Separate Kingdoms

Separate Kingdoms

3.5 2
by Valerie Laken

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“A work of daunting versatility and technical skill, the product of a writer absolutely at home in the language and working vigorously within both new and old forms.” —Michael Byers, author of Long for this World and The Coast of Good Intentions 

From Pushcart Prize-winner Valerie Laken, author of Dream House,

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“A work of daunting versatility and technical skill, the product of a writer absolutely at home in the language and working vigorously within both new and old forms.” —Michael Byers, author of Long for this World and The Coast of Good Intentions 

From Pushcart Prize-winner Valerie Laken, author of Dream House, comes a riveting short story collection charting the divisions and collisions between cultures and nations, families and lovers, selves and others in the United States and Russia. In the tradition of Lydia Peelle, Barbara Johnson, and David Mitchell, Laken creates incisive and illuminating portraits of characters coping with loss, estrangement, and disability, confined by their circumstances to separate kingdoms of the heart.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The stories in Laken's capable follow-up to Dream House are divided among the experimental and the straightforward, the hopeful and the wistful. Laken visually splits the title story on the page: one side sees a removed narrator recount a man's coming-to-terms with the loss of his thumbs, the result of "a coffee-and- ephedrine buzz" and the bypassing of safety regulations at his manufacturing job; the other side tells the story from the perspective of the man's 12-year-old son. Other stories, too, focus on divided perceptions, though with less visual flair. In "Before Long," set in the Russian countryside in 1993, Anton, "twelve and blind," longs to feel useful to his older friend, Oleg, and tries to buy a pornographic magazine for Oleg's collection while on an outing with his overbearing mother. In "Family Planning," Josie and her girlfriend, Meg, travel to Moscow to adopt a child, but when they are given a choice of orphans, the women unexpectedly confront their divergent hopes and expectations. If all this sounds bleak, Laken keeps the misery in check, even as she excavates the split between people, cultures, and generations. (Feb.)
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[Laken] can turn out finely wrought observations on people’s miseries and bad choices like she grew up at Chekhov’s knee. But she brings some extra juice, both playful and serious, to these eight tales. . . . A national talent.”
Library Journal
In this second offering (after the well-received Dream House), Laken presents stories set partly in the United States and partly in Russia (where the Pushcart Prize winner has lived and worked). The stories capture ordinary people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. A group of American exchange students are trapped in the new Russia as the Soviet Union is crumbling. A lesbian couple visits a Russian "baby home," hoping to adopt a child. A woman who lost a leg in a car crash is pressured by her husband to enter a golf tournament for amputees. Another sits vigil at the hospital bedside of the father with whom she was never close. The title story is told in two voices, presented side by side on the page and occasionally blending into one story for a line or two. The first half is the third-person story of Cole, holed up on a couch in front of the television and dealing with the effects of a devastating industrial accident. The parallel story is the first-person account of his 12-year-old son, Jack, struggling with neighborhood gossip about his father's injury, as if ordinary adolescent angst weren't enough. It's a challenging but rewarding read. VERDICT Vivid and evocative, these stories will appeal to readers of both popular and literary fiction.—Debbie Bogenschutz, Cincinnati State Technical & Community Coll. Lib., OH
Kirkus Reviews

Loss, temporary and permanent, physical and emotional, is the hard, gleaming thread tying together Laken's (Dream House, 2009) short-story collection.

The book opens with "Before Long," in which a blind Russian teenager's feelings of helplessness and his comprehension of his isolation are reflected by his developing sexual awareness. In "Spectators," Arnie and Marion, a long-married couple, confront Marion's loss of her leg when Arnie encourages a reluctant Marion to participate in a golf tournament for amputees. A forlorn neighborhood in Detroit is the scene of "Scavengers," and a nameless young man, grieving the recent death of his father, finds himself inveigled into renting a bedroom to a troubled young woman who appears on his doorstep. One of the most affecting and powerful narratives is "Family Planning," wherein a childless lesbian couple journeys to Russia (where Laken has lived and worked) to begin an adoption. "God of Fire" finds a woman confronting her relationship with her strong-willed father as he rests sedated in intensive care following surgery for an aneurysm. The title story, concluding the book, is presented in the form of two columns per page. It becomes a double first-person narrative told from the perspective of a father and son, each struggling to cope with an industrial accident that has amputated the father's thumbs.

An absorbing literary exploration of the geography of loss.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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Separate Kingdoms 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
sandiek More than 1 year ago
A woman waiting in the hospital as her father lies dying. A man who is trying to help his wife regain her life after a horrible car accident that has taken her leg. Refugees trying to fit into the culture of another country. A man left behind in his parents' house as the neighborhood dissolves into poverty and decay. These are the protagonists in Valerie Laken's stories found in Separate Kingdoms. Each faces a challenge that separates them from others; each struggles to find a way to span the void and reestablish contact with those around them. Laken was born in Illinois and has lived and worked in Russia, Poland and the Czech Republic. Her work has appeared in journals such as Ploughshares, the Missouri Review, the Antioch Review and the Chicago Tribune. She has also written a novel, Dream House. She has won a Pushcart Prize, the Missouri Review Editors' Prize and two Hopwood Awards. Laken teaches at the Universary of Wisconsin. Readers interested in short stories will be struck by the stark beauty of Laken's stories. Her characters face challenges, some of them bodily, some of them isolation, but regardless of their bleak situations, a tendril of hope insists on growing and searching for connection and a better tomorrow. This book is recommended for readers of modern fiction and those searching for an answer to how others face the everyday challenges life throws at most of us sooner or later.
ReviewsByMolly More than 1 year ago
Okay. Let's see. This was different. This was not what I was expecting. This was not your average, every day quick read. It wasn't a long book to read. No, nothing like that. The author did a great job at breaking it done into eight different stories, but I didn't really grasp them like I wanted to. These short stories were, simply put, interesting. Families divided, so to speak. Divided by life's challenges. Divided by emotions. Simply divided, and trying to over come that great space between them. Taken between Russia and America, Laken creates these short stories with dark emotions. She creates them with everyday life issues and turns them into stories that aren't your normal stories. With stories like FAMILY PLANNING, about a lesbian couple in Russia trying to adopt....well that is one that, while interesting, wasn't one I would want to read again. Reading through these, expecting something different, well I can honestly say that I didn't really like any of them. They were too dark in their emotions and not what I was expecting at all. Sadly, I can only give book 3 stars. I, myself, will not be reading this one again. However, I can recommend this book to those who like the darker emotion filled stories. They are well written, but just not my taste.