Category Archives: Short Stories

The Coffin Factory – Review of a Literary Magazine

The Coffin Factory serves as a nexus between readers, writers, and the book publishing industry.  Our mission is to provide great literature and art to people who love books, including those who do not usually read literary magazines.

We believe that quality literature and art are essential for the existence of an intelligent society.  In order to perpetuate an intellectually engaged culture, The Coffin Factory publishes phenomenal fiction, essays, and art three times a year. – from The Coffin Factory

T.C. Boyle, Roberto Bolaño, Lydia Davis, Juan Pablo Villalobos, John Kenny, Bronwyn Mauldin, Jonathan Galassi & Jeff Seroy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. What do all these people have in common? Their stories, interviews and art all appear in the newest edition of The Coffin Factory, a literary magazine published three times a year. The magazine is jam-packed with  poetry, artwork, two terrific interviews, and nine pieces of literary fiction.

In Meiguo, Bronwyn Mauldin explores the division between expectations and reality for Chinese immigrants crammed into the hold of a ship.

I have no illusions about what awaits me. None of us do. We have labored hard our whole lives and could expect only more of the same for ourselves and our children. In America, we will break our backs for some years to pay off our debts to the cold, hard men who brought us here, but were we not slaves to our own grinding poverty in China? – from Meiguo –

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes crafts an oddly compelling story about professional mourners whose jobs cross the line into the personal in her short story titled The Field of Professional Mourners. Told in the first person point of view, the narrator introduces the reader to an employee named Monique who may hold the answer to why employees of the company are disappearing.

Robert Bolano’s short fiction, The Killer and The Whore, is a translation from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer and is the story of a murder-for-hire which goes wrong. Written completely in dialogue, it reads a bit like a black comedy.

We saw them from the distance and right away we knew it and tey kept coming. I mean: we knew who they were, they knew who we were, they knew that we knew who they were, we knew that they knew that we knew who they were. Everything was clear. – from The Killer and The Whore –

John Kenny’s portraits of Sub-Saharan Africa are remarkable. I was especially drawn to the intensity of the subjects’ gazes – their eyes drew me into the photos.

Both interviews featured in this edition of The Coffin Factory were wonderful. I love the fiction of T.C. Boyle and so it was his interview I read first. Insightful and surprisingly funny, the interview reveals the man behind the stories and made me want to run out and buy Boyle’s newest novel, San Miguel.

The fiction published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux is almost always some of the best literature of the year (they publish the acclaimed work of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides amongst others). The interview with Jonathan Galassi (president and publisher) and Jeff Seroy (senior vice-president of marketing and publicity) covers the history of the publishing company, how work is selected, marketing of books, and the changing world of publishing.

One of the  things that I am very preoccupied with now, and I’m not alone, is the pushing down of price by Amazon and the so-called eBook revolution. It makes books more accessible for the consumer, but it’s not great for the writer. The author is earning less, and I’m really worried about that. – Jonathan Galassi –

The magazine is currently reaching out to libraries with their Library Donation Project with the goal to donate 1000 magazines around the country. Librarians may request to be added to the donation list, and currently the editors of The Coffin Factory are seeking financial donations to make their project a reality.

The Coffin Factory is a treasure trove for the literary fiction lover. It has an international flavor (four of the nine short stories in the current issue are translations) which will appeal to those readers who want to experience literature and art from around the world. The work you will find between the glossy pages of this magazine is avant garde, original and visually engaging. Readers who want to expand their literary horizons will want to subscribe to The Coffin Factory. Learn more here.

FTC Disclosure: I am most grateful to Enrico Bruno for sending me a copy of this magazine for review on my blog.

Midsummer Night in the Workhouse: Stories – Book Review

Love, she thought. What a tangle. And she danced a few steps at being alone in the quiet street. The branch of a tree reached over a wall above a lamp-post, its leaves still young and fresh, a brilliant theatrical green in the artificial light. Between the lamp-posts the sky reappeared, a deep purple-blue where the moon was suspended straight overhead, but rusty pink with London’s glow where it came down at the end of the street to outline the roofs. She need not go home. She could decide to walk all night, make for the river or Hampstead Heath, because she was not tired and her shoes were comfortable in spite of their heels.  – from An Island –

Diana Athill will celebrate her 94th birthday tomorrow (December 21). Athill retired at the age of 75 after fifty years in publishing, and then went on to write a series of memoirs, one of which (Somewhere Towards The End) won her the 2009 Costa Book Award. She has also written a novel and many short stories. She is one of the most iconic figures in publishing (her response to V.S. Naipaul’s ridiculous comment about women only writing “tosh” was brilliant). Athill’s sharp wit and keen observations inform her latest collection of short stories: Midsummer Night in the Workhouse.

