A Sense of the Whole by Siamak Vossoughi

I’m very glad I made the snap decision to buy this book after hearing Siamak Vossoughi read from it a few months ago. These electrifying stories are gleaming jewels, both very simple and very deep: absolute distillations where every word is perfect. Vossoughi’s writing reminds me of both Hemingway and Brian Doyle, which is a weird thing to say; but he encompasses both the koan-like, deceptively plain profundity of Hemingway and the profuse, excited, love-saturated celebration of Doyle. (Also, basketball.) Vossoughi’s characters are young and old, male and female, frequently Iranian-American (like the author) but not always; they are seeking, they are open and curious, and I find them inspirational (genuinely, not in the insipid way). They are also sometimes writers, which I appreciate and which feels autobiographical again, although I wouldn’t want to extrapolate that these stories are generally autobiographical (a too-easy assumption that’s often false).

A boy making a vulnerable but significant move in the classroom watches his teacher: “Mrs. Pardo didn’t look up or pause or anything, and he knew she wouldn’t look up or pause or anything, and she knew he knew it and that was a kind of love.” Two boys who have let their captured bees fly away silently muse about the mysteries of girls. “We couldn’t open that up between us because it would be like floating off into some vast and endless sky. So, we turned to something more certain and we talked about where those two bees on strings were by now.” In the story “Proverbs,” an Iranian-American child involves her parents and then a widening circle of the community in her homework when she is asked to explain the meanings of several American proverbs. I love that this story invokes the beauty and power of language, and the difficulties of translation, and the gift of sharing. Such a story could have been about alienation and discomfort, but here it is celebratory.

There is much here about the power of language, actually, as in “So Long”: “When I was a kid my father used to break my heart and send me soaring at once by the way he would say when he dropped me off at school, ‘Have fun.'” Later in the same story, “…it evened out everything that was vast and unknowable about America to remember that I could always be a listener, I could always take in somebody else’s America and grow my own by doing so, and know that I would have something to work with after doing that because at the very least, my America was a growing America.” Something about my own growing America, growing my own, feels revelatory to me. I tell my students that it’s important that we are all always learning and growing and aware that we don’t know it all, that the moment we think we know it all, we stop learning, and that’s where we fail. This feels related, and beautiful.

In “The Trophy,” I thought of Brian Doyle again. A shopkeeper at a trophy shop refuses a sale, instead intervening (against habit) in what he sees as a mistake about to be made. There is an empathy and a vulnerability to stories like this; it feels like these characters take the kinds of risks that we all wish we did.

The final two stories in the collection, “So Long” and “Nobody Died,” feel like the perfect choices, like everything the book had been building toward. I immediately went back to the beginning, in fact, to see if they all felt this good, once I’d gotten into Vossoughi’s rhythm, or something; but these final two still feel like standouts. I needed this in my life, and I’m already considering which story to teach in my upcoming Short Fiction class.

Vossoughi’s stories are very short – some just two pages, most four to five. And they’re perfect. Do yourself a favor and buy this book.


Rating: 9 apples.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

This was a delightful quick read: five spooky stories, with brief introduction and conclusion to bookend. Carroll’s illustration style is lovely – I almost want to say simple, but deceptively so, for sure. She communicates a lot of emotion. I am reminded of the graphic versions of Gaiman’s work. I loved the woman “with starry eyes,” and indeed there were tiny little stars in her pupils.

These tales are deliciously unnerving, creepy, and enigmatic – it’s not always clear that there is something to be scared of in the end, but there sure might be. There’s a lot of question of who to trust, of things that go bump in the night and come out of the woods (as “most strange things do”). Friendships and familial relationships are perhaps less stable and trustworthy than they first appear. There might be monsters, after all. Houses and spaces hold nasty potential. I’ve decided to call these stories dark fairy tales; they definitely recall that style and the traditional setting (and at least one is a clear reference).

This is the kind of horror that is just deeply fun, and in this graphic format, even sumptuous. There are multiple spreads that I could see hanging on the wall. I love the idea of keeping this around for quick, easy, luxurious, high-impact reads. Carroll deserves her accolades. I’d buy another volume of this work in a minute.


Rating: 8 teeth.

