Writer’s Reading Review of “Chase Us”

Basic information:

Chase Us is the first collection published by author Sean Ennis. This collection of eleven short stories focuses around the same group of boys growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia. Themes that dominate the collection are captivity, maturation, sex, friendship, loyalty, fear, and a desire for more than we have. For the most part, the narrator appears to be the same for all the stories, and as the stories in the collection progress, the characters age and (attempt to) mature. For someone like me who devoured Judy Blume and Linda Lewis, it was interesting to read about tween and teen boys; to see how they experienced some of the same fears and insecurities. (Although this collection is clearly darker and more for an adult audience than either of those two women I mentioned.)

Reaction/review:

This collection started out with great promise. I greatly enjoyed the first story in the collection and the interesting situations and details that are woven together. The voice and tone is spot on for a young pre-teen boy, and the family dynamic was heartbreakingly accurate. Stories that immediately followed this one were equally as compelling.

As the boys in the stories aged and matured, however, it felt like the stories did not. Where Ennis had such a solid grasp on the voices of the boys at ages 11, 12, and 13, when they approached manhood—high school, college, marriage, parenthood—the stories seemed to take a surreal turn to avoid confronting a failure to really grasp their growth, their adult voices. On some level, I realize that the narrator and the other characters were under the influence of drugs and alcohol in these later stories in the collection, and this did flavor their experiences and the narratives. However, the stories’ movement out of the real and into the surreal felt like a crutch to avoid showing how life really shakes out for these men. Rather than carrying on with the harsh reality that stories like “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” and “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase” portrays, stories like “This is Recession” and “Chase Us” introduced elements of surrealism and unresolved plot points that left me scratching my head and wondering why I couldn’t see what “really” was going on. Why were the stories hiding the “good stuff”?

Take away for my writing:

I’ve accepted I’m not a novelist. I am a short story writer right now. But I think one way to move from short stories to a longer work is to connect my stories together. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a collection of interlinked stories (which I would classify this collection as). What I hope to take away from Chase Us is the importance of keeping the tone and style similar across the board. I think this can be important for all story collections, but when the stories are so closely related, it becomes of even greater importance.

The collections I have loved the most have been the ones that don’t necessarily share characters or locations or even time period. Instead, they are the ones that share tone and style. The progression of the stories feels natural as I read them and the themes are universal and valuable throughout. With this collection, however, the later stories felt significantly weaker. By tracing the growth and aging of his characters, the author didn’t do any favors for those characters or for the readers.

Strengths: well-wrought characters; strong capture of youthful voice in narration
Weaknesses: failure to grasp older characters with same strength in voice; surreal elements felt gimmicky and contrived

Favorites: “Going after Lovely,” “This is Pennypack,” “Saint Kevin of Fox Chase”
Least favorites: “Chase Us,” “This is Recession,” “Dependents,” “This is Tomorrow”

Writer’s Reading Review of “Nine Inches”

Basic information:

Nine Inches is Tom Perrotta’s first official story collection. He’s published a few novels (I’ve read one, The Leftovers), some of which have been adapted as films (Election and Little Children). His stories chronicle the innate longing for more than we have and the poor choices we make, which end up solidifying that we won’t ever get what we long for. He’s been called the “Steinbeck of suburbia” by some reviewers, and the title seems appropriate. Like Steinbeck, though, I think Perrotta is a novelist more than he is a short story writer.

Reaction/review:

This is the second book of Perrotta’s that I’ve read (the first was the novel The Leftovers), and I think I’m just not a fan of his work in general. I think he has a particular reader, a particular audience, and I’m just not one of them. This isn’t meant to detract from his writing, but I think it’s just the way it is.

