Short Stories

SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA

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SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA BY SARAH PINSKER

Sarah Pinsker’s stories nestle in the cracks of our world with strange concepts that resound emotionally with the reader. Some of the realities found here contain more verisimilitude. In “Talking With Dead People,” a woman constructs replicas of murder houses and, powered by A.I., the houses speak in the voices of the dead. Other realities convey distorted or futuristic visions of Earth. In the title story, “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” cruise ships peopled by the wealthy sail endlessly to avoid the contaminated land. A scavenger finds Gabby, one of the ships’ musicians, washed up on the shore. Gabby relearns the earth and its relics of civilization. “Funny how you don’t realize the last time you see something is going to be the last time,” she says of turtles, now likely extinct.

An atmosphere of nostalgia and doom pervades the collection. The characters act out of deep wells of fear, hope, and longing, as the environment collapses or is transformed unrecognizably. In “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” a man who loses his arm in a farming accident wakes up with a bionic replacement and becomes convinced that he is a road in Colorado. By some glitch in the technology, his self is twinned. The concept is whimsical but the story, like all of Pinsker’s stories, considers what it means to be human when the circumstances we associate with humanity have changed. A longer story, “Wind Will Rove,” considers the value of human history out of context. A history teacher aboard an intergenerational colony ship finds that art, especially music, is meant to thrive with creative synthesis. The defamiliarization of the ship, reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost,” allows Pinsker to explore how the past is lived in the present, and whether humans are resilient enough to secure a future beyond our polluted planet.

Small Beer Press.

—Review by Sara Ramey

HONEY IN THE CARCASE

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HONEY IN THE CARCASE BY JOSIP NOVAKOVICH

In his newest collection of short prose, Josip Novakovich takes the reader on unexpected and familiar journeys: from hitchhiking through the American heartland; to one man’s modification of his body to procure a near-perfect likeness to a sibling rival, in the arena of love; and a war-torn eastern European village, where bombs drop as frequently as rain, and one resident, teetering on the edge of losing everything, just wants to be reunited with his beloved bees. Novakovich’s stories are rife with brilliant and keen observations. His unique brand of moral exploration and honed wit is often coupled with horrendous acts of violence, appearing and concluding as quick as light glints off the edge of a blade. These drastic shifts from the lighthearted to disturbing (sometimes in the physical sense, other times in the cerebral), while they shock and surprise, are an inevitable and necessary driving force behind his 14 stories that provide the reader with characters plucked from everyday life and demonstrate the breadth and elasticity of Novakovich’s ability as a master storyteller. Reading each of the stories in Honey in the Carcase is like traveling a winding country highway at night, taking in what the headlights shine upon, never certain of what they will illuminate around the next turn.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

RAIN AND OTHER STORIES

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RAIN AND OTHER STORIES BY MIA COUTO, TRANSLATED BY ERIC M. B. BECKER

Mia Couto’s Rain and Other Stories maps out a Mozambique that’s torn with war, heartbreak, and loss. While some of the stories read as fables, offering meditations on the lives of men and women grappling with displacement and rebirth, a Chekhovian subtly is achieved, even when their realism turns to the magical: “The flowers, the one’s with a blue glimmer, began to swell and soar toward the sky. Then, all together, they plucked the girl. . . She was swept away into the same womb where she’d seen her father extinguished, out of sight and out of time.” In other stories, readers witness the departure of characters as Couto’s narrators suggest an uncertainty of their return. And it’s this uncertainty, and the motif of rain and all of its implications, that connects one story to the next.

However, what’s most successful about this collection are the ways in which Couto repeatedly asks unanswerable questions, piquing reader curiosity. Take “War of the Clowns,” a story of two manipulative clowns who, through their arguing and violence, profit off an entire city and incite war and inquiry. “What’s going on?” ask the spectators of the clowns, and although Couto describes to readers what occurs, he never tells us why. Instead, confusion swells among spectators until the “supporters divided into two camps, [and] little by little, two battlefields began to form.” By the end of the story, answers manifest through subtext, and the effect is both chilling and tragic. In this collection, Mia Couto, via Eric M. B. Becker’s aesthetically rich translation, packs an emotional resonance in each story—despite brevity, many only reaching five pages—that lingers with readers long after putting the book down.

Biblioasis.

—Review by Patrick Font

NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS

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NIGHT SCHOOL: A READER FOR GROWNUPS BY ZSÓFIA BÁN, TRANSLATED BY JIM TUCKER

Jim Tucker’s translation of Zsófia Bán’s 2007 story collection, Night School: A Reader for Grownups, doesn’t read like a translation at all. Nor does it read like anything you’ve ever perused—unless you’ve read Night School in another language. A frenetic homage to the textbooks Bán once encountered in German class that “skipped from transportation to the Holocaust to Gummy Bears—in that order,” Night School takes readers on a wild romp through a kaleidoscope of postmodern fairy tales. We learn the just-so story behind Kahlo’s The Two Fridas, encounter the 19th-century naturalist Henri Mouhot trekking through the Laotian jungle, and find ourselves privy to an email exchange between the characters of the 18th-century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. All flaunt their meta-awareness: Mouhot’s wife quotes Heart of Darkness, which had not yet been written, and predicts his impending death, as Victorine Meurent predicts Manet’s, and Laika the Dog stoically predicts her own.

Night School might not seem to lend itself to translation, so bursting with slang, neologisms, tongue-in-cheek zingers, and off-the-cuff historical and literary references, yet one cannot deny the sheer Dadaist power and Seussian flare of lines like this one from “Motherwhere”: “They searched for her […] in the cold turkey clinic, in the Wild Turkey still […] in the market square, in the market research center […] in the ash cans and trash cans, under the bumps and in the sumps.” Assignments and images litter the collection and frequently, we are instructed to argue pro or con. Bán’s humor transcends language barriers, and Tucker’s translation never leaves us wondering what we’ve missed out on by not speaking Hungarian. A must-read for anyone who needs a break from the grim currents of contemporary literature, yet still craves the heady thrill of a really smart book.

