Category Archives: Short Stories

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

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As they approach the gate Bethany thinks of the town, small and safe, awaiting their return. It is cloistered, claustrophobically familiar, but maybe—and her mother’s trembling hands return to her—mired with its own dark disturbances. It is its own kind of restive campground, in a way, its properties penciled upon common land, impinging on one another despite the fences meant to hold them apart. Huddled in that encampment are each of their families, steely cohorts within the greater clan.

Old Cranbury, CT is an older, well established suburb. In the historical part of town some of its homes date from the 18th century, and still carry the names of the families who built them. Residents of those particular homes take pride in preserving their piece of history, some of them maybe a bit too much. OC is a lovely place, a mostly middle and upper-middle-class suburb. Good schools, trimmed lawns. Unlike Chester’s Mill, Wayward Pines, Royston Vasey, or the Village, you can leave if you choose, but you will want to stick around at least long enough to get through the baker’s dozen stories about the local residents in The Wonder Garden.

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Lauren Acampora

There are plenty of weeds in Lauren Acampara’s linked-stories collection, but not the stories. The tales are flower-show ready. I imagine we have all read, seen or heard groups of tales about a particular town, or location. Our Town, Spoon River (yes, yes, I know, poems, not stories), Olive Kitteridge. Now, think hard. Were any of them yuck-fests? Didn’t think so. Ditto here. It is true that most of these stories show a less than lovely side of life in Old Cranbury. The sins are far from original. Disappointment permeates. But there are rays of sunshine as well. Change is possible, at least for some. Hopes may be dashed, but not all of them, and that there are plenty to go around gives one hope that in their imagined lives, some of these folks might live to see their dreams come true. Most of the characters are just trying to make the best of their circumstances.

It would not be a portrait of a town if the residents were not watering at least a garden-full of secrets.

she becomes aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane. Just beneath the surface of every defunct moment—finding a spot in the supermarket parking lot, waiting at a stoplight—lurks another moment, sexual, adulterous, waiting to be chosen. It shimmers faintly, a phosphorescent arc of lighter fluid ready to catch fire, detectable only to those attuned to it. She parks the car and watches the men and women going in and out through automatic the doors. Which of them are alight, secretly smoldering?

Unfaithfulness is to be expected. Some marriages are strained, while others, surprisingly, appear to be strengthened by big changes. How about wanting to violate all medical ethics to perform a very strange and intimate act? Maybe show the world the face of a concerned citizen but indulge in a bit of pointed vandalism? There is plenty of imposturing going on here. Maybe parenthood is not for everyone, including some parents? Maybe nurture fears that go well beyond the understandable? A sense of the past permeates as well. There is enough moral ambiguity through the thirteen to spark book group debates aplenty.

Unlike Olive Kitteridge, there is no single character serving as a trellis on which the stories can be strung like vines. But there is considerable back and forth. Characters are woven into and out of stories like threads in a tapestry. The author likes to introduce characters in one story and offer us their names elsewhere. Acampora admits that she inserted some of the connective tissue later on in the writing process, says the links “presented themselves” to her. It is the town itself that is the organizing structure. But there are some elements that repeat. Gardens appear in many of the stories, serving diverse purposes. Another element that struck me was the characterization of the houses of OC as particularly organic.

He intends to keep the bones of the house strong and its organs clean for decades to come, even as the skeletons of newer houses rise and fall around it.

These machines are the pumping heart of the house; everything else is frivolous and disposable in comparison.

The house is gigantic, encrusted with a dark carapace, as if diseased.

The exposed oak beams are strong as ribs along the ceiling of the first floor and the central chimney and hearth—spine and heart of the house—exude the smell of ancient smoke.

And there are more like these. On one level, one might even wonder, in a darker vein, whether people inhabit the town or if the town inhabits them. The homes, as might be expected, often reflect the lives of those who live within.

The language of the book is at times lyrical and compelling, more effectively so for the pedestrian circumstances in which it shines:

John meets the woman’s eyes again, the crystalline irises with nothing in them but confidence in the universe. He feels nearly dead in comparison, more exhausted by the moment, as if he were being depleted by her presence. It seems that there is a lack of air in this place, that the windows have been sealed shut for decades, since the long-ago children were last measured. A slow moment elapses. In the space of this pause, John feels the breath of the past, the cumulative exhalation of the house and its lost inhabitants. They seem to gather in the basement’s webbed corners, fuzzed with dust and dead skin. It strikes him that this is a last capsule of memory, that when it is swept and painted, the raw floor carpeted and windows unstuck, no trace of life will remain. The history of the house will persist only in the memories of its former residents, those far-flung stewards of dwindling, inexact images.

The characters that populate Acampara’s thirteen tales are quite well realized, particularly so, considering the short form involved. The Wonder Garden is a powerful, beautifully written work of fiction. I am sure the horticultural society will approve.

Review posted – 6/12/15

Publication date – 5/5/2015

I received this volume from GR’s First reads program – thanks guys
It was first recommended to me by my good, much younger, GR pal – Elyse. I am in your debt.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

The Wonder Garden found its origin in The Umbrella Bird story. Acampora completed a novel, from the perspective of the wife, Madeleine, but thought it was just not good enough. The Umbrella Bird in this collection is the primary remaining nugget from that project. Some of the supporting cast from the novel show up in the collection as well.

Acampora grew up in Darien, the inspiration for The Stepford Wives, so knows her suburban towns. In visiting Darien as an adult, she found that the houses seemed almost like characters.

Here is an audio interview from The Avid Reader. Beware, though. The sound quality is poor, as the host’s volume is way higher than the author’s so you will have to keep turning the volume way up and way down to keep from being knocked out of your seat.

