Book Review | Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Genre : Fiction
Date Published : January 18th, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

In what is clearly becoming a pattern, I once again heard about this book in one of my classes. My professor described it as a collection of very unsettling, but beautiful short stories, and one of my classmates turned around to look at me and said, “Sara, that book is perfect for you!” And reader, she was 100% correct.

Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, is just as beautiful as it is unsettling, with each and every of the 20 stories in the collection coming to a sudden end that made me exclaim, “Wait, what? But what happened?” And it’s not that I didn’t understand the stories (although a lot of them are definitely mind-bending), but it’s more that Schweblin leaves you wondering the fates of the characters in almost every story. Beyond that, she surrounds you in a reality that feels like the world we live in, but then drops you into something you never would have expected, and you come out on the other side with a lot to think about.

The stories in the collection have a common thread of showing the disturbance of a natural reality. Schweblin takes seemingly normal topics – parent-child relationships, traveling, pregnancy, dreams – and doesn’t so much as twist them into surprising narratives, but instead turns them completely inside out. Nothing is what it seems in this collection, and the reader, as well as the characters, are left to struggle with that and figure out a world that isn’t just confusing and baffling, but that can also be cruel.

It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite story out of a whole collection, but the ones that stood out in Mouthful of Birds were The Merman – the merman that is featured has a pompadour, some killer abs, loves eating mints, and says ridiculous things like “Stop suffering, bay, no one’s going to hurt you anymore”; Headlights – the first story of the collection that follows a jilted bride left by the roadside where she meets other women who have also been left behind, along with some other very eery, very disconcerting beings that never get faces to match their voices; and the titular story Mouthful of Birds, which, well… is exactly what it sounds like. But even with that information beforehand, you still won’t be prepared to read about a girl who eats birds.

“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon.”

Headlights, page 1

What I loved most about the stories was how Schweblin didn’t waste any time trying to explain anything to the reader. You get dropped into each story immediately, with no time to catch up to what is already happening in the first sentence. Sometimes even the setting is unclear, as well as the relationships of the characters to each other. It’s like you are dropped into a story that has been in motion years before you flipped to the page. Again, everything feels unsettling, like when you wake up from a nap and need to take a few seconds to reorient yourself to where you are, and sometimes even who you are.

There are a few misses in the collection, but that’s to be expected when there are 20 stories in total. Overall, Schweblin creates a universe out of her stories, one that is connected by characters who seem to talk themselves out of reality and into a new – and pretty disturbing – reality. Some of the stories are a little too violent and dark for my taste (and be warned, some of them are pretty violent), but the majority of them are still lodged in my mind days after reading them for the first time, and that is what was so impressive about the collection – Schweblin doesn’t spoon feed you solutions or explanations to her stories, you have to navigate them on your own, even if they kind of creep you out along the way. The only thing I can think to compare the feeling of reading Schweblin’s stories to is when you’re having a nightmare. But I mean that in a good way, if that can even make sense.

My rating:

7.5 Birds out of 10.

-Sara

Book Review | Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Genre : Literary Fiction
Date Published : May 14, 2019
Publisher : Knopf Publishing

For this week’s review, I changed what book I wanted to tackle so many times. First it was G. Willow Wilson’s The Bird King (which, so far, is amazing, but is close to 400 pages, and I decided to put it down until I could give it my full attention). Then it was my ARC for The Beholder by Anna Bright, which also has a strong beginning, but I just couldn’t seem to focus on it. Then I stumbled upon Karen Russell’s Orange World and Other Stories on Friday, and I finished the whole thing in one day. My fixation on it was a combination of my attention span needing to focus on short stories instead of a novel, and Russell’s amazing, weird, and beautiful story telling.

Orange World is built up of eight short stories, each weirder and more fascinating than the one preceding it. One story, “Bog Girl: A Romance”, centers around a boy who happens to have a crush on a 2,000 year old girl he uncovered in a peat bog who, you know, isn’t exactly alive (exactly being the key word here). Then, in “The Bad Graft”, the soul of a Joshua Tree “leaps” into one of the characters, their souls intertwining. If none of that seems weird enough to you yet, the title story is about a young mother who agrees to breast-feed the devil. What’s even more impressive than these strange, fascinating ideas is that Russell manages to fill them with a surprising amount of emotion. After finishing each one, I found myself having to take a moment to collect my thoughts and prepare myself for whatever the next story had in store.

