Short Stories & Essays: 2 Reviews

Calypso     David Sedaris     (2018)

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Any book of essays and stories by David Sedaris is guaranteed to elicit out-loud guffaws from me as I burn through the pages. Calypso is no exception, even though several of the pieces in this collection center on the 2013 suicide of Sedaris’s sister Tiffany. Sedaris depicts himself, his four surviving siblings, and his elderly father as truly grieved by the loss of Tiffany. But they carry on, recalling their decades of interactions with Tiffany in raw spurts that are sometimes amusing and sometimes downright sad. “Memory aside, the negative just makes for a better story . . . Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.” (91-92)

Over the years, Sedaris has lived in several cities in the United States and in France. He currently resides with his long-term boyfriend, the visual artist Hugh Hamrick, in a renovated sixteenth-century house in the south of England. Incidents set in this home and in the surrounding countryside display Sedaris’s acute sense of cultural nuance. If you’ve never read Sedaris before, be warned that he’s an inveterate trash collector—as in self-appointed roadside litter gleaner—who describes vividly the sordid garbage that he picks up. He’s also a prolific writer, whose other books are reviewed in my overview of his work.

Cockfosters     Helen Simpson     (2015)  

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Reviewers of this book of short stories set in contemporary England have pointed to the theme of aging and the observations of characters, middle-aged and beyond, who have a trove of wisdom as well as a sense of losing a grasp on life. This is certainly one theme, but another theme, trenchantly pursued, is women’s role in society and in the home. Each story is named for a place that figures either directly or tangentially in the action. In the title story, two old friends travel by train to Cockfosters station, the end of the line, to retrieve a pair of eyeglasses that one of them has left behind. Each stop along the way brings up discussion of evolving British culture. In the story “Arizona,” a woman receiving an acupuncture treatment has a wide-ranging conversation with her acupuncturist, including a comparison of menopause to the state of Arizona. Most of the stories are brief and pointed; Simpson is especially adept with hyperbolic satire, as in “Erewhon” and “Moscow.” 

Only one story, “Berlin,” left me flat. In it, a husband and wife are reluctant audience members for a multi-day performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. Apparently, the two are sorting out whether they want to stay together, but there is little discussion of their troubles. Instead, readers  get interminable descriptions of the opera action. If I was supposed to match this action to the couple’s experiences, I missed the boat. I may have been hampered here by my utter contempt for Wagnerian opera.  

Mysteries from 3 Countries

In this post are reviews of mysteries from Iceland, the United States, and England, offering quite distinctive approaches to the genre. For even more reviews of mystery novels, go to the Archive in the right-hand column and click the “Mystery” category.

The Shadow District     Arnaldur Indriðason     (2017)    

Translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb

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I haven’t read a Scandinavian noir since I raced through all three volumes of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc) a decade ago. Those novels were terrifying for me, but I kept turning the pages. Although Indriðason’s The Shadow District is billed on the cover as a thriller, it’s not scary—or even fast-paced—but it’s a serviceable mystery that I would class loosely as a police procedural.

The novel toggles between present-day Reykjavik and the same city during World War II, when Iceland was occupied by British and American troops. In the present day, a 90-year-old man is found dead in his apartment. Looking for a motive for the murder of this seemingly innocuous elderly person, retired police detective Konrad reopens an investigation into the unsolved murder of a young woman that took place in 1944 in the titular Shadow District. Readers follow the path of the investigators in 1944, but Konrad has to uncover the details painstakingly, because records of this unsolved case have (surprise!) disappeared. One thread of inquiry involves the huldufólk, the elves of Icelandic folklore. As a character explains, stories about the huldufólk “can reveal a great deal about people’s attitudes over the centuries, whether it’s their fear of the unknown or their desire for a better life or dreams of a better world. They can tell us so much directly and indirectly about life in the past.” (207-08) If you want to join the stampede for Scandinavian crime stories but shudder at the usual gore, this Icelandic offering may fill the bill. Note that the translation uses British English, so there are a few idiomatic phrases that may puzzle American readers. And the English-language edition of this book spells the author's surname "Indridason" when in fact the Icelandic spelling is "Indriðason." There's quite a difference, since "ð" is pronounced as "th."

