Sightseeing

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A Year in Reading by Andrew Saikali

This was the year I played catch-up. My failing as a reader has always been my near-total ignorance of contemporary authors (say, those that emerged in my own lifetime). That all changed this year thanks to some wonderful recommendations from my Millions cohorts. In no time at all I was transfixed by Alvaro Mutis (The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll) and captivated by Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex). I delved further into Ryszard Kapuscinski (Imperium), feasted on a trio of novels from the wonderful William Boyd (Brazzaville Beach, Blue Afternoon, Armadillo), and finally read Jonathan Franzen (The Corrections), Edward P. Jones (The Known World), and T.C. Boyle (The Tortilla Curtain). Most if not all of these have been written about by either Max or Emre so I’ll just echo them and say READ THESE.To this list I’d like to add one of my own. I was blown away, earlier this year, by the young Thai-American writer Rattawut Lapcharoensap and his short story collection Sightseeing. Set in Thailand, the seven stories present a vivid and engaging depiction of families and friends and day-to-day life. The locale is exotic, the sounds and smells permeate the pages, but the relationships are familiar, universal. It was a treat to read. [See also: Andrew’s review of Sightseeing]

A Year in Reading: An Emerging Best of List

Last year, Dan Wickett, proprietor of the Emerging Writers Network and its accompanying blog sent me his list of best books by emerging writers. The post was a big hit, and he was kind enough to share this year’s list with us. Enjoy:NovelsAmerican Purgatorio by John Haskell (interview, audio) – Haskell follows up his I Am Not Jackson Pollack with a page turner of a novel. He has adapted to the longer form with no problem at all.Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos (excerpt) – This is the debut effort by Dean, who has also published many excellent short stories in literary journals the past few years.Homeland by Sam Lipsyte (excerpt) – This one won’t be unfamiliar to LitBlog readers. Lipsyte’s paperback original has some great black humor and was well deserving of the attention it garnered.Bitter Milk by John McManus (excerpt [pdf]) – John’s debut novel after two well received short story collections, and it is quite original with a narrator that may or may not exist, and if he does, it could be in various relationships to the youth he narrates about.Belly by Lisa Selin Davis (excerpt) – Another debut effort, Davis takes an interesting look at how small to mid-size American towns are changing, or Walmartizing, in the 21st Century. That she doesthis and allows her readers deep into the relationships of a specific family is pretty impressive.Garner by Kirstin Allio (excerpt) – A winner from Coffee House Press – Allio writes of a small New England town and sets her tale nearly a century in the past. Her descriptions of the landscapes and the townfolk put her readers right in their lives.Last year’s list had two authors that were established, but not nearly as much as they should have been, in Steve Yarbrough and Percival Everett. This year sees a similarity with authors Lee Martin and Walter Kirn:The Bright Forever by Lee Martin (excerpt) – His second novel and sixth book (including a hard to find chapbook) overall, The Bright Forever is a stunning novel told in various points of view. A little girl disappears and Martin slowly allows his readers the full story – the anguish and honesty he is able to infuse his characters with as they spill this tale is incredible.Mission to America by Walter Kirn (excerpt) – Like Martin, not a newcomer, but a well-respected author who hasn’t received the sort of attention that he has with this latest effort which only boosts Kirn’s reputation as one of today’s better satirists. He takes on religion, new ageism, health nuts, and many others his latest.Short Story CollectionsSightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap (excerpt) – An excellent debut collection from this author whose name is sprinkled about in the story anthologies the past two years – Best New American Writing, BASS, O’Henry, etc.God Lives in St. Petersburg by Tom Bissell (excerpt) – Bissell lets his experiences in the Peace Corps and as a journalist lead him into many excellent short stories mainly set throughout countries formerly part of the USSR. The best in this collection will rival the best you’ll read this year.Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami (blog) – This collection, Lalami’s first, follows four Moroccans as they try to find what they hope will be better lives if they can get into Spain. The stories are very well written and the collection is set up very interestingly with the story of the attempted trip to Spain leading off, and then individual stories about each of the four characters Lalami concentrates on – first a story of each of their lives prior to the trip, and then a story of each of their lives after it.We’re in Trouble by Christopher Coake (excerpt) – Coake is a writer not afraid to tackle the longer story as this collection has a novella or two in it. He’s also not afraid to tackle heartbreak and sorrow, but does so in a manner that doesn’t beat his readers up. He gets right into the minds and feelings of his characters.Copy Cats by David Crouse (excerpt) – One of this year’s Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winners. The collection has some excellent stories, including the title story which leads it off, but the big winner is a stunning novella that leads me to hoping Crouse is working on something a bit longer like a debut novel to look forward to.Big Cats by Holiday Reinhorn (excerpt) – With her debut, Reinhorn slips into T.C. Boyle neighborhood – her opening lines completely grab the reader and let them know that the author is completely aware of her characters and their situations. The stories also tend to grab odd situations you hear of occasionally, but rarely read about, and use them to allow her characters to move their lives forward.Non-FictionOrphans by Charles D’Ambrosio – (excerpt) – This collection of essays has the bonus of being an interesting little book published by Clear Cut Press. Besides the different look, and pocket size, the book has D’Ambrosio’s writing which is frequently stellar. I found myself reading about religious haunted houses and mobile home inspections without being able to set the book down – a true testament to his writing. Beyond those couple of essays, there are some really interesting efforts that were previously published in a Seattle alternative newspaper about topics I’d be more inclined to read about.House: A Memoir by Michael Ruhlman Ruhlman continues as one of the best in the non-fiction genre these days, choosing a topic and writing about it, completely covering it and allowing the reader to appreciate it in ways they may never have considered. Following past efforts that took on single sex education, cooking, and wooden boats, this time around, Ruhlman writes of a 200 year old house in Cleveland that he and his wife purchase and restore.Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich (translated by Keith Gessen) (interview) – I don’t think I set this 300 plus page book down once after I started reading it. Alexievich, at danger to her own self, visited the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor and interviewed anybody she could find who would talk – people who had been firefighters, or relatives of residents who evacuated, those who didn’t, hunters of animals left behind, etc. It’s absolutely fascinating to read what happened, how people found out, and the various reactions to the news.One Last BookThe Bear Bryant Funeral Train by Brad Vice – Unless you already have a copy, or are willing to drop nearly a thousand dollars to obtain one, you’ll not get a chance to read this former Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award winner. The press recalled and pulped as many of the copies as they could (and it sounds like they got most of the small print run) due to what is being referred to as plagiarism in the opening story, “Tuscaloosa Knights.” It’s too bad something else couldn’t have been figured out as Vice is one helluva writer. If you look around, you can find many of the stories that are within the pages of the few copies floating around – at least two have been in the Algonquin Best New Stories of the South series in the past few years. A recent Five Points has the story, Mule, in it. The story that caused the trouble can be seen at www.storysouth.com (look for the link there to Thicket, where the story truly is located).{Ed: Dan recently responded to further allegations of plagiarism against Brad Vice at his blog.}

