This installment: electrifying short stories; a new memoir by Salzman that explains a lot; Strout’s wonderful latest; fascinating YA novel; a Danish fantasy; and a chilling Outback tale.
Damage Control : Stories by Amber Dermont
Short stories that know how to get the reader’s attention, as in this first line: “When the baby fell out of the car, she bounced twice.” Some settings: the LBJ Ranch, a Carmelite nunnery near a bowling alley (yes, the nuns bowl), a cruise ship called Valkyrie where a woman serves as a traveling companion to rich widows. Two intriguing pieces in sections; the first about the making and unmaking of a soldier, the second on the “anatomy of pain.” Broad satire, sometimes pretty nasty, as in the title story about the Sis and Hasty Breedlove School of Southern Etiquette. Lively, for sure.
The Man in the Empty Boat by Mark Salzman
Here’s a writer I’ve enjoyed greatly but hadn’t seen anything from him in quite a while. This slim book explains it all beautifully. As Salzman puts it, he comes from a family of “ rabbits”: twitching whiskers, almost crippling anxiety. He tried to combat this with the study of Zen and martial arts, as detailed in his earlier memoirs. Made a good marriage, had children, but nada on the writing front—for 12 years. Then they got a dog, over his severe objections, and that dog’s fart broke the evil spell. Of course a lot preceded that—his mother’s death, his sister’s death, his father-in-law’s stroke. All of which softened him up for this unlikely mini-satori. As for the empty boat itself, it’s an ancient Taoist tale. Such a satisfying story in Salzman’s disarming, intimate style I’ve missed so much.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout
Benighted Shirley Falls, Maine, has produced one shining star: Jim Burgess, hotshot lawyer now based in NYC. Sister Susan is still there, though, and when her sad, lost teenage son Zach throws a defrosting pig’s head into a local Somali mosque, all hell breaks loose, both societal and familial. Brother Bob, Susan’s twin, is also a lawyer but a good-hearted sad sack, childless and divorced. The strains of the event fray everyone radically and we eventually learn the heart of lie that has shaped the Burgess boys early on. We also get to know the local immigrant Somali community, a hard fit in conservative New England but a part of the town’s survival. Rich, nuanced characterizations in which truth trumps glamor –Strout is very good at introducing prickly folks who gradually win your love (as in her wonderful, eponymous Olive Kittredge). The CD arrived before the book for me and I appreciated the reader who does the voices very well, from back East to Middle East.
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin
A young adult novel, slim and fascinating. Nonconformist Garnet, 16, spends a summer with an unpleasant aunt and cousin at a Midwest hotel by a lake. She’s fascinated by birds and can make deft shadow cutouts. Perhaps here she’ll learn to act more like a lady and accept her fate: marriage and a family. Instead she gets a job with a milliner, explores the forbidden amusement park and dance hall, and falls in love with a flapper. Great sense of time and place; fine portrait of an unusual coming of age, nifty ornithological material.
The Vanishing Act by Mette Jakobsen
Danish fantasy: a tiny isolated island with odd denizens. Minou’s mother disappeared (they finally buried her velvet shoe, all that they could find of her), the Boxman creates props for magicians, the Priest bakes pretzels, and her father studies and lives Philosophy. Dreamlike, often baffling but magical, radiant imagery.
The Engagement by Chloe Hooper
Another book that chilled me; I read it at a remove because I wasn’t rooting for any of the characters. Well maybe Liese as she gets deeper and deeper into trouble on this isolated ranch in the Outback. But perhaps she created her fate by setting up assignations in the properties she was showing to this well-fixed farmer looking for a pied –a- terre in Melbourne. She’s in debt, money changes hands between them—it all seems simple and cozy. But on this long weekend just before she’s slated to leave, things go very much awry. The shift in power, the growing dread, the decaying mansion all make for a grisly gothic tale, which is what kept me reading.
Back 4th week in January (I’m off to Mexico!)