People Want to Live by Farah Ali

“Sometimes a new underpass or a flyover or a shiny mall distracts me and that is good, but then I see a piece of wall I often passed when I was little and I am again pulled thinly, painfully, through that narrow corridor between the past and the future, between that which we can never change and that which gives us a chance to escape.”

People Want to Live is a collection that’s defined, I think, by its psychological acuity. Farah Ali writes about all manner of characters–bereaved, estranged, alienated, unsettled–in a sparse, measured way, her style deftly communicating a sense that every word in these stories has been carefully considered and chosen, is purposeful in what it is meant to convey and how it is meant to convey it.

It’s always hard to find a common thread that runs through all the stories of a collection, but I think what ties together Ali’s is her interest in the dissonance between and within characters: in “Heroes,” a bereaved mother tries to reconcile the media’s depictions of her dead son with the reality of what her son was like; in “Believers,” a young man grapples with the push and pull between faith and self-sufficiency; in “An Act of Charity,” a dissatisfied couple intervenes in the life of their friends’ maid. In all of these stories there is a sense of disquietude, and though a few do skew more dramatic in terms of their plot, Ali depicts them all in her keen-eyed, carefully controlled way. They are not “quiet” stories so much as they are precise, honed because they have been sharpened to their most essential parts, lean because any excess has been trimmed out.

As for which stories were my favourites, I think the absolute standout of this collection is “Present Tense,” a remarkably unsettling story about the often traumatic ways in which family impresses itself upon the past, and so also the present and the future. Here’s a quote that stuck with me,

It’s just the kind of short story that I love, the kind that tells you a lot without actually telling you a lot, the kind that is able to use its narrative surface to gesture at an immense depth. Another favourite was “Foreigners,” a story where a couple is interviewed (read: interrogated) by a man at the American Consulate in Pakistan. And oof, this one is just cutthroat in its depiction of how otherness becomes instated in a context like that, and the almost tangible sense of power that those doing the othering wield in those situations. (Other favourites also include “Believers” and “An Act of Charity,” which I’ve already mentioned.)

Though I loved a lot of this collection’s stories, though, there were a few that didn’t quite work for me: namely, “Tourism,” “The Effect of Heat on Poor People,” “Together,” and “What’s Fair?” (especially sad I didn’t like that last one because it was the one that ended the collection, and I wanted the collection to end with a bang). These are the stories I just didn’t “get”–not in the sense that they were challenging or confusing to understand, but rather that I just had no idea what they were narratively trying to do.

Overall, though, this was a really enjoyable and deftly written short story collection, with a lot of standouts, and with a psychological focus that I especially appreciated. If you love literary fiction and you love short stories, then you really can’t go wrong with this collection.

Thank you so much to McSweeney’s for sending me a review copy of this in exchange for an honest review!

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Five Tuesdays in Winter

A lot of the time when I read slice-of-life short stories, I feel underwhelmed more than anything else. It’s not that I dislike these stories, exactly, but rather that they often end up feeling ungrounded, “slices” that don’t evoke any underlying sense of the totality that they’ve presumably been “sliced” from. That is, the characters and their stories feel like props on a stage, a tableau contrived for the sake of the short story but that falls apart as soon as that story is over.

I bring this up because you will find none of that in Lily King’s excellent collection. King’s stories are slice-of-life, yes, but far from feeling flimsy or ungrounded, they are substantial and, more remarkably, moving. The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter find their characters–children, teenagers, young adults, mothers, fathers–in singular moments in their lives, times during which their ways of thinking–and living–have been called into question, brought into the light, disrupted, shifted. All these moments hinge on the interpersonal, on a growing relationship or a severed one, or else on a relationship that a character must now renegotiate on different terms: a mother trying to connect with her daughter in the wake of her husband’s death, a boy learning to see his life differently in the absence of his parents, a man reuniting with the college roommate he used to be infatuated with. To say that these moments are singular, though, is not to say that they entail some kind of monumental upheaval; they are small moments, but just because they are small does not mean that they register as any less important to the characters who experience them.

More to the point, what I love about King’s stories is that they feel meaningful without being dramatic; they convey a real sense of impact without resorting to overblown scenes or language. The writing is measured and graceful, the stories pared down in a way that feels compelling rather than plain: you want to know more, but you are only given enough to know that you want more. Nowhere is this more evident than in this collection’s characters: the characters in Five Tuesdays in Winter feel fleshed out not because we’re given some perfunctory background on them in each story, but rather because we are allowed illuminating little glimpses into the lives they lead.

(My favourite story was by far “Five Tuesdays in Winter,” but I also especially loved “When in the Dordogne,” “North Sea,” “Creature,” and “South.”)

The stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter are by turns affirming and unsettling, hopeful and melancholy, but regardless of tone I thought this was just an all around lovely collection.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!

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Land of Big Numbers: Stories: Chen, Te-Ping: 9780358272557: Books -

There is nothing wrong with this collection, per se, but there’s also nothing very right with it. It’s a perfectly serviceable book, with perfectly serviceable stories–sadly “serviceable” doesn’t exactly make for very memorable reading.

I think my main issue with this book is that I didn’t really see the point to any of its stories. Regardless of their subject matter–and the subject matter does vary, so there’s that–these stories all felt one-note, flat. When I read a short story, I want to feel like there’s a reason that we are following its characters at that particular time in their lives; that is to say, I want the short story to have a narrative reason to exist–why this moment? why these characters at this moment? The problem with Land of Big Numbers is that its stories don’t really address these questions. Characters are introduced, their life events narrated, their relationships highlighted, but none of this comes together to form any sort of cohesive narrative, one with tension or a climax or a sense of significance of some kind. I felt like I was just reading about a sequence of events wherein different things happened to different characters; I didn’t feel like I was reading a story.

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

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