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Archive for the ‘Short Stories’ Category

permanentBabette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:

Russell Banks’ new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family, is one of the best books I have read recently. The characters and the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves entangled continue to simmer in my mind.

Intentional or not, as a reader, I noticed the theme of death emerge as I read this collection of short stories. That being said, I must report that reading this collection of stories is not depressing, but rather a thought-provoking experience. Whether we like to acknowledge this or not, death is a permanent member of every family. Death reveals itself in an array of forms: death of a person or animal, death of a relationship, an image, a dream, a fabricated life, and so on.

Banks’ writing engages the reader swiftly into the lives of the characters presented in each of the stories who find themselves in a variety of perplexing situations.

Here is a sample of some of the situations… In Former Marine, adult siblings realize their father has committed an outrageous crime and ask themselves, “Can this be my dad?” The story Blue presents a woman alone and inadvertently locked overnight in automobile sales lot with a ferocious pit bull dog… is she a criminal or victim, how will this situation end? Top Dog explores the effects of success bestowed on one member of a group and the repercussions to the dynamics of their longstanding friendship.

The twelve stories in this collection encompass a diverse selection of characters from a cross-section of society. A Permanent Member of the Family is a satisfying read. Be sure to add it to your reading list.

Check the WRL catalog for A Permanent Member of the Family

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

Search our catalog for African-American Classics.

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watchBarry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.

Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.

Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.

The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.

Check the WRL catalog for Watch With Me.

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hawkeyeWhile watching the Avengers movie in the theater (I admit, twice), I was intrigued by the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Not having much knowledge of the Avengers outside of Iron Man and Thor, I found it interesting that there were members of the team who did not possess any superpowers or special flying suits. Experience and training will only get you so far when facing a massive army of technologically superior aliens from another dimension. Hulk may smash, but normal humans should be running in the other direction while screaming.

As expected, when a movie piques the public’s interest in specific characters from a comic universe, new material often follows. I picked up a copy of the first volume of the new Hawkeye graphic novel series, titled Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. The series covers Hawkeye’s life away from the Avengers, where he lives quietly as Clint Barton in a rather crummy apartment building. He is assisted in many of his exploits by Kate Bishop, who is a member of the Young Avengers, and had previously stepped in for Clint when he took some time off from the Avengers. She is an equal, if not better, bowman than Clint.

Unlike other human superheroes like Batman or Iron Man, Hawkeye isn’t angsty, and there is a lot of humor injected into his interactions, especially with Kate. He fights mainly with his bow and an array of sometimes ridiculous specialty arrows, a method which is used smartly against him by the authors in a humorous segment where he keeps firing random arrows with somewhat unbelievable abilities. He tries to live as normally as possible, enjoying rooftop BBQs with his neighbors, buying a used sports car, and practicing his archery, but generally finds ways to get himself in trouble much as he might try to avoid it. It seems once you are identified as a superhero, groups of ninjas can’t help but attack you.

This volume is a quick but fun read. Recommended for fans of the Marvel Universe and anyone who is tired of having perpetually disagreeable and tormented superheroes.

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The only real breakout of Peter S. Beagle’s long career came 30 years ago, when he adapted his own 1968 fantasy novel The Last Unicorn into the screen play for an animated film. The 1982 film wasn’t nearly as good as the book, but it wasn’t terrible and did fairly well. The somewhat cruel irony was that it led Beagle into a couple of decades where he focused on screenwriting without vast success and even had to sue the producers of The Last Unicorn to get his contracted share of profits. He left the fantasy genre just as writers like Terry Brooks, Raymond Feist, and Robert Jordan—writers whom in my opinion he surpasses—began to find popularity and strong sales. His early works, books like A Fine and Private Place and The Innkeeper’s Song, are both lovely and innovative and I still heartily recommend them.

In the last decade, Beagle has returned to fantasy writing, this time focusing on writing short stories and editing anthologies. His writing hasn’t lost a step. He has true gifts as a stylist that will give his work lasting value. Because of his elegant way with language, he makes a great gateway into the fantasy genre for readers who have previously focused on “literary” fiction. He’s both lyrical and innovative, and rather than follow the trends in the fantasy marketplace, he often battles against them.

