Tag Archives: Short stories

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages:  320

Expected Publication Date:  August 1, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

An intense collection of stories, each one told from the perspective of a young girl living in NYC in the 1990s with parents who had immigrated from Shanghai.  The stories demonstrate the manifestations and aftermath of the trauma experienced by the parents in Mao era China and the varying coping mechanisms they utilize.  Some parents drink excessively, others work such long hours such that they almost never see their children, while others cannot get enough of their children and are by their sides at all times.  One father is physically abusive to his wife while another has an endless string of girlfriends.  There is a grandmother who feels the only worthy thing in life is being a mother, so attempts to become the mother to her grandchildren, confabulating about the days when she breastfed them.  She demands that they love her to an extreme.  These are stories that show how the horrors of a generation (the Chinese in 1960’s China) affect future generations of children (American-Chinese growing up in NYC in the 1990s.)

It is about the children of immigrants in a country where English is not their primary language.  It is about the interaction of these girls with both their families and the outside world.  One girl is made to go back to ESL classes with each move and new school district, even though she has placed out them them repeatedly.  There is an intensity to childhood friendships, a pushing and pulling, a competition that feels far more negative than positive.  The stories delve into the girls’ exploration of their bodies and developing understanding of sex.  It is often vulgar and disturbing.  The emotional aspect of keeping up with peers about sex and foul language is a weight on some of these girls.  The language the children use, both in conversation with each other and with their parents,  is often angry and vulgar.  There is desperation and depression felt through these characters.  These girls are coming of age, learning about themselves and their bodies, learning about their place in the world.  It is all at once confusing, disastrous and exciting for them.

In addition to portraying 1990’s NYC, the author offers glimpses of the year 1966 in China, when schools were out and children ran wild.  The children were given the freedom and power to turn on any adult, accuse them of being counterrevolutionary, and proceed to torture and even kill them.  One disturbing scene had a teacher tortured while tied to a tree by her students out of revenge for shaming one of the students in school.   Anyone could be named counterrevolutionary.  Particularly, anyone who wore their hair long and loose, anyone thought to be an intellectual, a member of the bourgeois class… or simply as a personal vendetta.

The writing is marvelous.  Jenny Zhang is a masterful storyteller.  However, the content is graphic.  It is often horrifying, disturbing and seemingly distasteful. There is no sugar coating on these stories.  These stories are full of grit, grime and dirt.  There is anger, depression, sadness and sometimes joy.  For me, Zhang was a unique original voice.   I am glad I read these stories, but I caution others who might be sensitive to foul language or graphic subject matter.  Sour Heart is the first book to be published with the LENNY imprint, a new imprint, in partnership with Random House, led by Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner.

 

Jenny Zhang, the author, her twitter image

Discussion Guide:

  1.  Do the characters in this book face discrimination?  In what forms did it manifest?  Who feels self hatred because of race  and why?
  2. Explain the title of the novel.  Which character is referred to as sour?  Why do you think she is this way?
  3. Many of the characters in this novel are searching for ways to be love or people to love them.  Why is this such a strong theme within this book?
  4. How do you think most of the characters felt? What was their emotional state of mind?
  5. These stories are all told from the female perspective.  Would you describe the writing as feminist?  Why or why not?
  6. Zhang does an excellent job illustrating various experiences of Chinese American families in NYC in the 1990s.  How does she portray/sterotype other races (Dominican, Caucasian, Taiwanese, Hispanics, Blacks) within her stories?
  7. Did you feel that the vulgarity within this book was over the top or genuine to the experience?
  8. What is the motivation for Lucy’s mother to take Frangie in?  How does Lucy retaliate?
  9. In many of these stories there is a competition to be loved most.  Why do you think Annie’s mother needs to be the center of attention and feel the most loved?  Why is this also true for Stacy’s grandmother?
  10. Discuss the evolution of Jenny’s relationship with her brother and how this changes with age.
  11. Mande’s parents have a physically abusive relationship.  Mande and Fanpin become friends because of their mothers.  Why do you think Fanpin becomes domineering over Mande?
  12. What do you suppose happens after Mande’s mother gets pushed out of the car?  Do they go back for her?  Does she survive?
  13. Discuss some of the self destructive behaviors exhibited by the characters in these stories.  Why are these characters becoming self destructive?
  14. We know that the author was born in Shanghai and grew up in Queens.  In one story the protagonist is Jenny.  In another, the family name is Zhang.  How autobiographical do you think these stories or any one story might be for the author?