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap: A review

It’s a funny thing about expectations. They form so quickly, and often just as quickly, get shattered. Or else you’re forced to re-evaluate, and scale down those expectations to something more realistic. And you have to do it all in lightning speed so that, before the actual experience is over, you’ve salvaged some sort of enjoyment.But then every once in a while, on that rarest of occasions, the opposite happens. You pick up a newspaper, say, and read a glowing review of a young author’s first collection of short stories. Then you notice that he’s giving a reading in your very town four days later. The day comes and, well, you slink out of work early to get to the reading on time. Those expectations are beginning.You’re there at the reading and it goes off smoothly. The story he reads is engaging. Already you’re thinking “could they all be this good?”. Then during the break you chat with him and guess what – he’s gracious and affable – a truly likeable guy. Completely unspoiled.You take your signed book home. Part of your brain is already working double-time to counteract the hype. At the first hint of trouble, it’s ready to lower those expectations. Part of your brain is buoyed by the reading and the chat. The rest of your brain is simply confused and, well, a little bit annoyed that you haven’t cracked the spine yet.So you do. And as you enter the world of Thai-American author Rattawut Lapcharoensap, as he leads you deftly through the pages of Sightseeing, you begin to realize something. You begin to realize that he’s done it. He’s given you seven small perfect stories. Each one as transfixing as the last. And yet each one remarkably different from the last. And still yet somehow each one the product of the same, distinctive voice. You realize that he’s done it.”Farangs” is a story of a half-Thai, half-American teen, working with his mother at a hotel in Thailand, and his courtship of an American tourist. You meet tourists who (as tourists tend to do) behave at their worst, their basest. There’s a simmering hostility suggested between the locals and the farangs, and the first-person narration of this story (of all the stories) throws you right in the thick of it. There is an immediacy to the narrative. Very quickly you become part of the characters’ day-to-day lives.”At The Cafe Lovely”, where you meet a Bangkok family and again you’re plunged into their domestic life, in the author’s powerful and poignant prose you can see, even smell, the place. Kitchens become alive. (Your craving for Thai food will be insatiable while you’re reading these stories). You also see youthful rituals played out. And you’ll find that the unfamiliar is suddenly not all that unfamiliar.”Draft Day” places you in those tense hours leading up to the lottery to decide which young Thai youths will be sent into the army and which ones will be spared. The narrator’s family’s wealth and status suggests a possible reprieve but his best friend is not as certain of his fate, a brother having already been damaged by his time in the service. And Draft Day turns into a family affair. Domesticity leaves the kitchen and transplants itself in the waiting room.”Sightseeing”, perhaps at once the most heartbreaking and the most exhilarating of all the stories, finds the narrator and his mother becoming farangs themselves as they travel to a remote part of Thailand.”Priscilla the Cambodian” reveals some long-held preconceptions among Thai and Cambodian families, and how these feelings are more entrenched in the older generations than the young. This was the story you heard at the reading even though, five minutes before the end, you became a reader’s worst nightmare when you began coughing and wheezing uncontrollably. You tried to contain it. You failed.”Don’t Let Me Die In This Place.” A wheelchair-bound American grandfather’s tale of life with his son and Thai daughter-in-law in Thailand, seeing his “mongrel” grandchildren for the first time. Trying to see himself in them. This isn’t an exotic story. None of these are. The author places you in the center of their lives. Right into their normalness.And, finally, “Cockfighter,” the novella which caps the collection. Again placing you within a drama full of dreams and economic desperation, honor and dignity. A tale of that blurry line between vengeance and justice. You witness, first hand, the arc of a family crisis, all told from the point of view of the daughter in the family.Seven distinct first-person voices. Seven tales of the familiar among the unfamiliar. Seven stories told without a hint of gimmick. Just acutely-observed, slyly powerful storytelling from a literary voice you’ll want to hear more of. So then, expect whatever you want from Sightseeing. Rattawut Lapcharoensap will blow your expectations out of the water. Highly recommended.Read “Farangs” here.

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