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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier. (more…)

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Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. (more…)

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This list ran last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was originally limited to Southern writers, but I’ve since added a couple of titles I just couldn’t resist. Here are some of the brightest stars on this year’s literary horizon — several much-anticipated novels, a killer short-story collection and memoirs galore.

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings. Viking. Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) again explores themes of race and women’s rights in a well-researched, convincing historical novel inspired by real-life 19th century American abolitionist, writer and suffragist Sarah Grimke. The standout voice here belongs to the fictional Hetty “Handful” Grimke — given to Sarah as a maid when both were 11 years old — who endures the cruel face of urban slavery that will inspire Sarah’s life’s work. (Full review here.)

Wiley Cash, This Dark Road to Mercy. HarperCollins. On the heels of his acclaimed debut, A Land More Kind Than Home, Cash’s second novel unfolds against an unusual background: the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The death of their mother strands 12-year-old Easter and her younger sister in foster care until their long-vanished father, a former minor-league baseball player, reappears to rescue them. The three go on the lam, pursued by a malevolent figure from the father’s past, in a suspenseful story described as “Harper Lee by way of Elmore Leonard.” (Read about A Land More Kind Than Home here.)

Amy Greene, Long Man. Knopf. February. Greene follows her well-received debut, “Bloodroot,” with another mesmerizing, gorgeously written tale set in 1930s Appalachia. It opens with the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plan to dam the Long Man River, delivering jobs and electricity but flooding the little village of Yuneetah in the name of progress. Even though her husband has found employment elsewhere, Annie Dodson resists leaving — until their little girl goes missing and she’s forced to rely for help on one of the most dangerous people in the doomed town.

Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. Lookout Books. March. With their “insistence on the particular and the specific,” Ben Fountain says the short stories in this smart, global anthology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington offer “a corrective to the digital world’s propensity for blasting awareness into a thousand scattered fragments.” Preserving that vital sense of place are veteran and new Southern voices, including Rick Bass, Brad Watson, Ron Rash, Cary Holladay, Lauren Groff, Robert Olen Butler and Kevin Wilson.

Carol Wall, Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening: How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. Amy Einhorn/Putnam. March. Meet Carol Wall, fearful cancer survivor and garden hater. That is, until the day she notices Kenyan Giles Owita beautifying the yard next door. Owita, who works three jobs to make ends meet, is soon prettying up Wall’s eyesore of a yard, too. The heart of this disarming memoir is what took root: an unlikely but steadfast friendship between two people who had nothing — and, ultimately, everything — in common.

Kevin Young, Book of Hours: Poems. Knopf. March. In a poem from his book Dear Darkness, Young once wrote that grief was like gumbo: “you can eat & eat & still plenty left.” His eighth book of poetry is a deeply personal collection that revisits the loss of his father and also celebrates the birth of his first child. If you read no other book of poetry this year, this should be the one — it’s already been named one of 10 essential poetry titles for 2014 by Library Journal. More about Kevin Young here.

Kate Sweeney, American Afterlife: Encounters in the Custom of Mourning. University of Georgia Press. March. From WABE reporter-producer Sweeney comes a funny, edifying American road trip that bears witness to our most revealing and eccentric funerary customs. Beginning with a museum in Illinois where Victorian-era human-hair lockets keep company with a carriage hearse and a re-creation of a 1930s embalming room, she explores “the American landscape of mourning,” including Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery, green burials, an obit writers conference, cremains embedded in “living reefs,” and a memorial tattoo artist.

Frances Mayes, Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir. Crown. April. Mayes, author of the best-selling Tuscany memoirs, grew up in tiny Fitzgerald, Georgia. “I left the South a million years ago,” she writes of her childhood home, confessing that, upon her return at age 22, she broke out in hives. Of her family, Mayes says, “When the plate of unhappiness is passed around … they wanted seconds, thirds.” The family maid, Willie Bell, used to advise Mayes “not to pay them any mind, they all crazy” — but, luckily, she remembers everything in this gutsy, honest portrait of the artist as a young girl.

Pearl Cleage, Things I Should Have Told My Daughter: Lies, Lessons, & Love Affairs. Atria Books. April. Playwright, essayist and novelist Cleage draws from her personal journals covering 1970-1980 for this revealing memoir, which takes readers back in time for a first-hand look at how Cleage juggled marriage, motherhood and politics — back in the day when she was married to Michael Lomax and worked with Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, all the while forging her identity as a writer.

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. Scribner. May. There couldn’t be a better description of this novel than the one found on the author’s blog: “What does the title mean? It’s a reference first and foremost to all the light we literally cannot see: that is, the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum that are beyond the ability of human eyes to detect (radio waves, of course, being the most relevant). It’s also a metaphorical suggestion that there are countless invisible stories still buried within World War II — that stories of ordinary children, for example, are a kind of light we do not typically see.” (My review of Doerr’s last book, Memory Wall.)

Tom Robbins, by Stuart Isett

Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life. Ecco. June. The man who said, “it’s never too late to have a happy childhood” returns to his Depression-era beginnings as the grandchild of Baptist preachers in Blowing Rock, N.C. Fans can expect “a true account” as improbable, magical and bizarre as his quixotic characters. The now 77-year-old author of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this year: “Its relation to the typical autobiography is that of Dumbo to the typical elephant. It will look like it can’t get off the ground, then it will surprise you and go aloft and circle the tents.”

