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First of all, I don’t know if there’s ever been a better book title than Godforsaken Idaho. Second of all, this story collection is fantastic.

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Shawn Vestal took advantage of what seems to be a great gift in the writing world–a Mormon upbringing–to put together nine stories filled with history, heaven and spiritual disappointment. The book kicks off with the story “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” which is a fresh take on the afterlife in which heaven seems, in many ways, just as bad as hell. It’s a feat of world-building and a great introduction to the collection.

I loved the story “Winter Elders,” although I feel weird saying that because it is not the kind of story one can actually enjoy–it is filled with tension and culminates in a horrible act that is the definition of “surprising but inevitable.” Despite the dim view the collection takes toward Mormonism, this story contains about the best description I’ve ever seen of why one might want to take part in organized religion. The protagonist recalls his baptism on page 112: “It was as  though a bright beam of joy was pulsing from the heavens into the core of the earth, threaded directly through him.”

I think my favorite story is “Families Are Forever!” Yes, the exclamation point is part of the title. The writing is fantastic, the characters are unique, the premise is weird and, best of all, it thwarts all expectations–or at least all of mine. The protagonist is a true fuck-up, and yet, at the risk of ruining something here, it seems like maybe everything will be okay for him.

The book ends with a series of stories concerning the early days of the Mormon church. I liked them, but liked them the least because they seemed less immediate, which is probably not surprising giving the time frame and subject matter. They reminded me a little bit of Claire Vaye Watkins’s more historical stories–the whole book reminded me of hers, actually, as well as Alan Heathcock’s Volt and Jesus’s Son by Denis Johnson (who wouldn’t want to read a book with hints of those in it, right?). It is not for nothing that Vestal won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction with this book.

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Incendiary Girls by Kodi Scheer is a collection of short stories linked thematically by the centrality of animals–horses, camels, gorillas–and the medical world–med school, hospitals, biology, illness. Often, these two threads are braided into the same story. Scheer seems to have gotten some of her expertise and ideas as a writer-in-residence at a cancer care center, which is something I’d like to know more about!

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I really loved the first story in the book, “Fundamental Laws of Nature.” It layers and integrates three generations of mother-daughter relationships, cancer, and horseback riding. The protagonist is a doctor, which gives her more information than is probably good for her, but her scientific background doesn’t prevent her from believing in magical impossibilities. It is beautiful, sad and very strange in the best way.

The second story, “Transplant,” takes the theme of illness and wraps it with questions about faith and religion. It walked a line between realism and magical realism–which was it?–and like the story before it, was beautiful, sad and strange.

Those adjectives apply to almost every story in the book, in fact. There were a few that were a little too much about their ideas to feel like real, fully-formed stories, but even those only paled in comparison to the best stories.

The last story in the collection, the title story, really surprised me in that it was about the Armenian Genocide. It didn’t veer so far from the rest of the stories that it felt out of place in the book, but it was totally different; it was told from the point of view of an angel of death. It’s hard to find the right way to write about atrocities like this, but by taking a truly outsider perspective and then zooming in on the story of just one girl out of the many who suffered, it really worked.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few months and am so glad I picked it up to finally read. What better combination is there besides beautiful, sad and strange?

I finally finished it! I went in to Middlemarch thinking that I would love it, because I’d heard from everyone that they did. I figured I’d finish it in a few weeks, in time for the next meeting of the Masochists and Classics book club (even though I couldn’t attend that day). Then, I started reading it and, after a couple chapters, stalled out.

What happened was that I really liked how the book began, with the sisters Dorothea and Celia. I was engrossed in their story and interested in their dynamic. But, when what I wanted was to see what was going to happen with them, the book left them–never really to return to Celia–and moved on to some other members of their community, then others, then others before swinging back to Dorothea. It’s not that the other people in the book weren’t fascinating in their own right, and the writing was still bright and funny, but the further I moved from Dorothea, the more anxious I got. What is going on with her? is what I wanted to know.

The book is more about a community, and themes of marriage and money, than it is about any one person, but I think Elliot set up such a special character in Dorothea that I couldn’t handle the story’s expansiveness. I almost gave up, but I don’t really give up on books so I went back in to finish it this past week and am glad I did. The last quarter of the book moved faster and was more fun than the first three quarters (excluding, of course, the Dorothea parts). Even though I wanted the book smaller (which is really not a surprise–I like small books) I could appreciate it in the end.

Shelly is one of the first people I met in grad school, and we’ve been touch ever since. For a while, we met up and wrote across from coffee shop tables from each other, interspersing gossip and work. Watching her collection emerge into the world has been a special thrill because of this. I remember it when it was still scrawled in her little notebook!

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New York 1, Tel Aviv 0 is a truly singular book. No one writes like Shelly. Some of this comes from, she has said, the fact that English isn’t her first written language. Is that why her sentence constructions are so interesting and the way she fits those sentences together into paragraphs and pages so unusual? Probably in part, but the particular tone and feel of the book comes mostly from Shelly’s sensibility. I think a little bit of using a sewing machine when I read her work. It’s little perfect stitch after little perfect stitch, and then hit the “reinforce” button, go backwards for a few stitches, then forward again. She will often make a statement, repeat it, and then write something like, “By which i mean:…” Constructions like this make for really neat structural elements and underscore the precision with which Shelly writes.

A few stories in the collection are very subtly speculative. In one, a fog is cleared by professionals in the wealthy parts of town, but left to devour the poorer sections. In another, a woman works as a “soaper,” washing people for a living, in a world where there are periodic stops in time. I love that these elements are presented in such a quiet, integrated, non-flashy way. When outrageous events like time-stoppages are presented as normal, there is more space for real-life elements–like the fact that all young Israelis are forced to serve in the army or that families are forced to move around during constant wartime, fearing for their lives–to stand out as strange. It’s easier to believe that people can sweep away fog than it is to believe that every eighteen year old in Israel is required to learn how to use an automatic weapon.

I loved all the stories in this collection, but my true favorite was “The Disneyland of Albany.” I don’t want to tell you what it’s all about because it would reduce it to its plot and it is irreducible. A father and his young daughter, who he doesn’t get to see very often, take a trip to the titular city so the father can take a meeting about selling some of his art to a big spender–see? That makes the story seems small when it is actually about so much more. It braids together the personal concerns of an artist, estranged husband, lover and father with some very political ideas concerning Israel in a way that is natural and surprising all at once. The daughter is used to heartbreaking effect without ever slipping into precocity. It’s really an incredible story, with an incredible title, too.

This is a special book and you’ve probably not ever read anything like it, which is as good a reason to pick it up as I can think of–click and buy, folks! Happy holidays.