Monthly Archives: May 2015

Review: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Knopf did not let me have access to this title when I requested it on Edelweiss. Sometimes bloggers do get rejected when they request review copies. But this book piqued my interest enough for me to buy it on my own anyway.  As always, this is my honest review.

My Review:
Our Souls At NightThis title is a brief yet beautiful read that took me by surprise.  Addie, a septuagenarian who has been widowed for years, walks over to her neighbor Louis and makes a proposition to him.  Since he also lives alone, Addie wants him to come over to her house at night and sleep with her and talk to her in the dark.  But there is nothing sexual or indecent about her suggestion.  She is lonely at night and instead of taking sleeping pills Addie would rather have a companion to talk to in the dark to help lull her to sleep.

Addie and Louis are awkward at first in a very sweet and gentle way.  They talk in the dark about their respective deceased spouses.  They slowly get to know intimate details about each other’s past lives.  Eventually they start holding hands as they communicate in the dark.

The small town in Colorado in which Addie and Louis live start to gossip about the pair because people see Louis walking over to Addie’s house every night.  The stance that they take, Addie in particular, against the nosy neighbors is that they don’t care what other people think anymore.  Addie and Louis are happier spending time with one another than they have ever been in their lives and they are no longer lonely.  However, will Addie and Louis also be able to dismiss the opinions of their grown children who also get wind of their “relationship” and don’t approve of it?

Addie’s grandson, Jamie, also comes to spend the summer with Addie and Louis.  Jamie’s parents are in the middle of a separation and poor Jamie has been cast off to live with his grandmother for the summer; when Jamie is dropped off at Addie’s home is upset and lonely.  Addie and Louis gradually establish a routine with the boy, shower him with love and attention, and adopt a shelter dog for him.  Addie, Louis, Jamie, and Bonney the dog have a wonderful summer and all four of them find comfort and solace in their little group.

OUR SOULS AT NIGHT packs a lot of though-provoking messages into one small book: it’s never to late in life to make connections and establish relationships, we can find happiness is simple things like conversations, and we really shouldn’t care what other people think of us if what we are doing makes us happy.  I highly recommend you put this book on your “To Read” pile for the summer.

 

About The Author:
Kent HerufKent Haruf was born in eastern Colorado. He received his Bachelors of Arts in literature from Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1965 and his Masters of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1973. For two years, he taught English in Turkey with the Peace Corps and his other jobs have included a chicken farm in Colorado, a construction site in Wyoming, a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado, a hospital in Arizona, a library in Iowa, an alternative high school in Wisconsin, and universities in Nebraska and Illinois.

Haruf is the author of Plainsong, which received the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, the Maria Thomas Award in Fiction, and The New Yorker Book Award. Plainsong was also a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award. His novel, The Tie That Binds, received a Whiting Foundation Award and a special citation from the Pen/Hemingway Foundation. In 2006, Haruf was awarded the Dos Passos Prize for Literature.

All of his novels are set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Holt is loosely based on Yuma, Colorado, an early residence of Haruf in the 1980s.

Haruf lived with his wife, Cathy, in Salida, Colorado, with their three daughters. He died of cancer on November 30, 2014

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Filed under Literary Fiction, Summer Reading

Review: Please Talk to Me-Selected Stories by Liliana Heker

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Yale University Press through NetGalley.  This edition has been translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France.

My Review:
Please Talk To MeHeker shows us in these short stories her ability to successfully write about a wide range of topics: from the relationship of servant and master, to the Oedipus Complex, to the toll that mental illness takes on an entire family.  The stories follow a stream-of-consciousness style, oftentimes involving abrupt and confusing transitions, that weaves us through the minds of many different types of characters.

The most clever story in the collection is “Strategies Against Sleeping.”  Señora Eloisa is being driven by a chauffer on a long ride during which she is very tired; she wants nothing more than to close her eyes and take a good long nap.  But the driver starts talking to her about how he could not sleep a wink on the previous night.  As a result he is very tired and wants her to talk to him so that he stays awake while he is driving.

