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Two New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Kalifi Creek" by Lionel Shriver, and "Roadkill" by Romesh Gunsekera

Today's reviews: "Kalifi Creek" by Lionel Shriver, from the Nov. 25th, 2013 issue of the New Yorker, and "Roadkill" by Romesh Gunesekera, from the Dec. 2nd, 2013 issue.

"Kalifi Creek"


One of the best things you can ever say about a work of literature is that some part or parts of it lingered with you after you read it. Maybe it was a phrase, a piece of insight, a particular scene, or just the feeling it inspired in you. But, ideally, if you invest time in a work of fiction, you do so in the hopes that some part of it is going to resonate with you and stay with you for some time afterward. You put in work, you expect some kind of return. In that sense, this story paid off.

The story describes an incident by which a 23 year old girl gains a firm grasp of adulthood and her own mortality, by coming face-to-face with death in an African creek, then in a parallel incident 14 years later, as a full adult, in which (***spoiler alert***) she's not so lucky.

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Find the Bad Guy" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...because the Supreme Leader told me it would aid my understanding of earthling culture. 

Issue: Nov. 18, 2013
Story: "Find the Bad Guy"
Author: Jeffrey Eugenides
Plot: A middle aged man, Charlie, creeps on his recently estranged wife and his family as he recounts his struggles with alcoholism and the dissolution and ultimate failure of his marriage. He eventually confronts his family, breaking the TRO his wife has placed on him and comes close to some kind of reconciliation, but fails. 
Review: Reading and reviewing the short fiction in The New Yorker every week is a chore sometimes. Other times it opens literary doors by exposing me to new authors I was long (long) overdue to read on my own. This week falls into the latter category. Jeffrey Eugenides, where have you been all my life!
There's a lot to like in this story:
1.) Humor - This story's funny as hell while dealing with a really sad and he…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Benji" by Chinelo Okparanta

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...hey, it keeps me off the streets.
Issue: Nov. 11, 2013
Story: "Benji"
Author: Chinelo Okparanta
Plot: A middle-aged Nigerian woman, Alare, begins a protracted affair with her rich friend's homely, hidebound son, Benji, in order to slowly bilk him of money, under the pretense that she needs the money because her husband is dying. Benji's mother dies. Alare succeeds in taking so much money from Benji that she sets up a new and comfortable life for herself and her husband, who is actually the gardener at Benji's estate. Benji discovers this and feels nothing about it. 
Review: In my ongoing quest to read and review every short story that appears in The New Yorker, I've noticed that a lot of boring international fiction manages to sneak in. Here we have a prime example of this phenomenon.
This story gets away with being boring and lacking an emotional payoff, simply because it's set in Ni…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Weight Watchers" by Thomas McGuane

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...in the hopes that it balances out my otherwise neanderthal tastes. 

Issue: Nov. 4, 2013

Story: "Weight Watchers"

Author: Thomas McGuane

Plot: A young-to-early-middled aged man's overweight father comes to stay with him while he's on a break from his mother, who has insisted the father lose weight or not come home. The visit causes the young man to re-examine his parent's occasionally-functional marriage and the ways his parents forced him to take on a lot of their emotional baggage. The young man describes his father as a ruddy, man's man type and his mother as solidly bourgeois and though they gave him a comfortable enough life, he is determined to stay single and never get emotionally involved with anyone.

Review: Kind of an odd turn for Thomas McGuane, although the story is still set in Montana and features a character who is outcast or broken in a comical way. The main character is so…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Samsa in Love" by Haruki Murakami

I'm on a marathon quest to get caught up on my New Yorker reviewing. I will not rest until I succeed. At this point, the quest is bigger than me, it's bigger than TheNew Yorker, hell it's bigger than Nicki Minaj's ass...no, not really. 
Issue: Oct. 28, 2013
Story: "Samsa in Love"
Author: Haruki Murakami
Plot: Anyone who took Eighth Grade English (and payed attention) will likely recognize the name "Samsa" in the title here; it comes from the famous Franz Kafka story "Metamorphosis" in which the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find he's turned into a beetle. Here, Murakami reverses that classic, archetypal short story so that the beetle wakes up and finds that he's become a human named Gregor Samsa. What? Who?! That's right. He spends part of a day getting used to his new body, trying to find food in the house and clothe himself. He is then visited by a female locksmith who reveals that they are in the middle o…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" by Alice Munro

I usually review one New Yorker short story per week but I've had to speed up due to the fact I've fallen way behind. That damn New Yorker just keeps coming...every...damn...week....

