Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

Isabella, Mary and Lauren are the central 20something characters in Jennifer Close’s debut book of linked short stories, Girls in White Dresses. Despite the title lifted from the lyrics of “My Favorite Things”  — the theme of a bridal shower the friends are forced to attend — the book shouldn’t be confused with the raunchy summer flick Bridesmaids or frothy chick-lit novels. It’s smart and witty, reminscent of  works by Melissa Banks, Pam Houston, even Laurie Colwin, all of whom charted the coming-of-age of previous generations. Isabella, Lauren and Mary could well be named Lisa, Jodi and Kim.

The challenges of the post-college years remain the same as the friends deal with bad bosses, shared apartments, and relationships going nowhere. There’s a lot of drinking and talking with gal pals, moments of social awkwardness (Isabella’s ski vacation with a new guy and bunk beds), the inevitable inappropriate behavior (Lauren’s attraction to a “dirty, sexy bartender”), and the what’s-wrong-with-Mr. Right blues (Mary’s prospective mother-in-law is a control freak named Button).

All the while the friends watch their other friends march down the aisle.

” ‘Are you ever afraid that you aren’t going to meet anyone?’ Isabella asked Lauren one night. They were finishing their last drinks  at the bar, and Isabella finally asked the question she’d been thinking for a while now. She didn’t want to say it out loud. She was embarrassed that she even thought it, and waited for Lauren to lecture her about being a strong woman. Instead, Lauren finished her drink, crushed an ice cube in her teeth, and said, ‘All the time.’ ”

But even after Isabella meets Harrison, obstacles remain. Should she give up her hard-won job in publishing in New York to follow him to Boston? 

“It seemed like it all happened easier for everyone else. Look at Harrison’s friends. They just got married and had kids and didn’t seem to think about it too much. Maybe that was her problem. She was thinking about it too much. Or maybe the fact that she was thinking about it meant it wasn’t right.”

Close gets so much so right, from the many mixed emotions of becoming a “grown woman,” to the telling details of trying on one persona after another like so many dresses.  You have to laugh when one character trades in a grueling work-out class for more gentle exercise only to discover “her yoga mat smelled like feet, which got in the way of transcendence.”

Open Book: I read a digital galley of Jennifer Close’s Girls in White Dresses (Knopf), which the publisher made available through NetGalley. But I think I’m going to buy a copy for a young 20something, class of 2012.

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I wrote a letter the other day, just a quick note to an old friend in Kansas recovering from a bump on the head. Told her I had had the strangest dream — and she was in it! And she was wearing the cutest red shoes.

I added a few more lines, and then because I didn’t have the Gales’ home address, I e-mailed it to LettersWithCharacter@gmail.com If you want to read it, it’s posted at http://LettersWithCharacter.blogspot.com , along with other readers’ letters to Captain Ahab, Hercule Poirot and Dr. Watson, among others. You’re welcome to send in your letters, too.

Obviously, this “Interactive Literary Environment,” in which real people write letters to fictional characters, is all in good fun. Harper Perennial came up with the campaign to publicize its June release of  What He’s Poised to Do, a collection of linked short stories by Ben Greenman about how letters function in life as well as in fiction.

Before I decided to write Dorothy, I considered penning a letter to Mr. D’Arcy letting him know of my current single status, but that man has more matches than e-harmony, plus he’s married.  Inspector Adam Dalgliesh is only engaged, so I was going to tell him to get a clue that Emma isn’t the right woman for him, but he’s awfully moody. I wondered if Scout Finch needed a new BFF, and if maybe Lassie would come home to my house. But Dorothy hasn’t been well, and besides, maybe she’ll write back and tell me where she got those darling shoes.

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It was one of those magic nights of words and music and laughter. I can close my eyes and I’m right back at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, listening to writer Lee Smith and songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg play around with the beginnings of a musical based on Smith’s short stories and those of fellow author Jill McCorkle.  They were talking and singing about Southern girls and women with big hair and big hearts, and the audience nudged the performers along with chuckles, even as Smith was explaining, “we haven’t really got this part finished, but here goes…”

Now Good Ol’ Girls, a new musical written and adapted by Paul Ferguson  based on stories by Smith and McCorkle, with songs by Chapman and Berg, is finishing up a limited engagement Off-Broadway this week. I hear it’s been quite the crowd-pleaser, and I don’t doubt it. Hope to see it one day.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger: New and Selected Stories by Smith, pleased to encounter seven old favorites and discovering seven new ones. What ties all these tales together is Smith’s obvious affection and respect for her “ordinary” characters and her skill at rendering their lives in realistic fashion. She catches many of them at turning points.

