You Should Pity Us Instead
Sarabande Books, 2016
Some authors are able to write about multiple worlds, time periods and characters—Amy Gustine is one of them. This debut short story collection has a staggering array of breadth as she sets stories in the U.S. and abroad, in the present and the past, and creates characters of all ages and backgrounds. The only visible connection between the stories is that many focus on motherhood and family and she explore moral choices made by the characters who are everyday people juggling work, family, illness and love.
Each story unfolds slowly, as if Gustine were whispering the reader a secret. And she writes in rich language that creates a series of unique worlds. The book opens with one of my favorite stories, “All the Sons of Cain,” in which an Israeli mother goes to Gaza in search of her son who was captured by Hamas six months prior. She flies to Cairo and gets a driver to take her east where she finds a guide to take her through a tunnel to Gaza. Once there she shows people the photo of her lost son and becomes embroiled with a family. The story is an intimate portrayal of the mother’s quest.
Another one that stood out to me was, “When We’re Innocent.” It tells the story of a father, Obi, who travels from Ohio to Arizona to clean out the apartment of his adult daughter who killed herself. Jocelyn, or Jolly, was a successful TV anchor who didn’t leave a note behind. Obi, and one of Jolly’s neighbors, who is going through a trauma of his own, comb her apartment for clues as to why she took her life. This story is a touching portrait of father – daughter love and the way random people, like neighbors, get to know one and other. Other stories explore a man married to a homebound woman, a 20-something babysitter with a secret from her past and a doctor on Ellis Island.
I was blown away by this collection. If you enjoy contemporary short stories you are in for a treat.
Gustine lives in Ohio and has had many of her stories published in literary journals.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher.
Mama & the Hungry Hole
By Johanna DeBiase
Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015
Julia and her Mama, Elise, live in rural New Mexico. They are isolated, except for visits with their neighbor, Juanita, who brings food and provides company. But after Elise breaks off contact with Juanita, two surprise visitors appear: Elise’s mother and a circus that sets up camp in a neighboring lot. With Nana’s arrival, we learn Elise’s back story, discovering why she brought Julia to this remote area and learning of a childhood trauma she has never gotten over. Elise is a storyteller and there are smaller stories told within the larger narrative, creating a fabulist quality to the book. In fact the whole story has a magical realism quality to it, which I much enjoyed, including one chapter being narrated by a tree.
Elise, Nana and Juanita are all strong women who I felt very connected to. Elise has issues with her mother that she still needs to work out and Nana’s appearance brings just enough conflict to the story to make it take off. And the circus family is a whimsical addition to this already magical world. In the background, the area where Julia and her mother live is being developed at the expense of the earth, adding an environmental theme. I found the end to be moving and dramatic pulling together the many threads explored.
DeBiase lives in New Mexico. She also writes short stories and essays. I had the pleasure of attending an MFA program with her at Goddard College.
By Tanwi Nandini Islam
I spent a year and a half living in Bangladesh and find myself drawn to books about this part of the world. Bright Lines is about a Bangladeshi family that fled Bangladesh after the Liberation War, and now lives in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn.
Anwar and Hashi Saleem have a daughter Charu and also care for their niece Ella, whose parents were murdered in Bangladesh in the 80s. Most of the novel takes place during the sweltering summer of 2003. Anwar works in an apothecary and Hashi runs a beauty salon from the house. But during this hot Brooklyn summer Anwar begins to question his devotion for his wife. Charu, who is about to head off to college, is a budding seamstress and has a sexual awakening. And Ella, who is back from college for the summer, discovers dormant desires for a friend. Towards the end of the book, after a small family crisis, which I will not reveal, the family travels to Bangladesh and their lives are permanently changed.
There is a mystical side to the story. Ella suffers from hallucinations, which are connected to the trauma of losing her parents. And the book harks back to the Bangladesh’s Libration War and how it impacted the family, both at the time and in the present. This is a lovely read with a strong sense of place, both in Brooklyn, and during the visit to Bangladesh. When I read the pages set in Dhaka, I felt like I was right there with them on the streets and in the markets. And this a feminist story with the young women characters figuring out who they are and asserting their places in the world.
Islam lives in Brooklyn and also runs a small-batch perfume, candle and skincare line called Hi Wildflower Botanica.