Review: And I Do Not Forgive You – Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

45894105Verdict: I still love her.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short stories

Published by Liveright, February 6th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Exciting fans of such writers as Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado with prose that shimmers and stings, Amber Sparks holds a singular role in the canon of the weird. Now, she reaches new, uncanny heights with And I Do Not Forgive You. In “Mildly Happy, With Moments of Joy,” a friend is ghosted by a simple text message; in “Everyone’s a Winner at Meadow Park,” a teen precariously coming of age in a trailer park befriends an actual ghost. At once humorous and unapologetically fi erce, these stories shine an interrogating light on the adage that “history likes to lie about women”— as the subjects of “A Short and Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” and “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women” (it’s true, you won’t) will attest. Blending fairy tales and myths with apocalyptic technologies, all tethered intricately by shades of rage, And I Do Not Forgive You offers a mosaic of an all-too-real world that fails to listen to its silenced goddesses.

As always, these stories are brilliant. There is just something about the way in which Amber Sparks writes short fiction that hits all the right spots for me. This is the third collection she has written and she still does everything I adore in the format: her stories are weird enough to be exciting and realistic enough to be grounded, she focusses women and their experiences, her sentences are as wonderful as they have always been. Of the three collections, this is the one most grounded in reality – and it works because it is also the most angry collection and anger is needed at the moment (or possibly always, but there is just something about these last few years that particularly make anger feel neccessary). Amber Sparks is angry, viciously so, and I love it. I love what it does to the tone of her stories and to the premises she chooses, but most of all I love how her anger does not mean her stories are any less beautiful, quite the opposite actually.

Sparks’ short stories are on the shorter side, something that I am learning is my personal preference. She tells her stories in vastly different ways but I always find something to adore. Often she hooks me from the very first sentence in a way that I do not encounter very often. I cannot quite put into words what works about her first sentences, but just look at the brilliance of “I’ll bet you think ghosts are so fucking romantic.” or “At the end of the world, you discovered words could change.” or “The queen woke up one morning to te furious sound of the Future invading.” I have said it before and I will say it again, Amber Sparks is my favourite short story author and I eagerly awaited this collection and I will read whatever she chooses to write next – because I can just trust her to wow me.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Liveright. This did not affect my opinions. Quotations are taken from the unfinished copy and might have changed during the final edit.

 

Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

41081373._sy475_Verdict: Really quite brilliant.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

I am late to the party with this one – and I am so glad I can finally rave with the rest of the world. I thought this book was all kinds of wonderful. Told in four trios of what some have called short stories (though I would not necessarily agree with that assessment), Evaristo has written a snapshot of Britain in a way that I have not read before. She focusses on the interlinked lives of eleven black women and one black non-binary person in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. The book is much more a character study of these brilliantly drawn people than it is plot-driven, but I loved spending time with all of these women.

The first trio of stories remained my favourite until the end, particularly the very first story focussing Amma – I found her endlessly fascinating and her relationships to her daughter (second story) and best friend (third story) painfully realistic. Painfully realistic is in general how I would describe this book – it is in parts hard to read but it does remain a thread of hope without being sentimental. Most of that is down to how flawed and real Evaristo lets her characters be. She does not shy away from depicting these women behaving atrociously, often without realising. I do have to admit that the really flawed parental relationships became harder to stomach for me as time went on.

The language is another big draw here. I listened to the audiobook which gave the book a more non-fictiony type of feeling – but the way Evaristo’s language just flows is impressive nonetheless. Looking at quotes it seems like the language looks a lot more experimental when seen written on a page – I will have to reread this book eventually in print to see how different the experience is.

I loved this book a whole lot – everything about it just ticked a lot of my boxes. I was sad to be done with it and to not be able to spend time with this incredible cast of women. If this does not make the Women’s Prize longlist, I will be very sad.

Content warning: miscarriage, still birth, child death, sexism, homophobia, racism, spousal abuse, rape, gang rape, forced adoption, post-partum depression

Review: Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

33606119Verdict: Important, timely, for a different reader.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction (Essays)

Published by Bloomsbury, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

In 2014, award-winning journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge wrote about her frustration with the way that discussions of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it. She posted a piece on her blog, entitled: ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ that led to this book.

Exploring issues from eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance, whitewashed feminism to the inextricable link between class and race, Reni Eddo-Lodge offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.

My thoughts on this are slightly complicated. This book is incredibly important, impeccably researched, stringently argued – but possibly not quite for me. I spend an awful lot of time reading feminist texts, both academically and in my private life. I have been following the discourse closely for a few years (ever since I realized how white my formal academic background is I felt the need to remedy that) and I think the most important work in recent feminism has been done by intersectional feminists (and here especially black woman). This book gives a comprehensive overview – and it cannot be overstated how brilliantly argued and researched it is – but for me there was very little new. Then again, that seems like an unfair baseline for any work, so take my rating with a grain of salt. Because I do think everybody should read this.

For me, the chapter that was most important was the one on feminism itself – here I found a lot to mull over. Reni Eddo-Lodge shows the structures of privilege and the way these spaces that should be inclusive can end up being the opposite.

The chapters that read more like text-book entries (for example on White Privilege) are equally stringently argued but for me those did not quite work – as I said, I do think I am fairly well-read in this area. I can still see why it is important to include the bases of one’s theories in a book like this, that is not written with me in mind. It gives women of colour the tools to talk about everyday occurences and gives white people a perspective they might not have considered. And Reni Eddo-Lodge’s measured and thoughtful approach is definitely a needed one.

On a final note: I just cannot get over how brilliant the cover is. Clever, stunning, evocative.

