Stephanie T. (stephkayeturner) - Reviews

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The Best American Short Stories 2000
Review Date: 8/21/2015


Of course it's difficult to assign a rating to an anthology. Since it is impossible to rate the individual stories, I must assign stars to the collected ensemble. E. L. Doctorow, guest editor for the year 2000, seems to prefer long, involved family sagas that would lend themselves (I think) better to novels than to short stories, even after he goes on in his introduction about how different short stories and novels are.

The most grating of these stories was "Bones of the Inner Ear," by Kiana Davenport. In novel form, I might have had time to grow sympathetic to the various abused and abusive figures in this story about growing up poor in Hawai'i, but as it was, I felt I had barely met the character who emerges from the dung heap as the hero in the end.

The best of these mini-novels is Annie Proulx's "People in Hell Just Want a Drink of Water," which you can find in the excellent collection Close Range. We need the story of how these two families came to ranch country generations before in order to understand their conflict. It's long, but climbs tenaciously to its inevitable end, with the startling originality that I love in Proulx's work.

Other stories were more satisfying to me because they balanced background with action: Allan Gurganus's "He's at the Office," a take on Death of a Salesman; Tim Gautreaux's "Good for the Soul"; and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Third and Final Continent." Though these three stories were on the long side as well, they circled back to create satisfying resolutions. This collection helped me discover that I like a story that is able to stand alone. These three are true, contained "stories" that you could re-tell boiled down to anecdote form. They have a plot skeleton, unlike "Bones" (irony unintended, but now that I see it, I'm keeping it).

One puzzler here is a Raymond Carver story, "Call if You Need Me." Since the author died in 1988, I suppose this must have been published posthumously to merit inclusion in this 2000 collection. It's not Carver's best. My favorite Carver stories are tight, short, almost airless, communicating their characters' meager choices in the very sparseness of the telling. This story is about a dissolving couple well-off enough to rent a house for the summer to work out their troubles. They fail to make a compelling case, to each other or the reader, and drift away like the horses they see in the night -- a moment that is supposed to represent some sort of epiphany, but seems gimmicky instead.

Another story that bucks the mold is ZZ Packer's "Brownies," which takes place over a four-day Brownie camping trip, with only a whiff of generational drama in the background. The writing here sizzles like Packer's initials, helping us to see past color to individuals. I'll be looking for more from her.

Finally, you'll have to tell me what "Pet Fly," by Walter Mosley is about, because I'm still not sure: it has something to do with color and corporations, and loneliness.

At any rate, Doctorow has gathered a diverse bunch of writers whose stories tend to meandering length. If you like your short stories with the emphasis on the short, try another year in this collection.


The Blind Assassin
The Blind Assassin
Author: Margaret Atwood
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 35
Review Date: 10/2/2018


Two young women, raised in relative isolation, meet an attractive, mysterious young man. What happens next involves sex, secrets, and sacrifice. In The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood weaves together multiple story strands as skillfully as A.S. Byatt does in Possession: the view from the present and the vintage love story are interspersed with news articles about war in Europe and local tragedy that enhance the threatening mood.

Fans of the author of The Handmaid's Tale will recognize recurring motifs: Atwood's cunningly analytical take on language; religious delusions; the ways society exploits women; and the ways women resist. Her science fiction also makes an appearance in the pulp stories penned by the mysterious young man.

This is a masterful novel, with a reveal as slow and enticing as a skillful burlesque show. I am so grateful the Booker prize project required me to reread it. I hope that Atwood wins the Nobel Prize in literature soon, as the most recent winner Kazuo Ishiguro said she should have.


Bodily Harm
Bodily Harm
Author: Margaret Atwood
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.3/5 Stars.
 26
Review Date: 2/10/2016


One of Margaret Atwood's earlier efforts, and not my favorite, but an interesting read if you ever want to rough it in the Canadian north.


Close Range (Wyoming Stories, Bk 1) (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Review Date: 6/27/2015


These are amazing, heart-wrenching stories, but not for the faint of heart -- they can be gut-wrenching, too. Annie Proulx guns down one cliche after the next in her beautiful descriptions of life out West. Saddle up and get ready to ride America's lonely range.


