The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher

The Collected Stories of Hortense Calisher
Publisher: Open Road Media
502 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publ: 1975)
Source: NetGalley

This was an introduction to Calisher’s writings for me, and while I appreciated her skills, I didn’t particularly enjoy reading most of these stories, particularly not in one continuous span, making it somewhat difficult to review. I could envision this being a book I’d like having a copy on hand to read from in small doses, or when wanting to study some masterful (albeit convoluted) portrayal of character.

Calisher’s stories are dense, and as it says in one of the introductions to this collection, you have to enjoy thinking in order to appreciate this. It can’t simply be browses, or read lightly. The stories almost all feature family and social dynamics in well-to-do New York city families, told in wandering, elliptical and often dispassionately reminiscing voice. This style creates a certain disconnect between the inherent, detailed humanity of her characters and the obtuse, cold fashion those emotions are related. Not unlike reading an academic discourse on the history of some tragedy, the style makes things distant, whereas the events and people described beg for close proximity.

Verbose and full of flowery latinate vocabulary, with foreign phrases of the upper class flung about to convey sentiments and mots justes not easily translated into English, Callisher even comes across as pretentious, populated with pretentious characters. Yet, that is the kind of world she is writing about, and using the styles of that world to communicate some basic emotions and conditions.

Despite all the challenges of her style, Callisher still manages to write with an easily noticeable beauty and rhythm. Her paragraphs have a cadence, some extending long, but then followed by one short. Her phrasing and choice of specific words gives the Academic, dispassionate text a certain poetry that makes it a little more empathetic and relatable, most particularly in her use of alliteration.

The opening story to this collection was easily my favorite, it contained a ‘plot’ and character explorations beyond the mundane family interactions and social atmospheres of upper crust NYC. Speckled throughout were others that I found fantastic, but most began to feel tedious. If you have a fond regard for literary prowess or the subject of Callisher’s writings (NYC) then this is just for you. If you simply enjoy a wide range of short stories and artistic writing then this may be something good to dip into on occasion without trying to barrel through.

Three  Stars out of Five

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner

19829927Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316224642
208 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

There is a form of religious book called the ‘devotional’. One reads a selection from the holy text and then a brief commentary or anecdote related to that selection. I really have never liked devotionals. I don’t mind reading a selection, but usually find those commentaries and remarks to be weak, obvious, overwrought, and simplistic. They never match the beauty of the original passages or the wealth of interpretations that can come from one little snippet of text in relation to its whole.

This book is what I wish devotionals were really like. Not silly, feel-good, faux-deep reflections, but original works of intense spirituality and humanity that can invite personal reflection rather than one set interpretation or thoughts from someone else. This is a short collection of literary vignettes, brief explorations of characters and situations in short stories and microfiction. For that kind of work, this collection is superb. However, in one punch, even in this short volume, it combines to make a daunting read, one that loses its beauty and poignancy if reading all at once as I did. It really would work better to read in pieces separated by time and further experience, almost like a devotional.

The ‘stories’ here often have no actual plot, but instead are brief observations of something larger, a character trait, or an isolated incident of meaning. They are broken into sections that are not immediately obvious in their differences – many for instance would still fit in the ‘survivor’ theme of the first, large section. Interspersed with what I assume are autobiographical reflections by the author that match in style much of the fiction, each page likely contains a phrase or sentence of profound beauty and possibilities. If poetic prose is something you enjoy or are looking for something literary that could serve as a devotional of sorts, then I would recommend giving this a look.

Four  Stars out of Five

Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Short Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Last Summer at Mars Hill and Other Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
324 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013 (original publ. 1998)
Source: NetGalley

I know Hand’s name and writing primarily from her book review column in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Prior to this collection I had only read one short story of hers, and I can’t say I remember anything of it. I guess her first short story collection is a good place to start, and I hope now that I’ll see more of her fiction in the magazines I subscribe to. It would be curious to see how similar or different her writing is now to this.