The stories in this collection are connected thematically and revolve around women (mostly young women finding or losing love). In No Laughing Matter, a young woman experiences first love and faces the wrenching decision about whether or not she will lose her virginity. The Real Thing introduces the reader to a woman in her first year of University who is enthralled by her first kiss even though it lacks the passion she had expected.

I stood quite still while Toofat was kissing me – it didn’t take long – and I was doing a lot of things all at once: thinking ‘This is me, being kissed’; remembering Thomas Hardy; noticing the tree with the lights and the green grass outside the windows; listening to the music from the house; smelling the honeysuckle; thinking that I must fix every bit of it in my mind for ever. – from The Real Thing –

Love for the women in Athill’s stories is not always unencumbered – they consider cheating on their spouses, they have one night stands, they get drunk and dream of a life unattached to their husband. One woman has a week long affair and then is haunted by the possibilities for years afterwards as she plods through her predictable marriage. Another woman leaves her husband at a party and walks home alone and drunk – along the way, she appreciates the beauty of a wine glass and the moon in the sky and hopes to remember the feeling of being utterly alone in the world.

I must remember, I must remember how beautiful it is, because now I can see it. It is so still, and the grass has just been cut, and the leaves are being blown, they are just settling together, sometimes, on the air, and the wine glass is standing on the railing, and I am alone. I am me, under the moon, on a summer night, alone. – from An Island –

Perhaps my favorite of the collection is the title story, Midsummer Night in the Workhouse, where a writer finds herself at a luxurious retreat battling writer’s block and a charming author whose work is perhaps just ordinary. Cecilia reflects on the other writers at the retreat, and is distracted by Charles Opie, a man whose wife has divorced him because of an affair and who has enjoyed an element of fame associated with his writing. In this story, the sexual tension is played out against the backdrop of a woman’s struggle with her career, self-doubt, and the difficulty of finding inspiration within her life.

The horror in wait at Hetherston, nearest in her room but present everywhere, even after dinner when she talked with the others or pub-crawled with Philip, came from the knowledge of how closely her work connected with her own experience and dread that everything of significance in that experience might have been used up. – from Midsummer Night in the Workhouse –

Athill’s writing is fluid, simple, perceptive and sometimes funny. She is able to capture the internal conflict of her characters with ease, uncovering their insecurities, dreams, joy and despair. I thoroughly enjoyed this delightful collection of stories, slipping into the lives of women who could define a generation. There was a time when a woman was supposed to be proper, not take risks, focus on family instead of career, and be the dutiful wife. Athill’s prose reveals the hidden desires and adventurous spirits of woman who came of age in that era.

Readers who want to be transported by an author who has established herself as one of the best writers of the late twentieth century, will be well rewarded by picking up a copy of Diana Athill’s collection of short stories.

Highly recommended.

FTC Disclosure: The publisher provided me with this book for review on my blog.

Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.


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Men In the Making: Stories – Book Review

These are rough-hewn and heavy men, men with calluses thick as rawhide, men who aren’t afraid to keep something tender beneath their rib cages, and to expose it to the elements when occasion calls for it, no matter how it hurts.  – from the collection Men in the Making, page 139 –

Bruce Machart writes with a brutal and tender honesty about his characters in his first collection of short stories: Men in the Making. These stories are about men working in sawmills and on the backs of tractors, men who are fathers and husbands and grandfathers, men whose lives are not easy, men who have made huge mistakes and experienced aching regrets, men whose desires are raw and heartbreaking. A common thread of loss runs through most of Machart’s stories. He peels back the rough exterior of these mostly blue collar workers, and reveals the lost dreams, the hopes and the tragedies which fill them up.

The Last One Left in Arkansas opens with a tragedy – a young man has been killed in the debarker in a sawmill. Through this story within the story, Machart allows us into the world of a man, a worker at the sawmill, who has lost a son.

