Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Book Review: "Cities I've Never Lived In: Stories" by Sara Majka

I find books in so many different ways—I hear about releases getting particular hype or buzz, I see someone else reading something that intrigues me so I need to check it out, or I receive a recommendation from someone whose opinion I trust. Interestingly enough, I first heard of Sara Majka's emotional, intriguing new collection, Cities I've Never Lived In from Amazon when I picked up Amy Gustine's fantastic You Should Pity Us Instead, which I read last month, and then I heard some praise from the talented Garth Greenwell, whose exquisite What Belongs to You absolutely blew me away.

So needless to say, I had a lot of expectations coming into Majka's collection, and it definitely didn't disappoint. The characters in her stories are all at some kind of crossroads, whether they are struggling with a relationship or with loneliness, trying to determine what the next step is in their lives, or finding a reason to soldier on in the face of a crisis. Some of the stories are a little bleaker than others, some don't end as definitely as others (but isn't that just like life itself), but all pack an emotional punch and really make you think.

What struck me most about Majka's stories, even more than how they made me feel, is how beautifully they're written. Here's just one example:
"How strange we are. How different we are from how we think we are. We fall out of love only to fall in love with a duplicate of what we've left, never understanding that we love what we love and that it doesn't change."
A number of stories are interconnected, featuring a woman recovering from a divorce and trying to deal with life on her own. She travels to different and unusual places, and recalls the unique situations she has found herself in and the people she has met. There are 14 stories in this collection, so there are a number of stand-alone stories as well.

Among my favorites in this collection were: "Saint Andrews Hotel," about a man who was committed to a mental hospital as a young boy and whose family vanishes when the island they were living on off the coast of Maine disappears, yet years later he is convinced people he once knew have reappeared; "Strangers," which tells of a man caring for his grandchildren after his son disappears, to allow his daughter-in-law to work in a different place during the week, and the way his life changes from this relationship; "Reveron's Dolls," the first in the series of interconnected stories, in which the narrator is coming to terms with life after her divorce; and "Maureen," about how a bartender overcomes tragedy.

Not every story worked for me; I found a few of them a little too vague and I wasn't really sure what they were trying to convey. But ultimately I was tremendously taken by Majka's storytelling ability and her use of language, which made this a collection worth reading.

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