Category Archives: Short Stories

Crime, by Ferdinand von Schirach: Humanizing the Criminal Mind

Crime, a collection of short stories by German criminal defense lawyer Ferdinand von Schirach, is a crystalline compendium of crime, laying out in wholly readable prose the whys and wherefores of robbery, assault, and murder.  Von Schirach renders the motivation comprehensible while leaving the crimes mostly reprehensible. He is not offering excuses; he is offering explanations, and by putting a human face on crime, von Schirach forces us to see ourselves and what we might do if our luck turned, or if we’d never had any to start with.

Crime is not a book for those seeking gruesome details or spine-chilling suspense.  The narrator of the stories — a nameless defense attorney brought in to advise — is omniscient in observations but reticent in titillation: the crimes are presented only peripherally in terms of actual physical detail, leaving at center stage the internal workings of desire, logic, guilt, and absolution.  We learn what humans are capable of, whether due to past abuse, lost dreams, bad luck, mental illness, or simple desperation, and we understand.  There are some happy endings to the cases represented and some sad outcomes but what all the stories share is sensitivity to the subject, acuity in observation and reporting, and satisfaction in conclusion.  Von Schirach is an original voice, a new speaker for the law-breakers, and a wise witness to the potential within all of us to commit an act of criminality.

Crime was translated from German by Carol Janeway.

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“I Am That Is!”: Farewell to Brian Jacques, Who Wielded Words So Well

Brian Jacques, creator of the mighty mouse warrior Martin — “I am that is!  My sword shall wield for me!” — and the hugely popular and populous kingdom of Redwall Abbey, died on February 5, 2011, at the age of 71. A master storyteller with a marvelous voice, giant imagination, open heart, and unflagging energy, Jacques wrote over twenty books in the Redwall series as well as books in other series and collections of short stories. Although his most famous characters were animals of the woods, Jacques’ lessons of generosity, compassion, and stalwartness were meant for all of humanity, of all ages and places. Brian Jacques will be missed, and he will be remembered, by generations of readers.

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Stories in the Palm of Your Hand

The short shorts in Tessa Smith McGovern’s collection London Road: Linked Stories really are made to fit within the palm of your hand — her delightful and fresh stories are available as apps for your phone or can be converted for your e-reader. For those without the handheld devices, never fear.  The stories can also be downloaded onto your computer and read from the screen, or printed out (with color ink, if possible: the graphics are striking and integral to the stories!) for reading the old-fashioned way.

Whatever way you take in the words of McGovern, just make sure you do.  Her stories link the lives of residents in a halfway house on the outskirts of London. Based largely on McGovern’s own experiences  — her mother operated a Halfway House in Sussex — , her characters come alive through a style that is unique and lovely.  McGovern uses words both easily and luxuriously and her ability to evoke place, emotion, and possibility all within the confines of a very short story is amazing. I felt as if I personally knew each character, from Janice to Nora to Isobel to Bitty, and even Len down at the pub, and I cared about them all.

That McGovern has time to write so beautifully while also launching her electronic publishing house of eChook is astounding.  But as explained on the eChook website, once she created her own short story app for iPhone, iPad, and Androids, she realized she had become a publisher — and she ran with it!

McGovern makes a wonderful case for the short shorts app — literature for taking on the go —  offering reasons like “ten minutes of reading provides a mini-vacation in your busy, sometimes frantic day, and leaves you feeling refreshed” — absolutely!  — and “original stories and memoirs by contemporary writers expand your horizons?[gaining] insight into other people’s lives.”  Again: absolutely!

I could read the London Road: Linked Stories app easily on my phone but when I converted the app for my Kindle, there were a few problems, including the loss of all “th”s in the text, along with numbers, and the graphics lost their power.  I also read the stories on my computer — easy to do but out of sync with McGovern’s goal of providing pleasure on the go, reading everywhere and anywhere.  I will continue to follow the trajectory of e-Chook with interest, and I will read the works of Tessa Smith McGovern, in whatever form they come.