Educated: A Memoir
Educated: A Memoir
Author: Tara Westover
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.9/5 Stars.
 14
Review Date: 8/15/2018


Educated by Tara Westover is in itself an education. Westover is the youngest of seven children in a family of Mormon survivalists. She grew up in Idaho, supposedly homeschooled, but basically only able to read and write. Her father ran a junkyard in which the children were regularly injured; her mother mixed essential oils which did nothing to heal the injuries; and one of her brothers beat her regularly. This memoir is the story of how a person raised in dogmatic isolation finds the strength to question her reality.

Westover manages to attend college, even though she never spent a day in high school, and the world opens up to her. She and her siblings all took one of two radically different paths: stay home and follow in their parents' footsteps, or get away and get an education. I am so grateful that Ms. Westover chose the latter, and shared her story about embracing uncertainty.


Election
Election
Author: Tom Perrotta
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 15
Review Date: 2/9/2016


I'm a huge Tom Perrotta fan, and books like this are the reason why. Even if you're familiar with the movie, I recommend the book -- the characterization is of course better and more detailed, and I prefer the ending as well.


The First Days Of School: How To Be An Effective Teacher
Review Date: 10/31/2015


This book is geared primarily toward new teachers in elementary school. I'm a veteran teacher in high school, but I still found a few interesting and useful ideas. The presentation is a bit too "busy" for me, but I definitely recommend it for the intended audience.


French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating For Pleasure
French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating For Pleasure
Author: Mireille Guiliano
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 301
Review Date: 7/15/2014


An excellent book that teaches Americans how to eat (and live) more like Europeans. We are obese and stressed out; they haven't even heard of the eating disorders we have. Why? Because they live (and love) to eat, not eat to live. Slow down and savor your food, and you will want less of it.

I lived in France for two years, and I can attest to the authenticity of her observations. A great reminder of some simple ways to make effective lifestyle changes that will last, unlike fad diets. My only beef with the author is the chapter where she plugs champagne as the ideal alcoholic drink -- when she works for a famous Champagne company. Otherwise, a delightful book with useful recipes.


The Garden of Last Days
The Garden of Last Days
Author: Andre Dubus III
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 3.6/5 Stars.
 38
Review Date: 11/17/2014


Garden of Last Days is an incredible novel that kept me engaged to the last page. I hesitate to call it a thriller because all of the action happens inside the characters' minds. Dubus' genius is reminding us that we all have stories -- every single character who is reduced to a stereotype on TV has a story, even terrorists, strippers, and kidnappers.


Hawkes Harbor (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Hawkes Harbor (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Author: S. E. Hinton, Dick Hill (Narrator)
Book Type: Audio CD
  • Currently 3.2/5 Stars.
 15
Review Date: 6/28/2018


What comes to mind when I say âS.E. Hintonâ? The Outsiders. Pony Boy. âNothing gold can stay.â Maybe Rumble Fish. Or Matt Dillon.

But what aboutâ¦vampires?

After Susan (!) E. Hinton's iconic books, The Outsiders (1967), That Was Then, This is Now (1971), and Rumble Fish (1975), she kept writing. And one of the novels she wrote, in 2004, was Hawkes Harbor.

I listened to this book on CD. After the first disc, I thought I'd be listening to the tale of a troubled young man, very similar to those titles I just mentioned. We get a glimpse of Jamie Sommers' childhood, then his wild times as a sailor and smuggler. We know he has gotten into trouble because he's telling all this to a psychiatrist in a mental institution.

However, on disc two, things get weird. The book becomes a classic tale ofâ¦boy meets vampire.

TL;DR ***SPOILER ALERT*** Boy meets vampire. Vampire enslaves boy. Boy goes crazy. Vampire commits boy to asylum. Both boy and vampire are cured. They become besties and live happily ever after.

WHAT the WHAT???

First of all, vampire gets cured? I had to make sure I hadn't skipped a disc when this just casually came up. While Jamie is âaway,â the vampire somehow meets AND IS CURED BY a doctor/historian named Louisa.

