Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Yiyun Li's "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" from Spring 2008 issue, Zoetrope: All Story

Do moments that define our parents lives eventually determine how we will live out our own lives?  Yiyun Li's "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" seeks to answer that question with this lonely  story between a father and his recently divorced daughter.  Little do they understand the similarities in their domestic affairs, but it's clear to the reader that silence is a large problem in all their relationships.  Li's story seems to ponder whether or not culture and work play a role in the decisions people make or whether people make choices based on the confines of their own personality regardless of culture, place or time.  The story feels universal, and it's  that universality that makes the story so haunting to me.

I leave this story wondering where the line of denial and self-sacrifice is, and if sometimes they're not blurred for the sake of self-preservation rather than doing what's best for all concerned.

If you've read Yiyun Li's other stories, this one won't disappoint.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

I bought myself a present the other day...Unaccustomed Earth, the latest collection of short stories by Jhunpa Lahiri. Of all the bookstacks I own, you will find only one other short story collection...Interpreter of Maladies,by Jhumpa Lahriri. Any guesses about my favorite short story author? And remember when I didn't even care for short stories? (Before I joined this challenge!)

I read the title story immediately, and it was absolutely gorgeous. It lingered in my mind all day, lingered so powerfully that I occasionally picked the book up as I passed by just to dip in and re-read a paragraph or a page.

While her father was in the shower, she made tea. It was a ritual she liked, a formal recognition of the day turning into evening in spite of the sun not setting. When she was on her own, these hours passed arbitrarily. She was grateful for the opportunity to sit on the porch with her father, with the teapot and the bowl of salted cashews and the plate of Nice biscuits, looking at the lake and listening to the vast breeze work its way through the treetops, a grander version of the way Akash used to sigh when he was a baby, full of contentment, in the depths of sleep. The leaves flickered as if with internal light, shivering though the air was not cold. Akash was asleep, exhausted from playing outdoors all day, and the house was filled with silence.

Unaccustomed Earth tells the story of Ruma, a young mother recently transplanted from New York to Seattle. Her father comes to visit, his first visit since the death of Ruma's mother and he's keeping a secret from Ruma - he's become involved with another woman. Meanwhile, Ruma struggles to find her equilibrium in this new life, trying to reach out to her father, yet not quite knowing how. It's just an equisite story, exploring the connection between parent and child on several levels, and the process of taking root in new ground both emotionally and physically.

Every story in this collection is a masterpiece. As much as I loved The Namesake, Lahiri's novel, she is an absolute master of the short story, and I can see why she returned to the genre for her second book. She may well be this generation's Alice Munroe, the writer who makes a name for herself with an entire oeuvre of short stories. With this collection (as with Interpreter of Maladies) I never for a second felt the sense of incompleteness short stories sometimes lend. Her characters are so complex, her prose so dense and delectable, the reader feels as if they are immersed in a full length novel.

But by far the most riveting of all are the three linked stories that make up Part II of the book. In Hema and Kaushik, we follow the fates of two people who first meet as children when their parents share a house one winter. Their lives separate and intersect in unusual and occasionally painful ways, until destiny brings them together one last time.

From the moment they arrived together at Paola and Edo's, it was assumed, by the other guests, that they were old friends. One of the guests had even assumed they were lovers, asking how long they had been together, how they had met. "Our parents," Kaushik had said lightly, but Hema thought back, saddened by those two simple words. She was aware that he had not corrected the guest's assumption. Aware, too, of the way he looked at her across the table during lunch, surprised by the allure that had come to her late. He looked the same to her, that was the astonishing thing. The sharp faced boy who had stepped reluctantly into her parents home. Only the eyes appeared tired, the skin surrounding them now darker, faintly bruised. She still remembered her first impression of him...remembered the ridiculous attraction she had felt that night when she was thirteen years old, and that she had so secretly nurtured during the weeks they lived together. It was as if no time had passed.

Hema and Kaushik is a brilliant elegy to life and to love, to family relationships and the power of fate, and the ways they interact. It could easily stand alone as a poignant and perfect novella.