Here in this valley, clear through to March, when on nights like tonight I sometimes sit on the porch in my parka, sipping whiskey and shivering and trying to find just the right prayer for the son I lost eleven years back, or the courage to call the one who’s alive but living hundreds of miles away, often even the clouds turn lethargic, and they sit, and they stay. – from The Last One Left in Arkansas, page 14 –

As the story unwinds, the reader learns how this man has lost not only a son, but a wife and a family. Machart tenderly opens old wounds, exposes the heat of guilt and regret, and leaves us with a small light of hope at the end. What Machart does so well in this story (and all the other stories in his collection) is get beneath the hard exterior of his protagonist and show us not only his vulnerability, but who he really is.

Lose a plant and you learn to respect the elements, to prepare for them. There’s no one to blame but yourself. Lose a child and, for a while, the only thing that can keep you sane and above ground and alive enough to hate yourself is the burn-off of rage you ignite by laying blame somewhere, on something or someone else, so you can keep it from burrowing inside you and living where deep down you believe it belongs. – from The Last One Left in Arkansas, page 21 –

In The Only Good Thing I’ve Heard, Machart also examines the loss of a child – this time a child who is stillborn. The main character in this story is a man who works on a burn unit of a hospital. He is a caretaker, one who puts others’ pain before his own, and so as we learn about his wife’s torment, we almost forget about this man’s grief. And then, in eloquent and simple prose, Machart exposes it:

Now, on the phone, her voice was hushed and broken, and Raymond leaned hard into the receiver, wanting to be there, to feel her breath swirling inside his ear. “You’re okay,” he said, and he knew, for the first time in days, that if she wasn’t, she would be.

“And you, honey,” she said. “How are you?” – from The Only Good Thing I’ve Heard, page 108 –

It is these moments in Machart’s prose where I found myself pausing, felt my heart restricting, because the writing in this collection is gorgeous. It is evocative and honest, and takes the reader right there, into the heart of what it means to be human.

I read Machart’s first novel, The Wake of Forgiveness, last year (read my review) and loved the richness of his prose, the complexity of his characters, and his skill at demonstrating the relationship between father and son. That ability is evident in Machart’s short story collection as well – especially in We Don’t Talk That Way in Texas, a story about a nine year old boy who leaves his home in Oklahoma one summer to visit his grandfather in Texas. The boy has never known his father who died in the war, and this is the first time he has met his grandfather who is a rough man, a farmer, and a Texan. The visit, filled with a boy’s first taste of beer, a tractor driving lesson and a hunting trip with an unexpected ending…will reveal a father and his relationship with his father.

There always were, in Grandpa’s way of speaking, lessons to be learned about the way Texans did things, or didn’t do them, and to me, they began that summer to sound like his way of talking about my father without speaking of him directly. – from We Don’t Talk That Way in Texas, page 75 –

All the ten stories in Men in the Making are atmospheric, calling up the landscape and the working people of places like Texas and Arkansas. Machart has a firm grasp of the world in which his characters live.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I loved this collection as I knew I would. Readers will find themselves pulled into the lives of the characters, feeling their sadness, their anger, their regret…they will wish for their redemption and their healing. Highly recommended for those who enjoy the art of the short story and who love beautiful writing which evokes the deepest of emotions.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog. Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.


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Little America – Book Review

How good it feels to drive a car you didn’t steal.
How good it feels to have a stomach full of food.
How good the little breeze, flowing through the cab.  – from Holy Sisters, page 31 –

Diane Simmons has given readers a lovely and poignant collection of short stories where characters travel across the west searching for happiness and freedom, and sometimes running away from the ghosts of their pasts. Along the way, they discover redemption, the joy of the open road, and occasionally some harsh realities.

In the title story, Hank and Lorraine scam their way from town to town, hauling their daughter, Billie, with them. Cynical and self-centered, the couple don’t seem to have a whole lot of empathy for Billie, and not much moves them emotionally – except maybe dawn breaking over the world’s biggest truck stop.

Hank stopped and looked out over the lines of trucks and the immense, blue sky. Billie was a little worried to hear him speak so soberly and wondered if they were really in trouble. But it seemed it was only the grandeur of early morning at Little America that had caused him to be thoughtful. – from Little America, page 4 –

In Suitcase, Marie arrives in San Francisco in 1972 and connects up with a man named Chick. Together they travel south into Mexico in Chick’s van, sleeping in sleeping bags and on foam cut to fit the van’s floor. Idealistic and jaded by American wealth, they fantasize about joining revolutionaries in Guatemala. But when Marie enters the jungle looking for a place to relieve herself, she discovers something shocking that leaves her reflecting on all she may have left behind.