The author in an exchange with Lily King on B&N

Here is one complete story from the collection, The Umbrella Bird

The Wonder Garden was an Amazon Book of the Month selection for May, 2015

=======================================THE STORIES

Ground Fault – John Duffy is a building inspector with a perceptive eye, and a willingness to let life’s disappointments affect his work. He could probably do with a bit of self-inspection.

Afterglow – Harold, a wealthy corporate raider, wants to be a part of his wife’s brain surgery in an unusual, and very intimate way

The Umbrella Bird – David is fed up with his corporate nine-to-five. Fixated on building a tree house for his expected child, he finds a very different muse, and his life goes in a brand new direction.

The Wonder Garden – Rosalie is a very involved, mother hen of a parent, with children in several grades of the local school. She sits on boards, hosts an exchange student, but there might be a serpent in her garden.

Swarm – Martin, a tenured professor at a state university, is offered the chance of a lifetime to create an art project that would make up for the decades in which he had had to put his art aside. But what might the cost be for realizing this dream?

Visa – Camille is a single mother who has found an amazing guy. They plan a wondrous vacation together. Can he possibly be for real?

The Virginals – Roger and Cheryl Foster live in an 18th century house. They are heavy into the Revolutionary War period, trying to live as much like those earlier Americans as possible. But the new owners of the period house across the way do not seem quite so enthusiastic. What’s a good neighbor to do?

Floortime – Career woman Suzanne Crawford is the single mother of a boy who appears to be on the autism spectrum. This would present a challenge to most parents, but if one’s maternal instincts are on the low end, the problem looms larger.

Sentry – when her neighbor’s child is left unattended for a prolonged time, Helen Tanner invites her in, to hang out a while, then a while longer, then…

Elevations – Mark and Harris own an antiques shop. They share a lovely home. But they may want different things out of life.

Aether – Some young people from OC are at a music festival when something goes terribly wrong.

Moon Roof – Lois Hatfield, on her way to a party thrown by her husband’s boss, gets caught at an intersection and cannot decide when to go.

Wampum – uneasy at a party thrown by the local one-percenters, Michael succumbs to a bit of paranoia, with dangerous results.

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Filed under Fiction, Reviews, Short Stories

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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The monsters in our cupboards and our minds are always there in the darkness, like mold beneath the floorboards and behind the wallpaper, and there is so much darkness, an inexhaustible supply of darkness. The universe is amply supplied with night.

There is a diversity of material in Neil Gaiman’s third and latest collection of short fiction, Trigger Warning. It is a potpourri of twenty four pieces, if we take as a single piece the entry called A Calendar of Tales, which, itself, holds a dozen. They are not all, despite the collection title, dark or frightening. He brings in some familiar names, David Bowie, Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who, Maleficent, Snow White, a traveler from other Gaiman writings, Shadow Moon, twists endings into satisfactory curls for the most part, wanders far afield in setting and content, well, within the UK anyway, tosses in a few poems for good measure, and even offers up a few chuckles. He is fond not only of science fiction as a source, but of Scottish and Irish legends as well. If you are not smitten with the story you are reading at a given moment, not to worry, there is another close behind that is certain to satisfy.

Gaiman is overt in noting the absence of connective tissue among the tales. But there are some themes that pop up a time or three. Living things interred in walls, whether after they had expired or not. A bit of time travelling. Fairy tales are fractured. Favorite writers are admired.

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Neil Gaiman – Photo by Kimberly Butler – on Harper Colllins site

In the introduction, Gaiman tells us a bit about the origins of each of the 24, a nifty item to check back on after one has read them all. Some of the material has been developed for other media. I added a link at bottom to a more-than-text offering re the Calendar of Tales, for one.

Overall I found Trigger Warning is a pretty good survey of Gaiman’s impressive range. He seems able to realize the dreams of the alchemists by transforming what seems every experience he has and every notion that crosses his interior crawl into gold. And some of the stories here are glittery indeed.

I quite enjoyed the collection. The uplift of the best more than made up for the downdraft of the lesser. If you enjoy fantasy, with a good dollop of horror, you could definitely give it a shot.

=======================================THE STORIES

1 – Making a Chair – a poem about the writing process.

2 – A Lunar Labyrinth – a tribute to Gene Wolfe – a traveler who enjoys roadside oddities is brought to a maze that is brought into a form of darkness by the full moon.
Here is a link to a site that will clue you in on roadside oddities in the USA. There is a book on such things for the other side of the pond, but I did not find a comparable link

3 – The Thing about Cassandra – An imaginary connection becomes real, with a delicious twist

4 – Down to a Sunless Sea – an abominable feast, but with some just desserts

5 – The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain – A not wholly human dwarf engages a local man to lead him to a cave reputed to be filled with tainted gold – I could not get the image of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister out of my tiny mind while immersed in this one. Sometimes the truth hurts.

6 – My Last Landlady – the rent is definitely too damn high

7 – Adventure Story – a bit of fun guaranteed to make you smile

8 – Orange – A teen who thinks she’s all that may indeed be – another smile-worthy item

9 – A Calendar of Tales – I won’t go into each – the collection was written from ideas received on-line. I found it a mixed bag, with March (Mom has a big secret), August ( a tale of fire and foolishness), September (a magic ring with the quality of a bad penny), October (a sweet tale, involving a Jinni), and December (a hopeful time-travel piece) my favorites

10 – The Case of Death and Honey – a fantastical tale in which a certain Baker Street resident takes on the mystery of death itself

11 – The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury – a tribute to Gaiman’s mentor

12 – Jerusalem – on one of the dangers of visiting the city

13 – Click-clack the Rattlebag – stories can be scary, regardless of the age of the teller

14 – An Invocation of Incuriousity – a time-travel piece – don’t touch the settings

15 – And Weep, Like Alexander – one possible reason why we do not have some of the futuristic inventions we expected long ago – cute, not scary

16 – Nothing O’Clock – a Doctor Who tale with a timely solution

17 – Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale – a fable with a moral

18 – The Return of the Thin White Duke – the completion of a story begun and abandoned while back for a magazine project on Bowie

19 – Feminine Endings – beware of street statue-performers

20 – Observing the Formalities – Maleficent as narrator of a poem about proper forms

21 – The Sleeper and the Spindle – A fairy tale with a nice twist

22 – Witch Work – a poem on the limits of witchy magic

23 – In Relig Odhrain – a poem on a saint who suffered an awful demise

24 – Black Dog – Shadow Moon stops in an ancient pub and is drawn into some serious darkness, scary fun.

