BOOK REVIEW: SHOW THEM A GOOD TIME by NICOLE FLATTERY

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Wry, absurd, and almost casually poignant—Nicole Flattery’s writing feels like a genre of its own.

Almost as soon as you start this book, you can tell that you’re reading something different; it’s the kind of book that makes you tilt your head to side. Whatever direction you expect these stories to go in, they go in the opposite direction. Flattery approaches her subject matter—women experiencing turmoil of some kind, whether it be physical abuse, emotional abuse, bereavement, abortion—obliquely, giving you just enough to understand that her characters have all of this lurking in their inner lives, but not enough for you to fully understand the extent of its impact on them. There is so much implied meaning in these stories; you’re given the tip of the iceberg and expected to infer the size of the structure that lies beneath it. And this style of writing is really the perfect strategy for a short story: it gives you enough information to feel like you know something substantial about these characters, but not so much that they’re rendered transparent or caricatured.

“I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself. I withheld the fact that there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface.”

“In that brief moment everyone saw my mind and my mind was absent of all ideas. I thought I would be a different person by this time in my life, but I was actually becoming less like someone else and more like myself. It was troubling.”

Though these stories deal with serious subject matter, they also don’t take themselves too seriously. Flattery doesn’t strictly rely on a sense of realism in her narratives, but instead goes in slightly absurd, off-kilter directions. The stories in this collection are told with a wry, deadpan sense of humour, one that buoys them and prevents them from getting bogged down in melodramatic territory. Though Show Them a Good Time is sometimes facetious in dealing with subject matter you would maybe expect it to take seriously, it’s also not flippant and invests in moments that matter to its characters.

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Show Them a Good Time is a collection that is exactly as its title promises. It gets at both the weird, funny spectacle of performance, but also the pressure to perform, to show them a good time when you are decidedly not having a good time. It’s about how performance in the everyday can at times be artistic expression and at others voyeuristic and exploitative.

Thank you so much to Bloomsbury for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!

PS: I highly recommend checking out the Stinging Fly Podcast’s episode on Nicole Flattery where they read and discuss the first and titular short story of this collection, “Show Them a Good Time.”

PPS: my favourite short stories were “Show Them a Good Time,” “Abortion, a Love Story,” and “Not the End Yet.”


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BOOK REVIEW: PARIS SYNDROME by LUCY SWEENEY BYRNE

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Image result for Paris Syndrome by Lucy Sweeney ByrneParis Syndrome is a collection of interconnected short stories that follows its principal character, Lucy, as she finds herself flitting from one place to the next, forced to confront who she is inside and outside different millieux, alternately surprised by what she is capable of doing and disillusioned by a sense of inherent sameness in her self across all these places.

In all the stories in Paris Syndrome there is a through line of psychological and emotional fluctuation. And this is exactly what makes this collection so lend itself to the “millennial” label. Lucy is a character burdened by an overwhelming emotional sensitivity and yet, at the same time, often witness to her own feelings of passivity and emptiness. At times she strains to manufacture emotion to perform in what she believes is the context that requires it. At others she is almost incapacitated by a hyperawareness of everything within and without her: an all-too-sudden sense of the uncontrollability of her experience in an already precarious, uncontrollable world.

“And this realization of yet again feeling absolutely nothing when there ought to have been something caused a slicing of sharp, reddish-pink heat to rise in my chest. I flexed my fingers and worked hard on remaining calm. Not to shout out, to howl, to start banging my chest or pulling out my hair or scratching my nails deep into the soft, well-moisturized skin of my very kind, very good friend or – even better – to lie down right there on the white dusty path; to curl up and stop altogether.

Luckily, in a matter of seconds . . . this feeling too passed. And I was left with my familiar, easy nothing.”