We feel the pain and discomfort of the woman and the driver who are both fighting to stay awake for different reasons.  At one point during her forced conversations the woman becomes desperate for any kind of relief:  “For a very brief moment she had to suppress a desire to open the door and throw herself onto the road.”  In her delirium,  Señora Eloisa lets slip a very dark and personal family story that horrifies the driver and will definitely serve to keep him awake.

The story “Early Beginnings or Ars Poetica” includes the most extreme examples of the author’s abrupt transitions; this story reads like a dream sequence.  The narrator begins the story by imagining that a lion or a horse is present in his apartment when he goes to sleep .  The narrator then transitions to a philosophical musings about God and the beginnings of the earth.  Then the narrator transitions to imagining that he is four years old and is sitting in from of four cups of chocolate and a yellow plastic tablecloth on his birthday.  The story continues on in this fashion until the ending which is equally jarring.

This is my first taste of Argentinian literature and I will definitely look for more authors from this country.  I highly recommend PLEASE TALK TO MY as a quirky and symbolic collection of stories from Liliana Heker.

 

About The Author:
Liliana HekerLiliana Heker began her literary career at age 17, mentored by Argentine writer Abelardo Castillo. She was a collaborator in Argentina literary magazine “The Paper Cricket” and founded, along with Castillo, The Golden Bug and The Platypus. She has published several short story books which have been collected in “Cuentos” (Alfaguara). She has also written two novels, “El fin de la historia” and “Zona de clivaje”, and a collection of essays called “Las hermanas de Shakespeare”.

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Filed under Literature in Translation, Short Stories

Review: Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through NetGalley.

My Review:
Red CavalryIsaac Babel, who was a journalist and propagandist for the Red Army in the 1920’s during the Russian war against Poland, used his diary as a source for the stories in this collection.  Babel’s narrator, like himself, is a Jewish intellectual who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Cossack soldiers in the regiment to which he is assigned.  Also, his attempts at propaganda don’t quite benefit the Bolshevik cause, although they don’t really harm it either; it is surprising and sad that the Soviets had Babel killed after all.

Babel provides us with a vivid account of the scenes, horrors, sights, sounds and even the humor that comes from war.  One of my favorite stories is entitled “Pan Apolek.”  Apolek is a local artist who has been commissioned to paint the holy scenes in one of the churches that the narrator visits.  When Apolek decides to put the faces of local citizens on the most holy figures in the Bible, there is a religious uproar.  But the citizens themselves seem uplifted that their faces are captured in art in this most holy place.

The strongest parts of all of these stories are the many and varied scenes which Babel sets for us.  He describes not only churches, but towns and the everyday happenings of its citizens.  For example, as the narrator walks around a village waiting for the Sabbath he describes the various shops and shopkeepers he encounters.  Their stores seem to be closed but we are not sure if they are closed permanently because of the war.  He also describes the army on the march and the dead bodies they encounter as they make their way from one town to another.

The narrator describes cavalry leaders and infantrymen as well as some of the more unimportant or auxiliary positions.  He gives us the story of his wagon driver, for instance, and the story of a shepherd who contracted syphilis while sleeping with a prostitute bought by his own father.  There are so many different characters which the narrator encounters that it is impossible to sum them up neatly in one review.

This is not a typical story with a clearly delineated plot and developed characters.  It is a collection of meandering, stream of consciousness stories about one man’s reaction to the landscapes, sights, sounds and people he encounters during a war.   The story mimics the chaos of warfare and many of the narratives end abruptly, like the lives of the soldiers in the Red Cavalry.  Babel’s stories are an important piece of Russian history and literature which I am glad that Pushkin Press has decided to bring to our attention.

About The Author:
Isaac BabelIsaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель; 1901 – 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Isaak Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge due to his longterm affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of May 15, 1939. After “confessing”, under torture, to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, Babel was shot on January 27, 1940. The arrest and execution of Isaak Babel has been labeled a catastrophe for world literature.

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Filed under Classics, Historical Fiction, Literature in Translation, Russian Literature

Review: The Jesus Cow by Michael Perry

I received an advanced review copy of this title from the publisher through TLC Book Tours.  Michael Perry is a humorist who is known for his nonfiction books.  This is his debut fiction novel.