We Never Talk about My Brother, a collection of nine varied stories, is a fine entry point to Beagle’s work. My favorites included the title piece, which is a retelling of the bible’s Jacob and Esau story in which the Esau character is a newscaster who uses his powers as an angel of death to create the stories that have made him famous. Ultimately his country brother, who has never tapped his opposing gifts, forces a confrontation. “King Pelles the Sure” is a powerful little anti-war story in which the king of a tiny but prosperous country foolishly thinks that his nation could also find glory in war. “Spook” pits man against ghost in a duel for rights to inhabit a house (and possibly to the man’s girlfriend). The twist is that the duel is fought (hilariously) with bad poetry. “By Moonlight” brings an English highwayman by circumstance (or is it?) to the fireside of a former cleric who has spent his life trying to regain access to the faerie court. Your mileage might vary: none of these stories is weak and each utilizes a different setting than the others.  I hope this book will prove a happy gateway to all things Beagle. Readers won’t regret the time invested.

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This week’s posts all have some element of the supernatural that make the reader feel increasingly ill at ease and encourage one to keep checking behind the curtains and making sure the windows are actually locked—just the sort of titles to read on a rainy night in October, when the dark comes early and the wind is in the trees.

I suspect that for many of us, our first encounter with tales of the supernatural came through short story collections, perhaps in school or taken from a shelf in the library. I remember coming across this collection of superbly eerie fiction for young readers in a house that my grandparents rented for vacation down in Tall Timbers, Maryland. The house was surrounded by towering pines on the Potomac River, and as I recall in my mind, it was darkly paneled and made an excellent spot to read spooky stories.

Here, Hitchcock has collected some fun tales to introduce a younger reader to the delightful pleasures of scary stories. There are two classic thrilling tales—Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League” and Mark Twain’s “The Treasure in the Cave” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer). But even better in some ways are the other stories featuring lost treasure (“The Forgotten Island”), vengeful spirits (“The Water Ghost of Harrowby Hall”), and playful ghosts (“Jimmy Takes Vanishing Lessons”). Except for the Sherlock Holmes piece, all the stories feature young boys and girls as the protagonists, and the settings range from small towns that all seem to have a haunted house nearby to a decidedly eerie summer spot in Maine.

None of the tales is overly scary, and some would be considered pretty mild by today’s standards, but for a younger reader, these stories might be just the thing to read under the bedcovers on a cool fall night.

Check the WRL catalog for Haunted Houseful

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Girl in Hyacinth Blue traces the history of a fictional lost Vermeer painting back in time to the moment of its creation through a collection of eight short stories that come together to form a cohesive novel.  Each story can be read and appreciated on its own, but when taken all together, they create something greater than the sum of their parts.

The story opens as a new art teacher at a private school is invited to the home of a  reclusive colleague.  This colleague, Cornelius Engelbrecht, shows him the painting, in the desperate hope of finding a kindred spirit who can appreciate the painting and recognize its true origin.  But when asked why he has not made the painting known to the world, we quickly find out that Cornelius is paralyzed by the truth of how his father, a German soldier in World War II, came to own it.  If he admits to the world that it is a Vermeer and attempts to auction it or donate it to a museum, questions of provenance will no doubt be raised, and the truth of his father’s role in the German occupation of the Netherlands will also become public knowledge. Tragically, the painting and Cornelius’ enjoyment of it have been tainted irreparably by his father’s crimes.

 The one thing he craved, to be believed, struck at odds with the thing he most feared, to be linked by blood with his century’s supreme cruelty.”

The story then moves further back in time to its previous owners: a Jewish family living in Amsterdam during World War II, a Dutch merchant at the turn of the century, a farmer’s wife, a student, and, finally, the Girl herself – the inspiration for the painting.

The author lovingly describes the painting in such detail that you almost forget it is a fictional painting, invented by the writer. You almost begin to believe yourself that this story could be about a lost Vermeer. Each character sees something different in the painting, be it potential justification and vindication for a life poorly spent, a kindred spirit, a remembrance of first love, or unfulfilled hopes and dreams, and each focuses their devotion on a different aspect, whether it’s the subject matter, the light, the setting, or the painter’s skill. At the same time, the stories are all connected by a collective affection, even adoration, for the painting.

As a reader, you begin each story knowing ultimately how it will end, but even knowing this, it is a testament to the author’s skill that you still feel compelled to read on to learn how that person obtained the painting.  Through the vehicle of the painting’s mysterious history, Vreeland explores the small, but poignantly significant moments in people’s lives.

Girl in Hyacinth Blue is a delicate, beautifully written novel that is also available as an audiobook and as a 2003 Hallmark movie starring Glenn Close, entitled Brush With Fate.

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