Review posted – 3/20/15

Publication date – 2/3/2015

This review has also been posted on GoodReads

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Tumblr and FB pages

Here is a link to his separate blog

For a full-on media-rich offering the Calendar of Tales piece in Trigger Warning can be seen here

Harper has an on-line reading guide

Other Gaiman books I have reviewed
The Graveyard Book
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Stardust

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Horror, Short Stories

A Permanent Member of the Family – Russell Banks

book coverGiven the unsettled nature of the families in Russell Banks’ dozen stories, the title of his sixth short story collection, A Permanent Member of the Family, might have a bit of an ironic aroma to it. Marriage is, if anything, impermanent here. The title character in Former Marine had to raise his boys alone after their mother took off. Philandering, while not depicted, is noted as causative in the demise of several other relationships in the collection. And even when a marriage has not dissolved, it is often shown to be or to have been threadbare. There are a few stories where things marital are not seen, Blue, The Invisible Parrot, but the tendency is to the sorry state of home and hearth. It is not surprising that marriage has such a central place in the author’s work. His current marriage is his fourth.

all of us were fissioned atoms spun off nuclear families, seeking new, recombinant nuclei

Lines are drawn, and crossed. They separate before from after, denial from acceptance, uncertainty from realization. In Christmas Party, for example, a man is invited to the home of his ex and her husband for a party, and his underlying humiliation and rage must find an outlet before he can cross over from before to after. A singular event in the title story defines the place where the stretching of connections snaps.

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Russell Banks – from Wikimedia

The characters here often face moral choices, a favorite concern of Banks. Faced with financial stress in his old age, a Former Marine must make difficult decisions in order to be able to continue providing for his children, and later, in order to protect them. In Lost and Found, a businessman at a convention is confronted with the time when he brought a woman who was not his wife to his hotel room, and the decision he faced then. In Searching for Veronica, a woman confronts the guilt she felt for turning out of her home someone who was at great risk in the larger world. The choices are never black and white.

Banks sets his stories largely in the upstate New York town of Keene, his current residence, near Lake Placid, and Florida, his other current residence, so his descriptions of place ring with authenticity. He has a background as a politically concerned sort (he tried joining Castro’s revolution, despite not knowing how to speak Spanish, but got no farther than Florida) and his appreciation for the struggles faced by working people is never far. He had a working class upbringing himself.

I think I inevitably end up feeling a special kind of sympathy for people whose lives are shaped and controlled and manipulated by people with more power than them. – from Harpers article

It is also pretty clear that he holds a less than fond opinion of the media, whether the whores are the media professionals or those who would use them to personal ends, as shown in Blue.

Banks has achieved a status as one of the top writers of his generation, with a dozen novels to his credit, including Continental Drift, Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter and Lost Memory of Skin. A Permanent Member of the Family is his sixth collection of short stories. I found these tales to be extremely well told. There are ironic twists, as every writer of short stories must have at least a bit of O Henry DNA floating about. Banks won an O Henry award for his short story collection Searching for Survivors. A few did not grab me, seeming somewhat obscure commentary on writing per se, but most presented relatable characters confronting real-world choices, or repercussions. Banks has a gift for detail, without cluttering the place up with too much. His style is straight ahead story-telling with less of the lyrical description some other writers employ.

The work of a seasoned pro, A Permanent Member of the Family merits at least a temporary place with yours.

===============================THE STORIES
Former Marine
Faced with the loss of his business and a need to support himself and help out his three sons, who far too conveniently are all in police work, a man takes to a life of crime.

A Permanent Member of the Family
A family pet does not go along with a splitting couple’s custody arrangements. An event regarding the pet defines where one family situation ends and another begins

Christmas Party
A man is invited to the Christmas party thrown by his ex and her husband, who are living the life he had hoped for. What to do with the rage? How to move on?

Transplant
A recent heart transplant recipient is approached by the widow of the man whose heart he received, wanting to hear it beat one last time. The heart may replace the one that stopped working, but cannot truly replace the one that was broken.

Snowbirds
While snowbirding in Florida, a woman’s husband dies. Instead of grief, she appears to feel liberated. And when a friend offers to come help her with arrangements she finds something more.

Big Dog
Seems like it would be a cause for celebration when a sculptor is awarded a Macarthur Fellowship, but his wife and friends seem more resentful than anything else.

Blue
After saving for years to be able to by a car of her own, a black woman in Florida finds herself accidentally trapped in a used car lot after hours, beset by a watchful pit bull.

The Invisible Parrot
A young man in a local store tries to imagine the experience of others there, but imagination is not quite enough. Is this the writer wondering about the ability of writers to imagine the experience of others?

The Outer Banks
A retired couple’s dog has passed away while they are RV’ing about the country. They stop at a beach in North Carolina to bury it.

Lost and Found
A man meets a woman he had almost slept with at a conference years before. He looks back on that decision.

Searching for Veronica
A woman is fearful that a person she tossed out of her house some years back has come to a bad end.

The Green Door
A questionable character in a bar is looking for a place where he can get unusual entertainment. The bar tender directs him, but faces another decision about helping or not helping the man later.

