New (to Me) Short Stories

I don’t set out intentionally to read short stories. Really. As I look through reviews and hear of books, I simply write down the titles that seem interesting. When I revisit that list later, though, it becomes painfully obvious that I’ve got a short story addiction. I’m sure it reveals some kind of character flaw, a lack of focus perhaps or maybe an inability to commit. Luckily for me denial is a favorite response to problems. So I’m afraid society will have to pry that copy of Winesburg, Ohio out of my cold dead hands.

If you share my affliction, or simply feel like trying something new, here a few superb recent collections.


We Live in Water by Jess Walter
This is the first collection of short stories from Walter, who has recently become well known for the novel Beautiful Ruins, but let’s hope it is not his last. Each story has a strong sense of place, Spokane for the most part, and the empathy Walter displays for his down-and-out characters is matched only by his ability to bring out the humor in everyday situations. Particular standouts include “Virgo” (the tale of a newspaper editor who makes the horoscope section way too personal), “Wheelbarrow Kings” (detailing a misguied attempt to cash in a big screen TV for drug money), and “Don’t Eat Cat” (a dystopian view of a future Seattle that wants to mainstream drug addicted zombies).

athousandmoronsA Thousand Morons by Quim Monzo
Absurdity abounds in this surreal collection of brief stories. Be prepared for a man in a nursing home who decides to take up cross dressing (“Mr. Beneset”), and a woman who methodically tries to rid herself of every memory she has every had (“Saturday”). Interspersed are more meditative stream of consciousness pieces such as “I’m Looking Out of the Window” in which the title accurately describes all of the action. If you can, briefly, abandon your sense of reality this collection is well worth the effort and might lead you to see the world in a different light.

The People of Forever are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu
Ipeopleofforever know, I know… this title states it is “A Novel”. But it is really a series of connected short stories, in my view, so I’m going to stretch a point. Each story, or chapter if you must, is a different episode from the lives of three young women who grew up together and were conscripted into the Israeli army. While the stories are connected, there is no linear sense of progression. Instead each serves as a vivid description of a time and place, be it a dusty checkpoint in the middle of nowhere with a group of protestors literally demanding to be tear-gassed, or a Tel Aviv sandwich shop which promises to make a sandwich any way the customer demands. Tying everything together is a direct and effective use of language which brings every scene to life.

revengeRevenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is one of my favorite authors and is a prolific writer. Sadly many of her works are not translated into English. Imagine my delight then, when I found out, thanks Spot-Lit, that a collection had just been translated. Revenge is a series of stories that are connected but often in ways that seem oblique at first. I hesitate to describe the plots of the various stories. Let’s just say her language is sparse but very affecting and the overall impact is a quiet foreboding that is ultimately toxic. This may not sound like a compliment but trust me, it is. Here is an example, from the story “Afternoon at the Bakery”, for you to get a feel for her writing:

The kitchen was as neatly arranged as the shop. Bowls, knives, mixers, pastry bags, sifters—everything needed for the work of the day was right where it should be. The dish-towels were clean and dry, the floor spotless. And in the middle of it stood the girl, her sadness perfectly at home in the tidy kitchen. I could hear nothing, not a word, not a sound. Her hair swayed slightly with her sobs. She was looking down at the counter, her body leaning against the oven. Her right hand clutched a napkin. I couldn’t see the expression on her face, but her misery was clear from the clench of her jaw, the pallor of her neck, and the tense grip of her fingers on the telephone.

The reason she was crying didn’t matter to me. Perhaps there was no reason at all. Her tears had that sort of purity.

So there you go: Several short story collections from which you have nothing to fear. Well, be advised, they may be habit forming.


Beautiful Ruins

I couldn’t get enough of Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins. I’ve slept maybe four hours in the last two days reading it. I would rather read it than eat a Snickers.

YES.  That’s how good it is.

The story is told in many different parts, but not so many that you get confused as to who’s telling the story. There’s a romance and a tragedy in Italy during 1962 when a Hollywood starlet named Dee Moray decides to stay at a remote (very remote) village on the coast of Italy. 

She takes refuge in a hotel called The Hotel Adequate (literal translations abound in this novel). Pasquale, the 22-year-old owner of the hotel, immediately falls in love with her and wants to care for her as she begins to show signs of an illness that led her to his secluded hotel in the first place.

Fast forward 50 years to Claire, assistant to a scumbag Hollywood movie producer named Michael Deane who had some big success 40 years ago and a recent smattering of popular reality shows. Claire doesn’t know if she wants to stay in her job or go follow her dream job: working in a Hollywood movie archive. 

On Pitch Friday, when every lunatic with a movie idea comes in to pitch a script, she meets a fairly talented screenwriter who wants to make a movie about the Donner Party (oh, you had me at cannibal). She finds the idea ridiculous while her boss is salivating over it. 

Claire and Michael barely notice the old gentleman who has made his way in alongside the screenwriter into the pitch. The old man wants to meet Michael Deane because Deane’s the one who dumped the starlet at Pasquale’s hotel in 1962 when she was so ill. When Deane finally realizes who the old man is talking about he goes into shock. He hasn’t seen or thought of Dee in 50 years but Pasquale hasn’t forgotten the man who abandoned the sick woman on the island and took off. The screenwriter, scumbag producer, his assistant and the sweet old Italian man with the iffy English skills embark on a journey to find Dee Moray. But what is Deane’s angle? Does he want to make money by turning Dee’s life into a reality show? 

Throughout the book there are glimpses into each character. This is where Jess Walter works some major mojo. These characters are so fleshed out you expect to bump into them while buying milk and cat food at the corner convenience store. It’s a rare and gifted writer who can make characters so alive that you find yourself thinking “I wonder if screenwriter Shane ever wrote another script?” I fell asleep for an hour this morning and actually dreamt that Pasquale and Dee Moray ended up together and had a bunch of children and lived happily ever after.

If you like a deep and well-crafted novel about people you would love to know in real life (except for that poop–on- the-bottom-of-the-world’s-shoe movie producer) read this book. And keep your fingers crossed that as you’re reaching for that last bottle of $4 wine on a dusty shelf of a corner store, you’ll meet a sweet Italian man who will tell you a mind-blowing story.

By the way, Jess Walter will be here at the Everett Public Library Sunday, August 12th at 2 pm to talk about his novels and whatever else he wants to talk about because he’s a great writer and could spend the hour reading the phone book and I’d be on the edge of my seat listening. I’m going to go, maybe have him sign the back of my Kindle Fire. I just hope I don’t go up to him, throw up on his shoes and say “Do you know who you are?”

I tend to get nervous when meeting famous people.