Short and Sweet: The Means of Escape, by Penelope Fitzgerald

The May edition of Short & Sweet is coming to you earlier than usual.  If you’ve followed along, you’ll know I’ve worked my way through a pile of short stories, usually as bedtime reading.  This month I read The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald.  Or rather, I read half of it.  I have no idea why I had this book on my shelves, seeing as I really disliked Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize-winning novel, Offshore.  I should have known better.

The Means of Escape is a mercifully short collection of ten stories.  I read half of them before throwing in the towel.  The title story, where a woman helps an escaped convict in hopes of running off with him, was the best of the bunch.  One story, The Prescription, was so indecipherable to me that my notes just say, “???”.  The last story I read, The Axe, began with promise.  It took the form of a letter written by a manager who had recently made a long-time employee redundant.  Clearly he felt the decision was unjust and had sympathy for the employee.  But it took a sudden turn into very strange territory, and that’s when I knew I was done with this book.

This book was just too full of “quirky” characters and bizarre situations.  These might work better in a long-form novel, but encountering a new set every ten pages or so was just too much for me.

(DNF)

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Next month I’ll be reading The View from Castle Rock, by Alice Munro. Watch for the next installment of Short & Sweet!

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Short & Sweet: At the Owl Woman Saloon, by Tess Gallagher

Welcome to the March edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is my third month reading short stories, mostly at bedtime.  At this rate I can read a book a month, and mixing stories with full-length books works well for me. This month I read At the Owl Woman Saloon, which I ran out and bought after it was featured in Belletrista.

At the Owl Woman Saloon has 16 stories set primarily in the Northwestern United States.  Some deal with people who work in logging, a major regional industry, but themes of aging and widowhood a paramount.  Like most short story collections, some stories spoke to me in very direct ways, and stood out from the rest:

  • The Leper: this story recounts everyday events for a couple living in a seaside village.  Gallagher captures a moment in time without attempting to tie up loose ends.  The woman takes a phone call from a distraught friend.  Funeral flowers are mistakenly delivered to her home.  She watches horses swimming in the sea.  Small, ordinary and yet extraordinary occurrences all beautifully portrayed.
  • Coming and Going: Emily, recently widowed, is visited by a deputy Marshall looking for her husband regarding a legal dispute.  She directs him to where her husband has “relocated.”  I could feel her pain while also laughing out loud at her deception.
  • Mr Woodriff’s Neckties: A man observes his neighbors as one of them declines and eventually passes away.  A good deed brings a sense of calm.  I loved this story; it made me think about mortality and the importance of enjoying today because you never know what the future holds:

On Sundays I see her gathering these same roses, now that they’ve bloomed, to take to the cemetery. It makes me wonder if they both knew while they were planting them that this was out there in the future. Or maybe they were so involved with earth and root balls and whether the holes were deep enough that they didn’t trouble to think ahead, except that eventually there would be roses. Maybe their minds were mercifully clear of the future.  That’s what I hope, anyway.  (p. 148)

  • The Woman who Prayed:  the book ends with this powerful story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair, and handles the situation in a unique and admirable way.

Gallagher is first a poet, which is clear in her beautiful prose.  More than characters or plot, her stories are best appreciated by letting her words, imagery and metaphor wash over you.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Thing Around your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watch for the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Short & Sweet: Mrs Somebody, Somebody by Tracy Winn

Welcome to the February edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is the second month of a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories residing on my nightstand.  I’ve found the short stories to be perfect bedtime reading. Sometimes I can read a story in a single sitting, sometimes I need two bedtime reading sessions.  And before I know it, I’ve made my way through an entire book!  Now it’s become a habit.

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Mrs Somebody Somebody reminded me how much I love connected stories.  Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the book begins with the arrival of unions in Lowell’s textile mills.  Several years later, industry has died and the town’s demographics have changed dramatically. Characters wander through multiple stories.  Children reappear as adults.  A girl who featured prominently in one story is identified later only by the color of her shoes.  But the reader knows who she is.   These are gritty stories of life’s hardships: a man returns from the war and has trouble reconnecting with his wife.  Over the course of three stories, a little boy grows into a troubled man.  Immigrants struggle to make their way in American society.  The first and last stories are both about Stella, a mill worker turned hairdresser.  They wrap around the entire collection, providing a surprising but somehow fitting conclusion.