In the Garden explores the pull of the open road vs. the security of having a little place to call one’s own. On an island just off of Seattle, a couple socializes with friends and remember what it was like to travel around the country during the late 1960s. Despite their settled happiness, they wonder if there is more to life.

We are a little stuck ourselves at the moment, but it doesn’t show as much. We have our little old house that we love. The floors slant and blackberry vines have pushed through where the walls meet, but we like it that way. – from In the Garden, page 41 –

Other stories in the collection introduce readers to a young woman named Pen who is recovering from a wrecked marriage and uses the illness of an estranged aunt to give her a reason to leave the family farm and head to New York City; a mother desperate for love and feeling burdened by the care of her daughter; and a woman who impulsively flees an abusive relationship.

Perhaps my favorite in the collection was the last story – Yukon River – where an ex-con and his girlfriend arrive in Alaska seeking a better way of life. Lured by the clean, cold air and a chance to live a simpler life, they ride their dreams into the wilderness.

He knows how we’ll pull salmon out of the river, cut them in strips, brine them and dry them. How those pickled salmon strips will eat like candy all winter. He knows how we’ll collect berries in the hills around our place – blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, all in unbelievable abundance – and make them into jam and pies and berry bread. He knows how in the winter we’ll sleep tight and warm as goslings in our good-to-fifty-below goose-down bags. – from Yukon River, page 102 –

Even when their hopes are momentarily dashed by Fairbanks’ polluted fog and the cynicism of an old man, they don’t give up.

And it is this stubborn persistence, this focused effort to make something of one’s life, to be better, or happier, or to find self-understanding which runs throughout all the stories in Simmons’s beautifully wrought book. The characters are connected through their disappointments in life and their struggle to detach themselves from hopelessness. They have been abandoned by parents, deserted by spouses, or fled abusive or neglectful situations. Simmons strips her characters down to that which makes them human. With a wry sense of humor and a masterful control of language, Simmons allows the reader to travel with her characters from their bumpy lives into something fresh and illuminating.

I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book with its troubled, yet triumphant characters. Readers looking for a distinctive and well-written collection of short stories will do well to pick up a copy of Simmons’s Little America.

Highly Recommended.

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Little America by Diane Simmons
115 pages
ISBN 13:978-0-8142-5178-2
The Ohio State University Press (May 2011)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Diane Simmons’s short fiction has been published in Missouri Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Blood Orange Review, and Northwest Review. Her novel, Dreams Like Thunder, won the Oregon Book Award. She is a professor of English at The City University of New York. Read more about Simmons and her work by visiting the author’s website.

FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the author for review on my blog.

For Sale By Owner – Book Review

It was a maternal failure: how can one protect her children when she doesn’t even pay attention to the very air they breathe? It is, as you said, like not noticing the weather – not providing your child an umbrella for the rain, no mittens for the snow. But then, as you conceded your comparison broke down because your whole point was that, whereas the weather is out of our control, we can – we must! – change the air quality of our home. – from Domestic Air Quality, page 13 –

Kelcey Parker’s observant and finely honed collection of short stories reveals the lives of women living in suburban America – their dreams, expectations, and struggles as wives, parents and friends. Wry, biting, and skillfully constructed, these are stories that evoke the darker side of domestic life and ask the question: What is a women’s identity apart from the labels which define her?

The first story in Parker’s collection (Domestic Air Quality) examines societal expectations of women as caregivers for their children, spouse and home. Society expects a woman to create the perfect environment for those she loves, to be everything to everyone. In Domestic Air Quality, Parker spins an original story where the protagonist is involved in market research and writes a series of ironic letters similar to journal entries. As the story unspools, Parker effectively debunks the myth that we can control it all if we just try a little bit harder.

According to Fun Fact #9, “the air pressing down on your shoulders weighs about a ton, but you do not feel it because you are supported by the equal air pressure on all sides.” I respectfully disagree. I feel every single pound. – from Domestic Air Quality –

The theme of life’s pressures bearing down on women is played out in most of Parker’s stories. In Possession, a turtledove nesting in a dying plant symbolizes the protagonist’s dissatisfaction with domestic duties which are sucking her dry.

