Last Stories by William Trevor

William Trevor’s career as a writer was long and prolific.  Although better known as alast stories novelist, Trevor also wrote copiously in the short story format.

In this collection, unwelcome situations are a strong theme.  Whether it is the tolerance of theft, an affair not wanted, or a pushy person who somehow inspires empathy, a sense of intrusion provides the tension here.  Despite this, Trevor’s approach to  storytelling is subtle, and often you have to ponder what has just happened.

In “Making Conversation,” unwanted encounters with an obsessed married man put the main character in strange crosshairs with the man’s estranged wife.  In “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil,” the teacher in question finds that witnessing the brilliant talent of her student comes at a small price with each lesson.  “At the Caffè Daria” brings us a jilted wife as she takes in the news, from his last lover, of her husband’s death,.  And in “Mrs. Crasthorpe,” a widow determined to make the most of her inheritance flirts with a younger widower and struggles with an unhinged son.

There are ten stories in all.  If you are all about high action, these probably aren’t for you.  But, if good writing and subtlety is what you crave, then give Last Stories a look.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

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Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger

J. D. Salinger published a relatively small body of written work; Catcher in the Rye isNineStories easily the best known of his writings.

Salinger developed his writing chops with the short story format, and this collection showcases some of his best.

In these stories, his characters range from chatty to self-absorbed to war-damaged.  Nine Stories was published in 1953, and there’s a definite post-war feel to most of these, although in For Esmé – With Love and Squalor, World War II is front and center, in its telling of a damaged soldier and his chance encounter with a teenage girl in England right before he is sent off to fight.

Other characters are moneyed socialites, enlightened ten-year olds, and delusional would-be artists.  To be honest, very few of them are sympathetic people.  Some of them are downright contentious, but come to think about it, was Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye likeable?  Not really, but the book is still worth reading, as are these.

My favorites – For Esmé – With Love and Squalor and The Laughing Man, with its story-within-a-story setup and whimsical rendering of a tale-telling troop leader.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain by Don Waters

saints of rattlesnake mountainFaith and Catholicism are major themes in this group of stories largely set in the American Southwest, although I don’t think you have to be a Catholic to appreciate the writing.  The characters in this collection are not what I would call mainstream – Waters tells of prisoners, middle-aged surfers, terminally ill expats, and others, some on a search for meaning, and on occasion, on the run from reality.

In the title story, Emmett is a “trustee” – a prisoner who is allowed out of the cell block to do hazardous herding work, in this case corralling a group of wild Mustang horses.  The wide open-ness of his surroundings and his limited freedom bother Emmett almost as much as confinement and eventual taming bother the horses.  In “Day of the Dead,” our terminally ill protagonist heads to Ciudad Juarez for a suicide pact with a priest, and finds that he’s not quite ready to watch someone else die.  In “Full of Days,” an anti-abortionist in Las Vegas wants to save the word according to an inspired sign he’s created, but finds that successes aren’t ever guaranteed.  And in “Last Rites,” a poor kid finds salvation of a sort from skateboarding and altar boy duties with his well-off best friend.

And there’s much more.

None of the stories here are “easy”.  Death, risk, and occasionally disfigurement all play parts in Waters’ world of fiction.  I found it hard to find any of these a feel-good story.  What you will find in The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain is lyrical writing about the underbelly of life in the Southwest – the author provides gritty but accessible voices to other worlds beyond the tourist havens and the casinos.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Reader, I Married Him edited by Tracy Chevalier

Reader, I Married Him is a short story collection that borrows from the generalreader i married him premise of Jane Eyre.  The title phrase is in reference to the character of Jane Eyre addressing her reader from time to time within the narrative of the novel.

Even if you haven’t read Jane Eyre, but like the short story format, you’ll probably enjoy Reader, I Married Him.  Writers such as Tracy Chevalier, Lionel Shriver, Emma Donoghue, and others have crafted stories here that either stick closely to the theme of Jane Eyre, or contain elements of it but go off into their own universes.