Dressed For Every Occasion

Summer Brenner’s new collection of short stories, My Life in Clothes, is a breath of fresh air, a lively mix of imagination and memoir with no angst, lots of love, and enough humor to clear away whatever tears may fall. Her stories about a Jewish family from Atlanta, told from the point of view of a rebellious but affectionate daughter named Sue, cover history spanning generations, including family lore (the ancestor who sang so beautifully no Cossack would touch him), trials (the lifelong rivalry between sisters Marguerite and Edith), touchstones (the varied familial responses to integration, music, desire), work (Sue’s experiences are hilarious), and adventures (wanderlust and thirst for experience leads Sue and others of her clan north, west, and even further south).  Clothes do play a part in the family history but the manner in which Brenner weaves and sews the clothes into the stories is original, integral, and beautiful. All qualities, by the way, shared by the schmatte — and the people — we love.

Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt: Enchanted and Beguiled

The Woman With the Bouquet, a collection of short stories by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, enchanted and perplexed me.  From what century did this charming writer emerge?  His gothically-romantic but also penetratingly realistic depictions  remind me of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl (whose names are also reminiscent of Schmitt) wherein a human scene of huge impact is played out against an even larger background of grandiose nature.  And so the characters of Schmitt’s stories — a love-sick author, an angry wife, an unsure woman, a  grouchy professor —  play out  their own scenes of love, desire, jealousy, and despair against the larger background of rich atmosphere.  From the deserted (and later, overrun) beaches of Ostend to the wild countryside of the Ardeche to the railroad station in Zurich to a hospital ward for the critically injured, Schmitt places his characters. As powerful as the backgrounds are, the human scenes are big enough to capture and hold attention, as the players deal passionately with life and find reasons both irrational and irrefutably sane, for doing what they do, wanting what they want, and dreaming what they dream.

Schmitt is so comfortable at using both realism and a touch of authorial control through coincidences and hyperbolic situations that I felt as if I were reading the true heir of Dickens or Maupassant, and I loved every minute of it.  As heavy with portent and intent as his stories are, Schmitt is also very, very funny, especially in his observations:  “Like many single people who have no sexual life, he worried a great deal about his health.”  Speaking of sex, his first story contains guidelines for a very lively evening, ingeniously created as a menu taken from classic mythology, geometrical shapes, geography and landmarks, fruits and vegetables, and folktales.

The way Schmitt begins his stories is forceful, for example:  “In a few minutes, if everything went well, she would kill her husband” and  “At the train station in Zurich, on platform number three, there is a woman who has been waiting, every day for fifteen years, with a bouquet in her hand.”  And he completes his tales with endings that bring both pleasure and satisfaction, even when utterly unbelievable.  Read these stories for pleasure and they will be sure to linger long after the book is finished, lovely memories of romance and excitement, dreams and visions, rolling luxuriously around in your brain.

The Woman with the Bouquet was translated by Alison Anderson.

The Book of Right and Wrong, by Matt Debenham

The stories in Matt Debenham’s debut collection, The Book of Right and Wrong, are quietly and beautifully brilliant.  Debenham presents luminescent briefings of specific turning points in lives.  Both the lives and the turning points are so real and so engaging that my own life felt transformed — illuminated — by the changes wrought in the lives of the characters.  The changes occur in turn-on-a-dime moments when a startling realization is made — the message left behind on a blue piece of note paper, the reason for an invite to a party, the tugging down of a pair of jeans — and a new path is followed, leading to a conclusion of the story that is both surprising and completely believable, whether it be revenge, reversal, or  acceptance.

Debenham is fluid and fluent with details of dialogue, internal thoughts and observations, and background; he creates fiction that reads like the most honest and searing of memoirs.  What makes his writing — and his stories — so good is how each memoir-esque tale is told from a different point of view: child, man, woman; recovering alcoholic, ex-con, bullied victim.  Each voice is authentic, unique, and compelling; each character is exposed and communicative, telling a story that is both personal and universal.  I cared about every character created by Debenhan; I wanted to protect them and spare their hearts another blow. Through Debenham’s writing, I gradually came to understand just how many blows a human heart can take.