My favorite story of the collection was the first one, “The Prospectors”. The setting is the Great Depression, and the story follows two young women, Clara and Aubby, who think they are taking a chair lift up to the Evergreen Lodge to attend a party (and maybe steal a few things from it). Instead they find themselves at the Emerald Lodge, attending a different kind of party – one where only dead men are dancing.

“The cage was a wrought-iron skeleton, the handiwork of phantoms, but the bird, we both knew instantly, was real. It was agitating its wings in the polar air, as alive as we were. Its shadow was denser than anything in that ice palace. Its song split our eardrums. Its feathers burned into our retinas, rich with solar color, and its small body was stuffed with life.”

Page 36

The prose in this story (and in all of the stories) was so, so beautiful. Russell strings words and sentences together to create such profound pictures and moments, and the relationship between Clara and Aubby was my favorite part of “The Prospectors”. You feel the love they have for each other, especially when the two of them are in grave danger at one point, and it is only the worry for the other that pulls them back into their own minds and allows them to make their escape from what surely would have been their own deaths.

What I found most amazing about this collection of tales is how much each one contained. They were love stories, horror stories, satirical stories, stories about the bizarre and the grotesque, and about how none of us are impervious to the terrors that life sometimes contains. Sometimes those terrors lodge themselves inside of us, but Russell – in her own unique and formidable way – also shows us the importance of humor in relationships, and the power it can contain, especially when it that humor is found and shared with someone else.

Author of Swamplandia, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, and another collection of short stories, Karen Russell has been a big name in the literary world for a while now, but Orange World still surpassed my expectations. I couldn’t put it down, and I’m already wanting to re-read it so I can start to pick out all the details that I missed during my first read through.

My rating:

9 Bog Girls out of 10

-Sara

Review | Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre : Short Story
Published : October 2, 2006 / June 1, 2010
Publisher : Granta / Anchor

When Emory and I came up with the idea to recommend a short story to each other for this week’s post, I was at a loss for a while. It was like every short story I had ever read and loved flew out of my mind. Then I started thinking back to the Advanced Fiction class I took during my final year of undergrad, and Jumping Monkey Hill stuck out in my memory. There’s so much to dissect in the story – colonialism, racism, sexism, family dynamics, and lastly, it’s a short story about writing short stories, and about how some people will try to dictate what a good, believable story is while diminishing other kinds of stories and experiences and deeming them unrealistic.

While I absolutely loved my fiction class and the writing workshops we had, this was a topic that always seemed to pop up, whether it was someone commenting on my story or someone else’s. “That just doesn’t seem believable” or “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen. This is what you should write instead”. And sure, the suggestions were part of the editing process, sometimes they were even good, but sometimes you were also left with the feeling of everyone just not understanding what your story was conveying, or feeling hurt that your peers deemed something that may have happened to you as “unrealistic.” Jumping Monkey Hill weaves this critique into the protagonist’s life, connecting it to themes of identity and creating a story that contains so much power. I can’t wait to read about what Emory thought of it!

-Sara

I’m so glad Sara recommended I check out Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! It’s been awhile since I’ve read a really impactful piece of realistic short fiction, and I’m so grateful I had the pleasure of reading this story for this week’s blog post.

Jumping Monkey Hill is about a young woman named Ujunwa who is invited to participate in the African Writers’ Workshop – a weeklong writing workshop founded and facilitated by Edward Campbell, an old white man from England. The workshop starts off harmless enough – though Ujunwa finds it odd that the workshop is taking place at a fancy, mostly white seaside resort in South Africa, she still begins to form small bonds with the other workshop members. But tensions soon rise as it becomes apparent that Edward does not have any of the workshop participants’ best interests at heart. Instead, he seeks to mold them into his colonialist vision of what an “African writer” is supposed to be.