Issue: Oct. 21, 2013 (first appeared in the Dec. 27, 1999 issue)
Story: The Bear Came Over the Mountain
Author: Alice Munro
Plot: Tells the story of Fiona and Grant, a Canadian couple now in their late 60s/early 70s, and their struggles to stay together through Fiona's contraction of Alzheimer's disease. The story shows how Fiona's loss of memory brings out some of the dysfunction in their relationship and some of Fiona's lingering, deeply repressed resentment at Grant's infidelities over the years (Grant was a professor during the free-love, anything goes days of the late 60s & 70s). Ultimately, through her hospitalization, Fiona forgets she and Grant were married and begins to devote herself to another patient in the care home, Aubrey (male). Grant attempts to forge a relatio…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Katania" by Lara Vapnyar

Part III in my "Review-a-Day" Series as I attempt to get caught up on my New Yorker short fiction reviewing. I'm sticking to my work...

Issue: Oct. 14, 2013

Story: Katania

Author: Lara Vapnyar

Plot: A young girl, Katya, in late-stage Soviet Russia befriends another young girl, Tania. Together they fantasize, create imaginary universes, get into fights with each other, and do all the things kids do together. One particular point of friction between the girls is their mutual fatherlessness -- Katya's father died when she was young, Tania's father defected to America -- and their only fights surround this issue. Together they create an imaginary land called Katania. Tania eventually goes to another town to live, and they spend their adolescence and high school years apart. They reunite many years later, and Katya finds that Tania has become materialistic and voraciously bourgeois; indeed, she has built a life -- a world -- around her, strikingly similar to Katania.

Revie…

From the Netflix Vault: Dressed to Kill (1980)

Film: Dressed to Kill

Release Date: 1980
Starring: Michael Caine, Angie Dickinson, Nancy Allen
Thank god for Netflix. I mean, really. When else in history has man been able -- for a mere $8 per MONTH -- to access a seemingly limitless catalog of motion picture entertainment (TV, movies, past =a and present) some of it good, some of it crappo, at the touch of a button? I say never. If it weren't for Netflix, I'd probably never have discovered lost gems like Dressed to Kill. 
Perhaps I use the word "gem" too easily. There are perfectly good reasons why this film has been forgotten in the mists of time and relegated to a spot deep within the Netflix vault; the equivalent of the dusty center aisles of the video store. But we'll get to that later. For now, let's focus on the positives.
Reasons to Watch:
1.) Dennis Franz playing a cocky, street-wise cop. Thirteen years before the role of his life as Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, Franz turns in a pitch-perfect performance as …

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "I'm the Meat You're the Knife" by Paul Theroux

Due to the fact that I'm way behind on my New Yorker fiction reviwing, this week I'm doing a special "Review-a-Day" series until I get caught up. Today's review comes from...

Issue: Oct. 7, 2013

Story: "I'm the Meat You're the Knife"

Author: Paul Theroux

Plot: A middle-aged writer, Jay Justus, comes back to his home town for his father's funeral,only to find his high school English teacher, Murray Cutler, is also terminally ill and days from death. Jay goes to visit the dying Cutler and we begin to see that there lies more beneath this relationship than meets the eye. It is apparent, though never explicitly stated, that Cutler used his position of authority to have an inappropriate relationship with Jay. Now a grown man, Jay visits the dying Cutler and tells him a series of suggestive stories until the dying man realizes who Jay is. Jay realizes he became a writer in order to escape the pain of having been taken advantage of by Cutler.

