Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Paperback, 248 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Graywolf Press

In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties is a collection I was so excited to read I dragged a friend in to read it with me. We handed off back and forth who got to pick the next story, never going in order, and found ourselves surprisingly disappointed by each one.

In all honesty, I was drawn to what Machado was trying to do here, to what she was trying to say. But, she didn’t say it with enough force. Some of her stories, such as “Real Women Have Bodies” and “Eight Bites” seemed to not amount to much more than a harsh whisper, if that, never fully realizing themselves. I wanted more–MORE from a voice that dared to tackle such bold topics as the female experience and psyche. And by “more” I don’t mean argumentative or domineering in tone; some of my favorite short stories ever crept up on me with a gentle breeze at my neck only to bowl me over in the end with words just as gentle. Machado and Her Body didn’t do that for me. In fact, what I remember most about this collection is my buddy reader’s and my disappointed-mounting-to-annoyed reaction as each story was read and discussed. For such a topic that spoke to us, we both wanted to learn something, to feel something–something.

Here’s what I will say: Carmen Maria Machado clearly has something to say, though I, myself, didn’t hear it loudly enough. I thoroughly enjoyed her use of Gothic elements–vaguely supernatural devices used to convey her thoughts, to tinge her messages in wonder. Yet, some of her works were too referential without adding enough to the conversation to warrant the blatant references (to “The Girl with the Ribbon Around her Neck” and Law & Order: SVU in particular). “The Husband Stitch” was my favorite story, because of the unique and haunting asides inserted into the narrative, but the ending failed to shock or move me, so even that story did not live up to the hype around this collection. Every story I read left me wishing there was more–not length but meat and substance, not words but voice and resonance. As we all know, fabulously original ideas must, too, be supported by the execution of them, and that I did not see impressively done here. 2.5* rounded up to ***

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Carmen Maria MachadoCarmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017. She is a fiction writer, critic, and essayist whose work has appeared in The New YorkerGrantaAGNI, NPR, VICEBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2015Best Horror of the YearYear’s Best Weird Fiction, and Best Women’s Erotica. She has been the recipient of a Millay Colony for the Arts residency, the CINTAS Foundation Fellowship in Creative Writing, the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship, and a Michener-Copernicus Fellowship, as well as nominated for a Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards and longlisted for a Tiptree Award. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and lives in Philadelphia with her partner.

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In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper by Lawrence Block

Hardcover, 288 pages
Expected publication: December 6th 2016 by Pegasus Books

Short stories hold a power that longer works of fiction do not have the advantage of: they can pack a hard punch that’ll knock your socks off in mere minutes, spilling uplifting joy, heart-wrenching pain or newly provoked thought from readers all in one fell swoop. This, of course, is because they are so much more concentrated than their longer counterparts, doing away with excess prose and condensing the narrative arc into a matter of pages rather than chapters. For this reason, some of my favorite reads—the most thought-provoking and resonating reads—of all time have been short stories, and I sought this out here, within this collection, to continue that tradition for me. However, In Sunlight or in Shadow seemed prepared to offer up nothing but the latter, with the few glimmers of entertainment here so weak and sporadic that it was like the sun never quite pushed through the blinds.

Story after story were mind-numbingly dull and unmemorable. In reading through this anthology centered around the paintings of Edward Hopper (also featured within these pages before the start of each story written around them), I often felt like I was trudging through thick mud in search of that jewel that would glimmer brightly from beneath the sludge. It took me longer to finish this than it should have—than it could have—because I didn’t really want to pick it back up. But, alas, that is the magic with short story collections, isn’t it? You always feel that just around the next corner, with the next turn of the page, the next story might be the one. The next story might be enough to carry the entire collection—and so, you read on. But I never found anything magical in this compilation.