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

The stories in Carmen Maria Machado’s debut Her Body and Other Parties are both highly varied – in length, form, and style – and also absolutely related. They each handle gender in our real world, including issues of body image, sexuality, violence, lust, and family structures, but frequently do so by calling in supernatural forces, post-apocalypses, fairy tales or other fictional reference points. These are narratives to get completely lost and absorbed in, not necessarily pleasant reading, but compelling.

“The Husband Stitch” starts the collection off, and is why I own it: my friend Vince teaches it and I’ve heard him talk about it several times. It is a quite discomfiting story of a woman’s life from girlhood on, including her marriage and motherhood to a boy. It’s about gender expectations, and it feels true to our world, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It also makes reference to the classic urban myth/horror story about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck – remember that one?

“Inventory” lists the narrator’s partners, of different genders, over the years, until the reader understands that in her world there has been a global pandemic that has all but wiped out the human population. (This was published in 2017, but yes, it feels creepily familiar, like The Stand.) I think it counts as what Suzanne Paola calls a life-rolled-up. I like it very much, in this case, the spooky outer world that it shows at an off-angle while ostensibly focusing on sexual/romantic relationships.

“Mothers” sees a woman showing up on her former lover’s doorstep with a baby, which she deposits, saying “She’s yours.” The trick is that the partner is also a woman, who has imagined their life together as mothers many times, but simultaneously comforted herself that it wasn’t possible for them to make a baby. This central riddle is never solved; by the end, it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an interesting thought experiment. The passage about “the major and minor arcana of our little religion” pleased me greatly.

“Especially Heinous,” the longest story in this collection, I felt was the weakest of the collection. I like both the form and the frame: subtitled “272 Views of Law & Order: SVU,” it offers very short synopses of 272 episodes of that show, seasons 1-12. I have watched this show some; as a person mostly ignorant of pop culture references like this, it was gratifying to know the subtext. But it didn’t really work out for me. This alternate version of Benson and Stabler have themselves an alternate version, Henson and Abler, sort of evil doppelgängers who muck up their cases and relationships. It’s otherworldly, paranormal, and weird (none of which I shy away from!) but somehow didn’t come together. Maybe the large number of short pieces didn’t hold together for this many pages. I definitely got bogged down here and reading became a bit of a task.

But then things came right back together again. “Real Women Have Bodies” sees a world with another, different epidemic, in which women sort of… fade out, and become invisible. But where do they go? Our female protagonist works in a high-end dress shop, and finds herself in a relationship with another woman, and both wind up in a position to witness the ways in which women change and are disregarded. (No metaphor here, I’m sure.) It’s lovely and haunting, which could be said about the whole collection.

“Eight Bites” is another perfectly apt observation of the world, in which a woman gets gastric bypass surgery – the last of her sisters to do so – and thereby horrifies and enrages her daughter, who rejects the societal bullying that gets us here in the first place.

“The Resident” features a writer heading to an artists’ residency where she struggles to relate to others, eventually finding herself humiliated – again. This story has a neat trick at its conclusion.

And finally, “Difficult at Parties” (a phrase that echoes from an earlier story) depicts the aftermath of a trauma. Not for the first time, this story is so realistic and painful that it is hard to read, but also spellbinding and crystalline.

NPR‘s Annalisa Quinn states that this book is “full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.” I’m glad I read that line; it helps me to think about this kind of writing – fabulist realism, perhaps – as defamiliarization. Making our very own familiar world strange helps us to see it more clearly.

I’ll be thinking about these stories for some time. Machado has a gift. Keep your eyes open for her later memoir, In the Dream House. Also, thanks Vince for the recommendation.


Rating: 8 dresses.

Lee Child shorts: “Public Transportation” and “Wet with Rain” (audio)

“Public Transportation” was available from Audible as a standalone short (originally from the collection Phoenix Noir), and “Wet with Rain” comes from Exit Wounds: Nineteen Tales of Mystery from the Modern Masters of Crime. They were, I think, 13 and 28 minutes respectively, give or take. Just a few quick indulgences during a drive to the next county to my local bike shop.

