, you can go to extremes to avoid what you think will be crushing embarrassment but really the actions you take to avoid it just make it worse. Meno supplies two alternate titles to Office Girl: Bohemians, or Young People on Bicycles Doing Troubling Things. I suppose either of these would have worked, though the actual title fits and conjures up a sort of wonder about the office girl. It’s a wonder Odile should have about herself, but doesn’t.

Interspersed with the text are photos from Todd Baxter and drawings from Cody Hudson, who if you are a Meno fan you will recognize from his story collection Demons in the Spring. I liked the additions, though the simple line drawings reproduced much better than the black and white photographs. I enjoyed reading this novel, as I did Meno’s last (The Great Perhaps) but I am left wanting more stories. I want another collection like Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir, because I think Meno offers more sting and thought per page with them. Still, recommended.

Suddenly a Knock on the Door

Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keretby Etgar Keret
ISBN: 9780374533335
Stories translated by Miriam Shlesinger, Sondra Silverston, and Nathan Englander

Do you like short stories with a bite? Absurdity cranked to 11, yet things seem more real than ever? Then Keret’s stories are worth your time. Talking goldfish, unzipping people, and the Cheesus Christ restaurant chain aren’t part of our real world but are real when you are reading the stories.

I’ve been a fan of Keret’s work since reading his earlier collection, The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories. I find him difficult to talk about as a writer, because it seems in part that you spoil the oddity and magic of the stories if you try and explain what makes them compelling.

Can you imagine a land where our lies are real flesh and blood people? Where being with Christopher Robin is hell? Where you keep the necessities for a chance at happiness in your pockets? Etgar Keret can. Highly recommended.

Destroy All Monsters

Destroy All Monsters by Greg Hrbekby Greg Hrbek
ISBN: 9780803236448

When the first story in a collection features a baby that does not suffer from severe birth defects in the way everyone seems to think becausehe obviously isn’t defective, he’s a centaur — well, you know it’s going to be interesting going.

And it is. Teen life on death row, actors in b-movie monster flicks, potential and actual suicides, a ghost that possibly isn’t a ghost but really is, a solution that is probably monstrous but possibly isn’t all figure in Hrbek’s stories. That this slim volume isn’t unbearably depressing given some of the subject matter is something of a series of small miracles. The stories are often dark, but they are not without hope of any kind. They suck you in, and even when you know it can’t end well, you need to see the end.

Beatrice and Virgil

Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel by Yann Martel
ISBN: 9780812981545

This book should not work.

It isn’t that Martel can’t write: he clearly can. The early The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios is good, and Life of Pi is magical — a magically tough act to follow, one would think.

So, Martel follows it up with a novel that shouldn’t work. It’s too meta — the protagonist is a writer who stalls out after a major success. Henry has an idea, a powerful idea, but he can’t seem to write it in a way so that others can grasp the power of his idea.

How do you write about the Holocaust? How do you write about anything else in a world where the Holocaust happened? That’s right: Martel doesn’t go for easy questions, he goes for the big ones, and in this story he is Henry — writing not obviously but obviously about the Holocaust. See how it shouldn’t work? And I haven’t even mentioned yet that the main part of the story is a play featuring talking animals: a donkey (Beatrice) and a howler monkey (Virgil). The play’s author is a old man, a reclusive taxidermist, and it is his life’s work.

The language is what you’d expect from Martel, which is to say it carries you along and occasionally stops you in your tracks because it is so good. Taking a line out of context (“Those who carry a knife and a pear are never afraid of the dark”) risks robbing it of its power. Martel is a master of context.

That’s why he can write a book that shouldn’t work — because it is too meta, the subject matter is too difficult — and make it work. It works, from the opening pages, to recounting a little-known Flaubert story, to Henry working with the taxidermist on his play, to the twist that is surprising and a bit sickening, to the impossible games at the end. It’s about important questions, about matters of conscience, and how the answers are not easy — and they aren’t supposed to be.

It’s the kind of book that will make you cry in public, if that is where you are when you are reading it. It is disturbing. It is absolutely worth reading.

The Odditorium

The Odditorium by Melissa Pritchardby Melissa Pritchard
ISBN: 9781934137376

This collection of short stories certainly seemed like it would be my thing: full of strangeness, unexpected circumstances, and seemingly no concern for being slotted into one genre or timeframe.

It mostly delivered. I like smart weird, meaning the weird is not done for the sake of weird, it’s naturally the way most things aren’t. If I haven’t lost you in that last sentence, this book is probably for you. The stories are set in a military hospital in WWII, the west of Annie Oakley’s girlhood, in a Virginia hotel that has seen better days, in the New York Public Library, and in modern New Delhi, among other places. They might involve a plan for murder, or actual murder, or wax figurines of the infant Jesus, or the fact-checking. In all cases, the language is detailed and sure of itself and there is no hurry (and also no reluctance) to get to the end of the story.

Pritchard’s stories aren’t easy, aren’t obviously trendy, and have a curious staying power. I didn’t fall in love with them, but I did find myself thinking about them long after I’d put the book down.

Orientation and Other Stories

Orientation and Other Stories, Daniel Orozcoby Daniel Orozco
ISBN: 9780865478534

The title story in this collection is darkly funny and will be recognized as such by anyone who has spent time in cubeville. I liked this story the most.