As in Interpreter of Maladies, all Lahiri's characters have the common thread of nationality to bind them. But their ethnicity is not necessarily the "unaccustomed earth" to which the title refers. Most of them are traversing new emotional territory, much of it regarding loss - of a parent, a partner, an ideal. Relationships are explored in painstaking detail, as in "Only Goodness," where an older sister tries her best to provide her younger brother with "the perfect childhood," and is so bitterly disappointed when his alcoholism prevents them from having the adult relationship she desires.

Lahiri chose a quotation of Nathaniel Hawthorne's as the epigraph for this collection: "Human nature will not flourish...if it be planted and replanted for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children...shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth." This proves to be the perfect metaphor for each of Lahiri's characters, in a volume of elegant, emotionally exquisite stories.

cross posted at Bookstack

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Silver Birch, Blood Moon - Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

Another beautiful collection of fairy tales for adult readers collected by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. There are 21 tales by 21 different authors, some are new to the series and others are old favourites from previous collections.

Kiss Kiss – Tanith Lee
A variation on The Frog Prince. It continues the tale after the frog has changed back into a Prince and they are married. She loses her best friend to her husband after that “hateful betrayal of a kiss”.

Carabosse – Delia Sherman
The author says bad fairies may create problems, but they often offer the young prince and princess they curse the opportunity to become more than they would otherwise have been. They do everybody a favour by stirring things up a bit, and should be given more credit (and sympathy) for their subversive roles. The tale is a look at Sleeping Beauty and the good fairies motivations behind the spell told as a poem.

The Price – Patricia Briggs
A reworking of Rumplestiltskin. A much more human story somehow with some of the gaps from the original tale filled in.

Glass Coffin – Caitlin R Kiernan
A contemporary re-telling inspired by the song “Hardly Wait” by PJ Harvey sung by Juliette Lewis. Salmagundi Desvernine lives in a junkyard with 7 other discarded children waiting for Jimmy Desade to return. While he is away selling drugs she cuts her thumb on some sharp rusty metal and dies. He makes her a glass coffin before leaving the other children for good. Very bleak and desolate.

The Vanishing Virgin – Harvey Jacobs
Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Flea and the Professor. Magic, even the most controlled, has a way of spinning out of control and creating magic of its own. This is about escape, a neglected magicians assistant and wife Ms Molly turns left inside the vanishing box during a trick. She is told to try it by the rabbit they use Pooper who turns out to be a man from a magical world she finds when she turns the opposite way in the box.

Clad in Gossamer – Nancy Kress
About court life, it’s pressures and its intrigues. Based on The Emperor’s New Clothes about Prince Jasper, second in line for the throne. He envies his brother and wants his intended bride for himself as well as the throne. Along the way the truth becomes twisted and he is no longer sure what is happening.

Precious – Nalo Hopkinson
She says “I’ve always hated the ending of the fairy tale about the good sister who has jewels and flowers fall from her lips when she speaks. Of course, the prince marries her, supposedly as her reward for being virtuous, but its obvious that the prince sees her more as a boon to the royal coffers and a beautiful sex toy than as a person. “Precious” takes up the thread after the marriage.” Jude beats Isobel to get more and more jewels until she eventually runs away keeping her address and number unlisted. He finally tracks her down and while she is telling him exactly how she feels he becomes buried under an increasing pile of jewels. She coughs up a ruby as big as a human heart which knocks him out. When she calls the police on her intruder she notices nothing leaves her mouth but the sounds she makes.

The Sea Hag – Melissa Lee Shaw
This tale originated as a rebellion against the multitude of strong, sympathetic adult female characters mostly found in Disney films. Most are either adolescent heroines or bumbling grandmothers. Anyone inbetween in age is usually portrayed as the villain in the tale. This story looks at the Sea Hag from The Little Mermaid from a different perspective. Beautiful and sad it sheds a new light on the popular tale.

The Frog Chauffeur – Garry Kilworth
The inspiration for this tale came from wondering whether a traumatic event like a frog being turned into a human would have residual effects. It considers the consequences of a human male as a frog with an active sex drive producing many tadpoles with a mixture of human and frog DNA. This tale tells of what happens when one such offspring becomes human after a traumatic event and marries Isobel Fairfax.