Classic Child, so not much to report here, but in the best ways. “Public Transportation” offers a surprise twist and no serial characters. A cop is talking with a journalist about an old unsolved murder case; we get a fairly quick summary of the crime, the investigation (in hindsight, botched), and the problematic conclusion eventually settled on by the police department. “Wet with Rain” is also Reacher-free, but slightly more involved. We get a little less context, but eventually understand that two Americans with a certain agency have traveled to Ireland to run a secret operation, about which information is doled out slowly and out of order, so that we’re still putting things together even as they happen. Each of these stories represents a sort of puzzle – for the reader and for the players involved. Only one has a quick punch of a surprise; the other is more of a slow burn. And, again, neither involves our hero Reacher. But each serves as a good example of Child’s skill with intrigue, detail, and apparently effortless storytelling (which actually may be the hardest kind), as well as a certain dark side of human nature. I enjoyed both as quick jaunts, and would love to have access to more of the same: quick, punchy stories by authors I know I love. My lifestyle doesn’t support longer audiobooks these days. Look for more podcast reviews to come, I guess…

“Pursuit as Happiness” by Ernest Hemingway

In June of 2020, The New Yorker published a previously unpublished Hemingway short story, “Pursuit as Happiness,” here. “That year we had planned to fish for marlin off the Cuban coast for a month,” it begins. The narrator is a writer named Ernest Hemingway, but the author’s grandson (who unearthed the manuscript) reads it as a work of closely autobiographical fiction, and certainly for Hem the line was well blurred; I am comfortable with this classification.

The New Yorker‘s illustration

Similarities in subject matter with The Old Man and the Sea are obvious, but it’s a very different story in its events. The Hemingway voice is clearly recognizable. This narrator/protagonist/version-of-Hemingway is in search of really big marlin, and he and his friend/charter boat captain, Mr. Josie (whose boat is the Anita, but I think we recognize the Pilar) are doing some fine fishing, but they haven’t found the big ones. They keep extending their trip, even though they’re on credit; Mr. Josie encourages Hemingway to write for a little income. He drinks. They get a truly big fish on the line, but it doesn’t go as it should. Again, you see the parallels, but this is a story of its own.

There is less finality here than in The Old Man and the Sea, more optimism. The other is the more masterful story (and longer), but this one has a lot to offer. Even the title nods at something my fisherman friends say: we call it fishing, not catching; pursuit as happiness. This sanguinity is uncharacteristic for Hemingway, and I’m not surprised he followed Old Man rather than this one. But this one is awfully rewarding, too. And it was (of course) an absolute pleasure to find a new Hemingway story to fall into. Familiar but new.


Rating: 8 fathoms of line.

“Home Habitat Range Niche Territory” by Martha Wells

What I loved most about this short Murderbot story is that it’s the first I’ve read that’s not from Murderbot’s point of view. For the first time, we view our hero through someone else’s eyes: those of Mensah, its friend and sort-of boss (protector? patron? owner?) for most of the series, so hers is a sympathetic, wryly humorous perspective, and loving. It’s the briefest glimpse of events, again: basically an excuse for SecUnit (aka Murderbot) and Mensah to interact, so that the latter can show us the former from a different angle. (It also provides just a hair of perspective on Mensah’s trauma.) Like last Friday’s story, it would serve as a pretty good intro to the series, although it’s more of an outlier. Again, it’s another treat of a small reentry into this world that I so appreciate.

I hope Martha Wells is off writing right now.


Rating: 8 free sessions.

Thanks for bearing with these short stories & reviews, folks – we’ll be back to whole books again soon.

“Drive” by James S. A. Corey

Another short from one of my favorites series, “Drive” briefly profiles an inventor and his invention, which we’ve been aware of as a sort of fact-of-life technology in the rest of The Expanse: here is Solomon Epstein, and his Epstein drive. We meet Solomon en media res, mid-experiment, as his improved drive turns out to work but also threaten his life. In this timeline, he struggles to save himself, while interspliced scenes show how he got here: glimpses of who he was, in particular with the woman who became his wife. It’s awfully moving, actually, a very fine, clipped view of a human with no villain to him (rare in this fictional world). I am again impressed with Corey’s skills, and I can’t wait to find more of this world, the expanse that appears in the final line of this lovely, sad, stand-alone story. Definitely recommend.


