Author: Edward Belfar
Genre: Fiction (Short Stories / Kenya / Bi-national / Marriages / Relationships / Divorce
Publisher/Publication Date: Stephen F. Austin University Press (6/5/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Did I finish?: I did.
One-sentence summary: Fifteen stories charting the shifting emotional landscapes of middle aged men: in marriages, out of marriages; working, unemployed; in the US and abroad; sad, miserable, and everything in between.
Reading Challenges: Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: Ish. I hate the font for the title, but I like the rather stark background image -- harsh and weathered, a bit like the lives of the people Belfar writes about.
First line: My search for Billy Kapanka had led me as far west as Columbus, Ohio, where, until a few weeks before, he had worked in a Denny's as a fry cook and rented a furnished room., from 'Errors'
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy, if you like fiction that doesn't always have a hopeful ending, armchair escape (Kenya, mostly, or Rome), and the frustrated ruminations of disappointed adults.
Why did I get this book?: The tile -- I suffer from wanderlust myself!
Review: This volume of 15 short stories are unvarnished moments of disappointment, disgrace, and disgust, feature men entering or exiting marriages, suffering through the long, dirty decline of their life after one or more poor life choices, and the wistful nostalgia of what was (or never was, but could have been). Set in urban Kenya (usually Nairobi and the suburbs), the hospital, or the scummy pits of a rent-a-week room in the city, the mood is a little dark, a little dirty, bitter, wry, nostalgic, gently sad, or savagely angry.
I wasn't sure what I was expecting, but while reading, I was surprised to find I enjoyed the stories. The 'voice' in these stories is very straight and male, which is an unusual tone in my reading, and while I found the way Belfar portrayed women to be flat, it fit with the mood of his angry, hurt protagonists. Hysterical in their own way, these characters are fitful and resentful, tired and resigned; they're mired in their anger, self-pity, and regret, and can't see a way out. Belfar expressed that in a way that hooked me.
According to the back blurb, one of Belfar's stories, "Errors', was a winning entry in the Sports Literature Association's 2008 fiction competition. I'm not a sports fan, and I contemplated skipping the story entirely. I didn't, and I'm grateful, as it is a standout in the volume. The potentially tired premise -- a down-and-out former baseball player undone by one very stupid mistake is chased down by a journalist -- became a very poignant look at our passion and hatred for athletes. Given the current climate on bullying, it was a surprisingly emotional piece (for me), and I'm glad I didn't give it a pass!
Those interested in Kenya will especially like this volume. As I learned in an interview with the author at Booklover Book Reviews, Belfar's wife is from Kenya and they often visit, which explains the frequency with which Kenya shows up. Reading about modern Nairobi is unusual for me, and it was a great surprise armchair escape.
My one tip is to not read the stories in this volume back to back (as I did) for Belfar's repeated use of certain phrases will jump out and grate. (Every decrepit abode has 'fuzzy orange and black mold' for example; the harridan ex-wives all pull out their hair in a violent nervous tic.) Otherwise, I have no complaints: I was pleasantly surprised and greatly diverted with these stories, and it was revealing to see marriage (and the end of marriage) from a different viewpoint.
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