The turtledove nests in the hanging petunia plant all summer long – sitting, hatching, feeding one then another then another pair of new chicks until they fly one then another then another away. She tried to water the plant but the bird never left just stared so when the hose was pointed. The hanging petunia died of thirst, though it was more like strangulation, strangled dry. The turtledove remained. Devotion he calls it. Exhausting she calls it. You’re like that bird he points out, with the kids. Exhausting she repeats. – from Possession, page 51 –

Maugham’s Head explores the label of “Mom” as a woman’s identity as a mother navigates the uncertain journey through her suburban life with teenagers.

She understood them better before they could speak. Mommy, they used to call her. Now it’s Mo-om. But she hears only the new name she has assumed: Maugham. – from Maugham’s Head, page 57 –

Maugham not only struggles with her identity as her children grow and change, but she finds herself lonely and unsatisfied with the dreams that she and her husband have fulfilled: the big house, lots of space, and the acquisition of all the material things they thought they needed – things that now seem to magnify her emptiness as her children begin to need her less and less.

There was the reading place, which had no books, but which had a window and a chaise lounge, on which no one ever sat or read; a sleeping place with the king-sized bed that meant she never had to have contact with her husband when she slept; and an entertainment place: an armoire that contained a television instead of clothes because the clothes were in the his and hers closets, which echoed the his and hers sinks, which all seemed to say that the best thing for a family to do was to carry on with separate lives in separate rooms and separate sinks. – from Maugham’s Head, page 60 –

One of my favorite stories in the collection is The Complete Babysitter’s Handbook which examines the failing marriage of Anne and her husband Rob. Anne is an obsessive scrapbooker. Her memory books are actually sanitized versions of reality, moments in time which are laced in fantasy and dreams rather than truth. The reality of Anne’s life is an abusive spouse, a child lost and confused, and a bank account in crisis…but her memory books reveal only the wonder and joy of a domestic life.

With the right tools – colorful paper (acid-free), pre-cut borders, stencils, stickers, specialty scissors, spray adhesive, and the right choice of photos – the life she had just lived was transformed into something organized, dynamic, and happy. Like that. – from The Complete Babysitter’s Handbook, page 84 –

Kelcey Parker has created a compelling and provocative collection of short stories which are often witty, but always honest. These are stories that take the reader for a journey along the sometimes dark and twisty path of modern marriage and parenthood. The women who people Parker’s stories are smart, insightful and searching for identity in a world which often compartmentalizes them.

Readers who like smart, literary fiction will enjoy Parker’s writing. For Sale by Owner is a savvy and intriguing collection of stories.

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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Support Indie Book Sellers – Buy this book directly from Kore Press.

The Secret Lives of People in Love – Book Review

Love reveals the beauty of seemingly trivial things – a pair of shoes, an empty wine glass, an open drawer, cracks on the avenue. – from The World Laughs in Flowers, page 48 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Simon Van Booy weaves tales of ordinary people and makes them extraordinary in this collection of nineteen short stories. What appears trivial, is revealed to be monumental in the lives of his characters … all of whom have secrets they keep from those around them. As with his other published collection, Van Booy writes stories in poetic, intricate language which draws the reader in.

My favorite story in the collection is perhaps the shortest story at only three pages. In The Reappearance of Strawberries, a man’s deathbed becomes a reminiscence of love in France sparked by the joy of sweet strawberries.

Eight stories above the infamous rue de Vaugirard, the man in the ninth bed of the Bonnard Hospital ward had requested nothing but strawberries for several day. For most of that Tuesday afternoon all that could be heard were the tiny hands and feet of rain against the window. – from The Reappearance of Strawberries, page 11 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Van Booy takes the reader to New York City in several of his stories, relating the immigrant experience from a very personal point of view. A Russian man living in Brooklyn finds himself contemplating marriage to an American girl, but he harbors a secret from when he served on a Russian submarine. This secret fills him with guilt. Before he can move forward in his life and in his relationship, he must face his demons; and as the tale unfolds, the secret is revealed.

All seas are one sea. Every ocean holds hands with another. Although I have a job in Brooklyn, and I even have a girlfriend called Mina, part of my soul is in Russia. If I can brave the sea one last time – just up to my chest – I know that I may be reunited with myself. – from As Much Below as Up Above, page 14 of The Secret Lives of People in Love –

The themes of loss and redemption are common in this collection. For many of the characters, their secrets keep them tethered to guilt. In Distant Ships a father living in a small village in Wales chooses to become mute when tragedy steals his son from him. His days are monotonous as he gets up each day to work in a warehouse. He mourns his son and the wife who has moved to America but never divorced him. Van Booy’s ability to capture grief and loss is amazing – and he does so with few words.

