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Words of Wisdom (and Wildness): Distinctive Story Collections

ALL THAT IS LEFT IS ALL THAT MATTERS
Stories
By Mark Slouka
175 pp. Norton. $24.95.

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These elegant stories are stuffed full of the bittersweet wisdom of people who have lived enough to know, as the title puts it, that “all that is left is all that matters,” that “the world doesn’t care for us — we pass through its rooms like ghosts,” that “if there were any justice left it would shrivel and die at the injustice of it all.” Yet Slouka’s characters aren’t so world-weary as to be cheerless; they’re just real and flawed like the rest of us, their wisdom hard won.

In “Then,” Tom takes the train into Manhattan to escape, or perhaps to wallow in, a gathering sadness “about my father, wrapping up and not inclined to go gently, about time, about mortality, the speed of things.” It also becomes a journey into the past when Tom bumps into someone who was his lover 40 years earlier and remembers a weekend when the death of a stranger fortuitously (for them) delayed his lover’s departure from the city — so one man’s death became another’s extra nights of passion. Death also looms over “Crossing,” about an estranged dad taking his young son on a camping trip in the Pacific Northwest. No spoilers here, but the tension is as powerful as the “swiftly flowing field” of river water they must cross on foot, which is described so well that it comes alive, another character in yet another gem of a story.

OTHER PEOPLE’S LOVE AFFAIRS
Stories
By D. Wystan Owen
213 pp. Algonquin. Paper, $15.95.

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The people who live in the village of Glass are a sad lot, their lives suffused with a grayness that borders on oppressive. Located somewhere on the coast of England, the village links the stories in this debut collection about some very British characters who have all, in different ways, been disappointed by life. There’s an old-fashioned air to the writing and the people, the Harolds and Walters and Esthers and their recollections of Trilby the florist, Herville the butcher, the old picture house, the trip to the big top — even, in “The Patroness,” to a salon run by a wealthy widow and frequented by a collection of “not-quite-first-rate artists.”

Owen is a gentle writer who tenderly sifts through his characters’ lives, revealing the losses and regrets that stalk them. The title story is about two women, Erma and Violet, drawn together by their “corpulence” (Owen isn’t the kind of writer who would call them fat), who live as companions for 20 years. But then comes Violet’s death from heart failure and Erma’s discovery of a “small curiosity” in Violet’s will: an old desk bequeathed to the owner of a local pub. From that grows an obsessive, destructive doubt about what their years together had really meant to Violet. Like so many of Glass’s citizens, Erma is among the “broken beings … far past repair.”

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