Review posted on GR – 12/29/13

==============================EXTRA STUFF

From December 12, 2012 Harpers – A Conversation with Russell Banks – by Jesse Barron

A wide-ranging interview in the Paris Review

A critical review of his work up to 2001

Banks reads his story “The Moor” on This American Life in 2000 – 19 minutes long, from the 40 minute mark in the program

A New York Times interview with Banks – 1/2/04 – Russell Banks – By the Book

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Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash

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The title of Ron Rash’s fifth short story collection, Nothing Gold Can Stay, comes from the chestnut poem, with the same title, by Robert Frost.

Nature’s first green is gold
Her hardest hue to hold
Her early leaf’s a flower
But only so an hour
Then leaf subsides to leaf
So Eden sank to grief
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay

It is one of only two three poems I have memorized in my life (the others being Sandberg’s Fog and a classic limerick having to do with Nantucket, thanks for the reminder, Steve), and one that has certainly informed my world view. (cheery sort that I am) That notion may or may not have had merit personally, but for most of the characters who inhabit the fourteen tales in Rash’s Appalachian landscape, that glow of youthful vivacity will soon tarnish.

Characters here cover a wide age range, from middle-teens rattling their social cages to old friends in their sunset years, appreciating what they have had and cherishing what remains, from late teens struggling to find their way to a better life to others descending into criminality. They tend toward the edges, young or old with only a smattering in between, and those in the middle do not fare any better than those at the perimeter. Rash’s time line is likewise broad, with a couple of stories set circa Civil War, one in the 1960s, and most being reasonably contemporary.

Overall, these stories are about the coexistence of dark and light. In the title piece, two wastrel boys stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll. Or maybe it is only a dream of light, as hopes are raised several times in these stories, only to be melted down. People here feel trapped, by their past, their circumstances, their weakness. But there are also elements here of incredible love and self-sacrifice, enough to move one (ok, mushy old me) to tears. Life is not wonderful in Rash’s world. Kids want to escape, move on, find something better. But the existence into which they were born drags them under like the rough river in Something Rich and Strange. How much of who we are is accounted for by the circumstances in which we were born, the prison of class? Quite a bit.

Jody had watched other classmates, including many in college prep, enter such a life with an impatient fatalism. They got pregnant or arrested or simply dropped out. Some boys, more defiant, filled the junkyards with crushed metal. Crosses garlanded with flowers and keepsakes marked roadsides where they’d died. You could see it coming in the smirking yearbook photos they left behind.

Some seek to leave the imprisonment of literal slavery and one the manacles of actual prison.

So, life’s a bitch and then you die. Have a nice day. But wait, there’s more. Sometimes, there are pieces of life that hang on to their gloss. Two concerned parents live for a video call from their daughter in the service, every 26 days, a shining moment. Two old friends relish their lifelong friendship and enjoy the soft joys of the now. A young girl finds peace and beauty in a very unlikely place. And there is beauty in Rash’s world, even when its vibrant presence is used as a contrast to the living death of what may be a pointless existence.

The OC’s coating starts to dissolve. Its bitterness fills my mouth but I want the taste to linger a few more moments. As we cross back over the river, a small light glows on the far bank, a lantern or a campfire. Out beyond it, fish move in the current, alive in that other world.

Sometimes there is even beauty in death.

Days passed. Rain came often, long rains that made every fold of ridge land a tributary and merged earth and water into a deep orange-yellow rush. Banks disappeared as the river reached out and dragged them under. But that was only surface. In the undercut all remained quiet and still, the girl’s transformation unrushed, gentle. Crayfish and minnows unknitted flesh from bone, attentive to loose threads.

The greatest, for me, was the beauty of a lifetime friendship told in hushed tones as an old veterinarian nestles in the warmth of a moment of serenity.

Carson was always comfortable with solitude. As a boy, he’d loved to roam the woods, loved how quiet the woods could be. If deep enough in them he wouldn’t even hear the wind. But the best was in the barn. He’d climb up in the loft and lean back against a hay bale, then watch the sunlight begin to lean through the loft window, brightening the spilled straw. When the light was at its apex, the loft shimmered as though coated with golden foil. Dust motes speckled the air like midges. The only sound would be underneath, a calf restless in a stall, a horse eating from a feed bag. Carson had always felt an aloneness in those moments, but never in a sad way.

These being short stories, there must be an O Henry ghost wandering around somewhere, and if you anticipate this you will not be disappointed. There are a number of ironic, even darkly comic endings, and certainly some surprising ones.

Gold, as a thematic seam, runs throughout, with actual gold in the title piece, a supposed heart of gold in another, golden hair in a third, pursuit of riches in a fourth, a gold coin in a fifth and so on. I don’t want to lay claim to all the nuggets, so will leave the rest of the lode for those with a miner’s inclination, or if you don’t care for it, a panner’s.

My personal favorite was Night Hawks, clearly inspired by the painting, in which a woman, affected by the social impact of her appearance as a kid, struggles to find her place in the world. Must she be limited by an externality that is no longer there?

Rash inlays a few literary references in most of the stories, ways maybe to mark a trail in his woods. From A Catcher in the Rye to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, from Chekov to Darwin and plenty more. But we know whose woods these are and the paths are clear enough.

It may be that nothing gold can stay, but whatever Ron Rash writes is 24 karat and will shine for a very long time, further burnishing his sterling reputation. He seems to breathe in life, landscape and atmosphere and exhale literature. No silver medals for this collection. Only the top prize will do.

=========================================THE STORIES

In The Trusty, a grifter in a chain gang plans an escape with a newly met, unhappy Mrs.

In Nothing Gold Can Stay, two wastrel boys, stand with one foot in the world of perdition and the other in a heavenly idyll.

Rash introduces a bit of magic in Something Rich and Strange, in which a diver, sent to retrieve the body of a drowned girl, has a vision.