There are a series of stories about the LaPine family in The Book of Right and Wrong.  Their incomplete and riveting history left  me hoping for a novel-length exploration of this foursome, the philandering father, suffering mother, rebellious daughter, and geek son.  In the final story, Kate the Destroyer, the mother finally takes steps to protect her son:  “Kate has always known she’d kill for her children, but how often we overlook maiming.”  Overlooked no more: I rooted for Kate all the way, even as I felt the pain of the maimed bully.  The bully himself is a recurring character in the LaPine stories and has his own background of dual personas, abusive father, hidden desires, and the too-heavy weight of expectations imposed upon him by looks and abilities.  As mean as this bully can be, in Debenham’s stories the bad guys always have a history well-worth understanding and the good guys have reserves of badness that are just waiting to break out (witness the maiming).

The stories in The Book of Right and Wrong are all right, without one wrong note or jarring action or unsatisfying conclusion.  The stories are absolute gems of truth about the fragility and the resilience of the human heart, in all its ages and incarnations.

Burning Bright and Beautiful

Ron Rash is a writer of quiet and stunning beauty. His novel One Foot in Eden was one of my favorites in my year of reading one book a day. When I received his latest publication, a collection of short stories entitled Burning Bright, I was excited to sit down and delve in. I was not disappointed. The stories in Burning Bright are beautiful. Each story is luminescent, deeply communicative of Appalachia and perfectly framed with sentences both lyrical and grounded:  “He imagined towns where hungry men hung on boxcars looking for work that couldn’t be found, shacks where families lived who didn’t even have one swaybacked milk cow. He imagined cities where blood stained the sidewalks beneath buildings tall as ridges. He tried to imagine a place worse than where he was.”

Rash is a poet as well as novelist and short story writer. He uses his agility with sentence rhythm and word resonance to weave stories that are stark, even grim, and yet carry a lasting recognition of those moments of release that spark across even the bleakest of realities. In “Waiting for the End of the World”, the narrator, a musician forced to play over and over again “Free Bird,” Lynrd Skynrd’s anthem to the South, works his way deep into the familiar lines and finds new meaning there:  “I’m merging the primal and existential and I’ve cranked up the volume so loud empty beer bottles are vibrating off tables and the tractor beams are pulsing like strobe lights and whatever rough beast is asleep out there in the dark is getting its wake-up call and I’m ready and waiting for whatever its got.

In “The Woman Who Believed in Jaguars,” a woman left alone by the death of her mother and child and the distancing of her husband, goes in search of the jaguar of South Carolina, trying to find “if there is anything left inside her mind she can believe.” She uncovers a time when South Carolina was lit by the colors and flight of thousands of parrots, and she finds a lone jaguar, where “a tree limb rises toward her like an outstretched hand.”

I recommend reading Rash’s poems along with his stories. He is a writer gifted at expressing the sublimated and sublime hope of people hard-used by circumstance and long used to endurance, as shown in this excerpt from his poem, “Fall Creek”:

where years ago
local lore claims clothes were shed
by a man and woman wed
less than a month, who let hoe
and plow handle slip from hands,
left rows half done, crossed dark waves
of bottomland to lie on
a bed of ferns, make a child,
and all the while the woman
stretching both arms behind her
over the bank, hands swaying
wrist-deep in current — perhaps
some old wives’ tale, water’s pulse
pulsing what seed might be sown,
or just her need to let go
the world awhile, let the creek
wash away every burden
her life had carried so far,
open a room for this new
becoming as her body
flowed around her man like water.

The stories in Burning Bright go back to the Civil War, through to the Depression and on across the years to today; the common elements are location — Appalachia — and struggle. Whether it be to survive as a Lincolnite (Union-supporter) in Confederate territory, to withstand the grinding poverty of the Depression, to return from the Korean war and renew roots, or to hold together a family amidst the disintegration caused by meth addiction, job loss, medical debts, or revamped identity, Rash’s characters rely on gritty fortitude, shadowed compassion, and a bone deep alliance to the land and the people they came from to carry on, day to day. The stories in Burning Bright could be bleak and depressing but under Rash’s touch, both the characters and their lives instead speak of endurance, intuition, and grace.