The uneven power dynamic between Edward and the writers is established the moment Edward does the workshop introductions – he introduces each writer by the country they’re from, reducing them to mere representatives of “Africa.” We soon come to find, of course, that Edward’s understanding of “Africa” is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that he expects the stories the participants submit to fit into his colonial view of Africa. While some workshop participants write off his behavior as “harmless” because he is an old man, it soon becomes evident that Edward’s behavior is an extension of a violent and insidious racist colonial history.

In addition to reducing workshop participants to their race, Edward also begins to hypersexualize the women of the group. This, unfortunately, is nothing new for Ujunwa. For her workshop story, she writes about her experiences with sexual harassment while searching for a job. These moments in Ujunwa’s short story mirror the sexual harassment she experiences at the hands of Edward throughout the workshop. For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in this story is when Ujunwa realizes that all of the other participants had noticed the ways in which Edward sexualized her, but none of them had done anything to stop him.

She should not have laughed when Edward said, ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me.’ It had not been funny. It had not been funny at all. She had hated it, hated the grin on his face and the glimpse of greenish teeth and the way he always looked at her chest rather than at her face and yet she had made herself laugh like a deranged hyena.

The workshop participants silently accept Edward’s increasingly vile microaggressions because they are afraid that speaking up will lose them money or future opportunities as writers. Ujunwa herself takes Edward’s words and actions with a silent resentment until the very end of the story, when Ujunwa finally refuses to take anymore of his bullshit. (This moment made me want to cheer and scream and lift Ujunwa up on my shoulders).

One of my major takeaways from Jumping Monkey Hill was the mental toll writing workshops take on marginalized voices when white, cis, heterosexual male experiences are centralized. When Edward doesn’t like a story (because it didn’t fit into the neat, colonial box of what he understood “Africa” to be) he says the dreaded workshop phrase: “The story itself begged the question ‘So what?'” Jumping Monkey Hill almost seems to be a direct response to this question. The answer? Because marginalized voices demand to be heard and listened to. Just because a white man or a white woman doesn’t understand a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value – rather, it means white writers must work even harder to de-center whiteness as the “default” and continue to listen to and uplift marginalized voices without expecting a cookie in return.

I loved this story SO much and I can’t wait to buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection! Read Jumping Monkey Hill online here !

My Rating:

10 Excruciating Writing Workshops out of 10

-Emory

May Bookshelf

It’s MAAAAAAY! Here are all the amazing and delicious books we are reading this month.

Sara:

  1. Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell – Out on May 14th, Karen Russell’s new book of short stories looks like it will be just as brilliant as her other works! Seriously, if you’ve never read anything by Karen Russell, you need to change that asap. Her prose is vivid, funny, and never what you expect. I’ve loved everything she’s written so far, and I am beyond excited to read her new short stories!
  2. We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal – The first installment of Faizal’s Sands of Arawiya also debuts on May 14th, following the stories of two characters, Zafira and Nasir, who are both legends throughout the kingdom, though neither of them wants to be. Things promise to get complicated when Zafira and Nasir are sent on the same quest to retrieve and special artifact – with Nasir instructed to kill Zafira.
  3. Captain America, Vol. 1: Winter in America by Ta-Nehisi Coates and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu – In celebration of Avengers: Endgame releasing a little over a week ago (don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything), I thought adding a comic to my bookshelf for this month would be fitting. Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of works like The Beautiful Struggle, Between the World and Me, and a series of Black Panther comics, takes Steve Rogers and places him in the aftermath of Hydra’s takeover of the nation. The government doesn’t seem to trust Cap anymore, and the feeling appears to be mutual. I can’t wait to start reading this new installment in Cap’s story!
  4. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett – With the new TV series airing at the end of this month, I figured I should re-read the amazing book it is based off of. Basically, an angel and a demon work together to stop the anti-christ from starting the apocalypse. If you haven’t read Good Omens already, get your hands on a copy immediately!!! It is a wild ride from start to finish, and I promise you will love every second of it.
  5. Mythic Journeys: Retold Myths and Legends edited by Paula Guran – Once again out on May 14th (I’m going to buy SO MANY books that day), this anthology collects stories from authors like Ken Liu, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Lecki that reinvent classic myths and legends and place them in a modern setting! That idea in itself is more than enough to get me interested!