The Dybbuk in the Bottle – Russell William Asplund
Usually the genie who grants wishes is honourable, but this tells the tale of a dybbuk (a demon from Jewish folklore). It teaches the protagonist a few lessons along the way as he tries to trick the dybbuk back into its bottle with the help of Rabbi Meltzer after it takes over his house.

The Shellbox – Karawynn Long
Beautiful story based on various Selkie tales with a little bit of Bluebeard thrown in for good measures. About a woman who marries a man who treats her like dirt. She has a gift from her mother before she disappeared back into the sea, a shellbox that can hold anything she puts in it. During the tale she puts her voice in it singing to keep her husband company while he fishes, but he abuses it using her voice to call fish to him and then tells her he lost it when he disapproves of her friendship with a deaf and mute woman.

Ivory Bones – Susan Wade
Based on Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the story from her intended mole-like husband who is a collector of rare oddities. He has in his possession a pearl ring made from Thumbelina’s skull. It contains dark connotations that suggest he had her deliberately turned into pearls so he could keep her with him always.

The Wild Heart – Anne Bishop
The Wild Heart is half of the princess in Sleeping Beauty. It has been travelling making itself strong enough to reunite with it’s other Gentle Heart. A dark look at the tale with a happy ending.

You wandered off like a foolish child to break your heart and mine – Pat York
Written by York after reading the manuscript for Bishops The Wild Heart. It looks at how someone might die by thorns which would be unable to kill someone quickly. A Queen nurses her son who is caught in the briar around the castle. There are 7 men still alive in the thorns which grow every day and try to strangle and kill them. When the prince arrives who is able to reach Sleeping Beauty, the remaining men are all killed when the roots move to let him through.

Arabian Phoenix – India Edghill
A version of “Scheherazde” from the Arabian Nights told in a modern setting. In this tale the reason the new Queens last only a week is due to their marriage contract only being set for that long. Shahrazad works out what happens to them as they are never seen again, the King is selecting the brightest woman and sending them off to university in the Western world. There is even the possibility of them getting married properly in the future.

Toad-Rich – Michael Cadnum
The “other” sister tells the tale of The Fairy Gifts by Charles Perrault. She is the sister who spits frogs, toads, snakes and spiders. After her sister marries the prince jewels become commonplace and it is her insects that become valuable. Her and her mother hope to use them to buy back her sister from the ungrateful prince.

Skin so Green and fine – Wendy Wheeler
A look at Beauty and the Beast. Bruno Bettelheim suggested that this story showed the Beauty could not love the beast until she had transferred her affection for her father to him at it looks at the Oedipal-conflict. The transfers the story to Spain adding in Voodoo and spiritual possession along the way.

The Wilful Child, the Black Dog, and the Beanstalk – Melanie Tam
This tale grew out of the authors duel passions for fairy tales and her job as a social worker. A social worker is teaching a class when someone stays behind at the end to discuss a case she was handling where the young girl killed her adoptive mother shortly before it could be finalised. It turns out she had tried to kill previous mothers-to-be in different fairy tale ways. One had nearly been pushed into an oven, another nearly had her ladder (beanstalk) chopped down and the final one was killed by stabbing her open from throat to sternum like the wolf in the original tales of Little Red Riding Hood.

Locks – Neil Gaiman
A poem inspired by Gaiman reading the story of Goldilocks to his daughter when she was young. It is a dialogue between father and daughter that has the father looking into the future and seeing her loss of innocence and him becoming the father bear checking all the windows and locks.

Marsh-Magic – Robin McKinley
A strange tale about a line of Kings, their mages and the local marsh people. Each King marries one of the marsh woman who produces only one male heir before disappearing. It takes one 22 generations later to break the bind by learning the mage’s true name and unveiling his real identity.

Toad – Patricia A McKillip
Written in response to unanswered questions surrounding the tale of The Frog Prince, especially why any self-respecting frog would want to marry a spoiled brat of a princess!

