Recitatif by Toni Morrison

A skilful and incisive short story by the masterful Toni Morrison Recitatif is the type of short story that seems made to be studied at school/college or discussed in a book club. The ambiguous nature of the central characters’ racial identities will lead readers to analyze every passage, trying to ‘find out’ the answers to a puzzle Morrison leaves intentionally unsolved. Our eagerness to understand this short story plays into Morrison’s social commentary. The reading experience of Recitatif is almost a prelude to the real story, the one that occurs outside of its borders, in which we study, examine, and argue, with others or with ourselves about the characters’ identities and the meaning behind Morrison’s choice not to reveal them to us. Long rambling short, this is the type of story that delivers more substance and depth once it’s actually over. Whereas I found the two full-length works that I have read by Morrison to be riveting and all-consuming, I found myself less immersed in Recitatif. I was more interested in the conception and execution of this idea than in the actual story. The story and characters, curiously enough, felt secondary to the literary device employed by Morrison. The alleged fraught friendship between these two women, one of them Black, the other white, pales in comparison to the fiercely complicated bond between Sula and Nel in Morrison’s Sula. We are given a glimpse into their childhood, where we learn they both have experienced some form of hardship and we later see them encountering one another as adults, except that they now find themselves on opposing sides.
Their complicity in the violence that other girls at the orphanage where they first met perpetrated against an older woman binds them together. While they both harbour guilt over this they disagree on whether the woman in question was Black or white. This will lead readers to wonder why that is. Which of them is right? And does that change anything? As I said, this is the type of story that is the ideal vehicle for generating discussions on race and racism in America. While I admired Morrison’s skill, I found that I was too aware of her presence in this story. That is, while with her novels her voice reeled me into her stories, here I felt more keenly her ‘hand’. As I was reading I knew that she was the architect behind the words on those pages.

Nevertheless, I’m glad that I read this as I did find this to be a thought-provoking short story. Zadie Smith’s introduction adds another dimension to the story and I highly recommend you do not give it a miss.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Blood Feast: The Complete Short Stories of Malika Moustadraf by Malika Moustadraf

Blood Fest collects all of Malika Moustadraf’s short fiction. Set in contemporary-ish Morocco these stories explore fraught gender and family dynamics, highlighting the insidious nature of misogyny. Within these short stories, women are forced to marry men they don’t love, they are abused or mistreated by male relatives and struggle to retain freedom and independence in a patriarchal society. Many of these stories share a rather bleak outlook as they paint a depressingly realistic picture of domestic abuse and sexism. The men populating these stories are angry, confused, and guilty. They lash out against each other and the women around them. The results are not pretty and there are many upsetting scenes. We also read of how women themselves became perpetrators of misogyny, as mothers go on to police their daughters’ bodies, shaming them for the way they behave in a way they don’t/wouldn’t with their sons. There are also some lgbtq+ themes but these are only touched slightly and the author mostly interrogates heteronormative relationships. While I appreciated the issues Moustadraf explores within these narratives I found the stories unsatisfying. They have very choppy endings and are too short, lasting a few pages or so. The characters become devices through which the author can address and or exemplify a certain issue, and they often failed to convince me as ‘real’ people. There isn’t time dedicated to developing them and the stories consequently suffer from this lack. Also, I would like more variety in tone, subject, and style as many of these stories ended up blurring into each other. Still, I would not dissuade others from reading it and although it didn’t really work for me I found certain aspects of these stories to be thoughtprovoking. Additionally, despite its heavy topics this collection makes for a very quick read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith

This is the first story I read by Zadie Smith that I actually didn’t hate. In fact, one could even say that I quite liked The Embassy of Cambodia. Smith’s adroit storytelling is characterised by a razor-sharp social commentary and a trenchant sense of humor. While I was overall able to appreciate this short story, I still do find Smith’s brand of satire to be a bit too mean for my taste. Her portrayal of her characters sometimes strike me as exaggerated, and she does seem to have a propensity for ridiculing the people who populate her works (regardless of the role they play in their story).

The Embassy of Cambodia follows Fatou, a young woman employed by a wealthy family based in Willesden, London. Unbeknownst to her employers, Fatou swims at the health centre that they are members of (using their membership). On her way to the pool, she walks past the embassy of Cambodia and occasionally catches sight of a shuttlecock going back and forward behind the embassy’s walls. We learn of Fatou’s friendship with Andrew, a fellow immigrant who is working a min. wage job despite his education. Together they talk about politics, history, and Christianity. The two for example discuss the possible reasons why in Europe very few people know, let alone speak of, the Rwandan genocide but seem ‘fixated’ on the Shoah. We also learn of how Fatou’s employers treat her, from their racist comments to the fact that they have her passport (meaning that Fatou is not free). While by the end of the story Fatou’s circumstances change, it isn’t sure whether her new path will lead to happiness or safety.
The Embassy of Cambodia was a quick and relatively engaging read. While it didn’t quite succeed in making me a fan of Smith just yet it did make me want to give the rest of her published works a second chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Baby is Mine by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Like Treasure, The Baby is Mine is not in the same league as Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer. Still, if you are looking for a short and relatively compulsive read you should consider giving this short story a try.