Where the Map Ends pays a visit to the Civil War era, offering a bit of good news, followed by bad.

A Servant of History is a darkly comedic look at how a knowledge of one’s history might come in handy when far from home

Twenty Six Days is the time two working class parents have to wait between skype video calls from their daughter in a war zone. They must endure the insensitivity of some professorial sorts as they constantly fear for her life.

A Sort of Miracle contrasts two types of foolishness as a condescending accountant takes his layabout brothers in law into a national park to try to kill a bear.

Those Who are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven tells of how fragile is the path out of hopelessness, even when confronted with love. A smart, ambitious young man tries to bring his meth-addicted girlfriend out of her low state.

The Magic Bus contrasts extremes, a 60s era carefree sort of freedom on the one hand and a controlling, narrow farm life on the other as a teenage girl is tempted by the promise of escape.

The Dowry tells of a post Civil War town in which there is nothing a young Union vet can do to satisfy the Confederate father of his beloved that he is worthy of his daughter’s hand, the father holding a grudge from his having lost an arm in the war. A town cleric finds a surprising solution, in an act of great love.

The Woman at the Pond paints a picture of despair touching the life of a high school senior, without quite penetrating

Night Hawks was one of my favorites, hitting a bit close to home as it does. A young woman considers decisions in her life, informed by elements of her past that were beyond her control. There is a discussion here of the famous Hopper painting. In case you are interested, here is a site with the image and a look at where the actual location may have been.

Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out is a story of long-friendship, loss, rebirth and the value of what remains. Very moving

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

February 16 , 2013 – NPRs Scott Simon’s lovely interview with Ron Rash

February 22, 2013 – Boston Globe review

February 27, 2013 – Janet Maslin’s review in the NY Times

March 1, 2013 – I found this review, complete with some fun turns of phrase, in The Charlotte Observer.

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara: Stories by Ben Fountain

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Brief Encounters with Che Guevara is a 2006 collection of eight brilliant short stories by Ben Fountain, author of the wonderful novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk. Brief Encounters established Fountain’s reputation as a writer to watch, earning him a PEN Award, a Whiting Writers Award, an O Henry, and a Barnes and Noble Discover Award. Must be good, right? Indeed it is.

Half the stories are set in Haiti. Others are in Sierra Leone, Columbia, Myanmar and there is even one in Europe. They tell of people trying to do the right thing in an amoral world. The complexity of the world is a central focus in most of these stories, where it is often not so easy to figure out what the right thing to do actually is, let alone doing it. A grad-student ornithologist is taken captive by a revolutionary group in Columbia. An American NGO worker is persuaded to help fund a revolution in Haiti. A soldier returns from an extended tour in Haiti with some very unusual baggage. A pro golfer of questionable morality is recruited by the generals in Myanmar to promote golf in their corrupt and isolated nation. A Haitian fisherman finds that it is not so easy to foil the efforts of drug smugglers. An aid worker in Sierra Leone becomes involved with a blood diamond smuggler, while attempting to support a co-op that provides work for maimed locals. Sundry people relate their intersections with Che in the title piece. And in the final selection, a prodigy pianist with an unusual gift must cope with her notoriety while attempting a supremely challenging piece.

  Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0. via Wikipedia
Photo by Larry D. Moore via Wikipedia

There is considerable moral ambiguity in these pieces, a feast of Faustian bargains to be considered, and even mention of God and the Devil wagering over people’s souls.

Fountain was not always a writer. He was born in North Carolina and got his law degree from Duke, then worked in real estate law in Dallas for five years before pleading nolo contendere and turning over a new leaf.

It was a lot of things coming together at once: having a kid; my wife, Sharie, making partner at her firm; me having practiced for five years and just absolutely having had enough; me turning thirty and thinking that if I was going to make a run at trying to be a writer I needed to get going. There was a sense of urgency, of time passing. (from Ecotone)

Beginning his new career in 1988, he had stories accepted here and there but it took a long time for him to hone his craft and produce top quality work. One of the stories in this collection was first published in 2000. He had his share of frustration during this time, with a couple of novels taking up space in a drawer to prove it. But he stuck with it, treating writing as a job, whether or not he was published, five days a week writing every day, every day, every day.

As for why Haiti figures so large as a subject

On a rational basis, I saw Haiti as a paradigm for a lot of things I was interested in relating to power, politics, race, and history. I went there a couple of times and at that point I probably had what I needed to get. It was some comfort to me to know, flying out of there the second or third time, that I didn’t really have to go back—and yet I did go back, many times. Once I was there I felt pretty comfortable. And the more time I spent there, the more there was that I felt I needed to understand. But I still can’t give a satisfactory explanation for how it happened.

He would visit Haiti over 30 times. The notion of going to Columbia or Sierra Leone was raised, but funds and time are not limitless and his wife was aghast at the notion.

Fountain is very interested in the impact of the large forces in society on individuals.

I practiced law for five years and that gives you insight into a certain mind-set that maybe a lot of writers haven’t had firsthand access to. There’s an almost casual cruelty, a very low level of overall awareness, but sometimes there’s also knowledge that real damage is being done—this attitude of “Oh, what the hell,” this kind of moral cognitive dissonance. These are people who have never missed a meal. It’s an unknowingness, an unawareness, that Reagan personified. Reagan was so sure of everything and yet his experience of the world was so narrow. How could he be sure of anything? I saw that over and over again in the wealthier people I worked with or had contact with while practicing law. Many people were operating from a very narrow range of experience, and yet they had complete faith in it. Their way was the correct way, the only way. They had virtually no awareness of any other way of life except in terms of demonizing things like communism, socialism, or Islam. It’s an extremely blindered experience of the world.