This is my favourite collection of tales in the series so far. I loved all of the tales and my particular favourites were The Sea Hag by Melissa Lee Shaw, The Wild Heart by Anne Bishop and The Shell Box by Karawynn Long. Other tales I enjoyed immensley were Kiss Kiss by Tanith Lee, Carabosse by Delia Sherman, The Price by Patricia Briggs, Clad in Gossamer by Nancy Kress, The Frog Chauffeur by Garry Kilworth, Ivory Bones by Susan Wade, You Wandered Off by Pat York and Arabian Phoenix by Indian Edgehill.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Familial Kindness" by Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum

My copy of One-Story came in the mail about a week ago.  I finally got a chance to read Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum's "Familial Kindness"

Stoic, reserved characters dominant this slow moving story of familial grief.  It's the kind of story that may strike a nerve with some and may strike annoyance with others, depending on how the reader perceives the range of emotional depth the story explores.

There is a sense of emotional containment carried throughout the plot, one that is both heavy like an anchor and undefinable.  Alma and her brother-in-law Charlie are both in search of letting that heaviness go and finding meaning beyond their loss.  The story ends with a sense of the beginning of a long process of moving forward with their lives, a moment defined by how their familiar relationship with each other has changed.

In the end I loved the pace of the story and where it carried me emotionally.  Coming from a partial Scandinavian background, I appreciated the emotional complexity of these characters. There is a lot omitted that I'm able to fill in with my own personal experience, and that really created a fulfilling read for me.  I'm typically not a big fan of stories that simmer, but this one grabbed me and held on.

If you're already a fan of Alice Munro, you'll like what this story has to offer.

The Way up to Heaven, by Roald Dahl.

I have just reviewed 'The Way up to Heaven' by Roald Dahl at A Curious Singularity and crossposted on 51 Stories. I think the title refers to the fact that Mrs. Foster is rid of her annoying husband (so, she's in heaven) and he is literally (one presumes!) on his way to heaven (as he is dead) and she has paved the staircase for him. Is that right?


Monday, April 21, 2008

John Mutford's 10th Short Story Pick: Roald Dahl's "The Way Up To Heaven"

Short Story Monday

No, I'm not trying to sway the Great Wednesday Compare results. I picked a Dahl story this week because his "The Way Up To Heaven" is this month's pick over at A Curious Singularity.

Most people who mention Dahl usually refer to memories of his children's books. I think a teacher read Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to me at one point, and I saw the movie version of James and the Giant Peach. But for reading Dahl myself, the only thing I recollect is "Lamb To The Slaughter." I read it in junior high and it quickly became one of my favourites.

Like "Lamb to the Slaughter," "The Way Up To Heaven" is also on the dark side. Revolving around a woman who is has obsessive issues with tardiness, and a husband who may or may not like to goad her about it, it begins as a portrait of a slightly dysfunctional, but very believable, couple.

What I found most impressive was how Dahl made me feel Mrs. Foster's stress over getting to the airport on time. Since having kids my punctuality leaves something to be desired, but I don't often worry about it. So how did Dahl manage to make me empathetic for this woman? It wasn't that I related and it wasn't that she was a particularly nice character (I found her slightly annoying). I think Dahl was able to instill my feelings, by trading one tension for another.

Her husband, Eugene Foster, was said to have a timing "so accurate-- just a minute or two late, you understand-- and [a] manner so bland that it was hard to believe he wasn't purposefully inflicting a nasty private little torture of his own on the unhappy lady." The undercurrent of resentment between the two characters, combined with the ambiguity of whether or not the husband was purposefully exacerbating his wife's condition, put me on edge so much that feeling Mrs. Foster's stress about getting out on time seemed natural.

I am a little confused about the title however. I'm not sure if it's meant to be ironic or not. Nor am I clear as to whom was supposed to be on their way. In any case, the story itself was great even if the title was not.

Cross posted at A Curious Singularity and The Book Mine Set.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov was originally the second in a trilogy of novels. First published in 1952, the novel is in fact two stories or two novellas originally published (separately) in 1945.

Things you should know:

*Foundation was good. Really good. But Foundation and Empire was even better.
*Foundation and Empire is infinitely better than Prelude to Foundation.
*While I would certainly recommend reading Foundation, I think you could pick up Foundation and Empire without having read the other and still appreciate it for the great book that it is. It does in fact include a nice two page summary of the novel Foundation.
*Foundation and Empire has a certain something-special about it that makes it stand apart from Foundation. The writing seems wittier, funnier, more tongue-in-cheek. There's just something about it that makes it pop.

I am still operating under the philosophy of sometimes it is better not to know, BUT at the same time I don't want to be accused of not "reviewing" it properly.

