November Book Review: 'Likes'

Nov 10, 2020

The book “Likes” is great escape and a reminder of what’s real, and what’s not, in these unsettling times. Summit County Librarian Kirsten Nilsson, has this month’s KPCW Book Review.

You know, lately, with all our divisive national politics, racial tensions, a world pandemic and even murder hornets, I’ve really longed for some way to escape it all. And, as a librarian, you know I’m going to tell you that reading can take you lots of places, really anywhere you want to go.

Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s latest collection of short stories entitled “Likes” (as in the “likes” you get on Instagram) will do just that. It’s an escape to the familiar and the unnervingly unfamiliar at the same time. These stories have comforting whispers of the fairy tales of my childhood but with a vaguely unsettling dark, adult twist—just enticing enough to draw me in and keep me reading. The opening story “The Erlking” deals with a mom and her head-strong six-year-old daughter at an over the top enchanted private school fund raiser—I was immediately drawn in by the opening paragraph:

“It is just as Kate hoped. The worn, path, the bells tinkling on the gate. The huge fir trees dropping their needles one by one. A sweet mushroomy smell, gnomes stationed in the underbrush, the sound of a mandolin far up on the hill. ‘We’re here, we’re here,’ she says to her child, who isn’t walking fast enough and needs to be pulled along by the hand. Through the gate they go, up the dappled path, beneath the firs, across the school parking lot and past the kettle-corn stand, into the heart of the Elves’ Faire.”

This first story takes us gently by the hand and leads us down a darker and darker path through the other stories, where we find: a despondent woman who wanders into a stranger’s home that she’s fantasized about on her walks along the country road for a long time. She tastes a little bit of his breakfast that’s been abandoned on the table; she sits in his worn, comfortable chair. And then, through the wide picture window she glimpses a huge bear-like man walking toward the house just as he spots a woman he doesn’t know standing in his kitchen! This collection has several unexpected intruders. There’s a story about three best friends in sixth grade and the gradual intrusion of growing up and growing apart. And another story about an intrusive dad who reads his 12-year-old daughter’s Instagram posts—and then stops.

Bynum’s stories evoked strong emotions in me. I felt the angst and elusive longing of a teenager. The thrill and tumult of first love as well as the steadiness of mature love. I was also reminded of a few cringe-worthy parenting moments with my own children. The short story format worked well for me because I could get a complete, tightly constructed story in one sitting.

One critic called these stories “a nimble dance of lightness and gravity” another said that “stories in this collection lead the readers to feel nostalgic for experiences both lived and missed, alarmed and yet thrilled by the mysteries hidden in everyday moments, and above all, hopeful and grateful that there is no need to compromise: we can live as fully and expansively as these stories.”

And that’s exactly what I’m longing for now: being able to live fully and expansively after all of this unsettling uncertainty. Although I can’t find that now in my real life, I found it in “Likes.” And I think you can find it there, too. This book is available now for checkout at both the Park City and Summit County Libraries. This is Kirsten Nilsson from the Summit County Library.