This “nothing” emotional state is perhaps most emblematic of Sweeney Byrne’s whole collection. There are, in these stories, nothings with different emotional inflections: the “easy nothing” in “Montparnasse” that so disturbs Lucy; the desperate, self-imposed nothing of “Zeno’s Paradox,” one borne out of an instinct to suppress and protect the self from pain; and the lost nothing in “La Rêve” that is acted upon because…why not? All of this is to say, at different points throughout her travels, Lucy is constantly in the throes of the push and pull of her own self, indulging in her emotions so extremely so as to obscure them, or else refusing to engage in them at all.

“. . . she was deafened, overwhelmed by the din of all that unspoken silence . . . all the endless stories, forgotten, wordless stories . . All the lives lost and ruined right here, lives like hers, measly and nothing and everything too”

When we travel, we expect the places we go to to give us something: an answer, a feeling, an insight. What Lucy wants from the cities she travels to is unclear, and that is exactly what defines her experiences in Paris Syndrome. She wants something from these cities, but she doesn’t know what it is. And so she keeps moving, travelling, hoping that, at some point, it will all click for her. There is no feeling more millennial than that. (I would know.)

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Thematic discussion aside, the best story in this collection is by far “Zeno’s Paradox.” Heartbreaking and beautifully written, with a perfect title to boot. My other favourites included “And We Continue to Live” and “Montparnasse.”

There were some aspects here that I didn’t love, namely the language used to describe fatness (I felt that a lot of it bordered on, or was, fatphobic), and the way that some of these cities and their natives were described, especially Mexico. I’m not from any of the cities mentioned in this book, so I can’t exactly tell to what extent these descriptions were appropriate, but some of them definitely didn’t feel right to me.

Paris Syndrome is, I think, a collection that is most invested in exploring how a kind of psychological restlessness manifests itself in a geographical restlessness. There aren’t exactly answers to be found in these stories, but there is always an effort to question, unsettle, negotiate.

(Thank you so much to Banshee Lit for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!)

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BOOK REVIEW: SALT SLOW by JULIA ARMFIELD

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Jane Austen once wrote in one of her letters, “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked”; she might as well have written Salt Slow‘s thesis.

Salt Slow is a short-story collection about problem women. The first line of the book is, after all, “I have my Grandmother’s skin. Problem skin.” Problem skin, problem women. The women of this collection are problem women because they are simply too much: too greedy, too selfish, too obsessive, too dependent. Put another way, they are problem women because they are unruly. And what is so brilliant about Salt Slow is that instead of trying to temper the unruliness of its women, it unabashedly leans into—even celebrates—it. It says, These women are problem women—so what? It never tries to make its women anything less than what they are: ferocious, gross, lazy, needy, careless. Indeed, these are women whose desires and emotions are so extreme they literally push against the bounds of reality: every one of Armfield’s stories contains a surrealist/magical realist element, one seamlessly woven into the fabric of its protagonist’s life.

I mean, look at some of these descriptions:

“Beneath her dressing gown, she is bloody with mosquito bites. Unrazored beneath the arms, unplucked, unmoistured.”

“I had a bad body around that time – creaking joints and difficult digestion, a martyr to mouth ulcers and bleeding gums.”

“Beneath my dress, my skin is churning. My legs feel cracked in half, articulated – a spreading and a shifting, as though my bones are springing out of their intended slots.”

let 👏 women 👏 be 👏 flawed 👏 I didn’t know how much I needed to read about flawed women until I read this book.

Also, Armfield’s writing is MAGNIFICENT. Haunting, dark, beautiful. Truly. Again, I’ll let her writing speak for itself.

“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed.”

“The jellyfish come with the morning – a great beaching, bodies black on sand. The ocean empties, a thousand dead and dying invertebrates, jungled tentacles and fine, fragile membranes blanketing the shore two miles in each direction. They are translucent, almost spectral, as though the sea has exorcised its ghosts.”

“Nicola watches the gentle pull of outgoing water, the glassy sink and swallow, waves drawing back like lips revealing teeth.”

“The sky is gory with stars, like the insides of a gutted night.”

What more can I say? I fucking loved this. It might be (probably is) my favourite short-story collection ever.

4.5-


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