Living in the Weather of the World: Stories, Richard Bausch ★★★
It could always be worse
Prolific writer Richard Bausch’s latest collection of short stories, Living in the Weather of the World, offers an array of deeply flawed characters trying to move through life on some of their worst days. In the opening story, “Walking Distance,” a police officer’s marriage breaks down over breakfast and his day gets worse from there, while the sixth story in the collection, “The Knoll,” stars an unmoored young man seeking to make a name for himself in a disturbing way. These two characters are good indicators of the kinds of protagonists the collection offers: largely male, dissatisfied with their lives, and unrelenting in their lack of joy.
The longest story in the collection, “The Lineaments of Gratified Desire,” is the most compelling, perhaps because the narrative does not seem as compressed as the other works. Its protagonist, an artist named David, has no sense of who he is or what he wants which leads him to a string of bad decisions. But, the story’s ending, like several in the collection, feels rushed and incomplete, and the women are largely variations on narcissistic, neurotic harpies or clueless victims of broken men.
However, for those interested in reading about people whose lives are unraveling, or those who want some perspective that perhaps their own lives aren’t as bad as they seem, this collection has much to offer.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy ★★★★★
Pain and Peril, Promise and Paradise
While the world in which The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is set may be foreign to some readers, the characters Arundhati Roy has created are achingly familiar. First Anjum, born Aftab, who longs to be something other, something brighter and more beautiful than the world initially allows. Then Tilo, a woman whose inner strength is born of suffering and who fears her greatest happiness will always come at a price. And then, there are the dead. As relevant as their living counterparts, the dead in Roy’s novel exist to remind us we are alive and that this one life, fraught with peril, war, and pain, is as equally full of joy and promise and, yes, even paradise, if we allow ourselves to see it.
Set in India, in all its various incarnations, over a span of years, the novel weaves together the stories of many characters over time in a way that is not entirely clear until the latter chapters. This weaving, subtle as the flapping wings of the birds that riddle the novel, is both brilliant and maddening. But, staying with the story when ends are loose and the pattern yet to emerge is rewarding because the heart of the novel is simple: we need each other. Human beings need each other to traverse a world at war so we may find the place we truly belong. This need is true for readers of all faiths, all castes, all genders, and that truth is the genius of Arundhati Roy’s long awaited, and near perfect, second novel.
Trajectory: Stories, Richard Russo ★★★★★
Grounds for hope
In just four stories, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Richard Russo’s latest collection, Trajectory, attends to several fundamental questions of human existence. Among them, who we are when no one else is looking, when we know it is time to let go, and what we are willing to fight for.
The protagonists learn— in some way—who they are at the core: someone who forgives, someone who betrays, perhaps both. This common thread of learning connects the pieces even to human experience because all of us have at some time, been students. In the opening story, “Horseman,” an academic setting develops this theme of revelation as a college professor confronts a cheating student and realizes her own authenticity may be in question.
The other three stories all feature older male protagonists questioning themselves and the worlds in which they live with humility, fear, vitality, and humor. People who believe life stops after a certain age need only read Russo’s latest collection to see richness and depth are companions to a long life.
A trajectory is a path an object, or in this case, a person takes through space and time; Russo’s Trajectory suggests our paths are never as straight or as simple as we may wish. But, just as one character muses “this brutal world simply will not spare you,” another affirms there “just might be grounds for hope.” These two ideas anchor Russo’s most recent collection, and their familiar, and at times heartbreaking, paradox is exactly why the book is worth reading.
Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country, Chavisa Woods ★★★
The impossible is not far from possible
Ranging from the mundane to the bizarre, the eight stories in Things to Do When You’re Goth in the Country offer glimpses into the lives of people living within and without, a part of and separate from the things they hold dear. Several protagonists return to the places they call home, small towns and churches and cemeteries that signify some secret wish or fear, while a few are trying to leave or escape. A few stories take an absurdist turn bordering on Sci-fi, but in all cases the characters themselves question their reality, realizing “if everything is barely possible, then the impossible is not far from possible.”
References to pop culture, prominent philosophers, and critics pepper the stories though, at times, the name-dropping is a bit forced, and some of the situations feel cliché. However, the stories driven by younger protagonists, “Zombie,” “What’s Happening on the News?” and the title story pack the most punch, perhaps because the things that inspire and scare us as children so often define us as adults. Ultimately, the twenty-first century, from the conflict in the Middle East to drug addiction in the heartland, are at the heart of these stories. This is a collection that intentionally tries to reflect the world in which we live now and does so with an emphasis on our shared humanity.