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Posts tagged 'Short Story'

The Purple Swamp and Other Stories by Penelope Lively

LivelyBooker Prize winner Lively gives us yet another book with keen observations of human nature and told with empathy and humor.

The title story takes place in the garden of Quintus Pompeius in ancient Pompei. Located in what is now Naples, Italy, Pompei was a Roman city destroyed in 79 A.D. by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The narrator is a purple swamphen, a bird native to swampy marsh areas and now an endangered species. In the lush garden of Quintus Pompeius, as in other gardens of wealthy Romans, this beautiful bird was kept for ornamental purposes.

The story highlights the debauched life of the upper class Romans, especially that of the ruler Pompeius. This particular garden “hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm” (p2). Pompeius’s children took pleasure in pulling the wings off butterflies and the feathers off the birds. A bond develops between the 14-year-old slave girl (herself abused) and the purple swamphen.

Lively anthropomorphizes the bird-narrator to lend an amusing detachment to her observations of humans-“a forensic interest in the practices of this curious species”—a species that drinks and eats to excess, enslaves others, and practices all manner of abuse. The reader cheers when the volcano erupts and the innocent creatures—the birds and the slave girl--escape nature’s onslaught.

Short Story  Sara Picks  Historical Fiction


Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

StroutAnythingStrout’s new book combines the best of two of her previous novels, last year’s very popular My Name is Lucy Barton, and 2008’s Olive Kitteridge. Anything Is Possible, to be published April 25, follows the novel-in-stories format of Olive Kitteridge, but the new book is about the characters from Lucy Barton. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I think so.

In case you haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton, that book’s title character is an author who is hospitalized in New York with a mysterious illness. Her mother, from whom she has been estranged, has taken her first plane trip from tiny Amgash, Illinois, to be by her daughter’s side. For five days, the women tell each other stories; mostly gossip about the interesting, eccentric people they have known over the years from their tiny hometown. The truths of their own lives are not fully addressed.

In Anything Is Possible, Strout writes about Lucy’s childhood neighbors as “characters who deserved their own stories.” The Barton family is seen through the eyes of the locals, and not favorably. Her “hellish childhood”, which is alluded to but not discussed in her namesake book, is illuminated through multiple points of view in the new novel. Lucy herself only makes one appearance, as a famous author who has written a memoir explaining the mysterious backstory of her childhood. She is regarded with disdain, as someone who turned her back on her people and is too fancy for her own good. The Bartons are not the only family in town with secrets, and as the small town neighbors tell their stories, the reader understands the depth of poverty and dysfunction that pervades Amgash.

I know you will wonder if you should read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy this sequel, and I recommend that you do. Anything is Possible could easily stand alone, but it is a richer reading experience when you have already read about the characters within.

Short Story  Nancy Picks  Literary Fiction  Family Drama  Contemporary


Trajectory: Stories by Richard Russo

RussoTrajectoryRusso—novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction—has written a new stellar collection. Best known for his accurate depiction of working class people, Russo here paints equally sympathetic portraits of educated, middle class men and women struggling with their own sense of failure.

In “Voice,” a semi-retired professor, Nate, seeks validation of his career by projecting talent on a student who may, or may not, have any. This student, suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome, is unable to speak and always sits at the periphery of the classroom. Her lack of a voice allows a kind of transference to take place.

Only much later, during a trip to Venice, does Nate understand the consequences of his own vanity.

…A man doesn’t have to be a monster, or even a bad man, to harm others, or to be a profound disappointment to himself. Better—not to mention braver—to tell Bernard about Opal, what he’d done and why, about her removal from the campus to a mental facility where her worsening condition could be treated and monitored, her college days over…He will tell Bernard all this, not because the story refutes his conviction that in the end human beings don’t amount to much, but rather because, as Nate has belatedly come to understand, life is, seemingly by design, a botched job (Trajectories, p. 131).

Short Story  Sara Picks  Contemporary


And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer by Fredrik Backman

BackmanWayHomeThis lovely novella is from the author of A Man Called Ove. At just 92 pages, Backman’s latest work is a sweet, read-in-one-sitting meditation on the mixed blessings of getting old. The author said that he wrote it as “a small tale of how I’m dealing with slowly losing the greatest minds I know, about missing someone who is still here, and how I wanted to explain it all to my children.”

Backman said that he wrote it for himself, explaining that writing is how he processes and thinks. He hadn’t originally intended to have the work published, but you will be glad that he did, as he again excels at portraying a slightly grumpy but charming elderly gentleman, not dissimilar to the beloved fictional Ove. The gentleman’s memory may be failing, but his personality is firmly intact as he talks of his sadness about losing his wife, and of his regret about not having spent more time with his son and grandson Noah. The grandfather in the story, when admonished that a stuffed animal in the shape of a dragon is not a suitable baby gift for his grandson replies, “I don’t want a suitable grandson, I want one who would like a dragon.” About his failing faculties, he muses, “I’m constantly reading a book with a missing page, and it is always the most important [page] to me.” It is a multi- generational story, connecting grandfather to father to son, and wherever you are in your life, you will find yourself somewhere in this book.

In a lesser author’s hands this could have been maudlin. In Fredrik Backman’s hands, it is lovely, poignant, and resonant. Small illustrations, including those of his wife’s favorite hyacinths, the bench where they courted, and that dragon stuffed animal add to the charm.

I am giving it to my 86-year-old mother and three adult children for Christmas. It will hit each of them in different place, and each of those places are important.

Short Story  Novella  Nancy Picks  Family Story  Contemporary  Aging