Emory:

  1. The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera – I get easily overwhelmed by epic fantasies, but this one is high on my list!! Queer protagonists, warrior ladies, divine empresses, and of course, the tagline: Even gods can be slain…
  2. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon – This book has been popping up all over my timeline lately! A very large book that I probably won’t get to until the summer, but it’s on my buying list now! Another great queer read ~ one of my friends called it a feminist takeover of the epic fantasy genre (looking at you, GoT).
  3. Wicked Saints by Emily A. Duncan – Already a New York Times Bestseller – and written by an OHIOAN!!!! A bloody fairytale-inspired read. Can’t wait to get my hands on this gorgeous book!
  4. Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal – This book was a birthday present from Sara (THANK YOU!). After reading Sorcerer to the Crown and The True Queen in the span of a week, I needed more Regency fantasy!
  5. The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang – My very first read for Netgalley! I’m taking The Poppy War with me this week (I’m halfway through it right now and it’s so goddamn funny and bloody and adorable and messed up and I can’t wait for the sequel!).

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts out of 10

-Sara

Book Review | Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Genre : Magical Realism, Horror
Date Published : October 3, 2017
Publisher : Graywolf Press

For my first ever book review for Sister Shelf, I decided to review a short story collection that means a lot to me: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado. I first picked up this collection in October 2018, right around the time I was getting back into writing short stories myself, and it reopened my eyes to how joyously weird writing can be. When the Feminist Sci Fi Book Club I recently started attending chose this collection as its February 2019 read – the same month Sara and I decided to start this blog – it seemed like the universe was shouting at me: review this strange and unsettling little book!!!

I knew only two things going into this collection: it was supposed to be 1) Super Spooky and 2) Super Queer. Machado did not disappoint. Through the lens of magical realism, Machado explores the many ways in which women’s bodies (in all their forms) are mistreated, exploited, and controlled. The stories in this collection are unique and expansive – a woman inventories her past lovers to keep herself sane during the apocalypse; two women make a baby (or do they…???); an epidemic causes all women on the earth to slowly fade away; and, of course, there’s the 272 (yes, that’s two hundred and seventy two) vignettes inspired by every single episode of Law & Order: SVU.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Husband Stitch” – a retelling of the classic folktale about the girl with the green ribbon around her neck. This story felt like it was being whispered to me by my best friend at a middle school slumber party while I, being the whimp that I am, alternated between telling her to stop when it got too scary and begging her to finish the rest. Machado seamlessly weaves countless fairytales and urban legends into this piece (the hook-handed man, the girl raised by wolves, the girl who dies of fright in cemetery) and by the end they all begin to run together with one common theme: women are punished for simply existing as women.

“He is not a bad man, and that, I realize suddenly, is the root of my hurt. He is not a bad man at all. To describe him as evil or wicked or corrupted would do a deep disservice to him. And yet – ” (The Husband Stitch, p. 30)

On my reread of this collection, what I enjoyed most was the unabashed queerness of each and every story (on the first read, I enjoyed having my pants scared off me!!). The queerness present in Machado’s stories breathes life back into the sometimes unbearably violent collection. For all the horrible and unthinkable things that happen to women in this collection, Machado also gives them the ability to feel pleasure and joy. And, let me tell you, these stories are sexy. Super spooky, yes, but so so sexy (which, honestly, is such a #LifeGoal).

When we discussed this collection at book club in February, our usual hour-long meeting extended to over two hours, and we still had more to talk about. That’s how Her Body and Other Parties leaves me feeling each time I pick it up – that maybe, just maybe, if I read it again I will find some answers to life’s many questions. Or, at the very least, give myself a very good scare.

My rating:

9 Madwomen in the Attic out of 10.

-Emory