 

Jenny Zhang’s website

Interview with Jenny Zhang by Charlotte Shane in Medium

Kirkus Review of Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enriquez ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 208

Expected Publication Date: February 21, 2017 (first published December 4, 2014 in Spanish)

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

Wow!  What a macabre, twisted way to get swept up in the life and culture of Argentina.  I love when I read books outside my usual genres and get blown away by them. These short stories invoke living nightmares and nightmarish creatures that dwell just below the surface of normal life and enter into these stories in unexpected ways.  There are ghosts of the past, horrific creatures, and a sense of the clairvoyance  in these pages.  Some of the descriptions within these stories brought to mind Stephen King’s writing, particularly “Adela’s House.”  Certain descriptions of graffiti in repetitive patterns of letters that don’t seem to spell anything and the creature with teeth filed into triangles that eats Paula’s live cat in “The Neighbor’s Courtyard” are two other particular examples that felt Stephen King-esque to me.

The setting for these stories is in various cities in Argentina, including Buenos Aires, Lanus, and Corrientes.  There is a sense of healing in the land, but there are horrors of the past lurking just beneath the surface.  Natalia in “Spiderweb” saw a burning building which 10 minutes later was charred down to the earth.  Someone else in that story saw a ghost rising from the cement of a bridge, within which dead bodies must have been hidden.  In “Under the Black Water” a buried monster dwells in a polluted river, which people had been trying to cover up.  Argentina’s Dirty War took place 1974 to 1983 and though it is not directly referenced in these stories, the horrors lurking just beneath the surface and these ghosts of the past are most certainly from that time.

There are many common themes that wind their way through these stories creating interest and intrigue.  Many of the characters in these stories are depressed, sometimes overwhelmingly so to the point of not being able to work anymore, hurting themselves,  and perhaps hallucinating.  In one story “Green Red Orange,”  Marco becomes locked in, not seeing people anymore.  He only opens his door when no one is there to get the food his mother has left him.  He only communicates with an old girlfriend via chat from his computer where he becomes obsessed with the deep web, where he can find the most horrific things.

Another theme running through many of these stories is dissatisfaction with boyfriends or husbands.  The boyfriends and husbands in these stories are not loved or desired by the protagonist.  They are depicted as being over-confident, arrogant, pig-headed and most importantly useless.  The boyfriends or husbands end up disappearing or leaving by the end of each story.  The final and titular story “Things We Lost in the Fire” begins with women being the subject of fires set by angry significant others.  The women then begin to burn themselves in protest creating a world of disfigured women.  This is a very disturbing brutal ending to this collection of stories.

There is obvious social commentary within the pages of these stories.  The author is definitely a feminist.  She has an interesting way of depicting wealth versus poverty and sane versus mentally unstable.  She definitely delves into a world of darkness and demons, most of us do not think about.  She recognizes horrors within her stories, that don’t even pertain to the main story, but are issues with the society at large.  In “Spiderweb” the soldiers at the Paraguayan restaurant with their large guns are harassing the waitress and are likely going to rape her, however, any intervention would get the narrator and Natalia raped.  However, I feel the greatest social commentary contained within these stories is directed at the horrors and brutality of the Dirty War and how the ghosts of that time continue to haunt the Argentinian people.

Each story, thrilling and terrifying, ends on a cliffhanger.   You, the reader, are left not knowing, still wondering, what was truth and fiction, and where things will go from there.   I highly recommend this collection of short stories from a gifted and talented Argentinian writer!  It will make the hair on your arms stand up.  

 

 

The original, untranslated stories

 

 

 

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What social commentary is the author making?
  2. What political commentary is the author making?
  3. What literary influences did you find in the author’s writing?
  4. Why do you think depression figures so heavily in these stories?
  5. Discuss the role of female friendship within these stories.
  6. What role do drugs and alcohol play within these stories?
  7. How do these stories reference Argentina’s Dirty War?
  8. Discuss Gauchito Gil, his dark violent mythology and his role in the death of the boy in “The Dirty Kid.”  Why does Gauchito Gil appeal to the people in the neighborhood of Constitucion?
  9. How does Enriquez characterize the police in these stories?
  10. What is the meaning of people disappearing within these stories?
  11. In “Under the Water” the people of the slum are repeating “In his house, the dead man waits dreaming.”  What is the meaning of this?
  12. What do you think the meaning of the title is?  Why do you think the author chose this story’s title to be the title of the book?
  13. In “Spiderweb,” what does spiderweb symbolize?

