Review: if i would leave myself behind by Lauren Becker

if i would leave myself behind

Lauren Becker’s new short story collection, if i would leave myself behind, is being published by Curbside Splendor and should be released by June this year, according to the publisher.

An image of Ms. Becker

I received a review copy of the book, because when I reached out to the publisher to purchase it, they offered to send it if I would write a review. I said sure.

I’ve followed Ms. Becker’s work for a few years, and I’m also a big fan of Corium, the literary magazine she edits. She’s been kind enough to send me editorial notes on my submissions from time to time.

Don’t let the diminutive size of the physical book fool you, or the brevity of the stories, some of which are a slender page, this collection packs an emotional wallop.

All of the main characters in these stories are women, most in severely damaged relationships, some of those relationships are of the woman with herself, and others are disfunctional co-dependent relationships with men. In some cases, there are dying family members too.

willow is a brief internal reflection of a woman suffering with anorexia. There is a Good Willow and a Bad Willow, depending on what she is eating.

In boilerplate, an unnamed woman describes an unpleasant one night stand where she has offered herself up to a man she doesn’t like. She says, “We stared into each other’s eyes for the couple of minutes it took to accomplish his ambivalent satisfaction. Neither of us cared about mine.”

And in tipped a young woman also struggles with body image issues. This paragraph in particular made me laugh: “I was still losing weight. He asked why I was getting skinny. He held my hips when we kissed and put his hands around my belly from behind sometimes when I was brushing my teeth, which I hated. I would like to meet one girl in the world who likes having a guy touch her stomach.”

after the girls of summer describes a horrific relationship with a woman and her abusive boyfriend. The story begins, “When he is sweet, Alex runs his right thumb along Shelly’s left eyebrow. The thick hairs mostly cover the scar where he split her skin for the first time.” And perhaps the most haunting line in that story, “She is the way he made her.”

The 29 stories in this 112 page collection are relentless. They can be read quickly, but when you feel the air squeezed out of your lungs from the horror these women face, day after day, in their cruel lives, with their narcissistic partners, or their disapproving mothers, or dying fathers, it’s a wonder to be able to get through it. But get through it you must, because Ms. Becker’s women characters are compelling in their despair; they are complex in their nonchalant acceptance of their abuse of their bodies and their minds.

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A Review of Etgar Keret’s The Nimrod Flipout

I’m always on the hunt for great short story collections, and in the last few months I’ve purchased several. As I finish them, I’ll review them here in case you are also looking for examples of finely crafted stories.

Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer who has had several short story collections published, and translated from the original Hebrew into many languages. Thank goodness for that.

I procured 3 of Keret’s compliations including The Nimrod Flipout, The Girl on the Fridge, and Suddenly A Knock on the Door.

I relate strongly to Keret’s work. His stories are written succintly, and with great humor and a sense of the surreal in the everyday.

The first story in The Nimrod Flipout is called Fatso, about a man who meets the most beautiful woman and dates her. Eventually he finds out she has a secret … that when she falls asleep, she becomes a large, fat hairy guy at night. Fatso likes to watch soccer on TV and go out drinking. In Keret’s world, there are no boundaries for “what can happen” and in this story, the boyfriend continues to love the beautiful woman during the day, and befriends Fatso at night, coming to enjoy his company and root for his favorite soccer team.

In another story, Bottle, a man comes into a bar and meets a college student and a musician there, and the man puts the musician inside a bottle, as a trick. This story is only three paragraphs long, and was originally published online at KGB Bar and Lit Journal, so if you want to read Bottle and 2 other Keret stories, you can click here:

http://kgbbar.com/lit/fiction/three_stories_bottle_pipe_asthma_attack

And while most of Keret’s work is funny, some of it digs at the difficulties Israeli’s face in their culture. In the title story, The Nimrod Flipout, several friends are “flipping out” and dealing with bouts of mental illness as they remember their friend who committed suicide. You get the idea that these men are dealing with the aftermath of having served in the Israeli military together. Each of guys deals with the situation in his own way, but they all go a little crazy, one at a time.