The story from which this book takes its title is the first and my personal favorite of the bunch. It is also one of the brighter and more uplifting pieces here, though that is by no means why I enjoyed it most. But that opening story seems to best capture the best of Hand’s ability, to tell a captivating story that explores archetypical human themes and emotions in rich, poetic language. She does this without fearing or hesitating to enter into heavy, traumatic, and emotionally crippling directions. In this first story, and in some of the others that follow, Hand manages to do this all with supreme subtlety, and for that I find the first story the most successful and resonant with readers.

At other times, however, her stories deal with traumatic and heavy themes with unforgiving brutality. This honesty has made some of the stories unpalatable to editors, and even it seems unpopular with some readers. Even those that get darkest, though, it is hard to ignore their absolute beauty and the elegance of her prose. Dark or light, horror or fantasy, or even science fiction – her stories are all magical. Suffused with close ties to history and mythology they have that classical feel of the fairy tale, but made modern, feminist, and given a personal twist born from Hand’s own unfortunate experiences of psychological and physical trauma.

Even though I loved the writing throughout, some of the stories just failed to capture my interest on the emotional or plot level. And (as is the case with one story that she explains being written while working in a particularly bad office job) Hand sometimes writes in obvious emotional reaction to some experience in her own life, so transparently that it becomes too little about the characters, and more like a personal venting of the author’s that feel the need to hear, thereby taking you of the story.

Each story is followed by an all-too-brief note from Hand related to the story, and the close of the book includes personal photos and captions and biographical/bibliographical information. On the whole it worked as an effective introduction to Hand for me, and I’m intrigued to see what her later work – short or novel-length showed for her growth.

Four  Stars out of Five

The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories

The Best of Connie Willis: Award Winning Stories
Publisher: Del Rey
496 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
Source: NetGalley

Reading this reminded me how useful it is to read a collection of an author’s short stories every so often. I read a lot of science fiction and fantasy short stories in print and online magazines. I begin to recognize author’s names as familiar and for a rare few I see and recall the names sufficiently to know if I tend to like their work enough to search out their novels or collections. But the vast majority of names get lost in the sea of memory. Two of the stories in this collection (“Inside Job” and “All Seated on the Ground”) seemed familiar, the latter which I fully recalled reading and loving. Looking back in my records I found they are the only two Connie Willis works I’ve ever read. Now after reading the other stories in this collection I know I need to keep finding and reading more.

Willis introduces this collection stating that the only unifying theme of the stories is that she wrote them. The genres of sci-fi, the plots, the locations, the voices, the tones: they all vary. The idea struck me while rereading the two stories I was familiar with, and considering those new to me, that there is another link between the stories found here. Each at its heart is concerned with characters facing absurd and inexplicable situations that they then struggle to make sense of. The stories are of people trying to find order in a seemingly chaotic, uncertain, and inexplicable world. This fact, more than any genre conventions make her stories science fiction, for they are all about discovery, of observing something mysterious and working out the truth behind the matter.

The most absurd of her stories include one where attendees of a quantum physics convention in Hollywood try and deal with the counter-intuitive nature of their field and the city’s culture. In another, tourists wander through Egypt uncertain if they are alive or dead. With “Inside Job” a professional debunker is faced with the prospect that the spirit of US history’s greatest skeptic is communicating through a charlatan medium. In another, aliens arrive on Earth only to just stand in silence, absurdly looking dour and displeased, doing nothing to communicate as the humans scramble around attempting to understand what the visitors want.

All the stories thus seem extremely ‘literary’ despite being couched in science fiction settings and straightforward, light language. She writes with a bright humor, poking fun at her characters as they fumble down the road to understanding. Her writing is suffused throughout with a joy for stories: those of literature, theater, and film. At the same time she conveys a deep respect for scientific, rational thought in all walks of life, but a sense of wonder and belief in the capacity of the human soul for love and finding things greater.

Five  Stars out of Five