Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Short Story Snafu

I view summer as a time to catch up on all of the reading I have put off.  Those lazy mornings spent outside under my floral umbrella with a cup of coffee while my puppy chases birds in the field are perfect for beginning that book I have been meaning to read.  That is how I finally picked up three books of short stories that have been on my bookshelf since 2007.  Apparently, I was attracted to simple but evocative covers and the promise of the same type of prose inside that year....and maybe I should have read them then, when a collection of brief, but heart-wrenching tales was what I craved because now, four years later, I find that the lovely prose, exotic places, and gentle reminders about the fragility of life and love leave me cold.

The first book I read, Rebecca Barry's later, at the bar, is actually a novel told in stories.  Set in a small town in upstate New York, the novel dedicates each chapter to one inhabitant's sad life story.  Each character is connected by his or her frequent appearance at Lucy's Tavern - the hometown bar and iconic backdrop for the perils of small-town life.  Although Barry poignantly reveals through each character's suffering that the biggest obstacle keeping us from success is our own inability to enact change in our life, the characters are on a whole unsympathetic.  The town has an incestuous feel as each character constantly passes partners amongst the others, and I felt as if I was viewing the entire novel through a drunken haze.  Best matched with a bar at 2:00 a.m. when these characters' woes might actually be pitiable.

In hopes of a more upbeat and coherent set of short stories, I turned to Olaf Olafsson's Valentines.  The book blurb raves that "The stories of Valentines capture the most candid moments between lovers, husbands and wives, parents and children, when truths and true feelings surge to the surface, and everything changes."  As a newly married woman, I was interested to see what nuggets of truth about love and marriage Olafsson would present.  The added subtext of Icelandic culture (Olafsson is from Iceland) piqued my interest.  Although Olafsson is a much more accomplished writer than Barry, his stories shared the same feeling of hopeless despair.  He is a master of the subtle and sometimes subdued climax, yet his revelations were so disheartening I wanted to crawl in bed and never leave.  The stories are bound by a thread of grief, worming its way into the most seemingly stable relationships and eating away at the bonds there until they fray and break.  Many of the stories, each written to reflect one month out of the year, pivot around the point where a seemingly stable relationship fails.  Friends, husbands, and wives betray each other as the months pass, plunging the reader into deeper and deeper despair.  Not even the bond between parent and child is deemed unalterable.  In one story, a father, thrown overboard in a boating accident with his young son, abandons his son in the water to swim for shore and safety.  In another, a daughter's disapproval of her father's eccentric relationship culminates in the dissolving of her own marriage and a dismissal from her father's life.  Beautifully written, Olafsson's stories are completely devoid of hope: hope that a relationship can last, hope that people can change, hope for a long, happy life, and I cannot bear to think that a world without hope exists.  Best matched with a long stretch of cold, rainy days after a break-up.

Finally, I turned to Ahdaf Soueif's I Think of You, whose rosy cover promised the hope that Olafsson's bleak volume denied me.  Soueif's evocative writing style rivals Olafsson's and her description of the vibrant traditions of Egypt and its countrymen surpass the cold, barren landscape lurking in Olafsson's Valentines.  Soueif meditates as well on the changing nature of love, using age as a marker, yet she seems to come to the same realization as Olafsson that love and happiness cannot last and that the mutability of people and the world is detrimental to a stable relationship instead of potentially strengthening.  But Soueif's awareness is tinged with remorse and wistfulness as opposed to the passive acceptance of Olafsson's characters.  She begins her stories through the eyes of a precocious and imaginative young girl whose safety net is shattered when she discovers the price of "knowing" what the world harbors.  This young girl's fall from fantasy to reality is mirrored in each of the following stories, but unlike Olafsson's characters, Soueif's characters seem determined to remember the happiness bestowed upon them before things went sour and parse out exactly what went wrong with the unspoken hope of avoiding the errors in the future.  The careful reader will see some of the same characters pop up across stories and, therefore, be able to follow them through different life events.  The most touching story by far of Soueif's collection is "Chez Milou," a meditation on unrequited love.  The conclusion of this story sums up Soueif's volume in one word, "tendresse."  Best matched with a quiet summer evening and contemplation.

Overall, I find Olafsson and Soueif to be well-written and culturally interesting; however, the dismal themes of love gone wrong do not appeal to me now - during the height of summer and in the early days of my own marriage.  Pick up these books when you are in the mood to scorn or meditate on the weaknesses of love - but don't lose hope in the characters surrounding you in your own life.

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