Friday, July 29, 2011

What to read when time is “short” . . .

Novels and meaty nonfiction usually consume great chunks of my leisure time during the summer when I’m on vacation or when it’s too hot for outside activities. But my life this summer has been shredded into time slices so thin I can barely get the newspaper read. A novel loses all its “take me away” rewards when read in half hour chunks, and I find challenging nonfiction is difficult to follow when I can read only a few pages at a time. What to do? Fortunately, several of my favorite writers have released story collections this year. I can usually read a story in its entirety in the hour or so I sometimes find available, and it provides me with the mini-break I need along with the satisfaction of having completed something.

I started with E.L. Doctorow’s All the Time in the World, New and Selected Stories, his first collection since 2004’s Sweet Land Stories. Doctorow, known for his fictionalization of real events in American history (Ragtime, Billy Bathgate, The March, etc.), has compiled a selection of late works, all of them eerie and unsettling. In “Edgemont Drive”, comprised entirely of dialogue, a bearded stranger knocks on the door of a house where he claims to have once lived, and enters the lives and minds of its occupants. "A House on the Plains," set in post Civil War Illinois, reveals the murderous schemes of a mother and son in a chillingly detached voice. Doctorow’s stories, though compelling and beautifully written, seem to fall short of the completeness a story demands. It is as if they were sketches for or from novels. All entice, but few satisfy.

On to Pulse, from British writer Julian Barnes, whose sparkling wit is always warmed by his humanity, most recently in his autobiographical and introspective musing about death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of. Pulse is divided between two sections, for no reason that I could discern. In the first, four drawing room comedies, “At Phil and Joanna’s”, display Barnes’s pyrotechnic dialogue as a group of friends converse around the dinner table about contemporary politics and their personal lives. Interleaved are five stories tinged with loss and regret. In “Marriage Lines,” a recently widowed man returns to the island bed-and-breakfast where he and his wife had spent happy summers, hoping to assuage his grief. Instead he learns “he was not in charge of grief. Grief was in charge of him.” The second section includes my favorite, “The Limner,” in which an itinerant portrait painter is treated badly by a patron, and takes his revenge in an unexpected O. Henry twist. I loved this book, and will seek out Barnes’s earlier collections.

Roddy Doyle, the Irish author known for his “Barrytown Trilogy” (which was made into a wonderful series of indie movies, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van, the first two available in DVD here at RPL), has turned his comic voice to one of poignancy and regret in Bullfighting. All the stories are about men of a certain age, uncertain about and wary of the future, and nostalgic for the past. Doyle captures the thoughts and feelings of his characters in spare, pitch-perfect interior monologues. The stories are not depressing, however. These men may all be facing mid-life crises of one sort or another, but they are for the most part doing it with humor and grace.

Most recently, I lost myself in The Empty Family, by Colm Toibin, another Irishman and author of Brooklyn (2009) and The Master (2004). As its title story suggests, there is loss and melancholy to spare in this collection of stories about emotional estrangement and isolation, many of them with gay protagonists. Toibin has been compared to Henry James, about whom he wrote in The Master, for his atmospheric prose and transcontinental perspective. In the first story, “Silence,” Toibin uses an incident recounted by James in his Notebooks to tell the story of an upper class Victorian wife caught up in a dangerous affair. In “One Minus One,” an expatriate writer returns to Dublin upon hearing of his mother’s illness, and realizes after her death that he had “postponed too much. . . . it was too late now, too late for everything.” That could be said of almost all of Toibin’s characters in these stories: unlike those in Doyle’s, they are resigned to a joyless future and comfortless memories.

Two new story collections await my attention: Ladies and Gentlemen, by Adam Ross, author of last year’s Mr. Peanut, and Caitlin Horrock’s debut, This Is Not Your City: Stories, both on order here at RPL.

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