 By Claudio Reyes Ule
By Claudio Reyes Ule via Wikimedia

The stories turn a widened eye on this sort of myopia, but Fountain does not spare the revolutionary sorts either, who have issues of their own. I found the stories very engaging, enlightening and moving. It is definitely worth your while to encounter Ben Fountain in this volume. You may find that the time spent in his company is too brief.

=======================================THE STORIES

Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera
John Blair is a grad-student ornithologist who ignored the risks and is doing research in Columbia when he is kidnapped by members of MURC (a FARC stand-in), a revolutionary group, and is held for ransom. He winds up spending a long time with the group and establishing relationships with some members and the leader. It is a tale heavy with political irony and a very O Henry-ish ending.

Reve Haitien
Mason is an OAS observer in Haiti. He throws chess games with the young local players, as a way of boosting their self-esteem. He encounters a player better than himself, Amulatto, and is drawn in his world.

Life here had the cracked logic of a dream, its own internal rules. You looked at a picture and it wasn’t like looking at a picture of a dream, it was a passage into the current of the dream. And for him the dream had its own peculiar twist, the dream of doing something real, something worthy. A blan’s dream, perhaps all the more fragile for that.

The Good Ones are Already Taken
Melissa is a very sexual person and it is a big sacrifice for her to do without while her serviceman husband is away. But when Dirk returns from an extended tour in Haiti, he has changed, gone voodoo, religious, which has implications for their sex life. Can Melissa adapt to the new man who came home? And what’s up with all that weirdness he is into anyway?

Asian Tiger
Sonny Grous, 23, is a pro golfer, built like a bouncer and not all that successful. In Rangoon for a tournament he has the game of his life and is recruited by the generals to be the ambassador of golf for Burma, which is seeking to attract foreigners with great courses. The money is pretty good, but there is the dodgy element of working for people who are truly reprehensible.

Bouki and the Cocaine
Concerned about the massive drug-running, Syto, a small-town Haitian fisherman, and his brother decide to grab the bales that are left by the runners on the beach and bring them to the police, accepting on face value the frequent public announcements decrying the drug trade. Things do not work out as the brothers expect. There are real questions raise here about where honor lies, and how one’s interpretation of that informs behavior. There tale is exceptionally clever and will make you smile, while also getting the moral dilemma involved.

The Lion’s Mouth
Jill runs a co-op that provides employment for many local women in Sierra Leone but funds are cut off. She turns to her unlikely bf, Starkey, a dealer in blood diamonds, for help in finding the needed funds. More moral ambiguity here, and an image of a troubled place.

Brief Encounters with Che Guevara
Che is a touchstone here, not an actual character, for the most part. Several, very diverse, people tell of their encounters with Che. Among them is Laurent, a Haitian who knew Guevara. Laurent was my favorite character in this entire collection. It is worth reading the entire book just to get to meet him.

Fantasy for Eleven fingers
Anna Juhl is a young piano prodigy, gifted in a manner identical to Anton Visser, a luminous player of the early 19th century, and composer of a particularly wonderful and difficult piece called Fantaisie pour onze Doigts. She takes on the challenge. This piece seemed a bit out of place in the collection, geographically anyway.

======================================EXTRA STUFF

A great interview in Ecotone Journal – by Ben George – must read stuff if you find Fountain interesting, and you should, a lot on writing and Fountain’s writing history

An interview in the on-line magazine, The Millions by Edan Lepucki. It is mostly on Billy Lynn, but there is plenty here about how Fountain thinks and writes. Definitely worthwhile.

There is a lovely bit in the Barnes and Noble writer details page on Fountain’s favorite books

In the on-line edition of the magazine Rain Taxi also has a lovely review with the author. He talks about his relationship with Haiti. There is a lot of detailed discussion of the stories.

There is a piece by Malcolm Gladwell in New Yorker that looks at Fountain as an example of a late-bloomer.

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News From Heaven by Jennifer Haigh

book cover The news is not always good.

Jennifer Haigh, clearly mining a favorite seam, manages to hit the motherlode again in her new tales of Bakerton, PA. Her 2005 novel, Baker Towers, painted a three-decade portrait of the small mining town, from 1944 into the 1970s, focusing on the lives of its residents, and most particularly, the five siblings of her fictional Novak family. In returning to Bakerton, Haigh brings back several of the characters from her earlier work, completing some unfinished stories of the family, and expanding her scope as well. There are plenty of faces, even beyond those of the Novaks, that will be familiar to readers of the earlier book. In News From Heaven Jennifer Haigh demonstrates once more the immense talent for which she has rightfully come to be known.

She has not been idle in the eight years since she introduced Bakerton, PA to the world. In 2008, The Condition , was released, an excellent a multi-generational family drama set in New England. In 2011, she produced the exquisite Faith, about a priest accused of sexually abusing a child. In that novel and in other work she showed a power that put her at the top level of contemporary fiction writers, and she just keeps on getting better. But, apparently, Haigh had been puttering with Bakerton tales ever since Baker Towers came out.

I didn’t, for a long time, imagine publishing them as a collection. I wrote them one at a time, in between novels or drafts of novels. And after about ten years of this, I realized that they belonged together in a book.

So in a way, despite moving from Pennsylvania to the Boston area, one could say that in News from Heaven, Jennifer Haigh returns to Bakerton. But in a very real sense she never left.

This is a book about longing, loneliness, about secrets, about wanting to flee the stifling confines not just of small town life but of responsibility and living with one’s choices. Maybe about pleading with fate. Yet it is also about the pull that our homes can have on our hearts. The stories are filled with yearnings, some met, many not. Disappointment shuffles through these stories. Secrets are revealed, often to dark effect. These are stories about change, in the world and in her characters.

…good fiction always begins with complex, well-developed characters, and to write those characters I have to know where they came from. I imagine them as children, their fears and frustrations, the rooms where they slept at night, and I find it all so interesting that I have to write about it. I have come to accept that — in my hands, anyway — every story becomes a family story.

