Tag 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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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