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Category Archive for 'Short Stories'

A purple swamp hen from the famed mural of Pompeii is the speaker of the first story in this collection of short stories by Penelope Lively. As the hen describes, the garden was unlike anything any of us have ever known, hosting “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household, and his associates.” And, the hen states, the humans were far more imaginative than the fauna, which “simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction.” Clearly establishing the satiric tone of this and many other stories in her new story collection, her first in almost two decades, author Penelope Lively continues to prove that great writing – elegant, precise, completely attuned to nuance, and committed to using exactly the right word and not one word more – still exists for lovers of fine prose. She further shows that fine writing need not be stuffy or effete, that humor is an integral part of life, and that satire may be more effective in conveying ideas than polemics and criticism. Best of all, she shows that stories, though short, may convey big ideas and that collections of stories may represent different times and different forms and still develop a broad thematic unity within the collection.

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In a book that will delight lovers of stories and art, Lawrence Block, editor and writer, presents stories written by himself and sixteen other authors in response to seventeen paintings by American artist Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967). Most of Hopper’s paintings are quiet, with little, if any, action and few, if any, characters. The overall mood for most of Hopper’s paintings is bleak, and his characters appear to be lonely, immersed in their own thoughts, and alienated from the society. Though Hopper specializes in the play of sunlight and shadow (hence, the title of the book), he does so with dramatic effect, and most of his major paintings show isolated characters dealing with the darkness, the light being just beyond them. All of the seventeen writers who have contributed a short story to illustrate a Hopper painting clearly catch the mood of depression and withdrawal which seems to characterize so many of these paintings, and anyone familiar with the work of these writers, most of whom are mystery writers, should also know what to expect: Only two writers create stories that can be said to have even slightly “happy” endings, and one of those occurs on a deathbed. Great fun!

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Michael Cunningham’s ten tales, distortions of fairy tales we have all heard as children, will make most readers smile in recognition and sometimes sardonic glee, while annoying some traditionalists who would like to preserve intact their memories of an idyllic childhood. All readers will probably agree, however, that Cunningham’s interpretations of these stories deserve the more serious thought that none of us were able to accord them when we were much younger. Including stories based on Hansel and Gretel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Snow White, Rumplestiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, and several other less famous tales, Cunningham begins by examining the answer to the real, unasked question which haunts the traditional fairy tale conclusions. The convenient “And they lived happily ever after” no longer applies here, as Cunningham employs reason and some dark humor to develop the tales in more modern and more surprising ways. With these stories, we get the answers to “And then, what?” The joys and burdens of fate, the delights of dreams fulfilled and the horrors of dreams destroyed, the ability to survive life’s vagaries and the need to accept some things that cannot be changed are all themes here which make Cunningham’s depictions of life in these new tales feel more honest than the fairy tales they emerge from, and, certainly more fun for adult readers, many of whom have outgrown the black and white tales of the past.

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Mai Al-Nakib, an author from Kuwait who got her PhD. in English literature from Brown University, knows how to capture an American audience, and her descriptions and her narrative style in this remarkable collection of stories are so attuned to her characters and subjects that readers will actually experience – not just “learn about” – parts of the world which most of us know only second-hand. Set in Kuwait, Lebanon, and Palestine, and, through the travel of some of these characters, in Japan and Greece, her stories are filled with word pictures so vivid that many readers will come close to feeling the reality of day-to-day life in these places. She opens new worlds, and by the time the collection ends, many readers will be viewing life in these parts of the world with clearer vision and greater empathy. The passage of time, the fragility of life, the effects of change, and the transcience of memory unite this story and connect it to other stories in this collection. The title of the collection, The Hidden Light of Objects, attests to the importance of the story objects within these stories, and while none of us, perhaps, regard our own “souvenirs” or keepsakes as “story objects” in quite the same way as they are used here, it is impossible not to identify with the characters here as they share their intimate thoughts and feelings with us as readers. Separating the ten short stories are series of ten short vignettes, which sometimes connect with each other and within various stories. This extraordinary collection deals with the biggest, most universal themes of literature, told through the eyes of characters with whom readers will identify and, perhaps, gain in understanding.

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With an opening story which feels like some bizarre, twisted, and darkly humorous version of Deliverance, O. Henry Award-winner Arthur Bradford turns not just this plot on its head but every other plot in every other story in this collection. These interconnected stories feature a young, naïve speaker, usually identified as “Georgie,” who seems born without a sense of caution, someone who appears to have no ability to predict disasters as he enthusiastically follows his imagination or heart without a glance backward – or forward. Few readers will be able to resist this character, whose heart is in the right place though he lives on a completely different plane from the rest of the world. Even those few main characters who are not specifically identified as “Georgie” might just as well be Georgie in terms of their personality and behavior, acting the way many of us dreamed of behaving in an earlier, simpler world, long before we grew up and learned to “pay attention,” “think of the future,” and “be careful.” It is the tension between our empathy for Georgie and our frustration with him for his gullibility that keeps the reader entertained and involved, though Georgie is guaranteed to make every parent who reads this book cringe.

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