Amanda Kyle Williams, Don’t Talk to Strangers. Bantam. July. I got a sneak peek at the first chapter of Williams’ third installment in her “Stranger” series, and as usual, could barely stop laughing long enough to double-check the locks in my house. Series heroine Keye Street remains a vulnerable blend of tough, funny and kickass, a recovering alcoholic with a craving for Krispy Kremes. Here’s Keye in Stranger in the Room: “My name is Keye Street. I run a little detective agency in Atlanta called Corporate Intelligence & Investigations. And when I say ‘little,’ I mean it’s just me and my red-eyed computer guy, Neil Donovan. And when I say ‘red-eyed,’ I mean he probably smoked a joint with his scrambled eggs this morning.”

Want more? Here are my favorites from 2013. Or you can try the Millions—their list of most anticipated upcoming books is one of my favorites.

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Title notwithstanding, the short stories in Bobcat and Other Stories (Algonquin, $14.95), Rebecca Lee’s debut collection, don’t take place in the wilds. But they do sneak up on you when you’re not looking. And that’s odd, considering the sheltered settings — college campuses, a children’s party, cozy kitchens and living rooms “suggestive of the deepest, richest kind of family life.”

On the surface, the characters also appear tame — professors of history and child psychology, graduate students, writers and the kind of people who quote poetry to themselves out of the blue. Yet as they go about the business of teaching classes and throwing dinner parties, dangers lie in precisely those unguarded moments, because the territory of these intricate, layered tales is heavily mined.

Everything leads up to the moment when Lee pounces — and she is a brilliant, subtle, tender stalker. The joys of a new marriage, a case of plagiarism, a cheating coworker, a crush on a fellow student all distract from the inevitable attack until all that’s left is to “crouch down, hold tight” and endure it.

In the title story, the bobcat is a real one that tried to kill a female hiker in Nepal, but at the dinner party she attends, it stands in for the lurking surprise awaiting her happily married hosts. Throughout the evening, as the wife worries over everything from her “quick-start terrine” to the outcome of a legal case involving a Hmong immigrant, she watches another couple for signs that the husband is cheating. As to the real threat, Lee offers playful clues, one of which is a guest descended from the infamous Donner Party: “I watch my back,” her husband jokes. (more…)

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The people in Hugh Sheehy’s debut collection of short stories aren’t really invisible, but they might as well be. As one character puts it, “Not because I’m literally invisible, but because I don’t connect to other people.”

How to explain their peculiar status? Maybe it’s because their histories are filled with people who’ve disappeared: a friendly neighbor dismembered in her own basement, a father who descended into madness, friends who climbed into “a faded maroon” van and never returned, a wife stuffed into a bathtub after a lethal drug overdose. Some fade away without ever going anywhere at all. Even their memories vanish.

Left behind, the characters in The Invisibles (University of Georgia Press, $24.95) try to make sense of what remains. In the title story, a teenager whose two friends have been abducted revisits the disappearance ten years earlier of her mother, recalling the chilling games of hide-and-seek they played together beforehand that proved people could go missing without notice.

“The invisible,” the daughter tells us, “is a person who is unnoticeable, hence unmemorable.”

But you’ll remember them — Sheehy’s finely crafted genre-bending mash-up of thrillers, fairy tales, realism and children’s stories makes sure of it. Murders, dismemberment, abductions and marauding killers add suspense and terror to these layered accounts of loneliness and loss, where there’s always more than one way of falling through the cracks. (more…)

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I’ve just finished Anthony Doerr’s Memory Wall, now out in paper. With only six stories, it seems like a slender collection, but the title story is nearly 80 pages long, and the last, “Afterworld,” runs to 55 pages. Although they’re clearly the two powerhouses of this collection, what I came away liking best were two others: “Village 113” and “The River Nemunas.”

Doerr seems uniquely qualified to write about memory. He was a history major who writes a column on science books for the Boston Globe. His novel, About Grace (2004) was a meditation on loss, memory, precognition and water; in it, a hydrologist who occasionally dreams events that later come true runs away from one of them, leaving behind his wife and infant daughter. It’s a wonderful book to get lost in, filled with dreams and snow, one of those novels I recommend to people I know will overlook the improbable plot.

The title story in Memory Wall is about an elderly South African woman suffering from dementia in a futuristic society where technology enables her to access her memories through a science-fictionlike device that “reads” memory tracings pulled from the brain and recorded onto cartridges. While the elderly play back their entire lives, one tape at a time, a kind of piracy has grown up around the tapes, which are traded on the street. There are also “memory tappers,” people whose heads are implanted with ports that allow them to read the cartridges.

It’s all a bit spooky and creepy, reminiscent of Vonnegut without the humor.

Gorgonops longifrons

Doerr complicates things further by giving the old woman, Alma, a dead husband who was on the brink of a fantastic and wildly profitable discovery—he had found “a rare Permian fossil” called Gorgonops longifrons, a complete skeleton of which would be worth millions—when he had a fatal heart attack. Alma was with him that day but has never been able to remember exactly where they were.

A cutthroat fellow fossil hunter thinks the spot is still lodged somewhere in her head, and he’s using a memory tapper, a 15-year-old boy named Luvo, to exhaustively scan each of Alma’s hundreds of memory tapes in hopes of recovering the exact location. How this eventually happens and what becomes of everyone involved is less important than what Luvo eventually understands: “It’s the rarest thing … that gets preserved, that does not get erased, broken down, transformed.”

This is the heart of every story in Memory Wall, where characters from all corners of the world—Cape Town, Minnesota, Korea, Idaho, a Chinese village named 113, Lithuania, Hamburg—try to restore or sustain that elusive memory. The language Doerr fits to this search is like the vocabulary of memory: sometimes elegiac and lush, sometimes sharper and exact, a strange blend of science and poetry. (more…)

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