Interview with Mariana Enriquez by McSweeney’s

Review by Allerdale Reviews

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

Pages: 224

Publication Date: February 7, 2017

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

 

“I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they are outside of time, are the only one with time.” – prologue

What a timely book!  With the public debate about immigration in the forefront of everyone’s mind, with the executive and judicial branches of government battling out the legality of banning people from certain countries, the timing is perfect!   America’s history has been built upon accepting refugees from various countries. Between 1975 and 1995 over 480,000 people had immigrated to the United States.  Of the “boat people,” it is estimated that at least a third died.  This is exquisitely written, profoundly moving compilation of short stories, each one touching on the theme of immigration from Vietnam.

Viet Thanh Nguyen says he is writing these stories for the ghosts.  The first story in this book is most directly to that point.  The narrator is a ghost writer, telling other people’s stories not coming to terms with her own story until the ghost of her brother comes to visit her.   At that moment she confronts the trauma of her past.  Her brother risked his life to try to hide her as a boy when pirates raided their boat.  He was killed for it.  She was gang rapider front of her parents.  Her parents lamented her brother’s death, but never mentioned what had happened to her.  She carried the burden of her own trauma as well as of her brother’s death.  She was made to feel it was her fault.  She finally realizes she died too.  She is a ghost of the past and can write her own story.

The writing is incredible.  The stories themselves are beautiful, emotion-laden, with excellent character development and complexity.  The true nature behind the characters are revealed in unexpected ways.  The tension created by the juxtaposition of vietnamese culture in affluent America (as well as the converse) are explored.  These stories are not simply an exploration of Vietnamese culture and the refugee experience, but transcend that with the stories evoking so much truth about humanity that simply involve refugees as characters.

Rather than detail each short story, I highly recommend reading this brilliantly written grouping of 8 stories.  It is brief book, but packs a powerful punch.  These are stories that will move you and stay with you.  They are simply amazing!  

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Who are the ghosts in each story?  Why is it important to remember them?
  2. What does the term refugee mean?  How does it compare to expat or immigrant?
  3. Why does the father name his first and second set of children the same names in “The Fatherland”?  Discuss this.
  4. Nguyen also quotes James Fenton from the German Requiem in the prologue:  “It is not your memories which haunt you.  It is not what you have written down.  It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.  What you must go on forgetting all your life.”  How does this quote resonate with the stories contained in the book?  How do forgotten memories haunt characters within these stories?
  5. Liem, in  “The Other Man,” sees his mirror image and does not recognize himself.  Why?
  6. What does this statement mean in “The Americans”:  “Smiling at your relatives never got you far, but smiling at strangers and acquaintances sometimes did.”  Why does Claire feel more at home in Vietnam than she did in America?

Joyce Carol Oates’ Review published in the New Yorker

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s website

Review posted by fellow blogger, The Shrinkette

 

 

Man & Wife by Katie Chase ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

 

Published:  May 10, 201617230794

Pages:  212

Format:  E-book from netgalley

 

 

 

 

Wow!  This is a wonderful collection of short stories that I hope readers will pick up and enjoy.  There are several common themes threading their way through the stories including:  societal gender roles, the competition among and between girls and women, the vulnerability and seeming powerlessness of women in many cultures and the ways in which they are able to rebel, pasts that once seemed laid to rest that come back to haunt… This is a book that is affecting and powerful.  It is a book that makes you reflect.  It is beautiful and horrific at the same time.  I highly recommend this collection of short stories to everyone, but especially to women.  images-2

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  In the first story “Refugees” why do you think the mother was so easily swayed to leave with the guru?
  2. Why do you think that Sammie ran away?
  3. What do you think the appeal of the guru was to all the various people who clamored to see and hear him?
  4. Do you feel the daughter was rebelling or conforming in going to work with her father?
  5. In the second story, “Man and Wife,” why do the parents feel it is ok to marry off their 13 year old daughter?
  6. Do you feel that the daughter rebels or conforms to what society expects of her?
  7. How is the statement “The benefits mature with time” important to the story?
  8. In “Bloodfued,” what do you imagine was the conflict between fathers prior to the murders?
  9. Why do you think Conley tries to befriend Izzy?  Is she trying to befriend her or antagonize her?
  10. Why is Conley kissing Ernie so shocking?
  11. In “Old Maid,”  how do the neighbors view the “old maid?”
  12. Why has she decided to live as she does?
  13. How does her past come back to haunt her?
  14. General Questions:
  15. How are men portrayed in the stories?
  16. How do girls and women regard and treat each other in these stories?
  17. How do sisters and brothers regard and treat each other in these stories?
  18. How do boys and men assert their power and control in these stories?
  19. How do girls and women assert their power and control in these stories?
  20. How are the pasts important in these stories?
  21. What are some rites of passage portrayed in these stories?  How do they affect the characters?