I can see some value in his work. He paints vivid character portraits and he creates realistic situations in this collection of short stories. His characters find themselves experiencing circumstances that are as believable as they are unfortunate, and the characters’ choices are often implicated in those circumstances. The majority of his characters make the bad choices we all consider when reacting to situations, but most of us avoid these choices, erring on the side of ethics, politeness, and appropriate behavior. This element in his collection—characters pushing the boundaries of “acceptable” behavior—is interesting; tracing the downward spiral of these characters as they come undone is intriguing and heartrending. But there’s something about it that doesn’t ring true for me.

To think of this collection in terms of a Hemingway view of stories (i.e., the “iceberg” principle), we see the entire surface, but we never really understand what’s “under the water.” Perrotta’s strong suit is creating a vivid premise with solid believable characters, but that’s where it ends. There was an element of predictability and superficiality that soured me right away with the first (and weakest) story, “A Back Rub.” The story never really satisfied. Things happen to the character. He reacts. And, at the end, we get a recap of where is life heads because of his poor choices. But we’re never given the chance to care about or root for him. The clichéd and banal nature of several stories had me feeling like I was “treading water” as I made my way through the pages (examples would be “One-Four-Five, “The Test Taker,” and “Grade My Teacher”); I never really cared about the characters or their circumstances.

Other stories that were more successful were also a bit less conventional, still keeping with the same realistic level of premise and situation. Stories like “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face” and “Nine Inches,” relied on the same trite suburban themes, but rather than being formulaic, they felt more authentic. The characters made some sort of revelation or achieved at least some level of growth, which made the stories more successful than the others. I felt something for the characters because they unveiled a bit of what was beneath the surface, and as a reader, I need that “under the water” glimpse to propel me forward.

Take away for my writing:

Yes, Virginia, there is a difference between novel writers and short story writers. And, after analyzing this particular collection, I think I admire even more greatly those writers who successfully move back and forth from short stories to novels with (seemingly) effortless talent. In my opinion, Perrotta is, quite simply, a novelist and not a short story writer. Successful short stories need to be whole and unified; they need to communicate a story that has a solid beginning, middle, and end, with flash points of climax that aren’t too “big” or overwrought for their briefer length. The stories in this volume feel like they’re trying to be novels (or, really, novel summaries). Rather than having just one or two flash points of solid tension, they’re riddled with tepid points of semi-tension throughout, leaving them as summaries or synopses of a bigger tale, rather than full and complete works unto themselves. With some development and added detail, I could envision almost every short story in the collection as a novel or novella. I had the distinct impression that each of them was a novel idea that Perrotta just didn’t flesh out or finish, and that’s not the reading experience one wants with a short story collection.

Strengths: Vivid portraits, accessible and entertaining writing style
Weaknesses: Uneven plotting, failure to delve into characters’ psyches, predictability and clichés

Favorites: “The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face,” “Nine Inches,” and “Kiddie Pool”
Least favorites: (all the rest of them)

 

Writer’s Reading Review of “Welding with Children”

Basic information:

Welding with Children is Tim Gautreaux’s second collection of short stories. It was published in 1999, but for some reason it kept appearing on my radar when I was looking for short story collections to read this year. Gautreaux is a southern writer (lives in Louisiana) and has been referred to as the “Cartographer of Louisiana back roads,” a moniker that is highly appropriate for this collection.

Reaction/review:

The stories in this collection are varied and diverse, but a tight, strong thread binds them all. The elements of similarity that run throughout the stories, however, never make them feel “one note” or repetitive. Each piece tells its own unique story, with an intriguing plot, rich characters, and an identifiable theme. The themes addressed all seemed to focus on the disconnects and barriers in life, both those that are inflicted on us and those that we create. I think that the collection, as a whole, is one of the more unified I have read.

I found that the obscurity and juxtaposition hinted at in the collection’s title (also the title of one of the stories) gave solid indication of the disparities and binary oppositions that occurred throughout the book: old/young, rich/poor, educated/uneducated, etc. Gautreaux is telling stories that are not pleasant. They are filled with individuals at the margins of “acceptable” society. But, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Gautreaux infuses each story with an affection and warmth that translates well to the reader, making us root for certain characters, even when a part of us thinks perhaps we shouldn’t.

