Friday, April 12, 2013

Time for Some Short Stories

Since I teach literature, I tend to read short stories one at a time, rarely reading a whole collection by the same author at one time, which is a shame.  Recently, I read Junot Diaz's recent collection This Is How You Lose Her and George Saunders' Tenth of December.

I had read Diaz before; in fact, I think my book club may have read his nove The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  I've even heard rumors that he may be part of a writers series here in my part of the world next (school) year.  The short stories were separate, stand-alone stories, but with some overlap, some characters, particularly Yunior, reappearing in later stories, and all were set in and around New Jersey. The main characters are Dominican immigrants, and Diaz's language is steeped in the flavor his his culture. His characters, often flawed, deal not simply with the immigrant experience, but with the human experience, particularly the loss of love.

Tenth of December, Saunder's collection, is more loosely connected.  Some of the stories are set in the real world, while others are certain imbued by fantasy, sometimes little enough that those elements sneak up on readers.  The opening story "Victory Lap" brought to my mind Joyce Carol Oates' "Where Are Your Going? Where Have You Been?" without being the least bit derivative.  The title story, which closes the collection, follows two lives that coincide, a dying man attempting to end his life and a young misfit of a boy, out walking and wishing to be a hero, who nearly loses his own life trying to save the man.  Between these two, all the characters seem to wrestle with their idea of living with "moral courage," an elusive trait indeed.

I realize that one of things I like best about reading a collection of short stories is the quick payoff. I can finish a single story in a short time (I think Poe prescribed one sitting), but then if I want more, there they are.  I can also postpone the agonizing decision of what to read next.  For now, that decision is pressing. I have two novels I can't wait to read, but while I'm in short story mode, it's time for Ron Rash's Nothing Gold Can Stay.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

I mentioned in an earlier post that I bought the first of Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce novels, Sweetness in the Bottom of the Pie, simply because I liked the cover. So much for that old axiom, eh? I even took awhile to get started reading it, but then I shared it with my mom, not only a voracious reader, but a speed reader (with great comprehension), which I envy.

I also don't necessarily gravitate toward series books, sometimes resenting the pull to read the next and the next.  In some cases, I'm glad I did. (Prime example, Harry Potter).  In other cases, I can certainly resist (Twilight). These books, though, manage to stand alone, but having read the previous novels, I feel that sense of satisfaction and familiarity: these are people I already know.

I will admit that I have enjoyed many a book with a young narrator.  Despite the advise one of my writer friends was given against using a young protagonist, I could make a long list of such books that I have loved. Aware I am dealing in cliches, I would still call Flavia de Luce charming and delightful.  She's an eleven-year-old, the youngest of three daughters of a father raising them alone after losing their mother Harriet on an adventure in Tibet.  He is also edging book-by-book closer to losing the family's once-grand home because of financial strains.

Once again, in this novel Speaking from Among the Bones, a murder occurs, and of course, Flavia lands right in the middle of the action.  In the meantime, the grave of Saint Tancred, the patron saint of Bishop's Lacey, the little parish where they live, is to be exhumed for their five hundred anniversary of the church. Flavia proves such an ideal narrator, both naive and self aware.  She  is drawn to trouble and can't avoid the temptation to torment her older sisters, though she melts with the least sign of warmth from them.

Bradley's secondary characters, the church officials, the employees in the home, the neighbors, and the law officers, are colorful and endearing.

Somehow I had the mistaken idea that this was the last in the series.  I should have known better. After my mother finished the book (before me, of course), she asked more than once if I had read it yet.  Not until I reached the end did I understand why she asked.  I won't explain. First you need to read the books--all of them--yourself!