Open Letter.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

MADAME VICTORIA

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MADAME VICTORIA BY CATHERINE LEROUX, TRANSLATED BY LAZER LEDERHENDLER

Using the unidentified skeleton of a woman found in 2001, outside of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, as her nexus, Catherine Leroux creates a collage of womanhood: fluidity and joy; erasure and pain. In twelve separate stories, she imagines variations of the life of this woman, Victoria, which inevitably end with her death. She peppers the collection with small chapters on the nurses and hotline workers, all while the public continues their quest to identify her. It would be easy for this type of structure to become disjointed, as each Victoria is fully realized—a sex worker proud of satisfying her customers, a time traveler, a grieving teenage mother, an experiment-turned-invisible, a lover who didn’t uphold her end of a suicide pact—but Leroux uses the repetition of these themes to maintain her cohesion: arrows pointing north, characters with heterochromia iridium, movement and migration.

Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation also sparks and simmers with luminous prose, allowing Victoria to emerge as a guiding star, the one constant in a shimmering landscape. “She gets the feeling every now and then that time has remained suspended since the first day she entered this house and that whole generations have passed through her hands, where they were rocked and wiped before racing toward adulthood; that, in their turn, those adults, the corners of their mouths still studded with cereal crumbs, send her their offspring not yet able to speak their given names; that from one generation to the next these people are increasingly shapeless, and that in a few years nothing will be left of them but vague outlines.” Juxtaposed in this way, Madame Victoria honors all women on the margins, all women dismissed by society. It tempts us to reconsider the ways in which we think of victims, showing us that if we listened, there is much they could teach us about ourselves.

Biblioasis.

— Review by Joy Clark

THE NEW ORDER

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THE NEW ORDER BY KAREN E. BENDER

Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.

The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”

Counterpoint Press.

— Review by Sara Ramey

WILD MILK

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WILD MILK BY SABRINA ORAH MARK

Wild Milk is equal parts setup and punchline, a brilliant logic of surreal, layered humor that skips its way towards deeply-felt truths. Author Sabrina Orah Mark, who has previously written two books of poetry, offers us short stories that blend fairytale, Who’s-on-First-style drollery, and current cultural moment to deliver back a clearer version of our own warped reality, often presented through the lenses of mothers and daughters. Here, Mark says, is a world of women, of makers and givers who are caring for others—sons, presidents, students—even as they work to understand themselves. It is to our benefit that Mark routinely shrinks this world down (“Father has been getting smaller. Yesterday he towered above me. Now he comes up to my knees”) and blows it back up (“‘By the time they arrived,’ I explain, ‘the daughters had turned.’ ‘Rotten?’ she asks . . . ‘Gigantic,’ I repeat. ‘And mealy. I sent the whole bin back’”), blurring the realms of adulthood and childhood to better illuminate the emotional realities of both.

The stories in Wild Milk are linked by their language—Mark is quick to remind us, in stories like “My Brother Gary Made a Movie & This is What Happened,” that we can use words to play even as we push against them, struggle to select the right ones—and relative brevity, their strangeness and whimsy, and also, often, by the delightful threading of images from one story to the next. In this regard, Mark is as much juggler as she is philosopher and jester, remixing milk, eggs, bones, oranges as she throws out questions: “‘Have you ever believed . . . in something much, much bigger than you?’”; “‘If you love Poems so much, why don’t you marry Poems?’” It’s a testament to Mark’s exceptional skill as a writer that we exit Wild Milk agreeing, assessing the bright, poetic language that she wields so well here and asking ourselves: why can’t we—indeed, why don’t we all—marry this book?

Dorothy, a publishing project.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo

THINGS TO MAKE AND BREAK

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THINGS TO MAKE AND BREAK BY MAY-LAN TAN

In her debut collection of short fiction, May-Lan Tan riffs on themes of connection, intimacy, and absence. Her characters share cigarettes and common emptiness, masked beneath their speculation on impossible futures and pasts. In “101” the narrator conjures a child she never had, in “Legendary” a woman stalks her boyfriend’s ex, while in “Candy Glass” an actress thinks of her ex-lover who’s decided to “stick a flag in my lawn and go to church every Sunday, and marry a man . . . be part of the superstructure.” The stories all adopt the faulty eyesight of youth—the teenager in “New Jersey” panics as sexual orientation comes into her peripheral; the daughter in “Date Night” sees the world clearer after her mother has a seemingly sexual encounter; and both Laurens in “Laurens” are blind to the violence rushing towards them, but through their haze, our own eyes widen.

Each of Tan’s stories offer a new divergence from commonalities, a new way of looking at the friction between hunger and consumption, through a variety of scenarios. The characters range from a neglected child to an actress in Hollywood and the actions range from a mother who goes on a date to a dancer who is crucified by an unknown customer. Despite these ranges, the tender and desperate core of the book stays consistent. “I want to be filthy with beauty . . .” says one narrator say. “I want to be heart on bicep, balls in throat, with my best friend’s eyes in my pocket, and a flaming comet of hunger clutched in my fist like a pet rock.” In “Transformer,” one of the strangest stories in the collection, a woman recounts her encounters of intimacy and each lover morphs into the next, seamlessly, allowing only a brief moment for them to make their impression and often still carrying ghostly traces of past loves. The desires sparking in Things to Make and Break spark again and again—as individual as heartbeats, as intertangled as cigarette smoke around fingers.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Joy Clark