In the beginning of ”Bob, a Dog,”  Cheryl watches her husband, David, walk out on their longtime marriage, saying he needs a different life. ”Cheryl stood in the doorway and watched him go and couldn’t imagine a different life.” David’s departure pulls Cheryl up short, forcing change upon her. In other stories, characters also experience moments of epiphany in the face of unexpected love or grief.

In ”Intensive Care,” Harold Stikes, former high-school nerd and owner of three Food Lions, left his wife and three children for redheaded waitress Cherry Oxendine, ”a fallen woman with a checkered past.” Now Cherry is dying, and Harold is stunned that they only had three years together and ”a million laughs.” But Harold wouldn’t trade that time with Cherry, even though his friends have called him a fool. ”He stepped out of his average life for her, he gave up being a good man, but the rewards have been extraordinary.”

The rewards of these stories are extraordinary as well. “House Tour,” one of the new stories, depicts a clash of cultures when a group of red-hatted women mistake an academic Yankee couple’s old Victorian for a stop on the Christmas home tour. The jaded wife, Lynn, is so disconcerted by their presence that she finds herself apologizing for her life and creating a ghost story on the spot. Then her philandering husband shows up in the kitchen, several of the ladies return for wine and some poundcake, and Lynn is encouraged to perhaps release her “inner child,” or at least buy some sexy high heels.

Possibility and change also challenge the women in McCorkle’s Going Away Shoes, her most recent collection, which I read last fall.  The humor is tart and the mood often dark, but you’ll want to meet these “good ol’ girls,” too.

Open Book: I know both McCorkle and Smith. I stopped reviewing Smith’s books in the Orlando Sentinel after 2003 because she gave a generous blurb to the first Caroline Cousins’ novel, Fiddle Dee Death, and I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest. But I didn’t stop reading her novels or stories. Both Smith and McCorkle are published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, which sent me review copies of Mrs. Darcy Meets the Blue-Eyed Stranger and Going Away Shoes. Thank you.

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In case you haven’t heard, today is pub day for Matterhorn, a 598-page first novel from Marine veteran Karl Malantes. Despite the title, it’s not about the Swiss Alps but about the Vietnam War. The advance hype is almost irresistible, with impressive blurbs from distinguished writers, an amazing backstory (30 years in the writing), a big discounting push from booksellers, advance praise from critics. It’s the season’s “big” book, maybe the year’s.

Back when I was a book editor/critic, I cared about such stuff. We had to be out in front of the news, first with reviews. It was an ongoing race. Even now since I started blogging, the reporter-in-me impulse wants to be in the know ASAP. This has to stop. I have mountains of unread books, some of them just released, some soon to be published and others that well, I can’t remember when they came out. They went from the top of the TBR stack to the middle as I piled on more new volumes.

Then there are all those books I want to re-read. When I first heard about Matterhorn several months back, I admit to initial disappointment that it wasn’t about the legendary peak in Switzerland. I still have my yellowed paperback of James Ramsey Ullman’s Banner in the Sky, which I loved as a kid and which led me to The White Tower, now out of print. I want to revisit them after all these years and experience again the thrill of the ascent — the rocks, the ice, the snow, the endless chasms if you put one foot wrong.

Matterhorn is supposed to be a terrific Vietnam combat novel — which reminds me of other great Vietnam books, especially Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There’s a nice new 20th anniversary edition of this haunting collection of short stories. No, I don’t need to go out and buy it; the original hardover is on the top shelf of my blue bookcase.

I almost gave into temptation a couple of weeks ago and bought Angelology, a fat first novel from Danielle Trussoni. It has received a lot of hype, too — a more highbrow Dan Brown — and is now on the best-seller list. Great cover, but then I picked it up and read a few paragraphs and remembered why I’m not a big Dan Brown fan. I decided it could wait. After all, Matterhorn was coming.

But I’m going to wait awhile for it, too. The luxury of being an unpaid, erratic blogger. I no longer have to read every big new book just because it’s there.

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