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.

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:

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.

Three Short Story Collections I Recommend

A few weeks ago while wandering the isles of The Strand in New York City, I picked up Elissa Schappell’s Blueprints for Building Better Girls her collection of short stories.

I brought the Schappell collection with me for my travels recently to Bozeman, Montana for work. While in Bozeman, I had an opportunity to walk the Main Street where they have two independent bookstores. (As an aside, Bozeman is a pretty cool town considering it is in a rural part of the plains, and a short drive to the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park, but apparently the nearby ski resorts bring a lot of tourists and outside influence to the place. You can get organic salads from the local food co-op near the bookshops, for example.)

The Country Bookshelf was inviting, and the three women working there were all helpful when I asked about short story collections they’d recommend. I explained I was reading Blueprints, and that I’d be open to recommendations of local Montana talent as long as all the stories did not involve cows and horses. They did not disappoint, and handed over Aryn Kyle’s collection Boys and Girls Like You and Me, along with Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Both Kyle and Meloy originate from Montana, but Kyle moved east to New York City, and Meloy moved west to Los Angeles. It seems Montana could hold neither of them.

What’s so interesting about the three collections, which I read in succession, is how similar they are in their subject matter and selection of main characters. I was actually surprised by this because I was expecting each to have distinctive writing characteristics, but for me these tomes blended together…with some exceptions.

In the case of Schappell, her writing is more finely polished than the other two… although don’t get me wrong, all three of these women are very talented story tellers.

Schappell’s women scared me a little, some of them wanted to be sexually used or humiliated, others were dealing with the aftermath of rape, or they were anorexic and just generally fucked up. Most of them drank heavily or did drugs. I do not assume these women were stand-ins for the author, but there was a level of… depravity… in the Schappell collection I wouldn’t have necessarily expected. I’m no prude, but it made me wonder why the stories had to be dealing with topics so extreme.

Meloy’s collection was very tuned into the emotional aspects of loss and despair, and many of her characters were cheating on their partners, or having family problems of one kind or another. I think the strongest story in the collection is Spy vs. Spy, a story about two brothers who don’t get along, but the older and more responsible one (a doctor) has a daughter that the younger brother (ski instructor) is always trying to impress as a way to one-up his brother by being good to his niece. The ending of the story (which I won’t give away) was a perfect balance to the relationship between the two brothers and the people that surround them. Some of the other endings were similarly adept. Overall the writing was very strong.

Kyle’s characters were mostly adolescent boys and girls dealing with issues of growing up, sexual awakenings, and similar fare. I found the endings to some of Kyle’s stories to be problematic (for me) in that she would be telling the story and going along in the present, and then within the last page she would zoom out and have the character looking back from a great distance of time. I suppose that technique could work for some stories, but it was a conceit I felt she used too often and it jarred me out of the reading and intimacy with her characters. I don’t like it when the writer is showing me she can pirouette in the story. I don’t want to be able to “see” how she’s writing the story while I’m reading it, that doesn’t work for me.

To be fair, some of these stories – from all three collections – had excellent emotional resonance and I could feel what the characters were feeling (or I imagined I could, I should say.) It’s more important to feel something about a story than to have it written and executed perfectly, so I can be forgiving about certain endings, etc.

Perhaps of interest to the writers among us (most of you reading this?) is that all of these women were published by big names for their collections. (Is there hope for short stories after all?) Meloy was pubbed by Riverhead Books, a Penguin imprint; Kyle was pubbed by Scribner, a Simon and Schuster imprint; and Schappell was pubbed directly by Simon and Schuster. Not too shabby. Yeah, and both Schappell and Meloy were reviewed in the New York Times Book Review too.

So if you’re looking for interesting women characters written by contemporary women writers, go out and acquire these three collections. And no, I’m not getting a kick-back from these ladies, I just like their work. I think you will too.

Where is Farley’s Book Shop, What is Press 53, and Who is Curtis Smith?

I was in Farley’s Book Shop in New Hope, PA and it is a relatively rare kind of bookstore because it has whole sections of it’s front shelving dedicated to independent presses. I’d also recommend Farley’s because they have regular events, and I like the way that shop is curated.

One shelf in Farley’s is dedicated to Press 53, out of Winston-Salem, North Carolina (yes the same Winston-Salem of cigarette fame.)

Much to mydelight, Press 53 specializes in publishing short story collections. From their website:

Short Story Collections: Since we published our first book in October 2005, Press 53 has gained a reputation for being a champion of the short story. We publish 6-8 short story collections each year.

So there I was, perusing the Press 53 shelf when I came across a signed copy of Bad Monkey by Curtis Smith. And while I had never heard of Curtis Smith before, I came to know that he’s been nominated for a half dozen Pushcart prizes.

Regardless of his pedigree, I decided then and there that it was my sworn duty to support fellow short story writers so I dished out the $14 bucks to support Mr. Smith, Press 53 and Farley’s Book Shop all the way down the line.

I’ve read several of the short stories in the Bad Monkey collection, and they are very well written, and have an emotional resonance that I like.

Since I am a short story writer myself, I really relate to the idea that there are so many unsung, relatively unknown writers out there and thank goodness for independent presses like Press 53 who are ready, willing and able to champion such writers and works.

So – go to your nearest independent bookstore and look for an independent press label. Take a chance and buy such books, and find treasures that perhaps no one has heard of but that are worthy of better recognition.

And if it’s a short story collection, so much the better.