It isn’t that everything was a let down after reading the first story. I was drawn to the workers in “The Bridge”, disturbed by the narrator in “I Run Every Day” and appreciated the un- and intentional humor in “Officers Weep”. “Somoza’s Dream” is by far the longest story in the book, and in it Orozco shows what he can do with shifting perspective, but it didn’t get to me the way some of the others did. Presidente in Exile’s story wasn’t as compelling to me as the bridge painter’s, or the warehouse worker’s, or the temp’s. Orozco has a knack for identifying grinding foolishness in the modern workplace.

I’ll be curious to see what else Orozco writes.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggsby Ransom Riggs
ISBN: 9781594744761

The weird vintage photographs on the book cover drew me in. They are compellingly weird: whole-head masks and a coiled tube; a sad, jacketed boy in a bunny costume, and an eerily doubled reflection among others. If you don’t think these photos sound interesting, you can safely skip this book and the rest of this post. If you do think it sounds interesting, you’re probably wondering if it is as good as it seems.

The story is good — there are more strange photographs, and secrets, and special abilities. If this sounds at all familiar, it must be because you’ve read some of the most popular young adult titles ever: not just Harry Potter, but Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, too. And it appears it will be the first in a series, as a bidding war for the movie rights resulted in the announcement of a sequel. (I believe the book is nearly always better, though if Riggs gets his wish and Tilda Swinton plays Miss Peregrine, I will definitely go see it in the theater.)

So it is a good story. I want to say the book is great, but the writing falls a bit short of the magic I’d want to feel to say it was great. (By way of comparison, I thought Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making had that magic.) If you want a good story, are intrigued by monsters, or are curious to see how a writer weaves a story from found artifacts (the photographs are all real vintage images) you’d probably like this.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

by Stephanie Johnson
ISBN: 9780982151211

I get irritated when I read yet another article about how short stories don’t sell. I no longer read much past the headlines of these pieces, because I think they are foolish. People love stories. We never get sick of good stories, we’ll listen to them over and over (and read them more than once, too). Ok, fine, most people probably don’t buy them in book form as often as I do, but that is really because most people don’t buy as many books as I do.

I liked this collection of stories. They have good pain in them, the kind of thing that you recognize and maybe wince when you read. Johnson writes about real life (“My Neighbor Doesn’t Remember Everything She Forgets”) in such a way that even when she is referencing a famous movie character (“The Real Mrs. Robinson Takes a Moment to Reconsider”) you know she is talking about real things not movie and tv things, and certainly not “reality” tv things. She’s also funny, but in the less obvious, not a laugh track kind of way (“Marriage”, “Dragons”).

Because some of the stories feel like a gut punch — can you say that and add “in a good way” or is that too weird? as generally speaking gut punches are not good things — I will be looking forward to her next collection.

And Yet They Were Happy

by Helen Phillips
ISBN: 9781935248187

This book is a collection of many stories, all just 340 words long, arranged in twenty groups. The groupings could be seen as relationship milestones (the fights, the brides, the weddings, the wives, the offspring) or warnings (the envies, the mistakes, the monsters, the apocalypses) or a list of almost fairytale like elements, a checklist of the stuff stories are made from (the failures, the mothers, the hauntings). There are between four and ten stories in each group, simply titled “Far-Flung Family #3” or “Drought #6”.

It sounds well-organized, and it is, and that is so you don’t get lost in the two pages of strangeness. Not that you’d really get lost, as these stories are recognizably about relationships, in all their bizarreness, deceit, hope, and wonder. That’s really what each of the groupings are — refracted views of a relationship.

If you are looking for a conventional novel, with a plot that moves from point A to point B, skip this as it will make you crazy. If on the other hand you are up for something more experimental, a read that might not always make linear or literal sense but still pulls you in, give it a try. Phillips can be playful and biting and writes lines that you’ll find yourself returning to, like this one:

Why, why, why does this always happen? Reality lags so very far behind everything else.

Recommended. If you are curious, there’s more info and a book trailer on the author’s website.

The Family Fang

by Kevin Wilson
ISBN: 9780061579035

I thought Wilson’s collection of stories, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, was brilliant. I’ll confess to harboring a slight disappointment that his next book would be a novel (the stories really are that good). Upon reading this, my disappointment completely vanished.

It started to disappear the moment Kevin Wilson started to read. I was lucky enough to get to attend a book reading — and it turns out, his nervousness aside, Wilson does a great job reading. It helps that his book is so damn funny and weird.

It is generationally weird. The Fangs are performance artists, and they’ve done a pretty weird job raising their two kids, Annie and Buster Fang, aka child A and child B. The kids weren’t so much raised to be performance artists as they were raised as a performance. And this, as you might expect, has fucked them up.

It’s funny, sad, outrageous, and compulsively believable, how it fucked them up. You just have to admire it, to love it, and be horrified by it, sometimes all at the same time. Yes, it raises all kinds of questions about art and what it means, about personal responsibility and growing up and deciding what do to and what to believe, but it is never, ever heavy-handed about any of that.

Wilson’s story is true. That’s probably one of the best things you can say about a novel, that it feels true. For me, the other great thing I can say about it is I don’t much care if Wilson’s next book is a collection of short stories or a novel — either way, I’ll buy it immediately and relish the read.