Foundation and Empire roughly picks up about three hundred years after Foundation opens. In the first novella, "The General" the reader learns of the fourth (I believe it's fourth) Seldon crisis. One of the strongest generals of the Empire (what remains of the Empire) is out to destroy the Foundation. Bel Riose is the general's name. Ducem Barr, the son of a man we met briefly in Foundation, is a main character--a character that opposes the Empire even at great risk to his own life and his own family. Lathan Devers, a trader, is also of importance. The plot of "The General" is relatively simple, and this is the shorter of the two stories. In the second novella, "The Mule" the Foundation faces its GREATEST threat so far. It begins simply with the homecoming of a bride and groom. Bayta and Toran. They're visiting Toran's family on the planet of Haven. Haven is a "rat hole" of a planet where traders--mostly retired traders--go to hide out and evade paying taxes to the Foundation. The planet is technically a part of the Foundation. But they're more of a rebellious bunch on Haven. The reader soon learns that not everyone thinks Foundation is perfect when it comes to running the galaxy--or their small part of the galaxy. There is discontent among the ranks of citizens. But even the threat--the small threat--of civil war pales in comparison to the REAL threat of The Mule. I will say no more about the Mule or the rest of the story. I don't care how curious you are! Some things you can't pry out of me.

One Voice, Please

McBratney, Sam. 2008. One Voice, Please: Favorite Read-Aloud Stories.

One Voice, Please is a delightful gathering of stories--some familiar, some not-so-much--perfect for reading aloud to children of all ages. Family-friendly reading, if you will, that while kid-friendly is not unappealing to adults. Most stories are two to three pages, and could easily be read in a few minutes. This is a good thing. Perfect reading to fill in those gaps during the day when you don't quite have enough time to get settled into a longer book--like a novel or even a traditional picture book.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2005, the collection has recently been published in the U.S. With over fifty stories, there is sure to be something that is just right for your mood. The book would be a great edition to the classroom as well. My personal favorite was "Many Littles Make A Lot."


Wednesday, April 16, 2008


I must begin this review with a full confession: Elizabeth Berg is my aunt. I adore her and I want to be her when I grow up. :-) There. The secret is out.

Beth's new book of short stories, The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation, was released yesterday, and I immediately acquired a copy for myself and sat down to read the title story. Anyone who has ever been on a diet will relate to the narrator's defiant act of hookey from her Weight Watcher's meeting. And the giggly elation of eating all day with no boundaries! And, most likely, that final unfulfilled feeling.

Then I moved on to the second story about a middle-aged woman who unexpectedly comes face to face with her first love. Remember all the amazing feelings your first love was able to conjure up? Would you still feel that way now?

I have another confession to make. I have only read three of Beth's books. Why? Because she's so real that it hurts. I love Beth's writing. I always feel like we're having a private conversation when I read her work, and these little stories are no exception. It's like gossiping with a really funny friend. A really funny friend who is acutely aware of what makes us human, aware of the insecurities and tears beneath the laughter. She doesn't always point it out directly, but you know she knows. And you love her for it, because she makes it okay to be imperfect.

I only read the first two stories in this collection, because I want to stretch these little nuggets of fun and real life out for a while. I'm going to laugh out loud, and I know for a fact she's going to make me cry. And I'm going to feel vulnerable, empowered, ridiculous, smart and okay just the way I am. Thanks, Beth!


This review is cross-posted on my blog at

Monday, April 14, 2008

Short Stories – Raymond Carver - cross reviewed here.

Time to update my short story reading. It’s not as if I am totally ignoring this category, not at all. I read short stories like I read a poem, one at a time and from different books and by different authors, not sequentially as in one book full of short stories before going on to another. Recently I’ve read a couple of stories from Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From. The book is always somewhere in reach, on my table in my work room, the bedside table or somewhere around the house. The stories are, according to the blurb ‘masterpieces in American fiction’. And so they are. Nobody said anything is about a day in the life of a teenager whose parents quarrel as he and his brother are still in bed, early in the morning. He fakes illness and his mother allows him to stay home from school. The innuendo of the relationships between the brothers and the mother is subtly evoked and as a reader you are drawn into the world and thoughts of the teenager, the way he thinks and nothing is crystal clear, of course it is not, he’s a teenager and male. Once everyone has gone he gets his fishing tackle and goes out to fish in familiar territory. He comes across another boy and together they land a huge fish. Both want it to show off to their parents and the decision is made to cut if in half. The story comes to its excruciating end when the teenager proudly shows his half of the fish to his parents, back home and quarrelling again. Then he is shouted at and is told by both to take it out and away. He has managed to divert them from their quarrelling, but only because they now both have a go at him.

