This installment: a multilayered mystery from Iceland (f); Gay edits the year’s best stories (f); a new one from The Moth (f); inside dope from a beleaguered maid (nf); broad satire about a cult (f); and inside dope on homeschooling (nf).
The Shadow District by Arnaldur Indridason
The title refers to the area where Konrad grew up, with the abattoir at one end and the phantasmagorical National Theater at the other. A retired detective, he’s pulled in on the murder of an old guy that nudges a memory of an old case from WWII in which two young women on opposite sides of the country experienced the same fate: a rape with folkloric references to “elves.” Turns out there had been some evidence back then but now the military police reveal more. A difficult investigation partly because of the age of the witness, two with dementia. Konrad’s troubled past plays a part as well. Those Icelandic names took some getting used to, as did their favorite foodstuffs: rice pudding and liver sausage. But all in all, a haunting, multilayered mystery.
Best American Short Stories 2018 edited by Roxanne Gay
I read this series faithfully ever year and was very curious to see what Gay would choose. A powerful bunch, all pretty dark and fraught. I did a count: of 20 authors, only four were men and one was non-binary. I’d come across at least three of these stories in other collections already, but one of the pleasures of this series is discovering those from obscure publications. Examples of stories that wouldn’t let me go: the girl who wears a confederate flag bikini on vacation, posts a photo, and ignites a huge controversy at her liberal arts college (“Boys Go To Jupiter”). “A History of China”—that’s dishware, not the country. Many cultures, many countries, many voices. Outrage! Intensity! A workout!!
The Moth Presents Occasional Magic
Subtitled True Stories about Defying the Impossible, transcribed and edited from the NPR radio show. Some are funny, some dead serious, most a mixture of their signature qualities: vulnerable, revelatory, and often inspiring. Short, too, so you can dip in and out. I’ve heard most of these in the ear first but am fascinated by how they translate to the page. They still reflect vernacular speech, like Peter Aguero’s repetitions of “you know” like rhythmic punctuation. Inside the dedication is: to the stories that give us perspective, clarity and hope, and boy, do we need those attributes, especially in these dark times! Highly recommended. (Full disclosure: I have a close, personal relationship with the Moth—they’re my tribe, as it were.)
Maid by Stephanie Land
Subtitled hard work, low pay, and a mother’s will to survive. This is a tough book to read (though of course much tougher to have experienced) and I sometimes had to push through the agonies, humiliations, and frustrations Land endures so she and her beloved daughter Mia can endure. Working sick, sending Mia, even when sick, to dispiriting day care because Land can’t miss a day’s work. Nightmare living quarters (black mold), nightmare relationships. And then the toil itself, often disgusting. So why read it? Because how else would we learn what it’s like, which I find fascinating. And in the end uplifting, because here she is, a fine writer working for social justice.
Hark by Sam Lipsyte
This is a kind of ridiculous book but it worked a spell on me so I kept at it. Hark’s mother named him that from a line of poetry. (She thought it was a proper name.) He’s a pretty ordinary guy with a vision that rapidly becomes a cult. Mental Archery (focus!) with poses and references to history and mythology. Others around him blow on this modest flame until the movement gets out of hand in the hands of those who wish to turn coin. Hark then walks away from a very prestigious event but the momentum gallops even without him. A childhood friend Fraz (his mother somehow missed the “n” when naming him) and a very rich woman Kate, who volunteers delivering body parts for transplant until she gets on Hark’s bandwagon, play big roles. Ingenious, broad satire, a dizzying romp.
Love in a Time of Homeschooling by Laura Brodie
Subtitled A Mother and Daughter’s Uncommon Year. Brodie’s a professor and writer in Virginia. Of her three daughters, Julia is the one who really chafes at public school. She’s dreamy, imaginative, hates to be cooped up, and finds the work stultifying. So Brodie decided to take a sabbatical and give her child a good educational experience before middle school was upon her. A bumpy road with a mix of joys and frustrations which Brodie is very candid about. (I love that in a book!). Eye-opening. The message, I guess: set the intent, go for it, and accept the experience in all its dimensions.
Back next week.