Ninety-Nine Stories of God

9781941040355   In Pulitzer Prize winner Joy Williams’ flash fiction – Ninety-Nine Stories of God – the stories are so short, the impact takes a few seconds to reach – like the aftershocks of an earthquake.  Listening to the book on Audible is a definite disadvantage; the next story begins before the last has been fully absorbed.

Short parables anchored with a one or two word morals at the end, the stories range from strange encounters to joyful incidents to somber lessons. Some are only one sentence:

“We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.”  The word after the story is “Museum.”

The Zen-like stories are not really about God (although he is omnipresent)  but quick thoughts about everything, anything – maybe seeking some deep truth – but too fast to linger in your mind.  No time to think about it -whatever it is – and maybe it doesn’t matter.  As I walked along, I heard:

“There are certain times where it does not matter If you hear the word yes or the word no in answer to your question, whether you turn left or right, you will reach your destination.”

Did I like the book? Yes, it was a great companion, although I was tempted to rewind a few times while listening.  If I really wanted to note the words of wisdom, I would read this in book form – but, I don’t.  A quick flash was enough and satisfying.


What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

9781594634635_p0_v2_s192x300Helen Oyeyemi’s name was in the wind.  I heard her mentioned in the book I was listening to on Audible, The World Between Two Covers, and a friend suggested reading Oyeyemi’s celebrated Mr. Fox for a book club discussion. When Nancy Hightower of the Washington Post described Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours as ” a series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice,” and NPR called her writing masterpieces,  I decided it was time to read her.  Besides, the library conveniently produced What Is Your Is Not Yours in a day.  The universe must be calling.

Keys and locks connect the nine short stories, and as I read the first – “books and roses,” I had the same feeling I get when reading Haruki Murakami – what was I missing?  Some important undercurrent lurked just beyond my grasp, and if I could decipher the meaning, the reward would be great.  Despite rereading the first story, I’m still not sure.

Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. The strange connection between the two women’s unrelated stories surprisingly merge at the end when Montserrat discovers she and Lucy are linked, as the keys unlock a beautiful garden, and a window into their lives.

Oyeyemi used revealing language to underscore her messages, and comprehension of her plots seemed secondary to reading her words, so I continued.

“Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay.  Or yet another member of the county police force was found to have been an undercover gangster.  If not that then a gang member was found to have been an undercover police officer. An Ottoman-style restaurant opened in a town nearby; it served no food but had a mineral water menu tens of pages long, and fashion models came to drink their way through it while we played football with their bodyguards.”

The second story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” begins with a house of locks and two friends, a rock star, and you-tube. Sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman.When the rock star is exposed by the victim on you-tube, his fans’ reaction is to praise rather than condemn him, and he cynically uses his exposure as a vehicle for his next popular song.  Young Aisha, an ardent fan, now demands not only accountability but also his repentance.  The ending is satisfying, if other worldly, but had me wondering how we would all like to see some comeuppance for those who tend to “get away with it.”

Happy to have found Helen Oyeyemi, I will keep reading – seven more short stories in this book, and hope I will be able to discuss them with someone who has read them.

Have you?

Related Review:  Haruki Murakami

A Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories

la_readingcomprehensionShort stories are enjoying a renaissance, according to Leslie Kaufman in the New York Times article – A Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories.  A few favorite authors of novels have recently succumbed to short story collections that are worth looking for…

  • Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia –  short story collection: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
  • Jess Walter, author of  Beautiful Ruins – short story collection: We Live in Water
  • Amber Dermont, author of 2012 bestseller The Starboard Sea – short stories: Damage Control

Kaufman suggests these shorts are perfect for the digital age – quick and easy to download as a Kindle Single – fast reads for travel too.

Love Among the Greats

This collection of short stories is a slim volume – less than 150 pages – but in each of Edith Pearlman’s thirteen stories in Love Among the Greats, you’ll find a revelation – a subtle stripping away to show a character’s true feelings.  If you blink, you will miss it.

The introductory short story, titled “Jigsaw Table,” recounts summers at a run-down seaside cottage, with the family bonding over the austerity of the place, playing games and solving puzzles on an old oaken table.  When an interloper injects himself into the assembly of one of the jigsaw puzzles, the father’s final comment confirms his proprietary feelings not only for the table but also for his family.   Later, in the story titled “Toyfolk,”  an ironic friendship develops between the manager of a toy store chain and the maker of handcrafted toys – to expose a wife’s opinion toward her children, and maybe her entire married life.

The title story, “Love Among the Greats,” positioned in the middle of the book, actually begins a novella that follows a midwestern Jewish woman and her black pediatrician husband through three stories – from courtship in the library among the greats of literature, to married life, and finally to his return to Africa.

Some of the stories are humorous – the travel writer who writes about exotic sites from his bed; the Torah study group who really are getting together to play poker…but most of the stories have a serious message, and all have a literary quality in the prose.  The plots are stingy but the language beautiful.

For this woman, now staring at him with such assurance, beauty must be an old habit.

Edith Pearlman won the Spokane prize for short fiction with Love Among the Greats, but I discovered her when I read Roxanna Robinson’s New York Times review of Pearlman’s latest collection –  Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories.

Why in the world had I never heard of Edith Pearlman? And why, if you hadn’t, hadn’t you? It certainly isn’t the fault of her writing, which is intelligent, perceptive, funny and quite beautiful…

Glad I discovered her.  Read one or more of her stories when you need a short thoughtful pause.

In Honor of Edgar Allan Poe – Father of the Short Story

Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday; the “father of the short story” would be 202.

The New York Times book review section uses the insights of three famous authors – Francine Prose, Joyce Carol Oates, and Roxanna Robinson – all who have written both novels and short stories – to capture “Small Moments,”  their reflections on the short story form, with lots of ideas for short stories to read in …

  • Colm Toibin’s The Empty Family
  • Charles Baxter’s Gryphon
  • Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision

Toibin’s collection sounds a little depressing, with tales of melancholy and regret; likewise, Baxter’s disturbed Midwesterners;  Pearlman’s ” perceptive and funny” stories sound right for me.  

“Pearlman writes about predicaments – odd, wry, funny, and painful – of being human.”

My library only has her second collection – Love Among the Greatsguess I’ll start there.

For the New York Times Book Review article:

and for more on Edgar Allan Poe: