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Book Nook - 19-03-2019

Tuesday, March 19, 2019
By Deepa Gahlot

There are Lit Fests taking place all over the country, but the community of readers is dwindling. Still, passionate book lovers would like to know what others like themselves are reading. This Book Nook suggests some books, but would also like to connect with serious readers, or even casual airport book browsers. Do write in about books you have loved or hated and why. The best entries will be shared on this page. Please send your recommendations to adc.booknook@gmail.com

Random Acts Of Cruelty
Kristen Roupenian’s extraordinary short story Cat Person, published in the New Yorker, was so popular, that she followed it up with a collection of twelve witty and wicked stories, about strange people and the chaos of their lives.

Cat Person was about a young woman meeting an older guy, who could have her dream man, but he turns out to be a nightmare. The stories in the book are funny, kinky and sometimes shocking, like Bad Boy, about a couple who rescue a friend from a toxic relationship and put him up in their home, till his presence becomes an aphrodisiac for them.

In one of the best stories of the book, The Boy In The Pool, a bunch of women who used to have a crush on a young actor, who appeared in a forgotten movie, meet him years later, when of them tracks him down and pays him to appear for her friend’s bachelorette party. The story about teenage lust that can only disappoint in later years is as melancholic as it is witty.

The Good Guy is a sad and somewhat perverse story about Ted, who is unable to commit to any woman, and explores the ugly and soulless side of modern relationships.  So is Death Wish, in which a man invites Tinder date into his foul motel room, and is appalled when the woman insists that he hit her.

In Sardines, an eleven-year-old girl makes a “mean” wish while blowing out the candle on her birthday cake and unleashes something she cannot control. In Biter, a girl has the irresistible urge to bite people.

Roupenian obviously does not bother about political correctness or happily-ever-after romance. Her characters are not in the least charming, which lends even her more fanciful stories an air of realism—in life, how many relationships are perfect? People may not actually bite, but so many wound by their acts of random cruelty.

You Know You Want This: Cat Person And Other Stories
By Kristen Roupenian
Publisher: Scout Press/Simon & Schuster
Pages: 224

 

Excerpt of You Know You Want This: Cat Person And Other Stories
Ellie was a biter. She bit other kids in preschool, bit her cousins, bit her mom. By the time she was four years old, she was going to a special doctor twice a week to “work on” biting. At the doctor’s, Ellie made two dolls bite each other, and then the dolls talked about how biting and being bitten made them feel. (“Ouch,” one said.
“Sorry,” said the other. “I feel sad about that,” said the one. “I feel happy,” said the other. “But . . . sorry again.”) She brainstormed lists of things she could do instead of biting, like raise her hand and ask for help, or take a deep breath and count to ten. At the doctor’s suggestion, Ellie’s parents put a chart on Ellie’s bedroom door, and Ellie’s mom put a gold star on it for every day Ellie didn’t bite.

But Ellie loved biting, even more than she loved gold stars, and she kept on biting, joyfully and fiercely, until one day, after preschool, pretty Katie Davis pointed at Ellie and whispered loudly to her dad: “That one’s Ellie. No one likes her. She bites people,” and Ellie felt so sick with shame she didn’t bite anyone again for more than twenty years.

As an adult, though her active biting days were behind her, Ellie still indulged in daydreams in which she stalked her coworkers around the office, biting them. For example, she imagined sneaking into the copy room where Thomas Widdicomb was collating reports, so engrossed in his task that he didn’t notice Ellie creeping up behind him on all fours. Ellie, what on earth, Thomas Widdicomb would cry, in the final seconds before Ellie sunk her teeth into his plump and hairy calf.

For while the world had succeeded in shaming Ellie out of biting, it couldn’t make her forget the joy of tiptoeing behind Robbie Kettrick while he was standing at the craft table, smugly stacking blocks. Everything is normal, quiet, boring, and then here comes Ellie—CHOMP! Now Robbie Kettrick is screaming like a baby and everybody is scrambling and yelling, and Ellie is no longer just a little girl but a wild creature pacing the halls of the preschool, sowing chaos and destruction in her wake.
 

Storms And Squalls
Florida is known as the pensioners’ paradise, where elderly people retire, to get the benefits of its beaches and warm weather.

However in Lauren Groff’s book, made up of eleven stories, Florida, it is place of unbearable heat, humidity and all manner of human misery. Four are about young women with families and an inability to cope with the normal challenges of daily life.

The first story, Ghosts and Empties, begins with the line, “I have somehow become a woman who yells.” The woman has lost the patience and the gentleness needed to raise kids. So while her husband puts the children to bed, she gets out of the house and walks around the neighbourhood, as “the neighbors’ lives reveal themselves, the lit windows domestic aquariums.”  Her own rage radiating off her, she observes other mothers, “bent like shepherdess crooks, scanning the floor for tiny Legos or half-chewed grapes or the people they once were, slumped in the corners”.

It may or may not be the same hapless woman in The Midnight Zone, who is left alone with her two sons on a camping trip, when her husband is called away urgently. She falls off a stool and hits her head, so the little boys have to look after her and hold fort till their father returns.

Even more discomfiting is Dogs Go Wolf in which two little girls are abandoned on an island, and while it seems like an adventure for a while, when starvation hits, the reader hopes they will miraculously be rescued.

In the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God story, Above and Below a young woman is reduced to homelessness.

The stories (some set outside Florida too) simply overturn all images of The Sunshine State and expose what lies beneath. There are storms, power outages, decay, snakes and ecological disasters waiting to happen. But most of all Groff breaks the mirror that shows women a fake picture of marital and maternal bliss.

Florida
By Lauren Groff
Publisher: Riverhead
Pages: 288

 

Excerpt of  Eyewall from Florida
It began with the chickens. They were Rhode Island Reds and I’d raised them from chicks. Though I called until my voice gave out, they’d huddled in the darkness under the house, a dim mass faintly pulsing. Fine, you ungrateful turds! I’d said before abandoning them to the storm. I stood in the kitchen at the one window I’d left unboarded and watched the hurricane’s bruise spreading in the west. I felt the chickens’ fear rising through the floorboards to pass through me like prayers.

We waited. The weatherman on the television repeated the swirl of the hurricane with his body like a valiant but inept mime. All the other creatures of the earth flattened themselves, dug in. I stood in my window watching, a captain at the wheel, as the first gust filled the oaks on the far side of the lake and raced across the water. It shivered my lawn, my garden, sent the unplucked zucchini swinging like church bells. And then the windsmacked the house. Bring it on! I shouted. Or, just maybe, this is another thing in my absurd life that I whispered.

At first, though, little happened. The lake goosebumped; I might have been looking at the sensitive flesh of an enormous lizard. The swing in the oak made larger arcs over the water. The palmettos nodded, accepting the dance. The wine I had been drinking was very good. I opened another bottle. It had been left in a special cooler in the butler’s pantry that had been designed to replicate precisely the earthy damp of the caves under Bourgogne. One bottle cost a year of retirement, or an hour squinting down the barrel of a hurricane.

My neighbor’s jeep kicked up hillocks of pale dust on the road. He saw me standing in the window and skidded to a halt. He rolled down his own window and shouted, and his face squared into his neck, which was the warm hue of a brick. But the wind now was so loud that his voice was lost, and I felt a surge of affection for him as he leaned out the window, gesticulating. We’d had a moment a few years back at a Conservation Trust benefit just after my husband left, our fortyish bodies both stuffed into finery. There was the taste of whiskey and the weirdness of his moustache against my teeth. Now I toasted him with my glass, and he shouted so hard he turned purple, and his hunting dog stuck her head out the back window and began to howl. I raised two fingers and calmly gave him a pope’s blessing. He bulged, affronted, and rolled up his window. He made a gesture as if wadding up a hunk of paper and tossing it behind his shoulder, and then he pulled away to join the last stragglers pushing north as fast as their engines could strain. The great rag of the storm would wipe them off the road. I’d hear of the way my neighbor’s jeep, going a hundred miles per hour, lovingly kissed the concrete riser of an overpass. His dog would land clear over the six lanes in the southbound culvert and dig herself down. When the night passed and the day dawned calm, she’d pull herself to the road and find herself the sole miraculous survivor of a mile-long flesh-and-metal sandwich.

I began to sing to myself, songs from childhood, songs with lyrics I didn’t understand then and still don’t, folk songs and commercial jingles and the Hungarian lullaby my father sang during my many sleepless nights when I was small. I was a high-strung, beetle-browed girl, and the songs only made me want to stay awake longer, to outlast him until he fell asleep crookedly against my headboard and I could watch the way his dreams moved beneath his handsome face. Enervated and watchful in school the next day, I’d be unable to follow the teacher’s voice, the ropes of her sentences as she led us through history or English or math, and I would fill my notebooks with drawings—hundred different houses, floors and windows and doors. All day I’d furiously scribble. If I only drew the right place to hold me, I could escape from the killing hours of school and draw myself all the way safely home.

The house sucked in a shuddery breath, and the plywood groaned as the windows drew inward. Darkness fell over the world outside. Rain unleashed itself. It was neither freight train nor jet engine nor cataract crashing around me but, rather, everything. The roof roared with water, the window blurred. When the storm cleared, I saw a branch the size of a locomotive cracking off the heritage oak by the lake and falling languorously down, the wet moss floating outstretched like useless dark wings.

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