So the relationship of SLAVE to MASTER becomes just another friendly employer/employee, roommates in a big, haunted house kind of thing, with a casual mention of Stockholm syndrome. No big deal, right? The two men even go on a cruise together, where they both find romantic and sexual adventure.

My only way of processing this is to think that Ms. Hinton was somehow, consciously or unconsciously, writing an allegory about child abuse. Our vampire, Grenville Hawkes, is the abusive parent, and Jamie the child. Jamie is absolutely traumatized by Grenville's abuse, is helpless to escape it, and therefore copes as best he can. However, when Grenville âreforms,â Jamie gradually comes to trust him, and they have a mutually respectful relationship. Is this possible in formerly abusive parent/child relationships? I don't know if it's common, but I've heard of it in my own extended family.

The attempt falls flat, though. Too much telling, not showing, especially about important relationships. For example, you can never tell if Louisa's attitude toward Jamie on a given day will be bossy or fond. No real development happens for her, she just shifts personalities as needed for each scene.

So anyway, if you want to read a vampire tale that does not have sparkly skin or werewolves, but does have male bonding on a cruise ship, give it a try. It may be the weirdest book you've read all year.


A Heritage of Stars
A Heritage of Stars
Author: Clifford D. Simak
Book Type: Hardcover
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 1
Review Date: 9/12/2017


A post-apocalytpic riff on The Wizard of Oz: a midwesterner, a good witch, a tin man (possibly the last robot), and a horse trek across the plains in search of the Place of Going to the Stars.


The Hummingbird's Daughter
The Hummingbird's Daughter
Author: Luis Alberto Urrea
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.1/5 Stars.
 56
Review Date: 11/8/2015
Helpful Score: 2


This book had me weeping more than once. The incredibly moving story of Teresa Urrea, The Hummingbird's Daughter, is based on a true historical figure who inspired a Mexican revolution, and who also happens to be a distant relation of the author, Luis Alberto Urrea. The first sections describe in realistic detail the impoverished childhood of a mixed-race girl, bastard daughter of a landowner and an Indian worker who abandons her child. However, the girl receives wealth beyond gold when she is taken in by a gifted medicine woman. When Teresa's own powers bloom, she astonishes everyone around her. A gripping tale of a truly good person facing down the evil of our world.


The Incredible Journey
The Incredible Journey
Author: Sheila Burnford, Carl Burger (Illustrator)
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 4.2/5 Stars.
 37
Review Date: 7/16/2017


A childhood favorite of mine: the realistic and somewhat scary adventures of two dogs and a cat trying to cross the wilderness to go home.


The Lost Mother
The Lost Mother
Author: Mary McGarry Morris
Book Type: Audio Cassette
  • Currently 4/5 Stars.
 2
Review Date: 8/21/2015


I'm going to throw in my two cents just because I'm so irritated with all the reviews that call this book "bad" because it is sad. They are not the same thing. If you don't like sad books, try to avoid them. But if sad books were automatically "bad," then that would make most of the world's great literature "bad." Literature is about the human condition, which is not always rainbows and lollipops.

Now, to this book: it is not great literature. Not because it's sad, but because it's so implausible. This is the story of a family hit hard by the Great Depression. Mom walks out on Dad; Dad loses the house; family lives in a tent until winter, when the children are taken in and kicked out by various family members. Finally, the wealthy family behind all of Dad's troubles wants to adopt the adorable little sister -- but that goes south too.

SPOILER ALERT: Finally, the children run off to find their mother -- who hands them off first to an orphanage, then to the hideous wealthy family. And who comes running in at the last possible second to save the day? Dad!!! THAT's the not-so-great part about this novel.
END OF SPOILER.

So, if you would like a watered-down version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with a lot less historical color, feel free to read this highly sentimental novel. But please don't call it bad just because most of it is "sad."


Love Wins: The Lovers and Lawyers Who Fought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality
Review Date: 7/26/2016


Their love affair became the marriage that changed history. This is the inspiring and touching story of the fight for marriage equality, told through the eyes of Cincinnati couple Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, their lawyer Al Gerhardstein, and the other families who joined them in the struggle. The book brings to life the stories of the actual families behind the Supreme Court decision and traces America's change of heart toward gay rights. Love for the win!


