…Notes on a short story collection I read in 2022 but never reviewed on PWR, so if you will indulge me, this one is too good to miss.
Oates is special to me because years and years ago, I heard her read from one of her books at the University of Houston. Never mind that it was probably her most boring book a non-fiction tome titled On Boxing, a history of and musings about the sport, in which I had no interest. Even her delivery was quiet and not particularly personable, but she was a famous author, and when I looked into her novels and short stories, I found out what a versatile, wonderful author she is. Over the years, I have read many books by Oates and now have to list her as one of my “favorites.”
This collection is about dark and deep themes, expressed in a lovely way; themes like suicide, abortion and vaguely disturbing feelings and thoughts . These things are handled in a way only Oates could. A longer story, almost a novella, is included about a young magazine writer who is given the opportunity to interview Robert Frost in his declining years. It is highly imaginative and written in a way that could cause some readers to believe it actually happened that way. Oates has a masterpiece here; it is suspenseful as it deals with women’s “place,” male chauvinism, authors’ egos, and independent young women who are “ahead of their time” in their thinking. I enjoyed it immensely, and would recommend this book on the basis of that story alone. I’ll bet Oates had fun writing it!
I took on this 2021 Challenge in January of 2022 because it was short, and I found the selected categories interesting. We are halfway through the year, and I am halfway through the challenge. I finished this week the first prompt, a book whose title contains a compound word. Barbara Kingsolver’s Homeland is a collection of short stories which showcases Kingsolver’s unique, captivating writing style.
The short story that the collection is named after, “Homeland” was my favorite because it is extraordinarily “different” from other stories I’ve read, It recounts the story of Gloria St. Clair and the things she learned from her “Great Mam,” her great-grandmother who came to live with Gloria’s family the last two years of her life. “…Great-grandfather Murray brought Great Mam from her tribal home in Hiwassee Valley to live in Kentucky, without Christian sanction, as his common-law-wife. According to Mother, he accomplished all this on a stolen horse. From that time forward Great Mam went by the name of Ruth.”
It was from Great Mam that Gloria learned about the “small people,” the mischievous clan that lived in the woods and were responsible for many unexplainable missing objects and strange pranks and happenings that occurred in the community. Kingsolver’s imagination and exquisite writing style shine in this story and in the collection itself. I thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering this author through the collection.
The other two categories I checked off earlier this year were:
…a book whose title included a person and their description–The Dependents by Katherine Dion, and …a season, Summer by Eudora Welty.
I have seldom read a collection of short stories when I wasn’t tempted to skip or skim some stories. This group of short stories are simply amazing. The prose is almost poetic and each story is a little golden nugget of power.
The stories I liked best were “Heist” and “Walter John Harmon,” both stories dealing with “religion.”
“Heist” is charactered by a priest and a rabbi. Thieves break into a small, poor Catholic church and steal the only thing of value, the large crucifix at the head of the altar. As the priest frets and fumes, he receives a call from a rabbi in another neighborhood, asking the priest to come to his apartment. When the priest arrives, the rabbi takes him up to the roof where the men find the discarded crucifix. The priest, while glad to get the crucifix is more interested in the rabbi and his family. The two men talk philosophically about this man named “Jesus,” and become friends. They decide to investigate and solve the mystery of who stole the crucifix. At the end of the story, the case remains unsolved, as do the many questions the two men hold about the differences in their respective religions. The philosophical discussions by the two men make for good reading and many thought-provoking questions for the reader to consider.
My second favorite story, “Walter John Harmon,” is set in a cult. Jim and Betty, newlyweds, have joined this cult founded by John Harmon, a Christ-figure, who takes the sins of his followers on himself so they might be freed and cleansed. Part of this cleansing is the rite of “purification” which most of the men’s wives and daughters undergo at the hands of John Harmon. Followers have lost count of the number of women and girls Harmon has slept with. At first when Betty is “purified,” Jim is “honored” his wife has been chosen, and the act only strengthens their marriage and bond. It only makes him love her more. However, as the years go by, and Jim works as a lawyer on behalf of the cullt’s many lawsuits and legal battles, his profession before entering the cult, and Betty teaches pre-schoolers, Jim becomes disenchanted by the number of times Betty requires “purification.” When John Harmon leaves unexpectedly and takes Betty with him, Jim takes things all in stride and becomes a figure of respect to the followers. How he takes over as leader and changes the cult makes for an interesting ending to the strange story.
Both stories are not your usual norm of short story, and interspersed with the interesting plots are philosophical questions and thoughts that make the reader think. Although this sounds “deep,” the stories are written in such an engaging way that the reader is caught up in them and literally can’t put this collection down except between stories so he/she can ruminate on the thoughts they present. This 2016 publication is reading at its very best.
The last short story collection I read in 2020 was The Last One Out Shut Off the Light by Stephanie Soileau, which was published this year. After reading the first two stories in the collection, I thought it was going to be a stereotyped look at Louisiana and its inhabitants. I remember years ago in Sunday school, Sam Brouillette, our director would tell “Boudreaux jokes,” stating that it was not politically incorrect because he was a Cajun himself. We looked forward to these, similar to dumb blonde or Aggie jokes, each week. However, I was not willing to read eleven stories that would put my Louisiana-born-or-bred friends down. What the book actually turned out to be was “a portrait of the last-chance towns of southwest Louisiana…” which is a “…place continually in flux.” It is a story of this region of the South and its people.
Many of the character studies, which are marvelouslydone, are dark, and many are humorous. The author leads us to understand that this region is “as much a state of mind as it is a place on the map.” I loved the hints at the Cajun language and the fact that we could “hear” the sounds with our “mind’s ear,” but in all cases understand what was being said.
