I read Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations back in January, during a harsh winter I spent in the suburbs of Boston. I had just started drafting the first attempts at a story collection of my own, about displacement and being a stranger in one’s own home. It’s no surprise, then, that I’d been searching for the stories I wish I’d written, stories in which characters wonder: where did my life, my memories, my language, and home go?
My journey has inevitably colored my reading of Galchen’s text. In the strongest story in the collection, “Sticker Shock,” a mother and daughter grow apart. The mother, a real estate agent, wishes she could live in the well-lit apartment she’s selling to a Swedish client. Eventually, the client doesn’t buy the spacious studio with its tall windows and smooth floors, because it doesn’t feel “homey.” New York “is a city of compromises.” The implication is that if he doesn’t like the best place she could find in the city, he might never be satisfied anywhere. The final story, “Once an Empire,” finds a Brooklyn woman watching the contents of her apartment walk down the fire escape. These are characters who look for comfort in family and friends, living spaces, familiar objects from childhood, but, in the end, they find no answers — home is nowhere to be found.
In the title story, the narrator wakes up one day to find that her body has changed: now she has a third boob on her back. Her doctor considers what might have triggered her condition. He asks her, any “losses you haven’t accepted?” And the patient answers, “Not really. I mean, I’m far from home. But I guess we’re all far, right?” Right. The voices that narrate this collection are strong and, at times, distant. American Innovations begs the question of the limits of our bodies and the spaces they occupy.
I also admired Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas, which I read a couple of weeks ago during my commute to and from work. I was struck by the tenderness of these stories set against the unforgiving landscapes of New Mexico. “Nemecia” (which was eventually chosen for The Best American Short Stories 2013) is Valdez Quade’s tour de force, a vivid piece about family ties and community.
Of course I read many other books that are worthy of mention. These included Ferreira Gullar’s 60-page poem on exile, Dirty Poem (which I reviewed for another publication), Michael Dumanis’s My Soviet Union, a devastating poetry collection about a country that no longer exists, as well as Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary, a book that deconstructs language and exposes its violence.
As for works of nonfiction, I fell in love with Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks, an essay collection I’ve already read twice this year. Luiselli explores urban spaces, melancholy, and the very concept of home. “Perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave,” she writes. “All the other places we inhabit are mere gray spectrum of that first dwelling.”
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Out this week: The Animals by Christian Kiefer; The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos; A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell; The Lost Boys Symphony by Mark Andrew Ferguson; The Wisdom of Perversity by Rafael Yglesias; The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto; The Wednesday Group by Sylvia True; Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade; and Notes from a Dead House, a new Dostoevsky translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (whom we’ve interviewed). For more on these and other new titles, check out our Great 2015 Book Preview.