Love Wins: The Lovers, Lawyers and Activists who Brought the Landmark Case for Marriage Equality
Review Date: 7/26/2016


Their love affair became the marriage that changed history. This is the inspiring and touching story of the fight for marriage equality, told through the eyes of Cincinnati couple Jim Obergefell and John Arthur, their lawyer Al Gerhardstein, and the other families who joined them in the struggle. The book brings to life the stories of the actual families behind the Supreme Court decision and traces America's change of heart toward gay rights. Love for the win!


The Maytrees
The Maytrees
Author: Annie Dillard
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.1/5 Stars.
 35
Review Date: 2/13/2016
Helpful Score: 1


The Maytrees is a dense, lyrical book written in the style of the Beat poets, about a couple of bohemians who meet in Provincetown in the 1950s. Annie Dillard bounces around in time, flashing forward to the ends of the couple's lives, then back to their childhoods. Her well-read characters are as familiar with Greek philosophers as with friends living down the street, yet know how to keep a beach shack in good repair and fish for nearly anything. There's not much plot to it, but it's a beautifully written meditation on love, life, and dying. I listened to this book on CD, and I'm ordering a paperback copy so I can read it again and take my time.


The Mistress's Daughter (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
The Mistress's Daughter (Audio CD) (Unabridged)
Author: A. M. Homes, Jane Adams (Narrator)
Book Type: Audio CD
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 7
Review Date: 2/13/2014


I read The Mistress's Daughter by A. M. Homes because I am also writing a memoir about my absent father. Homes was the product of her very young mother's affair with a much older, married man. They gave her up for adoption at birth. When Homes is 31, her mother contacts her and Homes discovers both her parents. Her interactions with them, exciting at first, prove ultimately disappointing. I really enjoyed the parts where Homes imagines her mother's youth, the affair, the pregnancy. I felt that the part where Homes recounts her genealogical research into her parents' ancestors was quite boring at times: this person came to America, got married to X, had a child named Y, etc., etc. The most moving part was the list of questions that Homes wants to ask her father, but which he refuses to answer. A very interesting memoir, well narrated.


My Latest Grievance
My Latest Grievance
Author: Elinor Lipman
Book Type: Audio CD
  • Currently 3.7/5 Stars.
 3
Review Date: 3/11/2016


I loved My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lipman; I thought it was hilarious. It's the story of a girl who grows up on a college campus where her parents are professors and the only married dorm parents. But when she turns sixteen, she learns about her father's first wife -- who wants to be a dorm parent, too. Brilliantly performed by Mia Barron.


One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
One Thousand White Women: The Journals of May Dodd
Author: Jim Fergus
Book Type: Paperback
  • Currently 3.8/5 Stars.
 51
Review Date: 8/15/2018


I received a free copy of One Thousand White Women by Colorado author Jim Fergus, and recommended it to my neighborhood book club. It is a strange read. The cover made me think I'd be reading something like the recent retelling of the Little House series through Ma's eyes, Caroline, by Sarah Miller. Not quite.

The premise of White Women is based in fact: a few years after the Civil War, a Cheyenne chief proposed that his tribe should exchange one thousand horses for one thousand white brides, so that they would bear his tribe's children and raise them in the white culture. This, of course, never came to pass, but Fergus asks, what if it had?

Our heroine, May Dodd, joins the band of white women (which ends up counting only about fifty women, not a thousand) in order to escape the asylum where she has been confined against her will for promiscuity. She meets a motley crew of other women who make up a blatantly stereotypical microcosm. It is as if Fergus gave these two-dimensional characters the most obvious names as placeholders while he wrote, then forgot to go back and change them. We have the brazen Irish twins, who share the last name Kelly; the impoverished and jilted Southern belle, Daisy; the stout Swiss maid, Gretchen; the proud, strong ex-slave Phemie; etc., etc.

The women meet and marry their braves and quite quickly (perhaps implausibly so) become enamored of their new culture. Like âDances with Wolves,â White Women presents a mostly positive portrait of the ânoble savage.â U.S. policy certainly deserves the critique, but the delivery is not what one might call nuanced.


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