Katie Chase’s website

Publisher’s Weekly Review

 

Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin ~ Book Review & Discussion Guide

25716695-1

 

Pages:  352

Published:  February 16, 2016

Format:  E-book

 

 

 

 

Brilliant, insightful, imaginative,  philosophical and unique!  This novel, written by Russian born Olga Grushin is an incredible read.  It is a collection of short stories each taking place in a room that the narrator has lived in or spent time in during her lifetime.  The stories initially are set in Russia and then move to America when the narrator travels there for college.  There are so many life truths illustrated beautifully within this novel:  the twists and turns life takes us on; it’s meaning;  the perceptions of others as well as ourselves;  the changing vision and perspective of life as we age;  the rooms we choose to inhabit and their impact on us.  This was so despite, or perhaps as a result of, the overwhelming use of fantasy/magical realism within the book.

This novel is so powerful and rich with language, metaphors, imagery, mirrors and reflections.  There is so much depth to the novel added by the insertion thoughts that the various other characters are having; by repeating scenes with different scenarios, leaving it open to interpretation what might have actually transpired and what was fantasy;  and of course by the magical or fantastical characters.  The whole novel has a “dizzying,”  dream-like quality to it.  Many of the scenes occur, followed by Mrs. Caldwell waking up.

The novel is divided into parts which represent different time periods in Mrs. Caldwell’s life.  Within each part are chapters representing the rooms within which each of the short stories occur. Forty rooms was very purposely chosen.  As the narrator’s mother tells her: “Forty is God’s number for testing the human spirit.  It’s the limit of man’s endurance, beyond which you are supposed to learn something true.  Oh, you know what I mean- Noah’s forty days and nights of rain,  Moses’ forty years in the desert, Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation.  Forty of anything is long enough to be a trial, but it’s man-size too.  In the Bible, forty years makes a span of one generation.  Forty weeks makes a baby.”

In the beginning of the novel, the young Mrs. Caldwell hopes to achieve immortality.  She wants only to write poetry and devote herself fully to that art.  She is told by her Apollo that “the meaning of a single individual human life,.. consists of figuring out the one thing you are great at and then pushing mankind’s mastery of that one thing as far as you are able, be it an inch or a mile.”  She really does work hard at her poetry and it seems all-consuming until she meets Paul and settles into married life, not even telling him her aspirations or love of writing poetry.  She becomes a mother in a foreign country, with no friends and does not even learn to drive for quite some time.  She seems to have lost herself and is trapped in her family life, and in so doing, her marriage starts to fail as well.

I loved that this novel encompassed an entire life.  The reader is able to observe the changes occurring from childhood through adulthood to the very end.  It leaves you wondering how Mrs. Caldwell’s  life might have been under different circumstances or had she made different choices.  As a mother to young children who has made career concessions of my own, I felt swept away with this novel eager to hear the author’s final message or verdict on what might the right path be.  I think this book is amazing!  It is wonderfully written, incredibly insightful and sends many powerful messages!  I must say, this book would appeal much more to women than men and would make a great book club read.  images

 

Discussion Questions:

  1.  What do you think is the meaning of life?  How does it change as we age?  Do you think that meaning is different for men and women?
  2.  Where is truth in this novel really found?  In the real life circumstances or in fantasy?
  3. What is the perspective on the “showing of wealth”:  the large house and the many belongings and how it affects people?
  4.  Paul makes a statement about how easy it is to stay at home.  How easy is it really?  What sacrifices are made?
  5. Why don’t you think Mrs. Caldwell ever confronted Paul about his affair?
  6. Do you think her poetry was ever any good?
  7. Who is Olga to her?  Does she exist or is she fantasy?
  8. Do you think the man who visited her mother in the afternoons was real or fantasy?  Do you think this is the same person as her Apollo?
  9. How might her life have been different had she gone back to Russia?
  10. How might her life have been different had she gone to Paris with Adam?
  11. Why do you think she kissed Adam in the wine cellar?
  12. Do you think Mrs. Caldwell ultimately led the life that made her happy?
  13. What are Mrs. Caldwell’s reasons for having children?
  14. Her grandmother tells her she won’t find happiness unless she gets greedy and looks for it.  Does she follow this advice?
  15. What do you think makes for a happy life?  Is it the small moments as Mrs. Caldwell alludes too?
  16. What do you think the author’s opinion is of the institution of marriage?

Olga Grushin’s website

New York Times’ Review