Glowing Observations of Moments in Life

Tara Masih’s debut collection of short stories, Where the Dog Star Never Glows, displays her great talent at observation and description, as well as her bravery in tackling places and periods outside of her own experience. She moves her stories with confidence and faith through locales as different as a beach village in Puerto Rico, a haunted mining town in Montana, the suburbs of Long Island, a Texas border community, and small town New England.  Her characters are interesting and true to life, familiar in their uncertainties and fears and in their hopes for what life holds ahead of them. Many of the stories could serve as good jumping off points for longer pieces (novels) about the characters and how they grow and change through conflicts and resolution.

Masih has a good eye for detail and a nice, easy sense of character.  She is perhaps too eager to set up conflicts  that are neither organic nor integral to the places and characters she is so good at creating, and she is apt to make grand conclusions to finish off her story telling.  She must trust more in power of the small details in life — and in her writing — to speak volumes without the need for underscoring or exclamation. She is at her best in recording and understanding place, such as the play of light and sound in our surroundings, and characters, especially the reactions, both emotionally and physically, that occur between lovers, friends, family, and strangers.  Following her characters patiently through longer pieces and allowing natural conflicts to arise and resolve would bring a satisfying depth to her writing, such as is found in the final story in the collection, the lovely and moving “Delight.”

I look forward to reading more from Masih and would love to read a novel from her, a work that would give her the space, time, and patience to allow her characters to breathe, stretch, live and grow under her watchful guidance and gifted pen.

Forgetting English, by Midge Raymond

Forgetting English, short stories by Midge Raymond, are unsettling and tightly-recorded revelations about relationships, exploring and dissecting the connections between siblings, spouses, and friends. Perhaps the most disturbing relationship Raymond probes, then reveals, is the link within: the relationship each person has with their internal selves.  We are multiples: who we were as a child, an adolescent, and now; who we think we will become; who we want to be; and the one we fear we actually have become. And within that multiplicity of connections, there is pain, fear, and sorrow, and, occasionally, hope.

Using taut language, straightforward plots that give a sudden twist, and unflinching characterization, Raymond brings us face to face with people once sure of themselves, now unsure; once standing on solid ground, now they are rocked out of complacency or dormancy of their desires, and brought back to life, hard and fast. They are no longer secure, but they are more alive than before; they are no longer somnolent but wakefulness has a price: to be awake is painful.  No happy endings here but there is potential for something better —  a fully engaged life.

Beautiful Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

The five stories of “Music and Nightfall” contained in Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro display Ishiguro’s virtuosity in creating fiction that is both illuminating and pleasurable. Reading his works is always an experience of multiple satisfactions — characters, landscape, plot — and the themes he explores are consistently brought to a new place of examination and understanding.  My favorite story in the collection was “Crooner”, with its narrator both innocent and wise, its underlying themes of regret and passage, and its conclusion that music (and the comfort that it gives, no matter what its motivation or how unintentionally given) is on the highest plane of human endeavor.  Writing — when it is as good as these stories are — is also on that plane, and Ishiguro gives great comfort, pleasure, and insight with these stories.

Ishiguro never takes the easy way out in his fiction; he doesn’t write stories with a  clear demarcation of right and wrong, light and dark, and yet he does insist on a  line of human decency.  His characters yearn for what is best not only for themselves but also as a reaching outward for someone or something else. Even when they fail, miserably or, as demonstrated to great affect in two of the stories, humorously, they are trying to do the right thing; Ishiguro’s characters want to be the right person for the job, to answer the needs of the people (acquaintances, wives, agents, friends, memory of a mother) making demands all around them, and to bring some gratification, some pleasure, somewhere.  Rarely do they please themselves, but that is life, both in Ishiguro’s stories and in the real world. Learning to live with dreams that have not quite come true, with loves that do not answer all needs, with the injustice of how life’s rewards and punishments are meted out, is learning to live, period. And in Ishiguro’s stories, the lesson is learned through moments of pain, of grace, and of laugh-out-loud chaos.