My one complaint is the astonishing abundance of Cajun surnames. I realize the stories all take place in Louisiana, so the names, of course, make sense. However, it’s almost never necessary for a reader to know every character’s last name—especially when almost every single one ends in -eaux.

Take away for my writing:

Gautreaux is successful in one area that at times eludes me in short story collections: unity. When the connection between stories is apparent (a recurring character or specific setting, for example), that’s one thing. But sometimes, collections don’t feel cohesive. There is no apparent unification beyond the byline that they all share. But in these stories, Gautreaux fuses the stories with something that goes far deeper. He keeps the stories themselves diverse and unique, but they still all fit together as if they are pieces of a puzzle. While some stories are definitely stronger than others are, you can’t imagine the collection working as well without them all present and accounted for.

I’d like to go through the collection again at a later date (it’s a library book and has to be returned soon) and see if I can identify some more elements that connect the stories together so well. The quality is one that I’ve rarely found so effective in a collection, and I’d like to focus more on how, exactly, Gautreaux does this.

Strengths: diversity of narratives, strong characters in realistic situations, cohesive collection
Weaknesses: at times, the southern flavor can get a bit “precious” (example being the surnames)

Favorites: “Welding with Children,” “The Pine Oil Writers’ Conference,” and “Resistance” (among others)
Least favorites: “Misuse of Light” and “Sorry Blood”

 

Writer’s Reading Review of “We Live in Water”

Basic information:

Jess Walter’s collection We Live in Water marks his first collection of short fiction, but not his first published book. The stories collected here were mostly published elsewhere in publications like Harper’s, McSweeney’s, Byliner, Playboy, etc. Most of the publications that have previously published his works are high quality, and this quality is reflected in the collection of stories, which mostly are located in the Pacific Northwest, where Walter resides.

Reaction/review:

I adored this collection. I enjoyed each and every story to some degree, and that is rare. The characters were realistic, the situations were interesting, but not far-fetched (well, except for the one “zombie” tale “Don’t Eat Cat,” which was surprisingly delightful despite its genre departure from all the others). Most importantly, I felt something for each of the characters that were the main focus of each story. I identified with their plight and, while I shuddered at their poor choices, I also sympathized with them. To me, this collection represents authentic American experiences, and most of them focus on the disenfranchised fringe of society.

Take away for my writing:

I need to read through some of the stories again with a “writer’s” attention to detail. Walter does a great job of creating characters who resonate with a reader. He paints vivid portraits of who they are without “telling”( i.e., excessive exposition). He also finds a nice balance between an interesting premise and something that feels too contrived or gimmicky. These are all factors I would like to showcase in my own writing.

Strengths: Strong characters, resonating descriptions, authentic plots/premises
Weaknesses: Perhaps sentimental for some readers, limited exploration of female characters (all the stories are male-based)

Favorites: “We Live in Water,” “Thief,” and “Helpless Little Things”
Least favorites: “Can a Corn,” “Please,” “Brakes” (a trio of connected flash pieces)

Writer’s Reading Review of “Battleborn”

Basic information:

Battleborn is a debut collection from writer Claire Vaye Watkins. In this collection of stories, Watkins explores the western landscape that was the home of her youth. She creates vivid pictures of life in the “desert” of Reno, Las Vegas, and nearby areas. She also considers and reinvents her own history and its (tenuous) connection to “Helter Skelter” and Charles Manson.

Reaction/review:

I struggled to finish this book. I feel horrible even admitting that, but I did. I’m going to preface this by saying that I hate (really, truly hate) writing this review because (1) who the hell am I to criticize something this renowned and well-received? and (2) I really wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I also feel particularly harsh in my criticisms because this is the author’s first book. It’s her first published collection and, as such, it shouldn’t be compared with some of the other works I’ve been reading by authors who have numerous (numerous) books under their belts. But, alas, my reaction is my reaction.