I would strongly recommend The Nimrod Flipout and Keret’s work. Although I haven’t read the other two collections yet, I will. Nimrod was written in 2006, but the stories are self-contained and I think they will stay fresh and unique in their perspective because of it.

Book Review – Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue

Of the three Michael Chabon novels I’ve read (The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay which won the Pulitzer; The Yiddish Policeman’s Union; and now Telegraph Avenue) I enjoyed Telegraph Avenue the least among them.

Telegraph Avenue weighs in at a whopping 625 pages, which is a big reading committment for one book. An author increases reader expectations tremendously when a book exceeds 500 pages, in my opinion. You expect more of every aspect of the book – the characters, the plot line(s), and the resolution of those plotlines.

The book is about two guys who own an old vinyl-based record store and their families, friends and enemies from the local neighborhood in Oakland, California (next to Berkeley.) One owner of the record shop is Nat, a white Jewish guy; the other is his best friend Archy, a black guy.

Telegraph Avenue has so many characters that I failed to keep most of them straight for the first half of the book, especially the two owners of the shop – our main protagonists! Chabon failed to sufficiently distinguish their personalities from one another and by failing to provide a basic description of the characters.

I kept reading, hoping things would become clearer, but…

Chabon doesn’t tell us Nat is white or that Archy is black directly for the first third of the book and yet, it is one of the most important elements of the story because there is a white/black dynamic running throughout the book.

As a reader, it is tiring to try and remember no less than a dozen main characters, especially when it’s unlikely someone will be able to consume a novel of this size in one sitting. (It took me a month to get through the book.)

Characters include Nat, his wife Aviva and their son Julie … Archy, his 2nd wife Gwen, and Archy’s illegit son Titus, Archy’s father Luther, and Luther’s girlfriend Valetta … and the main guys from the neighborhood Mr. Jones and his parrot Fifty-eight, Mr. Flowers, Mr. Singletary… and I could go on and on just naming characters. That is not a good thing.

There are several plot lines running through the book as well, and I didn’t find them compelling enough. The main plotline is Nat and Archy’s business, their record store, is failing. A guy named Gibson Goode, who used to be from the neighborhood and left to become a famous football star now living in Los Angeles, decides to come back and build a huge record store in the neighborhood.

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this if you want to read the book. Gibson Goode never winds up building the record store, and Nat and Archy break up as partners by the end of the book. The lack of tension around this issue in the 600 pages that preceed these events nullify their impact. It isn’t the “payoff” for the reader that it should be given the build up. Other plotlines meet a similar fizzled-out fate.

By way of example, one of the characters, a parrot named Fifty-eight whose interesting idiosyncracies keep us wondering about what he might say, flies away with a strongly implied promise to the reader that the bird will return or its whereabouts known later through several references. This is especially important when the bird’s owner, Mr. Jones, dies. But no, the bird never returns and the bird’s influence on the story is just dropped.

Chabon’s writing has always required a certain patience because of the level of description he provides, but this is also his genius as a writer. When used to build drama, this kind of writing can be exciting and assist the reader in populating the complex world Chabon creates, like the kind you’ll find in the Yiddish Policeman’s Union set in a fictional version of Sitka, Alaska. In Telegraph Avenue I found myself much more impatient with these descriptions because they weren’t adding up to a cohesive whole, and became more of a stylistic distraction – the very last thing you’d want from a really long novel.

To conclude, I would not recommend Telegraph Avenue. It’s bloated at 625 pages, and could have been edited down to create better pacing for the reader. (This novel had “saggy sections.”) It’s characters are too numerous and difficult to tell them apart. Plotlines are not compelling enough given the resolution to many of them (tied too neatly with a bow) at the end of the novel.

If you want to experience the a much better example of the stylistic writing of Michael Chabon, I would recommend the Yiddish Policeman’s Union instead.