Review: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

39780950Verdict: Clever, biting, sad, funny.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Vintage, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this crackling debut collection Nafissa Thompson-Spires interrogates our supposedly post-racial era. To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.

A teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war of attrition against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer. And across a series of stories, a young woman grows up, negotiating and renegotiating her identity.

Heads of the Colored People shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic. It marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.

I knew I would enjoy this pretty much from the first page on. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a wonderful tone and an even better command of her stories. I found the stories uncomfortable and biting and so very very clever. Her characters feel real if often difficult and the situations they find themselves in are frustrating and perfectly rendered.

Some stories feature the same people again, which is something I always enjoy. I do like how this gave the stories more depth without them being incomplete without the added context – this is something that I assume is difficult to achieve but oh so satisfying when it works.

My favourite story is Belle Lettres: told in a series of letters two mothers write to each other about their daughters who hate each other. I made me laugh so very hard while also making me feel sorry for their daughters. I found it clever and mean and funny and so very well-constructed: the escalation was brilliant to observe, from tiny little things such as the signatures to the change in language. Another favourite was Suicide, Watch – again beautiful but very sad. The way Thompson-Spires characterizes Julie, the focus of this story, made me impatient – and broke my heart at the same time.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

10153529Verdict: Stunning.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Windmill Books, 2009

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff’s critically acclaimed “The Monsters of Templeton” was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers 2008, and critics hailed her as an enormous talent and a writer to watch. In “Delicate Edible Birds”, she fulfils that promise. “Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.

I love Lauren Groff. And I am trying to be better about reading other books authors I love have written, so I am currently making my way through her back catalogue and I am seriously happy about it. I think I liked this short story collection even more than her new one (which I reviewed earlier this year) and I enjoyed that one immensely. But this collection here just blew me away.

I am in awe of Lauren Groff’s command of language – every single sentence ist perfectly done while not making the writing sound clinical but rather organic and captivating. I also really like the way she structures her stories – they never felt like they were working towards a punchline but rather their endings were perfectly done. Some stories I would have loved to spend more time with but I mean that as a compliment.

I do have the same problem with these short stories that I had with Groff’s second collection: I am not too keen on her descriptions of overweight bodies; and the fixation on weight did not always work for me. I cannot quite put my finger on why I think she does this, but I do wish she stopped focussing on weight so much. But for me it never crossed the line into problematic territory and as such is not enough to ruin my enjoyment of these brilliant short stories.

My favourite of the bunch is the last story “Delicate Edible Birds” – I loved it so much I considered giving the collection 5 stars because it ended on such a high note. Set during the Second World War (which I usually am not too keen on), this story is told from different perspectives of a group of journalists fleeing Paris on the eve of its occupation. It was harrowing and wonderful and absolutely beautifully written. Bern, the female main character, was so absolutely brilliant, I wish there was a whole book about her.

Review: Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

25175985Verdict: Important, well-researched, infuriating, empowering.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, April 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Women are standing up and #shoutingback. In a culture that’s driven by social media, for the first time women are using this online space (@EverydaySexism www.everydaysexism.com) to come together, share their stories and encourage a new generation to recognise the problems that women face. This book is a call to arms in a new wave of feminism and it proves sexism is endemic – socially, politically and economically. But women won’t stand for it. The Everyday Sexism Project is grounded in reality; packed with substance, validity and integrity it shows that women will no longer tolerate a society that ignores the dangers and endless effects of sexism.

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she’d initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.

This bold, jaunty and ultimately intelligent book is the first to give a collective online voice to the protest against sexism. This game changing book is a juggernaut of stories, often shocking, sometimes amusing and always poignant – it is a must read for every inquisitive, no-nonsense modern woman.

I started listening to this as a sort of antidote to the misery that was It by Stephen King (which I have since put on hold and I am not sure I will pick back up again, I struggled with the depiction of sexism and racism and homophobia), and while this was certainly not a fun book, it was one that I thoroughly recommend and one that I am so very glad to have read.

Laura Bates talks about sexism here, the small acts and the larger acts and how they together form a society that is not particularly nice to women (or men for that matter). Drawing on the extensive collection of women’s experiences with sexism and an impressive amount of research, Bates has written an incredibly important book here and one that should be required reading. While I think she could have adressed intersectionality a bit better in parts, she did it a lot better than some other feminist works have done. Her chapter devoted to intersectionality was thus my favourite part of the book and something I would have liked to be more at the centre. But still, what an impressive book and man, what a kick in the gut to listen to her rallying cry of a last chapter that is infused with so much optimism – because, for me at least, the world very much feels like a clusterfuck at the moment.

Review: Ayiti by Roxane Gay

36739756Verdict: I was always going to love it. I mean, it’s Roxane Gay.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, General Fiction

Published by Grove Atlantic, June 12th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

Surprising absolutely no-one, I loved this. I am a huge Roxane Gay fan and I love her short fiction nearly as much as her non-fiction. This collection of short stories showcasts Gay’s tremendous talent and her brilliant voice. While this cannot quite reach the highs of her second collection (very few things do), I still adored this.

Gay’s stories center around pain. There is no way around that. These stories are grim and dark and very depressing. But she also, always, adds some hope, some light, and does so expertly and brilliantly.

There was not a single story in this collection that I didn’t like, which is very rare for me when it comes to short story collections. I do admit to finding the collection overwhelming in parts because of the grim subject matter and had to take frequent breaks after particularly grueling stories – but never for long because Roxane Gay has a very distinct, very brilliant voice and I cannot imagine a world where I won’t read every single thing she produces. Her observations are sharp and her thoughts on identity and pain and family and loyalty and living are important and necessary and so very very brilliant (I cannot help but speak in superlatives; after all Roxane Gay is one of my very favourite authors).

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review.