Rating: 8 bits of colored glass.

“The Future of Work: Compulsory” by Martha Wells

A very short story, but a satisfying little fix for my need for Murderbot. And actually, this one would make an excellent introduction (and clearly is designed for those unfamiliar with the character, as it economically sums up the needed background in a way that is not at all awkward – no small feat). It’s just a very quick episode, and I think early in SecUnit’s governor-module-free life. It’s still working out how it feels and thinks, because “apparently getting free will after having 93 percent of your behavior controlled for your entire existence will do weird things to your impulse control.” Also, “What’s the hurry? I can always kill the humans after the next series ends.” Which is kind of perfect as an encapsulation: the humor, the darkness, and the entertainment addiction. I love it.

Real quick and easy; think about checking it out here.

“The Butcher of Anderson Station” by James S. A. Corey

Just a quickie here: this short story establishes the history of Fred Johnson, aka the Butcher of Anderson Station, in The Expanse universe. It only makes me want more from this series, of course. The story handles two timelines. In one, Colonel Fred Johnson is ordered to retake the captured Anderson Station, and he does so, making what appears to be the wisest military decision along the way. Then he gets some new information. In a parallel story that takes place later, the OPA’s Anderson Dawes wants to talk about it with Fred. The story cuts back and forth between the two. By the end of this quick installment (36 pages, I’m told, in print – I’ve got an ebook version), we see the Fred Johnson that we’ll meet in the bulk of The Expanse. Dawes is also a recurring character; the rest (those central to the novels) are absent here, but it’s absolutely the story of Johnson himself, so supporting characters are mostly extraneous.

This story has it all: space jargon, tough decisions and moral quandaries, interesting characters and rich world-building. It whets the appetite nicely and I’ll be looking for more Expanse, as ever.


Rating: 8 seams.

Born Into This by Adam Thompson

These cunning, clever, piercing stories of marginalized indigenous Australians are both compelling and illuminating.


Adam Thompson’s Born into This is a striking collection of hard-edged, penetrating stories set primarily in the Australian state of Tasmania and wrestling with issues of race, colonialism and individual agency. Every story features Aboriginal characters, generally in the central role; the various experiences and complexities of this identity (which the author shares) form the heart of the stories’ combined impact. The collection is loosely linked by recurring characters and settings: an act of angry protest at the center of one story reappears as a minor annoyance in another. An island on the Bass Strait is home to a family over generations.

The collection opens with “The Old Tin Mine,” a story about a bitter, aging guide at a “survival camp” for city youth, who may be nearing the end of his career. “Honey” offers a cold, brutal, satisfying justice in the face of hate. In “Aboriginal Alcatraz,” a man wrestles with a life-changing decision in the midst of a storm, building to an ironic conclusion. Some stories lead with forceful blows, others sneak in to nag at the back of the reader’s mind: an alcoholic recalls the worst thing he’s ever done; a young man views a current love affair with cynicism. In the title story, a young woman fights an inherited losing battle involving eucalyptus plants. Working in the woods “was like looking into a mirror.” In “The Blackfellas from Here,” a young activist proposes an extreme and perhaps unrealistic, but also perfectly reasonable, resolution to a controversy. These punchy tales question family ties, infidelity, superstition and who has the right to claim Aboriginal ancestry.

Thompson’s characters are stoic, taciturn, often blue-collar. They struggle with racism, exploitative economic systems, class tensions and the disappearing natural world that a culture once depended on. Their reactions to these challenges range from rage to lethargy; their stark stories are frequently, quietly, brutal. The lives and attitudes of these characters vary, offering a revealing set of perspectives on the contemporary landscape. It is not all bleak: Born into This contains as well dark humor and even slim strands of hope. Thompson’s prose style appears blunt at first glance but shows nuance. His 16 stories are unyielding in terms of their values, yet somehow deft, even delicate in their storytelling and various voices. The overall effect is understated: simple, unglamorous lives and events crescendo toward a thought-provoking and memorable whole. Even (or especially) in its quietest moments, this is a haunting debut collection by a skilled writer.


This review originally ran in the June 11, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 eucalypts.
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