Sometimes I time my walk to coincide with the three o’clock school bell. Children gush into the playground like hot water and into the arms of their parents. I would give everything, even memory – especially memory – if I could hold Leo again. The weight of his absence is the weight of the entire world. – from Distant Ships, page 68 of The Secrets of People in Love –

I also found myself being pleasantly surprised by some of Van Booy’s stories. In Snow Falls and Then Disappears the opening sentence reads:

My wife is deaf. Once she asked me if snow made a sound when it fell and I lied. We have been married twelve years today, and I am leaving her. – from Snow Falls and Then Disappears, page 77 in The Secret Lives of People in Love –

Because of those first sentences, I thought I knew where this story was going – but as with so much of Van Booy’s prose, the story takes an unusual turn I was not expecting.

There were a couple of stories which had me scratching my head a bit – Some Bloom in Darkness is one of them. In this story Sabone, who works at the railroad station, witnesses a woman being abused. This event has a huge impact on him – specifically, he begins to lust after a manikin in a store window. I won’t tell you how the story ends, but suffice it to say, this one was a bit bizarre.

Despite sometimes feeling a little lost as to the meaning of certain stories, overall Van Booy’s debut short story collection is astonishing and satisfying. Poetic, spare, and showing insight into the human condition, Van Booy’s writing is a treat.

Those who love the art of the short story will want to add this book to their reading list. Van Booy does not disappoint.

Recommended.

**FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Love Begins In Winter – Book Review

lovebeginsinwinter And then suddenly an arm of sunlight reached through a high window and opened its hand upon her face. I saw her eyes as clearly as if we had been pressed against one another in a very small space. – from Love Begins in Winter, page 41 –

Simon Van Booy’s five story collection, Love Begins in Winter, explores the lives of ordinary men and women who stumble upon love in all its many forms.  From the lonely and grieving cellist who literally bumps into the woman who becomes his lover, to the young gypsy boy who lingers outside the home of two girls who have lost their parents … Van Booy’s characters take the reader on a journey of the heart. Threaded through these simple stories are the themes of self identity, grief, longing, and renewal.

Van Booy is a poet and a journalist who has lived in London, Wales, Greece, Paris and New York City – and these experiences are apparent in his writing. Lyrical and stylistic, Van Booy’s prose is a bit like listening to a complicated musical performance – at once beautiful and elusive. He sets his characters in places like Montreal in the winter, and in St. Peter’s square in Rome, and along the steep cliffs of Ireland – places that invite introspection.

One story in this collection baffled me. Tiger, Tiger is disjointed and confusing, a story about a pediatrician and her boyfriend which draws on childhood memories and behavior. It is the second piece in the collection which,  had it not been for the wonderful title story, I might have put the book down. I am glad I did not.

My favorite story in the collection is the title story: Love Begins In Winter. From the first, the reader understands that Bruno Bonnet, a cellist, holds grief in his heart from the loss of his childhood friend. He carries her mitten in his pocket at each of his performances.

If only one of them recognized me, I could slip from the branches of my life, brush time from my clothes, and begin the long journey across the fields to the place where I first disappeared. A boy leaning crookedly on a gate, waiting for his best friend to get up. The back wheel of Anna’s bicycle still spinning. – from Love Begins in Winter, page 4 –

Van Booy captures the loneliness of the protagonist, even when Bruno is in the bustling city of Los Angeles.

Further north, approaching Hollywood – hot dog stands with neon arrows and faded paint; tattooed women with chopped black hair buying lip gloss at Hollywood pharmacies; a homeless man pushes a shopping cart full of shoes but he is barefoot. He keeps looking behind. His stomach hangs out. Sometime in the 1960s he was delivered into the trembling hands of his mother. If only it could happen again. Los Angeles is a place where dreams balance forever on the edge of coming true. A city on a cliff held fast by its own weight. – from Love Begins in Winter, page 50 –

It is only when the cellist meets Hannah, a woman who still mourns the loss of her brother, that he realizes he is no longer alone in the world. Love Begins in Winter is a touching story about the healing power of love.

I also was delighted with The Coming and Going of Strangers which revolves around a love sick gypsy boy named Walter living in Ireland.