I’ve read some more in this collection. They’re all subtle, not a word too many, snapshots of life, of a man who has given up smoking and whose son becomes embroiled in a quarrel with friends and their parents about a bike; then there’s the story of a sleepless student’s wife, who desperately tries to keep her husband awake with her but finally loses and when morning finally comes she gets back into bed, and he’s fast asleep.

You read one and close the book and get on with whatever you have to do. It is like reading poetry, it takes time and you want to savour them.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Etgar Keret, "Knockoff Venus"

Etgar Keret's "Knockoff Venus" (which is online at and is part of his new collection The Girl On the Fridge) is an oddly affecting little tale which somehow manages to be prosaic and fabulist at the same time. Prosaic in that it involves the lovesick musings of a lonely office worker, and fabulist in that the object of his crush is Venus - yes, the Roman goddess of beauty and love.

How an immortal deity came to work as a lowly copyist in an Israeli office is never explicitly explained, other than her vague reference to having emigrated, with several other gods, from deplorable conditions somewhere else. But other than her beauty - which has narrator quite dazzled - she seems remarkably ordinary: she speaks only bad Hebrew, has questionable taste in men (which is, admittedly, to the narrator's benefit) and only dully goes through the desultory motions of her job, as the narrator describes with Keret's typically deadpan humor:

Venus worked from eight-thirty to six, sometimes later, Xeroxing reams and collating them into neat stacks. Even in that position, sweaty and bent over the machine, wincing against the flashing light, she was still the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I wanted to say so, but I couldn’t get up the nerve. In the end, I wrote it down on a piece of paper and left it on her desk. The next morning, the note was waiting for me, along with fifty copies.

Despite the lightness of Keret's touch, the unspoken implications of the narrative are considerably more troubling: the narrator's world is one in which Roman gods, who in antiquity ruled over all of mankind and the natural world, are now forced to work menial jobs in Israel which, while an improvement over the gods' former home, has long been a site of ethnic tensions and violence and thus is far from paradise. The gods scuffle along, working as movers and mechanics and office temps, grateful for their new situations but still far removed from their past glories. They have lost any semblance of the supernatural, and seem all but powerless to change their plight. Our world, Keret seems to say, has declined so much that even the gods are at a loss to do anything about it.

Or maybe that's nothing more than my overwrought interpretation. Maybe Keret didn't mean to imply any of that at all. Maybe he just wrote a quirky story about a mortal and a degraded goddess making the best of their humble situations and falling in love. Or maybe Keret meant to deliver both: a love story with weighty undercurrents. The final line of the story resolves none of the above, and is as charmingly ambiguous as the rest - from the narrator's comment it's unclear whether he thinks the relationship will never last and he'll soon need something else to occupy his time, or if the relationship is the first step toward the domesticity and stability he desires.

Whatever the interpretation, Keret makes the reader think - which is what all good storytellers do. And Keret is certainly one of the good ones.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Roy Kesey's All Over

I have been shockingly remiss about posting here, and I am very sorry about that. But it doesn't mean I haven't been reading short stories. It's just that I am a bit busy with The Short Review. So, finally, I thought at least I should post here one of the reviews I have written this year, of a collection I loved: All Over, by Roy Kesey. Here's my review:

Reading Roy Kesey's collection made me happy. Re-reading it soon after made me even happier. This is not because Kesey's stories are hopeful or optimistic. It is because this is a writer so clearly in love with language and rhythm that it is a delight to experience what he does with words – both those we are familiar with and those I suspect he invented.

The 19 stories range in length from one to ten pages. Several were previously published in literary magazines such as McSweeney's and Opium, publications with a reputation for clever, sharp, irreverant writing. While Kesey's work does fit this description, this is not cleverness for the sake of it. In almost all the stories, even those that on the surface appear utterly absurd, he is unearthing the complexities of our world, the messes we make of it, and the small moments of joy.

