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Short Stories

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Woman Made of Sand: A Novel in Stories by Joann Kobin (Delphinium Books) A collection of short stories all involving the same cast -- a family -- with "Harriet" doubling as both mother and authorial voice. The stories interact temporally and substantively, allowing the reader benefits of redundancy, 'delayed decoding' (see Joseph Conrad), and shifting perspectives. Clever from this standpoint, but readers may find the contents somewhat thin as regards setting, topic, detail, or, in a word -- substance -- unless of course they are new to post-feminist literature of a somewhat lukewarm vein, like marbled cream in weak coffee, no stronger than advocating re-cycling, abortion rights, or doing your own thing. To be fair though, I don't think the author set out to advocate anything in particular, but rather, toned and finished the work to a luster of considerable subtlety and finesse about family ('values', even), and the difficult choices that family members must sometimes make to survive, live, and/or be happy. From this point of view the book is successful. The stories speak from a shadowland of feelings as tonality that slowly open us to flukes of character and self remade through clear action.
Any of the stories can be read on an individual basis -- or, free-standing -- but perhaps at the cost of loosing some of their accumulative effect, and other aforementioned narrative attributes. Rain, the first of eleven stories, takes its title from a funeral scene where Harriet's mother in law, Belle, is kept from approaching the grave-site of her husband because -- according to the dissuasive family minister -- it is raining too hard. "She'll get too "upset" seeing "the casket lowered into the grave," he seems to have told Phillip, Belle's son (Harriet's husband). Harriet's calling for a second opinion here gives the piece -- and, by extension, the entire work -- its best and most genuine tone: "But now is the time to get upset," I said. "There are times to get upset and this is one of them. Her husband of almost fifty years just died." Neither the pitfalls of marriage nor the healing of catharsis are alien to Harriet who develops throughout the book toward greater self-knowledge, hence change. Charity Work follows, set in a resort along the Jersey shore, it is perhaps the most descriptive and atmospheric of all the pieces, it is also the most daring, as the opening paragraph depicts the nuclear family bathing together in the sea with up-stirred flesh -- the "points" of her mother's "nipples," the "bulge" in her father's "tight shiny swimming trunks," a young Henrietta swimming naked as a "mermaid" in-between -- in such a way that has nothing to do with sexual abuse, or even penetration for that matter, but rather, just plain sensuality, a fact among all father's, mother's, sons and daughters, whether they choose to recognize it or not. The story also involves the sometimes-difficult tension that often arises within the individual caught between caring for others -- hence the title -- and themselves. What I Learned From Clara, (story/chapter five in the sequence) boasts perhaps the work's most revealing line, via Clara herself, an older woman and somewhat role-model with a strong sense of independence: "Brides all look alike to me," Clara said. "They look so hopeful and sweet . . . and a little silly." Though the author falls way short of dissing marriage as an institution in any comprehensive way, the line seems to best-embody her own personal vision of life learning, change and personal transformation. Woman Made of Sand is an artful read, a little snapshot of lives in discovery and care.

Before Gatsby: The First Twenty-Six Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli and Judith Baughman (University of South Carolina Press) This collection of peerless short stories boasts all of the ones Fitzgerald published before the official appearance of The Great Gatsby. Between 1919 and 1923, Fitzgerald crafted a series of tales that expertly captured a unique sector of American society. Originally published in mass-circulation magazines including Vanity Fair, the`Saturday Evening Post. Laying the stories end to end, one can see the progression Fitzgerald made as a writer leading up to the construction of his first masterpiece. The stories also include the original illustrations (56 in all) as well as reproductions of manuscript pages, ads, magazine covers, and tables of contents, plus explanatory notes and other goodies provided by editor Bruccoli, the world's foremost authority on Fitzgerald.

THE COLLECTED STORIES OF EDITH WHARTON selected and edited by Anita Brookner ($16.95, paperback, 640 pages, Carroll & Graf 078670523X) Two volumes of Edith Wharton’s most memorable short fiction is now available in one volume paperback collection. These stories confirm the fact that Edith Wharton has as much to say to us now as she did to readers in the first half of this century. She is indisputably one of our finest writers of mannered fiction and character portrayal. the editor Anita Brookner is the Booker Prize-winning author of The Hotel du Lac (Vintage Contemporaries). She lives in England.

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