The Baby is Mine takes place in lock-down Lagos and is narrated by Bambi a serial cheater (ahem, fuckboy) who finds himself booted from his girlfriend’s place after she comes across some incriminating evidence. Bambi decides to seek refuge at his Uncle’s house. His Uncle has recently passed away and Bambi finds his home to be occupied by Bidemi, his Uncle’s wife, and Esohe, his Uncle’s much younger mistress. In the house, there is also a baby boy, and both Bidemi and Esohe claim to be his mother. Unsure who to believe Bambi falls victim to the oppressive atmosphere of the house, believing one woman one minute, the other the next. The two women are at each other’s throats and their escalating behaviour—sand in food, a suspicious stain on the wall—alarms Bambi. Due to the pandemic, he’s unable to request a maternity test so the three remain at an unbearable standstill.
I think the author does a great job of creating and maintaining a sense of unease. Bambi was too much of a himbo at times, taking longer than was necessary to ‘realize’ things. I also wasn’t keen on the two women being portrayed as ‘hysterical’ new mothers who spend their time crying or shouting. It got boring fast.
Still, this was a quick read and even if it was obvious who the ‘real’ mother was (not to Bambi though) I still found myself looking forward to the reveal.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Zikora: A Short Story by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once again showcases her beautiful in Zikora. The story begins with the titular character, Zikora, who is about to give birth. The father of her soon to be born child is not there with he left her months prior, after she hinted at the possibility of being pregnant. As Zikora goes into labour her mind goes back to this relationship, and we learn that she’s a lawyer who grew up in Nigeria. Her father married a second wife, something that has made her somewhat resentful towards her own mother (his first wife). Adichie conveys Zikora’s various state of minds as well as the uneasy relationship she has with her mother. Her love story with Kwame was particularly sad and Adichie succeeds in giving a nuanced picture of their relationship.
However much I liked Adichie’s calibrated and beautifully insightful prose, I have never been a fan of narratives that focus on giving birth or the early days of motherhood. I would definitely recommend this story to those who unlike me do not have qualms reading about these subjects.

edit 24/11: I am not a fan of cancel culture however I also do not want to support public figures who use their positions of influence to spread hate or under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’ discriminate against the trans community. So no, I am not about encourage others to ‘cancel’ Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie but I do think that she should be held accountable for her comments. Until then…I am not sure I will be able to enjoy her work as I did before.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Graceful Burdens by Roxane Gay

 

 

 

Graceful Burdens is a competitively written short story that is very much concerned with reproductive justice. This story presents us with a world in which some women do not meet the necessary ‘requirements’ to be mothers and therefore are not allowed to reproduce. Some ‘unfit mothers’ borrow babies from a ‘baby library’, others are grateful not to have to reproduce. Of course, there are also those who have no choice but to reproduce. The reality Roxane Gay writes of is sadly not wholly unimaginable (I come from a country that makes it nearly impossible to have an abortion, and where an anti-choice group buried the foetuses of women who miscarried or had abortions without their knowledge/consent ).
The thing is Gay doesn’t do anything expectational prose, plot or world-building wise. There are many other novels that explore similar concepts (to name a few: The Handmaid’s Tale, Red Clocks, The Farm) with much more depth.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Treasure by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Treasure is a short story story that explores the darker side of Instagram fame. Treasure is an aspiring influencer who is quite willing to present a glamorised version of her life to her follower. She likes the attention, the compliments, and the devotion of her fans. User @Sho4Sure has become particularly obsessed by Treasure and one small oversight on her part will have dangerous consequences for both of them.
Treasure is a story that is bursting with irreverent dark humour that touches upon machismo, opulence, fame, obsession, and class. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer took me by surprise, Treasure seemed a bit more formulaic. Still, Treasure is quick and entertaining read that cemented my belief that Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author to watch.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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Inheritance Series Review (Alexander Chee, Jennifer Haigh, Anthony Marra, Alice Hoffman)

Inheritance is a collection of five stories about secrets, unspoken desires, and dangerous revelations between loved ones. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single setting. By yourself, behind closed doors, or shared with someone you trust.
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The Weddings by Alexander Chee

Why am I here? he asks himself. What am I doing?”

In just under fifty pages Alexander Chee examines a man’s changing relationship to his old college friend. The weddings of the title are the backdrop to our protagonists’ personal crisis.
Jack Cho is a forty-something man in a committed relationship with Caleb. When they are invited to attend the wedding of a friend of Caleb’s, Jack finds himself, for the very first time, wondering if he too will marry. Soon after the couple is invited to the wedding of Scott, Jack’s college ‘friend’.
Jack is forced to confront his own repressed feelings for Scott. As certain details come to light, he becomes aware of having idealised this past relationship.
There were many realistically awkward moments and some great commentary regarding marriage (the pressure to marry, the way weddings become displays of the couple’s love).
Jack’s self-analysis was detailed in a poignant prose that conveyed his hurt and unwillingness to see Scott for who he truly is.
This short story also touches upon: fetishisation (naive as I am, I had no idea what ‘rice queen’ and ‘rice king’ meant), the double ‘rejection’ that Jack often feels being Korean American (Koreans will not view him as truly Korean and white Americans will question his nationality).
My only ‘complaint’ is that there was the occasional twee phrase:

Scott was so much trouble, whatever the reason was. A beautiful disaster.”