Review: I&…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Breeze" by Joshua Ferris

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker; and weeks it reviews me...

Issue: Sept. 30, 2013

Story: The Breeze

Author:Joshua Ferris

Plot: A young Brooklyn couple try to capitalize on the perfect spring evening in New York, only to find themselves thwarted by the numerous daunting choices before them.

Review: An absolute "must-read." This is the kind of story that makes my self-appointed job as the New Yorker fiction section's vigilant guardian worthwhile. I read the fiction each week in the hopes of discovering just such a story.

What's so great about it? Through Ferris' lens, we see one simple evening refracted into a dozen different rays, a dozen different possibilities. The author manages to tell the story of this one evening in numerous different ways, exploring all the different ways this one evening could have played out -- pleasant and not so -- had this young Brooklyn couple made various choices differently.

What if they got ou…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Bad Dreams" by Tessa Hadley

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...and it's yours ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!

Issue: Sept. 23, 2013
Story: "Bad Dreams"
Author: Tessa Hadley
Plot: A little girl has a disturbing, "meta"-fictional dream about her favorite book series, in which she writes an Epilogue to the last book of the series and becomes (or begins to become) aware of her own mortality. She wakes up from the dream, goes downstairs into her parents' living room, and up-ends most of the furniture in the room, in some sort of childishly, life-affirming act. Her mother comes downstairs the next day. She is aghast at what she sees, thinking the house has been burglarized. Then she blames the mess on her husband, but doesn't yell at him though, because he's been under a lot of stress. Life goes on as usual. 
Review: This is at least the sixth time Tessa Hadley's fiction has appeared in the NYer and the third time in 2013 alone. Does the NYer have some ki…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "By Fire" by Tahar Ben Jelloun

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...among other things no one will ever find out about. 
Issue: Sept. 16, 2013
Story: "By Fire"
Author: Tahar Ben Jelloun
Plot: A 30-year old Moroccan man, Mohammed, inherits a fruit vending cart after his father dies. Mohammed has been to University, and has a degree in the Humanities. However, he is relegated to selling fruit on the streets and being harassed by local police, because of institutionalized economic decay and a corrupt police force. As Mohammed's life is made more and more miserable by the police, and he refuses to cave in to their ridiculous demands regarding forms, permits, bribes, and even an attempt to have him spy on his former school-mates, Mohammed decides to fight back by visiting the town's Mayor. Unable even to see the mayor, he is abused by police, and ultimately lights himself on fire in protest. This ignites a storm of public outcry against the corrupt government, an out…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Heron" by Dorthe Nors

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...who said that an English Minor wasn't good for anything?

Issue: Sept. 9th

Story: The Heron

Author: Dorthe Nors

Plot: A creepy, morbid Dutch lady sits by a pond and gets creeped out by the herons. She sees one sick heron laying his head on a bench, and it skeeves her out. Then she remembers when she used to run around the pond with her childhood friend Lorenz. Then she has a twisted day dream about the young mothers who circle the pond with their strollers, imagining what would happen if they swelled up and exploded.

Review: Okay, this story has one major thing going for it; it's short. At barely a page and a half, this is my kind of short story. Nothing makes me read more carefully than when I can see that telltale little black diamond the New Yorker uses at the end of articles peeking at me after only about one page.

The narrator is highly intelligent, but depressed ( the two often go hand in hand, don…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "The Colonel's Daughter" by Robert Coover

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...because the long fiction has too much cholesterol. 

Issue: Sept. 2, 2013

Story: "The Colonel's Daughter"

Author:Robert Coover

Plot: A group of conspirators engaged in a coup d'etat sit in the Colonel's office. Distracted by the sudden appearance of his daughter, serving coffee, brandy, and biscuits, the Colonel watches them to try and discover who could be the Traitor among them. Ultimately, the coup is disrupted, the Colonel killed, and the identity of the Traitor(s) very carefully and subtly revealed.