In Joanna Briscoe’s “To Hold”, a twice-married woman falls for another, then marries still another, a union of fate as it were, or revenge; In Jane Gardam’s “It’s a Man’s Life, Ladies”, the narrator observes the relationship of her grandmother to her seafaring grandfather and the secrets of making that marriage work; in Lionel Shriver’s “The Self-Seeding Sycamore”, love, or satisfaction comes through the demise of a vexing tree; in Elizabeth McCracken’s “Robinson Crusoe at the Waterpark”, the older of two dads has a change of heart after their child comes into danger; and in the story that shares the collection’s title, Susan Hill retells the woes of a famous royal scandal.  And there are many more.

As with all short story collections, it’s doable to get in a story or two as time allows, and to skip around.  The only problem with this is making sure you have read them all – and you’ll want to read them all in this excellent collection.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Signals by Tim Gautreaux

I have been aware of Tim Gautreaux for some time.  His novels The Clearing and The MissingSignals were both great reading; they showcase a time in the early 20th century when places in the Deep South and Mississippi River were frontiers in themselves.

Signals is a hefty collection of his short fiction (some new; some previously published).  Most take place in Gautreaux’s home state of Louisiana.  Others take on Minnesota and North Carolina, and most appear to take place in a latter-day time or recent past.

Gautreaux’s characters inhabit seemingly mundane lives but find themselves in a struggle to maintain the mundane.  In “Easy Pickings”, a small time crook holds an older lady hostage but has to reckon with her card-playing neighbors; in “What We Don’t See in the Light”, our main character moves far away from his family to repair his work-damaged lungs; in “The Piano Tuner”, a slightly deranged young lady has a gift for the keyboard but has to leave her crumbling house in order to prove it, and in “Wings”, a widow has to rediscover her dead husband through prompting from the neighbor across the street.

These are just a small sample – there’s plenty here for a short story junkie.  There’s lots of sadness here, some twisted humor, and several jaw-dropping endings.  And with endorsements from the likes of Ron Rash and Annie Proulx, you can’t go wrong with Signals.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The People in the Castle : Selected Strange Stories by Joan Aiken

To say the least, Joan Aiken was prolific.  In her eighty years, she wrote children’s and people in the castleyoung adult books, Jane Austen sequels, all kinds of genres – over a hundred books in all, many of them short story collections.

This one gleans from the short fiction Aiken wrote throughout her long career.  The selections included range from ghost stories to almost traditional fairy tale fare, all of them written with a quick wit and a great sense of uncanniness.

In “A Leg Full of Rubies,” a stranger with an owl inherits an even stranger business, along with a foul-tempered phoenix and a curse.  In “Lob’s Girl,” a dog’s devotion to his young mistress transcends distance and death.  In “Some Music for the Wicked Countess,” sometimes composing in the avant-garde can save you from the lures of the fairy world.  And in “The Last Specimen,” a country rector finds just the right sample of flower for a strange visitor to his church, and just in time.

There’s twenty stories here to enjoy and puzzle over, and maybe not read before bed.  For the quality of writing and imagination, I’d put Aiken on par with Saki and Roald  Dahl, and maybe even Ray Bradbury, all of them masters of the odd and unnerving.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

We Live in Water by Jess Walter

Jess Walter writes stories of the down-and-out, swindlers, deadbeat dads, and… zombies?we live in water

Yes – that and more, in this collection of short stories by the author of Beautiful Ruins.  Walter, a native of Washington State, bases most of his stories here and other places in the Northwest.  His characters are damaged by the ravages of drugs, bad relationships, unemployment, and sometimes a combination of all these.  Their predicaments are often horrible, but humor still laces these tales of woe.

In the title story, a man relives through flashbacks the last time he saw his father, a ne’er do well who hopes for dignity to the bitter end.  The family man in “Thief” suspects the worst of his three kids when the family vacation fund dwindles.  A con doing community service in “The Wolf and the Wild” discovers the refuge of a child’s favorite book.  And in the aforementioned zombie story “Don’t Eat Cat”, the main character ponders his own future as he searches for his ex-girlfriend, who was a victim of a club drug that changes its users into something not quite human.  And there’s others here.

I’m always trawling for different authors and was pleasantly surprised by Jess Walter.  He writes in an earthy and humorous manner and isn’t afraid to tackle some pretty tough subjects.  That he places many of his stories in his native Spokane says volumes – he obviously has a strong regard for his hometown, but doesn’t hesitate to point out some of its grittier elements.  Jess takes some pretty solid jabs at Seattle and Portland, too, just to remind us that there’s a seamier side to even those idealized cities.

(William Hicks, Information Services)