Overall however this was a short yet intelligent story that pays careful attention to those awkward pauses and heavy silences that can fill a conversation. It reminded me a bit of Come Rain or Come Shine: Faber Stories by Kazuo Ishiguro and certain short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.

“Even then, ha he would endlessly be a curiosity and not a person. He would forget this was true and then be reminded this way, this he most recent in the jarring series of moments that threaded thorough his whole life in America. When did it end? When would they all just get used to him—to all of them?”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars


48581928.jpgZenith Man
by Jennifer Haigh

“Had Harold Pardee killed his wife? In hair salons, at lunch counters, the question was posed. Such a death, in Bakerton, was without precedent.”

This being the first work I’ve read by Jennifer Haigh, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if this story fits in the Inheritance collection. While others authors who have contributed to this series have focused on themes of reconciliation: Alice Hoffman and Anthony Marra, respectively in Everything My Mother Taught Me and The Lion’s Den, focus on the fraught dynamics between a children and their parents, while in The Weddings Alexander Chee turns towards a complicated ‘friendship/first love’.
Zenith Man has a very different tone that sets it apart from the rest these stories. It seems closer to a work of Souther Gothic or Noir. Similarly to Shirley Jackson Haigh’s presents us with a slightly unsettling depiction of on an ‘ordinary’ town and its people. There is a sense of unease as well as a good dose of dark humour.
Haigh’s is a good storyteller who creates and maintains this uneasy atmosphere, one that makes us pay attention to the specific language she uses.

“In Bakerton a murder would not have been forgotten. The local memory was a powerful tool, an instrument so sensitive it recalled events that hadn’t actually occurred.
Conscious of its new status as a place where things happened Bakerton cleared its throat and commenced speculating.”

So while Haigh’ writing style is definitely enjoyable, I wasn’t as taken by the story itself. It was okay, but I was expecting a more interesting storyline.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Lion’s Den by Anthony Marra

“I won’t introduce you to my father, not personally, not yet. Changes are you already know him.”

This Inheritance collection is turning out to be a rather good one. Anthony Marra’s contribution adds a bit of humour to this series.
The narrator’s father was responsible for a leak of classified documents, landing his own family in the spotlight. Some thought him a hero, others a traitor.
Years later, after publishing a memoir on his childhood, our narrator tries to reconcile himself with his now ill father.
The tone of this short story is somewhat satirical and it definitely provides its readers with quite a few amusing lines: “His Bluetooth is so firmly rooted in his ear that may, technically, qualify as a cyborg. .”
There is a realistic awkwardness between the various characters’ interactions which made all the more realistic.

“Honesty comes in an infinite variety, none crueler than a teenager’s tedium.”

The narrator quotes Natalia Ginzburg, so yes, this story definitely a plus fo that. However, the nitpicker in me couldn’t help but notice that our narrator (someone who can quote Ginzburg) fell for the classic Frankenstein slip (where instead of saying that someone looks like Frankenstein’s monster, he refers to them as looking like Frankenstein): “Father Carlson’s student have that Frankenstein look of being assembled from different limbs that don’t quite fit together.”

Anyway, this was an entertaining short story. It may focus on self-involved individuals (who seem rather disconnected from everyday life) but it also manages to explore compassion and acceptance in very natural (non schmaltzy) way.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars


48582002.jpgEverything My Mother Taught Me
by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is an exceptional writer. This was a short yet striking tale that captivated me from its very opening lines:

“There are those who insist that mothers are born with love for their children and place them before all other things, including their own needs and desires. This was not the case with us.”

As per usual Hoffman showcases the way in which her insightful prose beautifully lends itself to the subjects of her story. The narrator paints an uneasy picture of her relationship with her mother. There is some recurring ‘Hoffman imagery’ (red shoes, sailors, the sea) which made the story all the more enthralling. I particularly liked the way the landscape mirrors the narrator’s feelings.

“The sea was a dangerous enemy, and we were surrounded by it. But I remembered what my father had told me. You could grow to love something so strong and elemental, but you’d have to value the beauty of it more than you did your own life.”

I definitely recommend this to fans of Hoffman. While her latest novel,
The World That We Knew
is a triumph of motherhood, in this short story, we are confronted with a mother who is unwilling or unable to love anyone but herself. Hoffman conveys the resentment and hurt of this ultimate rejection though the daughter’s perspective.
Quick and atmospheric Everything My Mother Taught Me is not to be missed.

“I closed my eyes and went through a list of everything I wished I could thank him for giving me. Patience, loyalty, trust, and hopefully, in time, kindness.”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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