As with Baker Towers, most of the action in the book takes place in Bakerton, with a few forays beyond, and the great majority of her characters are women. There are ten stories in the collection. All of them will make you feel. Four of the first five look upward, in their titles at least, while the latter five seem to look down. There are moments of awakening, moments of glorious freedom and possibility that shine through this sooty, declining place, lives that find meaning, whether real or faux, whether passing or permanent. But it seems that for most of the inhabitants, whether they remain in Bakerton or have sought greener pastures elsewhere, the news from on high is that they have to get by with what they can and not look for a paradise on earth. That said, Haigh’s writing is heaven-sent, her ability to portray real, breathing people is celestial and her talent for portraying place is rapturous.

It is not necessary to have read Baker Towers in order to appreciate the strength of the writing on display here, but it certainly helps to have done so in order to get the fullest picture of her players.

=========================================THE STORIES

Beast and Birds opens the collection in the past. Sixteen-year-old Annie Lubicki is engaged to work in the household of an Upper West Side Manhattan Jewish family in the 1930s. The family has a son whose destiny it is to become a scholar. We are given a servant’s eye look at life in NYC as Annie experiences it on her first time away from home. On a weekend while the adults are away, Annie is charged with caring for the young man. He is unwell and cannot accompany his parents on their trip. He and Annie have developed a relationship that is nothing but sweet.

There are many words for what she’d felt as she watched him sleep, many words in many languages, but the one she knows is longing

Did they or didn’t they?

In Something Sweet, an ironic title, Haigh brings back teacher Viola Peale from BT. She is much taken with a student, a boy who has a natural way with girls, is a gifted salesman who also demonstrates a flair for decoration. He offers her a lemon drop. “It’s nice to have something sweet,” he says. Of course he incurs the wrath of those maybe not so smooth. During the summer visit of a young relation Viola is smitten with a hunky second cousin who is very wrong for her–In a trance of longing, Viola sat on the grass, hugging her knees to her chest–and her desire is harshly rewarded. The young student knows he will never be accepted in the town and looks for a way out. The sweetness here is of the bitter variety.

In Broken Star young Regina has a magical month in the summer of 1974, when her cool Aunt Melanie comes to stay with the family for a spell, and provides a wonderful assist during a time of growth and change. Gina thrives with Melanie’s encouragement but still has concerns about life, and her future, a girl born to a farming family, who is not all that interested in the land, a girl who fears getting stuck.

My uncles…were like all the men I knew then, soybean and dairy farmers who spoke rarely and then mainly about the weather. Yet unlikely as it seemed, I accepted that these men had the power to transform. My aunts had been pretty, lively girls—one stubborn, one mischievous, one coquettish, according to my mother—though somehow all three had matured into exactly the same woman: plump, cheerful, adept at pie making and counted cross-stitch, smelling of vanilla and Rose Milk hand lotion. That I would someday become that same woman terrified me. My only greater fear was that nobody would choose me, and I would become nothing.

Years later, after marrying, living abroad and having written a book, Regina learns a tragic secret about her aunt, and the cost of her own separateness.

A Place in the Sun continues the unfinished story of Sandy Novak from BT. Despite his charm, beauty and certain skills, Sandy has never managed to get or stay ahead. He seems always on the run and has a gambling compulsion. Still, he and his sister, Joyce, maintain some sort of a connection, even if that usually means her sending him money. Trying to straighten up he takes a job at a diner in North Hollywood

She had hired him off the street. Bleary, hungover, he’d wandered in for breakfast after an all-night card game. A sign in the window said HELP WANTED. Can you cook? Vera Gold asked.
He looked down at his greasy plate. Better than this? Sure. You bet.

It is not long before Sandy and statuesque, red-headed Vera are an item, to the chagrin of Vera’s much older husband. Of course this complicates Sandy’s relationship with a young Canadian cutie, who is looking for more from him that he is interested in giving.

”That’s where I used to work,” he said, pointing. The familiar sign filled him with an old longing, the looping S with its tall graceful curves

The Sands A PLACE IN THE SUN

“Is that where we’re going?”
For a moment he was tempted. The town had a short memory, and seven years had passed. Still he wouldn’t chance it. He’d been known there, known and recognized. Sandy from the Sands. It wasn’t worth the risk.

And across it all he ponders his family back east, and the odds of life taking a positive turn.

To The Stars looks at the town’s reaction to Sandy’s passing, with particular focus on Joyce, and her feelings about her own choices. Sandy was once a chauffeur to the stars but never managed to become a star himself.

She is thinking not of his death but of that earlier departure, his disappearance like a magic trick, as dizzying and complete. His manic and determined flight from Bakerton, from the family, from her…and yet Joyce could never leave them [her family], run off to California or to Africa, as her younger siblings have done. Freedom is, to her, unimaginable, as exotic as walking on the moon.

Thrift introduces Agnes Lubicki, a nurse who has lived her life in service to others and found herself with no way to have anything for herself. Until a man enters her life, and Agnes gives up everything for him. Is this what she’d been saving for?

In Favorite Son, Mitch Stanek, a studly jock, had been expected to coast to a career in professional sports. But something is amiss when he goes away to college on a full scholarship. We see him, back in Bakerton, married with kids, and out of work when Mine #11 shuts down, putting 900 out of work. Joyce Novak’s daughter, Rebecca, narrates the tale, and has special knowledge about Mitch, that tells us whether he was destined for fame, or not. It is in this story that we get the quote that births the collection’s title: The white flakes landed like news from heaven: notes from elsewhere, fallen from the stars.