Walter wheeled his hot, ticking motorbike up and down the muddy lane, breathing with the rhythm of a small, determined engine. Fists of breath hovered and then opened over each taken-step. He would soon be within sight of his beloved’s house. – from The Coming and Going of Strangers, page 135 –

In this tale about first love, Van Booy provides a wonderful surprise ending that lifts the story a notch above excellent.

In The City of Windy Trees, a character named George Frack receives a letter which completely changes the course of his life. I loved this story about the renewal of the human spirit through our connections with others.

Van Booy captures the essence of what makes us human, and how love can be found in the most unexpected places. Readers who love poetry will enjoy this collection of stories which often feel like long, narrative poems.

Highly recommended.

4hStars

Months and Seasons Makes International Award Long List

chrismeeks1 months-and-seasons

For those of you who regularly read my blog, you already know that I think Christopher Meeks is a talented writer. I have read and enjoyed all three of his books: The Middle-Aged Man and The Sea (reviewed here), Months and Seasons (reviewed here), and his debut novel The Brightest Moon of the Century (reviewed here). So I was thrilled to see Meeks getting some well-deserved recognition when it was announced that his second collection of short stories (Months and Seasons) made the long list for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award.

Last year this award went to Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection Unaccustomed Earth. Leading names on this year’s list include Booker winner Kazuo Ishiguro, Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, winner of the (British) National Short Story Award and former judge for the Frank O’Connor Award James Lasdun, multiple prize-winning poet Sean O’Brien and previously short-listed authors Philip O Ceallaigh and Charlotte Grimshaw. The winner gets to boast the largest monetary award in the world for the short story form (a whopping €35,000).

The finalists will be announced in late June, with the winner selected on September 20th at the close of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival in Cork.

Christopher Meeks has been one of those authors who has reached out to book bloggers and has been outspoken regarding the positive impact bloggers have on marketing and readership.  To read more about Meeks and his work, visit his author website.You can also read one of the stories from Months and Seasons here.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll join me in congratulating Chris on an amazing accomplishment!

The Mechanics of Falling – Book Review

mechanicoffalling Some people are too stupid to be afraid on a runaway horse. Some people seize up. Some people turn cold and clear inside, like Clay, and only start to shake afterward. Annie sails into trouble like she wants it to last forever, like she can skim off from fear only what’s precious. She almost never comes off. – from The Mechanics of Falling, page 90 –

Catherine Brady’s latest collection of stories explore the various ways individuals respond to the unexpected events in their lives – will they seize up? Turn cold inside? Face things head on? Will they get back up after a fall, or give in to it? By exploring the ordinary lives of her characters, Brady reveals the extraordinary turns of fate and the gradual insight which swells inside us all when life does not go as expected.

In Scissors, Paper, Rock Natalie, an aging photojournalist, resists conforming to the changes in her profession and her behavior is accommodated at work. This irritates a co-worker, Liz, until a seemingly minor incident illuminates a deeper issue and forces Liz to examine her own values and sensitivities in the light of another person’s crisis.

Natalie’s visits reminded her of the happy time when her children were small, and they taught her over and over how to let each day happen as it would, centered on the wobbly axis of their needs and not her own intentions. The sick days that disrupted her plans were also enticing pools of time in which she might spend an entire afternoon reading in bed with a feverishly hot child pressed against her or playing endless rounds of scissors, paper, rock, in which no strategy could defeat the illogic of the hierarchy that set paper over rock, an open hand over a fist. – from Scissors, Paper, Rock, page 78 –

One of my favorite stories of the collection – Much Have I Traveled – involves Nina, married twelve years to her college professor, who examines the base on which her marriage turns during a weekend visit with friends. Nina and Carter’s marriage reveals itself gradually not only to Nina, but to the reader as well. When Brady describes a pond clotted with algae, it becomes a metaphor for the evolution of Nina and Carter’s relationship which has begun to shift under the shadow of Carter’s newly diagnosed multiple sclerosis.

When the pond became clotted with algae scum a few years ago, the channel from the creek slowly filling in, Nina had accepted this next small loss, the pond growing murky the way her memories of summers here as a child had silted up over time. They couldn’t really afford to keep up the property that had come to her, and they could not pay to dredge the pond. But Carter started digging a new channel from the creek and enlisted their guests in daily labor, flinging stinking muck on the grass, scoring the earth with shovels, tearing rocks from the creek bed and carting them in wheelbarrows to line the raw trench. – from Much Have I Traveled, page 162 –

In all of Brady’s stunning and beautifully wrought stories, there is a shift or change either inside the protagonist or within the primary relationship – boyfriend/girlfriend, daughter/father, husband/wife. The internal struggles of the characters are often paralleled with external events or catalysts. In Seven Remedies, a middle-aged woman finds herself juggling work, major house repairs, and rebellious children – but it is her struggle to communicate with her Mexican housekeeper which grants her the most insight into her relationships and what her life is all about.