My Review:
The Jesus CowHarley is a simple bachelor living in rural Wisconsin on a very modest 15 acre farm.  Although he works 12 hours a day in a factory, he keeps a few beef cattle as a hobby.  When a calf is born on Christmas Eve with the image of Jesus on its hide, he views it as a bad omen.  He does everything he can to keep others from finding out about his special calf.  His best friend, Billy, thinks he should cash in on his holy bovine, but Harley doesn’t want to disturb his quiet life.

But when the calf gets out of its pen and the mail lady sees it, the pictures of this special calf go viral.  The scenes in the book in which droves of the faithful are clamoring to get a look at the “Jesus Cow” are hilarious.  The only way that Harley can stop this madness is to hire a California public relations firm that closes off his property with security forces which the President would be jealous of.  Harley’s quiet, unassuming life has been shattered in a matter of hours.

Harley also has a love interest throughout the book.  When he spills coffee on Mindy at the local gas station he can’t keep his mind off of her.  She is a character full of quirks and surprises; she lives in an old granary and is an artist who uses metal and welding as her medium.  The entire cast of characters in the book are all quirky for that matter.  Maggie, widowed at a young age, runs her own towing and car wrecking business; Carolyn is a former, disgraced academic who lives at the base of the town’s old water tower.  And Klute is a failed real estate tycoon who is addicted to listening to ridiculous motivational tapes.

In the end, the lives of all these lonely characters end up intertwined.  My only complaint about the book is the rather abrupt ending for which the reader is not really prepared.  It felt rushed and incomplete.

THE JESUS COW is a funny and entertaining story that makes for the perfect light beach read this summer.  Michael Perry finds humor in small town life, religious fanaticism and the perils of modern technology.

About The Author:
Michael PerryMichael Perry is a humorist, radio host, songwriter, and the New York Times bestselling author of several nonfiction books, including Visiting Tom and Population: 485. He lives in rural Wisconsin with his family

 

 

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Filed under Humor

Review: Don’t Try This at Home by Angela Readman

I received an advanced review copy of this title from And Other Stories.  They are a small not-for-profit literary press with am impressive selection of books.  Please visit their website for a complete list of great titles: andotherstories.org

My Review:
Dont-Try-This-at-Home-_-cover_-FINAL1-300x460This is a quirky, bizarre collection of tales that also deal with serious social topics.  Child custody, divorce, and gender issues are all explored with an accompanying twist of magic or fantasy.  In one story a mum who works at a chip shop is tired of her mundane life; it is only when she transforms herself into a hip-shaking Elvis that she feels happy and fulfilled.  This story is an interesting commentary on gender identity and the ways in which we suppress our true selves when we try to conform and fit in.

Some of the stories seem downright absurd.  In the title story, “Don’t Try this at Home ”  a woman wants to spend more time with her husband, so she chops him in half.  When the couple needs more money, she chops him in quarters and eighths so he can work more at various jobs.  When one of his other halves has an affair the woman has mixed feelings about her decision to chop up her husband into so many different persons.

I particularly enjoyed the last three stories.  They featured individuals that are misunderstood by their family, friends and neighbors.  In “Keeper of the Jackalopes,” a man lives in a run down trailer with his six-year-old daughter and taxidermies animals for a living.  Business has been very slow so they rely on food tossed into dumpsters behind grocery stores for their meals.  The loyalty that the little girls shows towards her father is very touching and it is this little girl’s advice at the end of the story that helps him deal with some sad issues in his life.

DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME is a fantastic and entertaining group of stories with memorable characters.  I highly recommend that you add this collection to your summer reading list.

About The Author:
Angela-Readman-_Photo-by-Kevin-Howard-460x250Angela Readman’s stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, winning awards such as the Inkspill Magazine Short Story Competition and the National Flash Fiction Competition. In 2012 she was shortlisted for the Costa Short Story Award for ‘Don’t Try This at Home’ – an award she would go on to win in 2013 with the story ‘The Keeper of the Jackalopes’. Readman is also a published poet.

 

 

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Filed under Art, Humor, Literary Fiction, Short Stories