Mrs Somebody Somebody is an impressive debut effort.  If you liked Olive Kitteridge, you’ll like this book (and if you haven’t read Olive yet, then read that one too!)

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Next month I’ll be reading At the Owl Woman Saloon, a collection by Tess Gallagher.  I ran out and bought this after it was featured in Belletrista.  More in the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Review: Before you Suffocate your Own Fool Self, by Danielle Evans

This book is a collection of eight short stories with the unifying element of young, African-American or mixed race characters trying to find their way in modern American culture.  When I read short stories, inevitably some affect me more than others; this book was no exception.   The best of this bunch were:

  • Virgins: two 16-year-old girls, tired of small-town life, go clubbing in New York City and find themselves growing up a little too fast.
  • Snakes: Tara, a mixed race girl, spends a summer with her white grandmother and cousin.  She finds herself in the middle of long-standing family tension, and one small but dramatic act results in years of emotional pain.
  • Someone Ought to Tell Her:  Georgie, recently returned from Iraq, offers to babysit his ex-girlfriend’s daughter when her regular childcare arrangements fall through.  The arrangement fills an emotional void for both Georgie and the daughter, but ultimately results in a difficult conflict.

Unfortunately, in a couple of stories I found glaring factual inaccuracies which detracted from the author’s credibility.  Sometimes this completely ruins my reading experience.  In this case, I loved Evans’ voice, and her ability to quickly create pictures of her characters in my imagination.  I’m sure we will see more from this promising young author.

The Sunday Salon Review: Runaway, by Alice Munro

Good morning, and Happy Mother’s Day to those who are celebrating today.  I just finished a book last night, so this will be a combination Sunday Salon / Book Review post.  It was a pretty good week for reading, coming as I did off my first total clunker 0f 2010.  I finished two books, both very good.  The first was Let the Great World Spin, winner of the 2009 National Book Award.  Several days and another book later, I’m still thinking about the characters and their relationships with one another.  This was a very moving book, and yet I had difficulty writing a review that effectively conveyed the range of emotions inside (my review of Let the Great World Spin). All I can say is, read this book!

I also read Runaway, a collection of short stories by Alice Munro.  I’d intended to read it concurrent with Let the Great World Spin.  While I’m generally a “one book at a time reader,” I often enjoy reading short stories and/or essays alongside another book.  I find I enjoy them more if I allow time to digest and reflect on each one.  But I couldn’t tear myself away from Let the Great World Spin.  No problem, Runaway was still waiting for me when I was ready, and I made a point of setting the book aside, at least for a few hours, at the end of each story.  This book was on my list for the Book Awards Challenge (it won the Giller Prize), and it’s been sitting on my shelves forever.  Why did I wait so long?  My review follows.

Have you read any of Munro’s other short story collections?  Are they all this good?

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In this collection of short fiction, Alice Munro writes of love, betrayal, and missed opportunities. Runaway is comprised of eight stories, all with female protagonists.  Three of the stories are connected, focused on one woman’s relationships at three points in her life, several years apart.  In fact, unlike most short fiction I’ve read, nearly all of these stories take place over a very long period of time.  And yet they are taut and focused.  Munro has the short story down to an art form:  she develops characters, explores themes, and serves up well-crafted plots, all in about 40 pages.

I especially liked these two stories:

  • Silence:  Juliet, the main character in two previous stories, is now a middle-aged woman.  She has lost touch with her adult daughter Penelope, and feels betrayed by her silence.  In this story Munro also fills in details from the two previous stories, serving as a kind of dénouement for the trilogy.
  • Tricks:  When the story opens, Robin is a young nurse living in a rural area, with caregiver responsibilities for an older sister.  Every summer she travels to a nearby town to see a Shakespeare play.  One year she met a man, Daniel, who had immigrated to Canada from Montenegro.  They agreed to meet again the following year, but things did not go as planned.  The story then “fast forwards” to many years later, when both Robin and the reader learn what really happened.

Any of these stories would be much easier to write as a novel, where the author has seemingly unlimited words and pages at their disposal.  Munro’s ability to create such tension and emotion in short form sets her apart.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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Classics Circuit Review: The Ways of White Folks, by Langston Hughes

Welcome to The Classics Circuit Harlem Renaissance Tour!

