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Life certainly moves at its own pace, and yet how can it be May already?  It's still chilly here in the Northeast, and my expectation is that we will just go straight to blistering summer.  Spring is my least favorite season of the year!  It is terribly unreliable, and yet we continue to put seeds in the ground hoping they will grow. Metaphors abound!

Which brings me to a novella by Karen Russell.  Karen is a person of wild imagination.  Last year we discussed Vampires in the Lemon Grove, an eclectic, positively reviewed group of short stories.  Sleep Donation is her latest piece. And though I'm unsure of what makes a novella (other than marketing), this is a good story.

 

Sleep Donation
Karen Russell
2014

In a not too distant future, sleep has become a finite entity.  Or imagine if sleep was like blood and sometimes you would run short due to an injury or surgery.  In this case, the new need is sleep.  At first there was an epidemic, and then a scientific discovery.  So now sleep can be donated. And of course the purest, most untainted sleep comes from babies.  The theory is that they have no life experience to give them nightmares.

There's nothing gruesome in this thought-provoking story.  The tale follows a woman who leads donation drives and a family who is one her most successful donors.  I imagine it would make a great story to debate in an ethics class or spark good discussion at a book club.  Sleep, like blood, organs or marrow, seems an area where money and politics shouldn't enter--which is not true.  Imagine if sleep became an even more precious commodity?

 Karen Russell won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction and her first novel, Swamplandia! was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow.  Sleep Donation is only available electronically. 

 

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This Cake is for the Party is a collection of short stories, which does not feature a story with the cover title.  Ironically, the title is what drew my eye to the book.  The book is a collection of stories that unfold during dinner parties, coffee and glasses of wine and more.  The broader theme is the ups and downs of relationships both starting and ending.

Like all good short story collections, the pleasure is in being able to finish a complete tale in one sitting but also leaving you wanting more.

This Cake Is for the Party was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book in Canada and the Caribbean, and it was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize. Selecky is a writer and creative writing teacher who lives in Toronto.  She is currently working on a novel based on one of the characters from This Cake is for the Party.  She won't say  when it will be done -- how smart!

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Billy Flynn's Long Halftime Walk
Ben Fountain
2012

The battlefield in Ben Fountain's novel is Dallas Cowboy Stadium circa the early 90s.  The stadium, the NFL, Texas, Hollywood and corporate America are all sets where Billy Flynn tries to make sense of a recent firefight in Iraq that has made him and his surviving squad members celebrities.  They are on a "victory" tour, propped up to give voters a reason to support a war that is not going well.

The clever conceit of the book is to juxtapose the obscenity of war against the excess of American consumerism.   The Thanksgiving day stop at the stadium is the final stop on their odyssey before they had back to the front.  They are dealing with the surreal atmosphere of home compared to the now known terrain of war.  Both are extremes.

"No one spits, no one calls him baby killer.  On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same.   There's something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes from the deepest need.  That's his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms and corporate VPs, they're all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year."

The book is told from Flynn's point-of-view as he mourns lost "brothers," while reshuffling the place his own family plays in his life.  It all matters and yet it's a lot to process.

I started this book as a download from the library and since I didn't finish, I had a choice to make.  I needed to know how the story ended, so I bought the e-version. This short trip brought home the strange isolation of war -- for everyone involved.

This book came to my attention via the WSJ on-line book club.  The discussion was led by The Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini.  Their May choice is Patricia Highsmith's Deep Water.  The discussion will be led by Gillian Flynn, who wrote Gone Girl.

Ben Fountain is the author of a short story 

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The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
Gabrielle Zevin
2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a sweet little novel that doesn't make you work too hard.  There are a few twists and turns in the plot, much like life.  But all in all it's like a nice cup of tea--a perfect break in a hectic day.

The story follows Mr. Fikry, who owns an independent bookstore somewhere off the coast.  He is cranky and justly so.  His wife died in a car accident, and his life savings were stolen.  The Storied Life focuses in A.J.'s return to the living.  He is helped by friends, family and a bit of perseverance.

Each chapter of the book begins with Fikry's review of classic short stories, which is his preferred genre.  They also function as advice to his daughter.

Gabrielle Zevin's novel likely won't satisfy the book club.  Nothing terribly controversial here.  And, most readers won't find it surprising that Zevin has successfully penned a couple of young adult novels.  But the story would make a nice gift for a friend, young or old, who loves books.

Gabrielle Zevin is a novelist and screenwriter, who proudly started her career as a music critic for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel.  She is probably best known for the young adult novel Elsewhere, which has been translated into 20 languages and was nominated for a Quill award.