Review: I'm having an impossibly difficult time trying to work-up a conventional "review" of this story and having written those very words essentially means I've given up. Prose-wise it's kind of like reading a really long, well-written screenplay scene direction. Or rather, an arduously detailed elaboration of a painting, in which the author takes a crowded scene and di…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Victory" by Yu Hua

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker...and by "each week" I
mean anywhere from once a week to once a month....


Issue: Aug. 26, 2013

Story: "Victory"

Author: Yu Hua

Plot: Set in China, a woman, Lin Hong, discovers her husband, Li Hanlin, is having an affair. She confronts him about it, but does not get the reaction she wants from him: that he would fall to his knees and beg her to forgive him. Instead, they engage in a frosty battle of wills, leading them almost to the divorce court; however, an almost benign incident involving Li Hanlin's lover forces them to realize how much they love each other and want to continue the marriage.

Review: This story is nearly a month old now, so I'll be blunt. I feel like this story would have meant a lot more to me, had more impact, if I were more familiar with Chinese culture and the expectations and demands placed on men and women in that culture.

The action in the story is all very subtl…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Paranoia" by Shirley Jackson

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. But in every other way, I'm just like you...

Issue: Aug. 5, 2013

Story: "Paranoia"

Author: Shirley Jackson

Plot: A humble little office-worker type guy named Halloran Beresford -- in 1950s New York -- leaves his Manhattan office at 5:00 p.m. trying to get home as fast as possible to celebrate his wife's birthday with her. However, he soon develops the idea he's being followed by a man in a "light hat." Light hat-man seems to be around every corner, and Beresford becomes more and more frantic. Finally, he makes his way home, where in relief, he flops down in his favorite chair...only to find his paranoia has continued, as he is convinced his wife is working for the man in the light hat (or someone else who is out to get him).

Review: First off: Yes. This is that Shirley Jackson, author of "The Lottery" among other things. Like most high school students, I read "The Lott…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Collectors" by Daniel Alarcon

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. You would too, if you were me...
Issue: July 29, 2013
Story: "Collectors"
Author: Daniel Alarcon
Plot: Two Mexican men, from completely different walks of life, meet in the country's most infamous prison, Collectors, in the mid-80s. Rogelio is a poor, illiterate campesino turned drug courier; Henry is a playwright who wrote a politically inflammatory play called "The Idiot President," which apparently the government did not find too amusing. Despite their different backgrounds, the two bond in prison through a kind of symbiotic relationship; Rogelio helps Henry survive, Henry provides Rogelio intellectual stimulation. They perform "The Idiot President" in prison; Henry and Rogelio have a romantic relationship. Eventually Henry is released, only to find out that Rogelio and most of the prisoners he knew were killed when a massive prison riot gets quashed by the military.
Review: Yet…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "From a Farther Room" by David Gilbert

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. But only on Tuesdays and Fridays before 2:00 p.m., and on every third Saturday during months that end in -y...

Issue: July 22, 2013

Story: "From a Farther Room"

Author: David Gilbert

Plot: A young businessman, living in a suburb of New York City, goes out for a night on the town with a work colleague, while his own wife and children are out of town. He gets terribly drunk and vomits up a living organism resembling (but not exactly) a baby. He cares for the "baby," growing more attached to it while he decides what to do with it, keeping it a secret from his wife during their phone calls that weekend. Ultimately, he decides to bury it in the backyard, in a box in which he used to keep baseball cards as a child.

Review: This is Gilbert's second story in The New Yorker since Nov. '12, and his second novel, "& Sons" is out now. In other words, what we have here is another promis…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "All Ahead of Them" by Tobias Wolff

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. It used to just be a weekend thing...you know: a review here, a review there. But now, I'm addicted....