One summer evening a few years ago, my family and I visited our local Dairy Queen.  We ordered ice cream and took our seats at a table.  On the other side of the restaurant, a group of students sat clustered around a few tables, in animated conversation with someone who appeared to be a visiting professor or lecturer.  As we enjoyed our ice cream, we noticed that every other customer who came into the DQ placed their order, and then left to enjoy their treats.  This seemed odd.  There’s no outdoor seating, nor is the scenery particularly fine.  And there’s a drive-through window for those who don’t intend to hang around.  Then my husband and I noticed something:  the customers taking their food outside were all white; the group of students were all black.  Could it be that people felt so uncomfortable in the presence of this group? We were shocked and disappointed in our “neighbors.”

Langston Hughes while attending Lincoln University (source: Wikipedia)

The students were from Lincoln University, “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent” (Education for Freedom, by Horace Mann Bond, 1976).   Today I’m featuring poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967), who came to Lincoln after a period of time abroad, and  graduated in 1929.  Hughes was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, using the written word to celebrate and raise awareness of working class black people.  He is best known for his poetry; one of my favorites is:

I, Too, Sing America

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

For the Harlem Renaissance Tour, I chose a short story collection by Hughes.  My review follows.

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The ways of white folks, I mean some white folks, is too much for me. I reckon they must be a few good ones, but most of ’em ain’t good — leastwise they don’t treat me good. And Lawd knows, I ain’t never done nothin’ to ’em, nothin’ a-tall.” (From Berry, p. 181)

This slim volume of fourteen stories explores the myriad of ways in which white people in America demonstrate prejudice against blacks.  Published in 1933, most of the stories take place in that time period, and are set in either New York City or the rural South.  In some the racism is overt and violent (think lynchings), but prejudice can be subtle as well.  Take, for example, the maid whose family keeps her waiting on Christmas Eve and then is unable to pay her full wages, never thinking of the impact this has on the maid and her young son.  Or the single woman living alone, who is so confused and conflicted by her feelings for the black janitor in her apartment building, that she is compelled to move.

There were no happy endings here.  Even the stories that satirize whites made me squirm more than smile.  In fact, I was able to read no more than 3 stories in a single sitting, and was glad I had other reading material close at hand.  Hughes writes well; the intensity was just hard to take.  And after a while, it even began to feel a bit repetitious.  The situations and characters were different, but the behaviors and outcomes were similar:  black characters were subservient, whites were either oblivious or overtly racist, and things always ended badly.  Readers may want to choose just a few stories to get the essence of this work; in fact, the first three are representative:

  • Cora Unashamed: a woman who has worked for a white family all her life.  She is treated somewhat respectfully, until she begins to speak out about a family member’s pregnancy.
  • Slave on a Block: profiles a white couple who “went in for Negroes … a race that was already too charming and naïve and lovely for words.”  This story was the most squirm-inducing for me.
  • Home:  a young violinist returns to Missouri after several years in Europe, and encounters prejudice he had not experienced abroad.  The ending is intense and difficult.

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Review: The Dew Breaker, by Edwidge Danticat

“The Dew Breaker” is a Creole term for “torturer,” an allusion to those who would use violence to shatter morning peace.   The dictatorships of François Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) were rife with oppression.  Mercenaries known as macoutes roamed the streets; hired assassins took care of those who were too outspoken.  This short story collection weaves together the lives of several Haitian immigrants in New York City, whose lives were affected by one particular “Dew Breaker.”

There are nine stories in this book; I found three especially good:

  • Book of the Dead:  a young woman and her father drive to Florida to deliver a sculpture to a famous Haitian-American actress.  The young woman learns of her father’s secret past.
  • Night Talkers: a young man returns to a Haitian mountain village to visit his elderly aunt.  Dany and his Aunt Estina survived a fire that killed his parents and blinded Estina.  Dany believes he has found the killer in New York.  The way he shares the story with his aunt, and the events that follow, make for a very moving tale.
  • The Dew Breaker: in the last story, we learn the torturer’s personal history and point of view.  Danticat manages to portray the villain as human and almost a victim, without excusing his crimes.  And there is some sense of hope when the man finds a way to break the cycle of violence.

While each story is well-written, the real power of  The Dew Breaker is in the subtle connections that knit together characters and events.  It requires focused reading; I frequently re-read passages from earlier stories to confirm the reappearance of a character.  This is a case where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

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