SHORT STORIES FROM 2020

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 marvelously done, 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?

FIRST LINE FRIDAYS

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.

Goodbye to an Old Friend

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.

FRIDAY FIRSTLINERS

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.”

Gotcha!

MAY IS SHORT STORY MONTH

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.

INTERPRETER OF MALADIES by Jhumpa Lahiri(1999): A Review

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.”

I highly recommend this book.

CRYSTAL CLEAR, A novelette by Aiden Reid: A Review

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 crystal is 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!

DRINKING COFFEE ELSEWHERE: A REVIEW

ZZ Packer’s 2003 publication, a collection of short stories, is as important and enlightening today as the year it was published. It makes a good pick-up-and-put-down read as do most short story collections, but it has a quality about the writing that makes it special. In many of the stories “That Old-time Religion,” beloved by many of our grandparents and beloved still in many predominately African-American churches is presented through the author’s beautiful story-telling style. As Alex Hailey expressed in a quote from Roots, included in the book,

“Join me in the hope that this story of our people can help to alleviate the legacies of the fact that preponderately the histories have been written by the winners.” The people in Packer’s stories are not losers; they are the over-commers. Some stories end happily, some sadly, but all are dealing with awakenings and the power they have over the individual, who, in turn, gains the power to overcome.  The stories teach us that prejudice comes in many forms; that loss of faith is a searing loss; that friendships and sisterhood can help us overcome almost anything; and that Civil Rights deal with everyone’s rights.

Some of my favorite stories were “Speaking in Tongues”; “Doris is Coming,” which dealt with the predicted end of the world New Year’s Eve 1961 (I remember well that prediction.); and “The Rapture.”

Jo Jo Moyes’ PARIS FOR ONE And Other Stories: A ReviewJo Jo

This 2016 novelette with eight other equally delightful shorter stories was an impulse pick up at the local Library, partly because it was in big print, and partly because our Third Tuesday Book Club had read Jo Jo Moyes once (maybe twice) upon a time.

Nell, who is twenty-six years old plans a mini-trip, more of a romantic weekend, to Paris for her and her boyfriend, only to discover upon arriving at the airport that he is a no-show. She has never traveled out of the country and has never traveled anywhere alone. Nell decides to go it alone, and we follow her on the “most adventurous weekend of her life. Like many of Moyes’ novels there IS a “happy-ever-after-ending” but not necessarily the one the reader expects, and the plot takes many twists and turns to get there.

The other stories were equally as good, some extremely short, and not all had “happy endings.” My favorite was “Crocodile Shoes,” which posited that just as “clothes make the man;” shoes make the woman.”  Some stories were ones of long-time married women given the chance at something “more,” and the decisions of whether to grab them are varied and interesting. The book is “funny, charming, and unmissable,” just as advertised on the cover. It is Moyes at her best–a MUST for fans.  Clever!

ASTRAY by Emma Donaghue: A Review of a Short Story Collection

As I read the stories in this 2012 published collection, several seemed familiar, and I finally realized where I had originally read them. I had encountered them in The New Yorker over a period of time. Although I did not recall the author’s name, her style and type of topic her stories are based on was what rang a bell. Many of the stories are based on newspaper clippings or snippets of history.

The Houston Chronicle referred to it as “one of the best books of the year” in 2012, and every story is of “New Yorker quality”, whether a longer piece or a very short, short story. The book is divided into three sections: “Departures” (My favorite of this section was “The Widow’s Cruise” where a scheming lawyer decides to take advantage of a grieving widow, only to have his plan boomerang on him.), “In Transit” (My favorite of this section was “The Body Swap” which tells of a little known plan to steal and hold for ransom Abraham Lincoln’s corpse.  Its denouement is a humorous, “gotcha” ending which made me chuckle.), and “Arrivals and Aftermaths,” more or less miscellaneous stories (My favorite  of this section was the shocking and true story, “Daddy’s Girl.”).

The author chose her title expressed in the front from a thought in Virgil’s Aenid:

“…We wander, ignorant of men and places,

And driven by the wind and the vast waves.”

Indeed, all of the characters in all of the stories have gone adrift or “astray” in some way or another.

It is a masterful collection.