My issues with the stories is that they felt too much like writing. They felt like they’d been “workshopped” to death. Both of these are things I never thought I’d say because I never really understood what these complaints meant. I’d heard people say them, but I’d never really noticed something that “felt” like writing. (My question was always, “Shouldn’t writing always feel like writing?” But the truth is. No. No it should not.) I also got the distinct impression that the stories were trying to please too many audiences, too many readers. It left each of them with a distinctly schizophrenic and undecided flavor that ultimately fell short. I’m not sure how to explain this other than to say that there was distinct lack of unity, cohesion, and focused voice in them. I felt like I was reading a debut collection because it felt like the writer is still deciding who she is as a writer. And I think that’s why I struggle so much with my feelings. Because I have no idea who I am as a writer either.

I was reminded of a criticism I remember hearing regarding an American Idol contestant years ago (stay with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this). The singer was technically proficient and her voice was beautiful, but the critic said that when she was on stage it was like she was saying, “Hey, listen to my beautiful voice and what it can do,” rather than her being on stage saying, “Listen to my song. Listen to the story I have to tell through music.” This book felt like that to me. It felt like a showcase of some beautiful prose that had no true, essential, unique message. The fact that the author included a reimagining of her own history and it’s connection to Charles Manson was said to be her attempt to “get it over with,” but I have no idea why that was necessary. That particular story (“Ghosts, Cowboys”) had numerous beginnings, never really deciding where it should begin and where it should focus, and that same feeling permeated the whole collection.

Some of the stories drew me in and carried me throughout, but then, as they approached their end, it felt like they went on a bit too long. Like they were attempting to make some grander proclamation or statement than was possible. Like they felt this impending pressure to be so much more than they’d intended. In actuality, they should have just continued the path they’d started and been content to simply be a good story. Like I said, it was like the attempt was to showcase writing, rather than share a solid story.

Take away for my writing:

Keep a story’s message and point in focus. Great and beautiful writing is wonderful, but only if there’s a premise that works underneath it. Otherwise, it will feel like writing.

Strengths: Beautiful prose and detailed description of a specific landscape in America
Weaknesses: Lacking in premise, unity, and focus within each individual story

Favorite(s): “The Archivist” and “Virginia City”
Least favorite(s): “Ghosts, Cowboys”

Writer’s Reading Review fo “You Know When the Men are Gone”

Basic information:

You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon was a random read. I came across it in the available e-book selections for my public library and the title caught my eye. I read the synopsis and was intrigued.

Fallon is a former military wife whose husband experienced multiple tours of duty in the Middle East, while she (and their child/children) remained stateside. Her collection of stories depicts life for the women behind the men in service (and a few dips into the experiences from the soldiers’ perspectives).

Reaction/review:

Fallon’s stories were diverse in that they explored about every imaginable scenario for a military spouse or family. There are widows (both figurative and literal). There are rebellious children. There are struggling marriages. There is infidelity. There are wounded men and women struggling to cope with a variety of challenges that this particular life path has thrown at them. While the breadth of situations was impressive, there weren’t really too many surprises. The emotions were genuine and candid, but the plots felt fairly predictable.

Take away for my writing:

The author here definitely writes what she knows. I hadn’t read the author’s bio prior to reading the stories, but by the end of the first story, I knew that she must be a military wife herself. Her depiction of the emotions and experiences (of which I admittedly have no familiarity or knowledge) were raw and authentic. She also threw in a few tiny twists here and there that I didn’t see coming (although not nearly as many as I would have liked), so that was something to remember. The stories were their strongest when the emotions were frank and straightforward. The stories became weak when they devolved into sentimentality, and often the conclusions felt canned or formulaic.

Strengths: Realistic experiences with effective emotion
Weaknesses: Predictability, sentimentality, and languid endings

Favorites: “Leave” and “Gold Star”
Least favorites: “Camp Liberty” and “Remission”