The Bottom of Things introduces Ray Wojick, 52, back in town for his parents’ 50th anniversary party, with his pregnant second wife. Ray is looking to get to the bottom of things, his ultimate impact on his late brother’s fate, how his father was able to raise him, when he married a woman with a three-year old, how Ray’s first marriage came to be and came to end, his alienation from his children from that marriage, and how to cope once he learns what he needs to know.

Sunny Baker used to be a joyous kid, thus the name, but in What Remains we see what has become of her. When her parents were killed in a plane crash her life took a dark turn, and she never quite recovered. We see her through a series of relationships, each of which add more junk to her property and take a piece more out of what is left of her. The story is paralleled by the town wanting to attract construction of a new prison. Do the math.

Finally, Desiderata closes the book with Joyce Novak mourning the death of her husband, and remembering her dead son, and how he was lost. It also tells the tale of an inspirational teacher and a husband who had married a woman who did not or could not love him enough.

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We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Prize

 

Now…you know what we know.” Her voice went even lower. That nobody chooses. That we’re all sick. We’re all here.”

There are various forms of sickness in Jess Walter’s baker’s-dozen collection of bleak stories. Alcoholism, drug addiction, obsession, greed, dishonesty, some zombification, or the most uncurable of all, being born poor. The megafauna all glooped up in La Brea had as much of a chance to escape their situation as the characters in these tales, although some of Walters’ people do make an effort. The setting is mostly Spokane (or in this case Spo-can’t) with a few outings to Seattle and Portland, and even a road trip to Vegas.

The town, btw, is named for the Native American tribe, whose name means “children of the sun.” No sun children here. I am not sure the sun ever breaks through the overcast, but when it does, it is quickly clouded over. Or it might indicate the eye of something unpleasant wandering by.

The first story, Anything Helps, simply knocked me on my ass. Wayne Bittinger, aka Bit, is homeless, reliant on the Jesus beds for an occasional mattress, descending to cardboard when he must, an experienced beggar, a fellow with alcohol issues, and with a son who has been taken in by some religious sorts. He needs permission from the state to see his own kid. The light in his world used to be reading Harry Potter books to his child, but now he has to scrounge nickels and dimes to buy a single book, and then has to break some laws just to get it to his son. Bit may have brought some of his misery onto himself. Choices had clearly been made, bad ones, but were all his problems of his own doing? His rough go pounded on some of my fears. I, too, loved reading Harry to my progeny. And while I have never had to live on the street, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that in today’s compassion-free America I might someday get to have the experience. No substance issues for me, yet, at least not since I stopped smoking in 2002, but I related like a brother to Bit, and sobbed on reading this story, big, heaving, wailing tears, fuh real.

I was reminded of Baskin Robbins while reading this book. Thirty one flavors, it seemed, but of pain, despair and failure. Walter offers a portrait of the underclass, looking at people who have made bad choices, people who have been cast in dark dramas by a hostile director, and relationships that seem likely to be noted on page one headlines of the wrong sort. One saving grace lies in some of the parent-child connections. Bit’s love for his child is palpable, even if his ability to express it is limited. Other fathers attempt to protect their young. But there is an undercurrent. While outcomes are often the result of bad decisions, the environment as a whole seems designed to keep people in their places. This enclosure may not be as concrete as Stephen King’s dome, but it contains its residents quite well anyway. In fact, the core image is one of being trapped. I won’t give away the specifics of it, but let’s just say that the people here might as well have checked into the Hotel California. Hell, most of ‘em were born there.

There are the odd bright spots. One decent guy prevents his boss from screwing a customer. One convict truly wants to do some good in the world. The oft-mentioned Bit really, really does love his kid. A convict on temporary release finds a golden moment on the outside. A father relates his own childhood to that of his kids, in a warm and useful way.

Walter’s characters are significantly flawed, more often than not. You may not feel quite the connection I did to Bit, but there are likely to be at least some folks on these pages who ring your bells, tug at your heart, and maybe lift your wallet.

Along with the dark content, considerable skill is on display here from the author of Beautiful Ruins and The Zero. We Live in Water may offer up a polluted lake, but it is still worth diving in, just to see what else is swimming around.

========================================The Stories

Anything Helps – see above

We Live in Water – a low level crook finds that screwing the boss’s wife and stealing his money is not a good career move. The son he loved and tried to protect, comes back many years later to find out what happened to dad.

Thief – when dad sets out to find who has been nicking change from the vacation savings jar, he must confront his own childhood behavior.

Can a Corn – a con on a medical leave chooses a form of freedom usually denied him. Some powerful imagery in this one.

Ken reeled in a dull catfish, yellow-eyed and spiny. No fight in it. Almost like it didn’t mind.

Virgo – An obsessed and rejected lover uses his position at a local newspaper to make life difficult for his ex, resulting in collateral damage.

Helpless Little Things – Every short story collection, it seems, needs an O Henry entry. In this one, a latter day Fagin meets his match.

Please – A father seeks to remove his son from the mother’s meth-lab home

Don’t Eat Cat – a zombie tale, that says more about how people can become undead (underclass) than it does about their behavior once turned, and how the uppers view of the unders (reminiscent of the UK telly series In the Flesh, which is highly recommended, btw))

The New Frontier – nothing JFK-ish here – a Vegas trip with a pseudo friend looking to save someone who may or may not need saving

The Brakes – a mechanic does a bit of good for an undeserving recipient

The Wolf and the Wild – a white collar criminal doing community service aims to make a better life for himself and those he is assigned to

Wheelbarrow Kings – a couple of down-and-outs scrounging to make a buck and contending with their lack of knowledge

Statistical Abstract for My Hometown of Spokane, Washington – like it says, a portrait of despair, by the numbers, and telling the narrators tale, in numbered paragraphs, mixing stats and personal info

8. I was born in Spokane in 1965. Beginning in about 1978, when was thirteen, I wanted to leave.

9. I’m still here.

Posted July 15, 2013

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