To be fair, Stephen King and Nicholas Christopher lightly touched on a literary nerve, and had this collection been filled with stories such as those, In Sunlight or in Shadow would’ve earned itself a far stronger rating from me indeed. But nothing truly moved or inspired me here. In truth, most of these stories took themselves far too seriously, as if the author’s identity or the mere fact that they’d proffered literary prose (rather than commercial plot lines) would alone carry the read, make me love it, make me keep turning pages. Well, Block, it wasn’t enough! Not by a long shot. I found most of these stories to be tedious and stuffy at best. No doubt, some teacher will find this collection and force it upon her high school English students, because it seems to exude the literary seriousness—gravitas, shall we say—requisite to be considered great. And no doubt the students will likely feel as I did.

My life has not been changed in reading this. Neither has my mind been stretched nor my imagination tested, my joy for reading stoked or my heart rate even quickened. In fact, the only thing that changed in reading this collection was my willingness to ever pick up anything else that Lawrence Block has ever laid a finger on. Will I dare? We shall see.

This collection has managed to earn the first 1.5 star review I’ve ever given—I could barely finish it, but somehow Stephen King’s “The Music Room” and Nicholas Christopher’s “Rooms by the Sea” saved it from complete engulfment by the yawning abyss. I have nothing else to even say about this collection, except that I need a good palette cleanser to start anew on something else. *

I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Pegasus Books, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King

Hardcover, 495 pages
Published November 3rd 2015 by Scribner

I have to say, The Bazaar from Uncle Steve was a bit of a letdown. Stephen King is, obviously, one of the most-hyped authors of today, which is why the fall from so high can be so hard for his readers. This collection of previously published works, in itself, had a range like open arms – from eye-roll-warranting clunkers that never took off and seemed rather (dare I say it?) juvenile for such a master wordsmith to others that truly took my breath away and really explored the mental and emotional crevices of humanity in a way that was breathtakingly clear and surprising – similar to reaching the summit of a huge roller coaster and seeing the landscape around you for those vivid two seconds before being dragged back down again. Billy Blockade, Bad Little Kid and Under the Weather, I’m looking at you now. Overall, I will remember this collection as a hodgepodge that had some really great highlights – and those highlights are what I will take from it. The short introductions to each story were a real treat. Those anecdotes and revelations were the extra seasoning that this collection needed to thread it all together. However, it would’ve been cool if the original place of publication had been added to those intro snippets; after all, we all knew that most of them were previously published anyway.

 

Mile 81 –

This story was surprisingly and glaringly amateur. I appreciate that he led us into that with the knowledge that it was one of his earliest works, but it left an awful taste in my mouth and a hesitation to continue on with the collection. Not the best choice for starting out; better to bury that one somewhere in the middle. No stars.

 

Premium Harmony –

Deliciously dry and sardonic. The dialogue hit the nail on the head in that matter-of-fact sort of way that makes you laugh out loud, and the title – fittingly ironic indeed – tied the humor and storyline all together. Great story! **** 4 stars

 

Batman and Robin Have an Altercation –

The father-son storyline warmed the heart, but there wasn’t much else here. * 1 star

 

The Dune –

This story had a setting and cadence that really made the story, but this one would’ve been more compelling if it had showcased action scenes (which King definitely seems to have shied away from in this collection on a whole). At minimum, it would have carried more resonance if the narrator hadn’t described the deaths in such a half-removed-from-the-situation fashion. Nonetheless, the voice and pace were very steady and controlled, allowing me to trust both the author’s hand and the narrator’s voice. **** 4 stars

 

Bad Little Kid –

Awesome story! Sinister, slow and, at times, somber, but never too much. It was a true King story for his avid readers, his hand for the disturbing on full display here. ***** 5 stars

 

A Death –

A great “period” piece mixed with a little “local color” – sorry King, I know you have “no use for that.” This one was an excellent example of how dialogue and regional slang can really set the scene and shape a work! **** 4 stars

 

The Bone Church –

I’m all for contemporary poetry that doesn’t follow the rules, but the two poetry selections presented here proved that I am not a fan of King’s attempts at that particular form of art. Disjointed and confusing, this one gets no stars.