She cannot get used to the construction noise, the sound of blows raining down as men rebuild her house. The gods have poor aim too. There are only these bungled missives that may or may not encode ruin. Or maybe it’s that Laurel misjudges the peripheral cues she’s given. The kind of peripheral cues – right turn after the yellow house, second left after the light, there’s the bus stop – she is forced to rely on when she tries to talk with Mayda, nothing ever precisely located. There’s just stumbling on. – from Seven Remedies, page 189 –

Brady creates memorable and complex characters whose inner lives are rich with doubt, fear, faith, and conflict. The characters encounter such things as  infidelity, violence, medical decline, issues of aging and single parenthood. A simple story becomes an intriguing look at deeper issues through Brady’s careful and wise prose. I often found myself re-reading certain passages, teasing through them just to listen to the perfect rhythm and finely tuned nuance.

Short story collections like The Mechanics of Falling are rare – the ideal blend of excellent writing and good story telling, giving the reader a wealth of detail about the characters while leaving room for interpretation of what will happen next. A good short story makes the reader think while pulling them deeper into the lives of the characters. Catherine Brady has written eleven outstanding stories which compliment each other perfectly.

Highly recommended.

5stars

See more reviews of this book through TLC Book Tours.

Catherine Brady has published two other collections: Curled In The Bed Of Love (co-winner of the 2002 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2003 Binghamton John Gardner Fiction Book Award.) AND The End of the Class War (a finalist for the 2000 Western States Book Award in Fiction).

Kate’s Short Story Reading Challenge


January 1 – December 31, 2008

UPDATE October 22, 2008:

I am happy to report I have completed this challenge! I read 8 individual short stories (2 more than my goal) and 3 collections of short stories. What a fun challenge this turned out to be. Thank you, Kate for hosting!

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Could you resist this button? Come on, be honest. You couldn’t. And neither could I…that, and I love the art of the short story.Kate at Kate’s Book Blog (and A Curious Singularity) has come up with the 2008 Short Story Challenge. And she’s made it flexible and individualized…AND she’s given it its own blog. So there you go. I’m in.

I’ve chosen option #5 – the custom option. And here is my plan:

I. Read six (6) individual short stories by authors I have not read before and which I will choose as I go along.

  1. Black Ice, by Cate Kennedy (finished January 21, 2008; rated 3.5/5; read my review)
  2. The Overcoat, by Nikolai Gogol (finished March 1, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  3. Landscape With Flatiron, by Haruki Murakami (finished April 21, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  4. The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov (finished May 14, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)
  5. Free Radicals, by Alice Munro (finished May 25, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  6. Mr. Bones, by Paul Theroux (finished June 28, 2008; rated 3.5/5; read my review)
  7. Natalie, by Anne Enright (finished July 26, 2008; rated 2.5/5; read my review)
  8. An Ex-Mas Feast, by Uwem Akpan (finished August 24, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)

II. Read a minimum of three (3) collections chosen from these books:

  1. Springtime on Mars, by Susan Woodring (finished June 28, 2008; rated 5/5; read my review)
  2. The View From Castle Rock, by Alice Munro (finished September 26, 2008; rated 4/5; read my review)
  3. Months and Seasons, by Christopher Meeks (finished October 22, 2008; rated 4.5/5; read my review)
  4. Selected Short Stories of William Faulkner, by William Faulkner
  5. The Country of Pointed Firs and Selected Short Fiction, by Sarah Orne Jewett (let it be noted that I have already read The Country of Pointed Firs and won’t re-read it, but all the other stories in this collection are up for grabs)
  6. Open Secrets, by Alice Munro
  7. Tooth and Claw, by T.C. Boyle
  8. A Private State, by Charlotte Bacon
  9. Friend of My Youth, by Alice Munro
  10. All Aunt Hager’s Children, by Edward P. Jones

I reserve the right to change the titles or add to them…but, I promise you I will read six (6) individual shorts, and three (3) collections!