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Check It Out

Courier Articles by Sandy Schultheis
Sunday, February 4, 2001

Short Stories And Essays For The Shortest Month

Books of short stories are the hardest things for a librarian to "sell". Perhaps readers want to become deeply involved in a book with an intricate plot. Of late I have found myself too tired at the end of the day to immerse myself in anything very lengthy and have turned to books of short stories. Usually I can read a story in less than an hour and the skill required to make a satisfying reading experience in a limited amount of words is much more exacting than writing a novel. For the shortest month of the year you might want to try one of these new story collections. I have also included two works of non-fiction; a book of essays which might help you find other interesting or unfamiliar books, and a compendium of contemporary authors which will entertain as well as enlighten you. All of these selections are available through your public library.

The Hill Bachelors by William Trevor (Viking, 2000).

Trevor's newest collection of stories shows his wonderful ability to shift between male and female perspectives. The Irish author's mastery shines in a group of truly compelling short pieces, which explore the complexity of the human condition. One critic said, "he always writes about the disappointed but his work is never disappointing". Often sinister in tone, his stories are finely crafted works of art that nevertheless show a deeply felt compassion and understanding for the characters.

The Means of Escape by Penelope Fitzgerald. (Houghton Mifflin, 2000).

Fitzgerald who died last year was one of those late bloomers who didn't begin her writing career until she was almost 60, but made up for lost time with a brilliant series of short, funny, often bittersweet, novels about odd people in intriguing places. This posthumous book is her only collection of stories. The writing is lucid and exquisite with a focus one critic described as "just slightly off-center". The title story is about a young woman in mid-19th century Tasmania who encounters an escaped prisoner and imagines a romantic flight with him to England. Of course the ending is wholly unexpected and surprising. Fans of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym should make the acquaintance of a writer considered by many to be among the twentieth century's best.

The Bridegroom: Stories by Ha Jin (Pantheon, 2000).

Ha Jin's novel Waiting won the National Book Award in 1999. The author was born and raised in China. He came to the United States as a college student in 1985 and after the Tiananmen Square massacre decided to stay. Unable to find a teaching job, he supported himself as a busboy and night watchman and wrote in his spare time. His eventual success in publishing his fiction and poetry led to a faculty position at Emory University where he teaches creative writing. These stories are all set in China during and after the Cultural Revolution, in the provincial town of Muji. The characters experience small victories through acts of insubordination or sly trickery. Though their world is foreign to us, they are universal in their wants and needs. In a recent interview the author was questioned about the future direction of his writing and said that ultimately he intends to write of the immigrant experience in America .

Ellen Gilchrist: Collected Stories by Ellen Gilchrist (Scribner, 2001).

For the first time, a compilation of Ellen Gilchrist's best and best-loved short stories, selected by the author herself from her fifteen previous works of fiction. I don't know if my reading tastes have changed but I have been disappointed with Gilchrist's most recent works, yet it was fun to revisit her old stories and reacquaint myself with her outrageous Southern heroines, wild girls often from wealthy families. Despite the frequently "over-the-top" antics of her characters they are believable and likeable despite their flaws.

Readings: Essays & Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda (Indiana Univ. Press, 2000).

My friend the English Professor in Baltimore told me about Michael Dirda some years ago. In 1993 Dirda received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. He writes a once a month article for The Washington Post Book World. It is always on the back page and is unfailingly entertaining. This is a collection of 46 of those columns and if you have not had the pleasure of reading the thoughts of an omnivorous reader, collector and book enthusiast you shouldn't miss this. Dirda is unpretentious, funny and self-deprecating. Among his lists of favorite books, the chapter headed "Comedy Tonight" lists Dirda's picks for the 100 funniest books of the twentieth century.

The Salon.Com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors edited by Laura Miller (Penguin, 2000).

Subtitled correctly "An opinionated, irreverent look at the most fascinating writers of our time" this collection of biographical/critical essays is one that I would like to have in my home reference library. The reviewers are numerous and often an entry about a writer's work will be followed by an essay by that author. Reviewers make comparisons with similar author's and tell the reader which works (in their opinion) are an author's best. An essential reference for book group members as well as those seeking juicy insider information about the world of publishing.

Sandy Schultheis is a librarian with the Evansville-Vanderburgh Public Library. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of EVPL.