Two Story Collections

Hot Little Hands (Abigail Ulman)

Along with Anna Metcalfe’s Blind Water Pass (written by a fellow PhD-er, this is an excellent, extremely relevant collection about migration and borders, very Lydia Davis and Kafka-esque), Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands is one of the strongest short story collections that I’ve read this year. Thematic links are young girls, sex, Australia, Russia, San Francisco, and not knowing what to do with your life. This is definitely the kind of book I would buy for my female friends.

Here’s a brief commentary on each story:

“Jewish History” – I really enjoyed this one. Kind of like “Mean Girls” written by a melancholy Emily Gould. Very powerful closing sentence. I liked the narrator’s perspective, a Russian girl in Australia who doesn’t quite speak English yet, and the oblique yet effective way the story conveyed this.

“Chagall’s Wife” – the first of many “mature” young girls that appear in this collection. Man, none of the girls in this book would have wanted to be friends with me in middle school; they’d have found me such a hopelessly boring square. The girl in this story runs into one of her teachers at a coffee shop, spends the afternoon with im in an art museum, before the story concludes with them going to the movies. Basically, us readers feel very, very nervous during the entire story about what’s going to happen next. I love the interrupted, in-the-moment, suspenseful ending (quite a few of these in the book).

“The Withdrawal Method” – the first of three stories in the book about Claire, a twenty-something finishing her PhD in film studies in San Francisco, playing in a band and “flailing around” (as one might say). In this story she has an abortion. I liked these three linked stories a lot; they add up to a pervier, more punk rock version of The Wonder Spot.

“Warm-Ups” – possibly my favorite in the collection. It’s also possibly the darkest. It’s about thirteen-year-old gymnasts who go to the U.S. for a performance (not going to say more than that). What a heartbreaking, gut-twisting ending. This story uses slow build-up of dread very well.

“Same Old Same As” – another great story, with a divisive lead character. Ramona is in therapy and starts telling everyone that her stepfather has sexually abused her, enjoying the attention that she gets from her classmates. It’s an ambiguous story right till the end and is definitely one that would challenge readers who need to “like” a main character. I found it very honest.

“The Pretty One” – the second story with Claire, about her relationship and break-up with a younger man. I like how she found solace working in her dissertation (lol). Kind of like The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, with a lot more drinking (wow, that’s the second reference to Melissa Banks that I’ve made so far…). I found the descriptions of San Francisco hipsters listening to bluegrass music, juice cleanses and too many facial piercings painful to read. I found the ending a bit too sweeping, like it was trying to sum everything up, but isn’t that what the fall-out of relationships is sometimes like?

“Head to Toe” – maybe the strangest story for me. Very understated. It’s narrated in a distant style: “this happened, this happened, this happened,” with little interiority of the two main female characters. Two sixteen-year-old best friends grow tired (as in existentially so) with their partying lifestyle. They return for a week or so at the horse camp they used to attend as children. The story ends with them returning home and then going to a guy’s house where one of them has porn-style sex while listening to Kanye West. This was a story that made me go “what?” but I definitely kept turning the pages, with a sense of trainwreck fascination.

“Plus One” – my other favorite story in the book. Twenty-two-year-old Amelia can’t finish her collection of essays, so she decides to get pregnant with her gay friend instead. This story made me think of Lorrie Moore and Jenny Offhill. What a devastating ending. This is another story I found extremely honest.

“Your Charm Won’t Help You Here” – I won’t spoil it, but basically this story describes why Claire ends up having to leave San Francisco. I found it compulsively compelling. I’d love to know how the author did research for this one.

All in all I would highly recommend this book and await the author’s next work with great interest.

Lovers on All Saints’ Day (Juan Gabriel Vásquez)

I bought this book at The Strand in New York, where it had a different title than in the UK (The All Saints’ Day Lovers–what’s up with that?). At one point in the final story of the collection (which I’ll talk more about in just a bit), the main character watches the weather report on mute, and thinks about the upcoming news: “The one o’clock news was part of Oliveira’s routine, his day incomplete without the most recent scandal from the Assemblée Nationale or the images of the dead in Algiers, more or less sophisticated forms of violence that vindicated his desire to leave, to hide away from the world.”

I find the phrase “more of less sophisticated forms of violence” very interesting, and perhaps key not just to the collection overall, but to Vásquez’s other novels, which also approached violence as a main theme. Vásquez writes in the introduction to this book that he was inspired by Tobias Wolff, in that “a book of stories should be like a novel in which the characters don’t know each other,” which perhaps explains many of the eerie repetitions. In these seven stories we see the same scenes or images reoccurring over and over again: hunting trips with large groups of men, rural settings in France and Belgium, love affairs gone wrong, exile (both emotional and physical) and yes, shocking moments of violence (usually at the end). Are the intimate, emotional, personal-level forms of violence we see in these stories unsophisticated forms of violence, in contrast to the “sophisticated” scenes that tend to broadcast on television, make national news? And yet it’s these unsophisticated forms of violence, the kind that take place between lovers, that tend to impact us all, regardless of class, geography, etc. It’s this idea of emotional violence as a unifying force, more than anything else, which links this book in my head to Vásquez’s other works, especially The Sound of Things Falling.

The majority of these stories begin sloooooowly and build up to killer endings (a patience-based form of pacing similar to many of Bolaño’s works). The ending of “The Solitude of the Magician,” for example, makes a simple pencil have an emotional impact that you just plain would not believe. “At the Café de la Republique” is another standout, in which a  husband and wife reunite six months after separating, and the husband decides he wants to get back together (an medically inexplicable lump in his jaw is a major factor in his decision).

My favorite story by far was the aforementioned final one, “Life on Grimsey Island,” the darkest and one of the longest. In this story, a man whose father has recently died meets a veterinarian, whom he agrees to drive back to her home in Paris. During their journey (which is, believe it or not, full of unexpected twists and revelations) she tells him about the titular island north of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle, where the sun never sets: “so no one is afraid, no one feels the horror of having a fear of the dark.” It runs the risk of being a heavy-handed metaphor (dark = death, light = love + connection, etc.), but in the end, the story earns it, devastatingly so.

At another point, the main character stands in front of a map: “He approached the map on the wall and looked for Iceland. It was a violet-colored country. France, where he still was, was saffron red. Portugal was green, an intense green similar to the color of the van … Rootlessness had no color, however. It makes no difference to live in one place or another and being born here or there was an accident. One was a chameleon, countries and people mere scenery.” Oh boy, talk about a passage that one can relate to…

Overall, I’m impressed by Vásquez’s understated writing style, and his ability to show how violence and greed can split people’s lives open irregardless of the promise of love.

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Filed under books, colombia, review, short stories

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