One of my favorite stories was “Poke Salad.” A message, probably a phone call, from a dad to his daughter, goes something like this, “I walked through the flames, baby doll, and I survived.” It describes in humorous fashion a man’s near-death experience after eating poisonous greens.
“Mr. A,” another story is of a darker nature. It describes a pedophile, who leads a choir and acting troupe of 5-18 year-olds on tour throughout the region. “Mr. A, their gallant captain, their pied piper, small and dapper, straight-backed and trim extending an arm left or right to steer his trusty procession…” is an example of the wonderful writing throughout the stories. I enjoyed Soileau’s writing style as I read through the character-driven stories. My only complaint about this collection was that it ended too soon!
It’s about time to read another group of short stories. Any suggestions?
Both Hoarding Books and Wandering Words have First Line Friday memes. The idea is to copy the first line (or so) from what you are currently reading to see if someone else would like it too.
This is the first line from the second story “Big Driver” in Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars. “Tess accepted twelve compensated speaking engagements a year if she could get them.” Spoiler alert: The story includes a violent, graphic rape.
After reading “1922” about a man who murders his wife (see post last Friday, “Friday Firstliners”) and now “Big Driver” in which an innocent cozy mystery writer is brutally raped after speaking in a small town and taking a short cut home, I think I have had enough of this book. This is not the Stephen King who wrote The Stand trilogy or The Dark Tower series I admire as a favorite author because of his masterful writing style, but a writer who has nightmare ideas and jots them down as short stories. I think from now on I will stick to well-written novels like Mr. Mercedes or Dr. Sleep, which demonstrate the versatility and cleverness of King’s writing style rather than his weird short stories.
Where the book came from or how I came to own it is a mystery to me. My first memory of it was when I was teaching 7th graders back in the early 70s. I had read the book of short stories titled Read with Me myself and had read Daymon Runyans “Johnny One Eye” aloud to the kids after lunch, making some of the football boys tear up and put their heads down on the desk.
I then put the book in my classroom library where many students checked it out and took it home, only to return it a little worse for the wear. (Note old-fashioned envelope pocket that the “check out card” was placed in.)
Recently I dug it out of the back of the office closet and said to myself, “It’s time.” However, first I read a few of the stories I hadn’t read yet before placing it first on the classroom bookshelf and later on a shelf to be dealt with “later. However, its deplorable condition (not to mention its smell) called for stern measures.
This book brought good literature and much pleasure to both me and my students. Farewell, old friend, you’ve done your job and done it well.
I first saw the idea of First Line Fridays on Hoarding Books, then later on Wandering Words, both excellent blogs. One is to open a book and just copy the first line to see if it appeals to other readers.
Taking down a book from my TBR pile, I offer the first lines of the first story in Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars. The story is titled “1922.”
“My name is Wilfred Leland James, and this is my confession. In June of 1922, I murdered my wife, Arlette Christina Winters James, and hid her body by tupping it down an old well.”
I haven’t read a good book of short stories since receiving Jennifer Egan’s Emerald City two Christmases ago. So, in honor of National Short Story Month, I selected a book of short stories, Dreams Underfoot, by Charles de Lint that had been donated to me for my Little Free Library to read for the occasion. I was attracted to the cover which showed a pale, strange-looking young woman, barefoot, levitating above a coastal shore. It turned out to be, as the cover advertised, full of “myth, music, and magic.”
It is a book of urban fantasy or urban legends about otherworldly creatures who live among us in our villages, cities, and towns. Described as “neither a novel or a simple gathering of short stories…it is a cycle of urban myths and dreams, of passions and sorrows, romance and force woven together to create a tapestry of interconnected dramas, interconnected lives–[a] kind of magic…” The author’s style is poetical and magical–“twilight dreams [woven out of ] language and music.” Characters appear and disappear, popping up in one story, then another like old friends walking through the mists and fogs of our reading. It is not just escape reading but “deep mythic literature of our time.” The words and phrases and the unique characters: Jilly, the artist who “believes in magic;” Professor Bramley and his manservant Goon, a gnomelike figure; and the inhabitants of the music clubs, waterfronts, and alleyways of “… anywhere, anywhen… ” exist together in a time and place which suspends the reader’s imagination and beliefs with an otherworldly effect. One doesn’t just read the book, she experiences it.
This lovely collection of short stories by the author of The Namesake (I had seen the movie.) and The Lowland (a novel I greatly admired) was Lahiri’s “first book.” Maladies won the Pulitzer in 2000, and snippets of the stories in this volume had appeared in The New Yorker, so they sounded familiar, and I kept asking myself, “Have I already read this book”? The paperback appeared in my Little Free Library last month, and I have used it as a pick up and put down book to read in-between grading papers.
I couldn’t pick a favorite story if I had to. Some stories deal with husband-wife relationships with some couples young and newly married and others elderly and still in love or at least putting up with each other. LOL Most of the stories deal in some way with the sweeper of the property where they all live, which ties the stories together. A critic described the stories as “[the] emotional journeys of [Lahiri’s] characters seeking love” across several generations, different backgrounds, varied ethnicities and cultures.
The author’s style of writing is hers alone as she writes with a gentle, unassuming voice, especially demonstrated in dealing with the character of Mr. Kapsi in the namesake story, “The Interpreter of Maladies.”
Aiden Reid, author of Pathfinder and Sigil, both fascinating novels, has written a long short story or a short novel which is another story about the hero of Pathfinders. In the story, Stephen finds a crystal that has special powers that turn his life around and change him from a slacker/loser to a very successful person. How this is all accomplished, where the crystal came from, and what happens to the mysterious crystalis the focus to this attention-grabbing, interest-sustaining narrative. It is sci-fi at its best with bits of philosophy and life-lessons tossed in for good measure. It is a quick read, but one you won’t want to miss!