This is no easy book; Kesey's reader is required to work hard. He strips down to the essentials; there are few names or places here, anything that might anchor us. here were several stories that, however hard I worked at them, I couldn't squeeze any meaning from at all. This doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the wordplay and the flow of language, I just had no idea what I was supposed to understand here. But the struggle to make sense of the worlds he has created is well worth the effort, though, because most of the stories give and carry on giving on each subsequent reading.

In Fontanel, a story I found very moving, what we presume is a fertility doctor or gynaecologist is describing to an unidentified listener the collage of pictures he creates for each and every birth. As he talks about each picture, we slowly realise all is not what it seems. This “collage” contains images not only of the couple about to give birth, their first child, the wife's mother , but “the gas station attendant who is friendly and serviceable and pretends not to notice the wife's screams”, “the taxi driver scrubbing the back seat of his taxi”, “the aneastheologist, resting for a moment in the break room, imagining new sorts of pain”.

Wait begins as the ordinary story of a flight delayed due to fog. The omniscient narrator pans across the departure lounge, dipping in and out of passengers' thoughts. The language throws out clues that here, too, we are not in reality is we know it: “Airline personnel daydream of islands, and speak urgently into handheld radios though this is only for show: the batteries have been on backorder for years”. As the hours pass, disasters accumulate, the passengers form alliances and organize distractions, until the entire situation crumbles.

Kesey's stories often begin with some semblance of order and then descend into chaos, but the endings are by no means uniformly hopeless: they manage to satisfy while also, in many cases, being suprising or shocking. Kesey's characters sometimes get what they want, but not in the way they - or we - may have predicted. There is an allusion to war or some other, larger event in many of the stories, as if to remind reader and protagonists alike that, although we may imagine we are in control, there is always something greater than us.

All Over is the first release from Dzanc Books, a non-profit small press whose stated aim is to “to advance great writing and champion those writers who don't fit neatly into the marketing niches of for-profit presses”. With this book, they have set themselves a high standard. This is an astonishing debut collection by a writer who deftly uses language, rendering it both spare and rich, sentences and paragraphs reverberating long after the book has been put down. Kesey's keen eye slices through pretence and artifice and although we may not always comprehend his writings on the surface, in our bones we know what he writes are truths.

The Short Review interview with Roy Kesey is here. And forgive me for another quick plug: Issue 6 of The Short Review just came out, so if you are stuck for inspiration, I invite you to go and take a look.


PS I am so remiss I didn't realise until I had posted this post that the previous post was also a review of a Roy Kesey story! Well, that says something about him, doesn't it?

"Wait" by Roy Kesey

I'm in the middle of reading Best American Short Stories when I stumbled upon Roy Kesey's "Wait."

"Wait" was originally published in the Kenyon Review in Fall 2006, and also published in Kesey's short story collection All Over, had easily become one of my favorites on first read.  The story is not for everyone.  Kesey's style here is droll, the tone is very matter-of-fact with a grammatical structure that someone else pointed out to me as being almost entirely absent of adverbs and descriptions.  Verbs work hard here.  And the humor is over-the-top absurd.  I'm not spoiling anything by telling you this, but if you don't like absurd comedy then this story won't resonate with you.

Me?  I'm all over absurd.

It takes the reader on a wild ride through the waiting lobby of an airport where fog disrupts the flow of normal air traffic.  Wackiness ensues much to my delight.  If you've ever been stuck in an airport, you may be able to appreciate Kesey's wit.  It's one of those stories when you ask yourself "what else could go wrong" might call for something absurdly unusual as well as disastrous.

What's also great about "Wait" is the deft way Kesey characterizes everyone.  He relies on stereotypes (a technique common in humor writing), and the characters jump out of that on their own.  By the end you'll have remembered the girl from Ghana, the boy from Mongolia, the Honduran woman and the Canadian accountant because they all play a part in Kesey's story world.  No character is not important.  No one is forgotten.

And by the time you're done with it, you'll appreciate how much something so literary can also be so entertaining and carry you away to another place.

It's magical.

Crossblogged here.