 

Morality –

This story was very well written, but anti-climactic for sure, particularly the ending. Sure – it was a real-world sort of ending, but it didn’t live up to the hype at all, and the “crime” that was so central to the story’s theme was so minor, I couldn’t believe all the hyperventilation they were doing over it! Good story telling, but not much there to sink my teeth into. ** 2.5 stars

 

Afterlife –

This story had a biting humor, juxtaposed by the two main characters’ past interactions with women, that added a new an unexpected layer to this story. The 50s setting and various decades referenced as they discuss the mistakes of their past gave this one body and made it more memorable and 3-D. Good story. *** 3.5 stars

 

 

 

Ur –

UGH! This story was great for the sort of Super Bowl celebrity selling out that we expect to see in commercials, but this one SERIOUSLY took away a lot of King’s street cred! Great for Kindle/Amazon propaganda, but an otherwise ridiculous attempt with a cop-out, oh-this-story-is-getting-to-be-way-to-long-so-let’s-just-end-it-now sort of finale. Definitely warranted more than a few eye rolls. One star for referencing the cool possibility of authors writing new and previously unexplored works in other dimensions, but that’s about it. * 1 star

 

Herman Wouk Is Still Alive –

I LOVED the blunt and unornamented examination of life that this one provided. It was so real, in fact, that it was almost pure. This look at real life aimed for the authentic and came from a character’s POV who was really examining it all for the first time. Thought-provoking and funny, this one was a winner. The story would’ve really hit the mark if it hadn’t been watered down by the elderly couple’s POV. **** 4 stars

 

Under the Weather –

AWESOME story; definitely one of the best of the bunch! I felt a nod to “A Rose for Emily” in this one that I loved; it was macabre in a delectable way that resonated loudly at the end. It had all of the elements of a good short story and a King-worthy ending. The thread about the dream really tied this one together. ***** easily 5 stars

 

Blockade Billy –

This one was another long one, but I truly did not mind it being long at all! The jargon here was thick as molasses, which I didn’t always get, but it didn’t take away from the story; in a lot of ways, it made the story. I felt like I was a part of their world, which is the whole reason that people read when they could just watch a movie. The ending was KILLLER. Really. Killer.  ***** easily 5 stars

 

 

Mr. Yummy –

This one didn’t live up to the intro that King wrote for it; it was neither about desire nor AIDS (for that matter), which made it a bit of a letdown. The irony and humor of the “grim reaper” aspect made the story unique, but this one seemed like a failed attempt overall because those topics were just mentioned in passing, not really explored as the intro seemed to promise. *** 3 stars

Tommy –

No comment is comment enough. Not a fan of Uncle Stevie’s poetry in this collection.

 

The Little Green God of Agony –

Umm, not a winner for me. This was like R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps on steroids (mild steroids that made it appropriate for an adult, not extreme steroids that made it King-like). Enough said. ** 2 stars for the humor added by the nurse’s thoughts and the dynamic between she and her boss.

 

That Bus Is Another World –

Good little short with a surprise ending. I’ll tip a nod here to King for putting his characteristic examination of humanity into this one. *** 3 stars

 

Obits –

Didn’t live up to the phenomenal story I thought I was getting (because of its length and premise highlighted on the jacket flap). You’d think that only the best stories would be highlighted there, but, in my opinion, the opposite happened. This one also veered towards juvenile at times and the ending was…whhhhaaaaat?… a letdown for sure. ** 2.5 stars for the premise

 

Drunken Fireworks –

This one had absolutely nothing to do with horror or even the vaguely macabre. Though King shared his distaste for the term, this one was definitely just an episode of “local color,” which is likely why he felt the need to defend against that. ** 2 stars

 

Summer Thunder –

Sure, what better way to end the collection than with the apocalypse, I agree. This, however, showed again how King didn’t jump in to tackle the big action scenes but settled for examining the aftermath, or 3rd person removed version of them. Other than that, it was a solid story, worthy of the King brand, with an ending that was foreshadowed but…comme si comme ça.

4 stars ****