rerun/reread: Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros, illus. by Ester Hernández

I’ll call this one in part a rerun post, since it started that way. But I did reread the book as well, and in a different format. We’ll start with the original review, which ran in 2014.

What a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad and relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernández, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.


Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.

I did indeed buy the print book, and what I had in mind, in part, was to have it on hand when a friend needed it. That’s taken some years, but I turned to it just recently here with a friend in mind who’d lost a parent, and whose children had therefore lost a grandparent. I picked it up to check it for age-appropriateness for those kids. My conclusion is that it is “safe” for young kids – nothing harrowing about the grief, in fact only gentle reminders that the narrator (the Cisneros character) has lost her mom. It behaves like a children’s picture book: the illustrations are as lovely as I’d imagined, and it relies on refrains and simple language. My only hesitation for kids would be that it’s longer than a typical bedtime story. I did pass it on to my friend with that caution. Maybe it takes a couple of nights to read; maybe it’s for the elder child and not the younger. I also hope my friend will try it on his own first, if only for his own, personal benefit.

It’s also true that I’ve lost somebody close to me recently, too, and I was touched and moved all over again by Cisneros’s small, apparently simple book. Especially the author’s note caught me this time, because it offers a way of thinking about grief that I find charming and, I think, useful. I was also pleased by the cultural flavor of Cisneros’s San Antonio neighborhood. I love that taste of home. And since my original review, I’ve lived near San Antonio, and become a little familiar with its neighborhoods. This was an added bonus. There are a few Spanish-language words sprinkled in, but even with no knowledge of the language, I think any reader will be fine to follow along using context clues.

I am still recommending this book highly, for adults, and with some caution for children as well. I’m sticking with my original rating, and I’m glad I got such a timely chance to revisit.

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs by Sidik Fofana

This linked collection portrays the human condition by way of the struggle to make rent in a Harlem high-rise, with a cast of memorable characters.

Stories from the Tenants Downstairs, Sidik Fofana’s electric debut, consists of eight stories featuring eight residents of a low-income apartment building in Harlem where rents are rising and eviction notices are being posted by the score. These men and women struggle at the edge of making ends meet and cope by various means, including hard work, stiff upper lips, bluffing, bluster and despair.

Mimi runs a hair salon out of apartment 14D, spends beyond her means and dreams of a house in the suburbs with her son’s father, Swan. Swan (6B) lives eight floors below, with his mother, marveling at the country’s first Black president and wishing he could find his own way out of the hustle. Swan’s mother, Ms. Dallas (6B), wrestles with her day job as a paraprofessional at the local public school, bemoaning the students’ behavior, scorning the young do-gooder teachers and awaiting the school’s looming closure. Two students from Ms. Dallas’s school each feature in stories of their own. Kandese (3A) suffers losses upon losses, while her boyfriend, perennial follower Najee (24M), dreams of stardom but finds tragedy. Mimi’s erstwhile assistant, Dary (12H), flirts with a darker line of work. Neisha (21J), a former aspiring Olympic gymnast, has quit college and returned home to the building, where she has to face a trauma that still haunts her. Old Mr. Murray (2E) just wants to play sidewalk chess in peace, but the old ladies of the Banneker Terrace Committee of Concern want to make him their cause.

These protagonists are all interconnected, whether they like it or not, by more than their address. Many have been lifelong residents of Banneker Terrace, and while some have fantasized about moving on, others wish only to stay in the home they know. Their stories take various points of view (first, second and third), mostly running to heavy vernacular and each brimming with voice, from Mimi’s bravado to Najee’s fumbled but earnest reporting: the seats on the 2 train are “faded… the scrapes on them wuz also scrapes on my heart.” Fofana shows an ear for pacing and for evocative, frequently musical language. He expertly handles the structure of each story and of the collection as a whole, whose easy readability advances serious themes, including the challenges of poverty in its many iterations, gentrification, humor and hope and anguish.

This quickly shifting narrative introduces vibrant, appealing characters in brief but three-dimensional sketches, and paints a larger picture of existential efforts and persistence. Fofana’s is a striking voice, and his protagonists will linger in readers’ imaginations.


This review originally ran in the June 9, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 skins.

Tiny Nightmares: Very Short Stories of Horror ed. by Lincoln Michel and Nadxieli Nieto

Forty-something short-short horror stories collected here, and as one might imagine, they vary in how memorable and loveable I found them. I think I will choose “Katy Bars the Door” by Richie Narvaez and “Human Milk for Human Babies” by Lindsay King-Miller as my favorites; and I read one that still makes me angry, but I think I will not name it here, out of spite. Short-short stories are delightful, and I do love a themed collection like this; I would do such a thing again. I appreciate as well the wide range of what constitutes ‘horror’ to different writers: the grisly, the ghostly, the suggestively disturbing, the creepy in different senses. Your mileage as always will vary – you will love the ones I forgot as soon as I finished them, and vice versa. Ah well. Happy horrors, friends.


Rating: 6 beads.

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

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.

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