Issue: July 8 & 15, 2013
Story: "All Ahead of Them"
Author: Tobias Wolff
Plot: A young man, Bud, sits alone in his hotel room on the French Riveria, where he has come on his honeymoon. He goes through various stages of mental anguish over a petty but worrisome scam his then wife-to-be, Arden, foisted on some of her close friends in the weeks before their wedding. The entire story takes place in Bud's head, as he thinks back to their history as a couple and the warning signs that might have suggested Arden had a rather large streak of larceny in her. Ultimately, he finds a shaky sort of peace with the whole incident. 
Review/Analysis: With the New Yorker's "Fiction Issue" hitting the shelves earlier this summer, and stories by Joyce Carol Oates and Thomas McGuane over the past c…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Mastiff" by Joyce Carol Oates

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If that doesn't earn me some Literary Hipster "street-cred" then I don't know what else I can do...

Issue: July 1, 2013
Story: "Mastiff"
Author: Joyce Carol Oates
Plot: A 41-year old California woman (called simply "the woman" in this story) goes on a day-hike into the mountains with the man whom she's seeing. On the hike she alternately rejoices that this man might be "the one" and laments the fact that he's not more attentive to her. She is full of contradictions: she wants to be pursued, but she also wants to have control of the relationship. She herself is withholding of affection, and then she pouts that the man is not more affectionate to her. At the end of the hike, the woman is attacked by a large Mastiff dog, but the man jumps in and saves her. The man is badly injured, and the trauma causes the woman to feel genuine emotion as she waits with him in …

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: Thomas McGuane's "Stars"

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you were looking for poop jokes and cheap laughs, please check my Twitter feed...

Issue: June 24th

Story: "Stars"

Author: Thomas McGuane

Plot: A young woman, Jessica, is studying astronomy at a university in Montana. As her daily interactions with people become more and more frustrating and angering, she takes to hiking as a way to escape. At all turns she finds people reacting to her in ways that reflect her abrasive and rigidly stoic attitude. She cannot seem to have fulfilling and warm relations with people; she does not even try. Ultimately, she finds solace in the loneliness of the woods. In other words...there is no plot.

Review: Thomas McGuane is part of the "Montana school" of writers that includes guys like Jim Harrison, Russel Chatham and others whose fiction and art deals mostly with the lost souls who inhabit the vast, harsh, lonely landscape of the American West. McGuane's st…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "We Didn't Like Him" by Akhil Sharma

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. There. I said it. I'm free...

Issue: June 3, 2013

Story: "We Didn't Like Him"

Author: Akhil Sharma

Plot: A young man in a small Indian city tells the story of his distant cousin, Manshu, with whom he grew up. A few years Manshu's junior, the narrator expresses a simmering contempt for Manshu from the time they are children together, through the time Manshu becomes a local temple-keeper thanks to the narrator's father's largess. Though a member of the brahmin (or upper) social, Manshu exhibits lower-class ways; he marries a woman beneath his caste, he uses his position as temple-keeper to scam people, he commits social faux pas in gaudy and embarrassing ways. However, he is tolerated by his family, and the narrator, because he is just that: family. The narrator does not like him, but nevertheless, he is always there to pick up Manshu's slack. Proving that he is, in fact, of better …

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Thirteen Wives" by Steven Millhauser

Each week I review the short fiction in a recent issue of The New Yorker. It hurts me more than it hurts you...

Issue: May 27, 2013

Story: "Thirteen Wives"

Author: Steven Millhauser

Plot: There is no plot, per se. This is not a story so much as an ode; a stylized tribute to and exploration of one man's relationship with his 13 different "wives." He gives a brief introduction, and then talks about each wife in 13 different numbered sections of the story.

Review: I'm an ardent supporter of all forms of experimentation in fiction. We're  irradiated by electronic media from all sides, all the time; therefore the plain old "words on the page" need any advantage they can get. Which is just to say: this listicle type story works for me.

The title of the story would lead one to believe this is simply a story about a polygamist. Millhauser quickly (and thankfully) dashes those expectations, opening by telling the reader that he lives in a house with 13 room…