The Last Place You Look     Kristen Lepionka     (2017)

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Now, this novel is truly scary, so I had to skim cautiously over several sections in which the tension built. But it’s well written, and I wanted to read to the end to discover the murderer.

Private detective Roxane Weary is the thirty-something daughter of a recently slain Columbus police officer. She had a conflicted relationship with her father, but she’s devastated by his death and has turned to whiskey for solace. Meanwhile, in an Ohio prison, inmate Brad Stockton has exhausted his appeals and is slated for execution. Brad’s sister, Danielle, hires Roxane to see if there’s anything that can be done to save him. Danielle swears that she has caught sight of Sarah Cook, the daughter of the couple that Brad was convicted of murdering decades ago. Sarah disappeared and is presumed dead also. The case gets exceedingly complex and dangerous as Roxane delves into it, drawing plot elements from actual cases that I’ve seen in the news over the past few years.

I found the first-person narration of The Last Place You Look engaging, revealing Roxane as a hard-nosed yet caring Sam-Spade-like detective. Her sexual liaisons with both men and women are treated matter-of-factly, not as aberrations. Lepionka’s characters have substance, and her plot is cleverly orchestrated.  

Sleep No More: Six Murderous Tales     PD James     (2017)    

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Renowned British mystery writer PD James died in 2014 at the age of 94, so be warned that this small collection of her stories is not new work. Instead, gathered in a slim volume are six stories that first appeared in print between 1973 and 2006. These are classic James mysteries, very much in the tradition of the Golden Age mysteries that James transformed with a signature wit and careful writing throughout her career. Four of the six stories are told in first-person narrative, and the reader should be wary of assuming that sympathy with the narrator is warranted.

Take this PD James collection along on your next vacation, for engaging reading in the airport or train station. If you want more about the writing methods of PD James, see my review of her 2009 nonfiction book, Talking About Detective Fiction.

Lively Short Stories

The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories   Penelope Lively     (2016)

“The Purple Swamp Hen” is the title story in Penelope Lively’s recent collection. It’s a tale set in ancient Pompeii just before the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that buried the city in lava, and it’s told from the viewpoint of, wait for it, a purple swamp hen. An excavated Pompeiian fresco depicts this decorative bird that was kept in walled Roman gardens. Lively’s use of the swamp hen as her narrator is clever when you consider that this creature is in an ideal position to observe human shenanigans taking place in the garden, as Lively enumerates: “fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm.”

The ancient Mediterranean setting of “The Purple Swamp Hen,” is, however, an outlier in this masterful collection of stories from the octogenarian British author. The remaining stories are mostly set in Britain, in various decades of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Relationships are the overarching theme, and Lively presents couples in multiple circumstances, including falling in love, making a commitment, deciding on children, surviving divorce, taking revenge, and, of course, dying. For instance, she talks us through the emotions of an argument between a young husband and wife and takes us to Spain with a pair of penurious artists. Once in a while she tosses in the possibility of a ghost, to mix things up and bring the past into the present. Each new story opens up a miniature world for the reader.  

The short story form is highly confining for the writer. Characterizations have to be conveyed in a few sentences, and the plot has to be tight and of the proper scope for the length of the piece. With Lively’s stories, I always feel as if I know the characters, despite the brevity of the pieces (one is only 6 pages long). In their narrative rigor, Lively’s short stories remind me of the stories of Alice Munro, though Munro’s tend to be darker and sadder, to my reading.

Memory and the way the past and the future interact are persistent themes in Penelope Lively’s body of writing, which is large. She’s produced three memoirs that I find somewhat rambling, but her fiction is first-rate. Parallel to her career as an author of adult fiction is her work as an author of award-winning children’s books, starting back in the 1970s. In 1987 she won the Booker Prize for her adult novel Moon Tiger, in which a woman on her deathbed recalls scenes from her life. I recommend that one, but I’ve particularly enjoyed several of her more recent offerings, including The Photograph (2003), Consequences (2007), Family Album (2009), and How It All Began (2011). In this last title, Lively explores how one event affects seven different characters.

If you haven’t discovered Penelope Lively, don’t delay.