Swimming Lessons

Swimming Lessons

Balée, Susan

Swimming Lessons

FROM LATE SPRING TO EARLY AUTUMN, I SWAM IN A SEA OF FICTION. Stroking through dozens of books, some of which were good, a couple of which were brilliant, and most of which were merely competent or worse, I came up for air only to start writing fiction again myself. Consequently, I must give thanks to 2004’s summer books-the silly, the scintillating, and the so-so-for spurring me to action.

Awash in books, I paddled indiscriminately among novels and short story collections from many nations. However, when the boxes were empty, I had only 13 books that I felt like saying anything about, and 10 of the 13 were short story collections. Further, none of this Balée’s dozen of books were translations: All were originally written in English, nine by American writers, two by English writers, one by an Irish writer, and one by a Canadian writer of Russian descent. The preponderance of compelling story collections indicates that a) the middle third of 2004 produced a bumper crop of short fiction, or b) I like to read what I’m trying to write. Either way, short story collections will be the focus of this review, although three fine novels (culled from innumerable bad ones) merit a moment of recognition and recommendation first.

Three Laudable Novels

The first of these is Kent Haruf’s Eventide,1 the sequel to his popular Plainsong (1999). When Euro-pretentious thrillers such as The Da Vinci Code top the bestseller list, it’s good to know there are still Americans in the heartland writing down-to-earth fiction with well-developed characters and believable conflicts. In Eventide, Kent Haruf returns to Holt, Colorado, where the lives of the cattle-farming McPheron brothers and the other citizens of this small town cross and occasionally intertwine. Loneliness, compassion, and courage illuminate a roster of likable characters. The prose rings strong and clear and the narrative drives steadily from ignition to denouement. If Sherwood Anderson could have written a decent novel, it would look like one of Haruf’s.

A similarly fine novel, this one a generational saga set in the northern woods of Maine, is Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest.2 Cronin develops his characters with skill and love, but his passion for place glows with a holy fire. The harsh and beloved landscape he describes shapes the lives of his main (I almost wrote “Maine”) characters:

. . . The frozen lake stretched away from him like a huge china platter, the sunlight blazing so brightly off its surface he could barely absorb it; on the far shore, dense woods marched up the hillsides and away, into ice and nothingness, the very top of the world. The cloudless sky was the color of cobalt, so blue he felt he could suck the whole thing into his lungs, breathe it in and out and become a part of it.

Cronin is a very talented writer. He’s also young, so readers can expect many more exceptional books from him.

The last novel I want to mention here kept me laughing from beginning to end. Paula Marantz Cohen’s Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan3 is a comic tour-de-force about a Jewish mother from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, trying to deal with her testy daughter’s upcoming bat mitzvah; her son’s juvenile delinquent behavior; her husband’s woes as a gastroenterologist oppressed by managed care; all of which are eclipsed by her own mother’s sudden delusion that she’s the reincarnation of Shakespeare’s girlfriend, the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets. That’s the plot outline, but the novel itself is as fresh and pungent as an apple cake. The novel also proves that literary fiction doesn’t have to be elegiac in tone to be successful. Admittedly, there are other writers who have taught us that, and one such is the English wit Julian Barnes. Let’s consider his latest among a representative sample of 2004’s notable short story collections.

Julian Barnes Grows Old, Robert Olen Butler Silly, and Barry Lopez Just Plain Paranoid

Everybody faces the prospect of death differently; Barnes confronts it in The Lemon Table with a rapier. Perhaps not the best weapon for this enemy (see Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”), but one that he wields with skill. For example, in the best story in The Lemon Table? “Hygiene,” the old soldier narrating is heading up to London for his annual tryst with a prostitute. His wife is no longer interested in sex but “He didn’t blame Pamela. Some women just went off after the change. Simple matter of biology, nobody’s fault. . . . Old Mother Nature stops lubricating the parts.” Alas, when the desired moment of assignation arrives, his beloved paramour is not to be found, and another girl offers to fill her place. It’s no go, “the honourable member was temporarily hiding his light under a bushel.”

This portrait of an impotent old man finds an echo in other stories where the humiliations of age encroach upon, then overwhelm, a variety of characters. One has a sense of Barnes looking on, rather horrified, as he puts witty words in his characters’ mouths. In “Knowing French,” an eighty-one-year-old lady in a nursing home begins sending letters to Mr. Novelist Barnes after reading his Flaubert’s Parrot. Curiously, she is just as witty as her chosen correspondent, though it’s a black humor indeed:

My fellow incarcerees here are either mad or deaf. I, like Félicité, am deaf. Unfortunately, the mad ones are not deaf, but who am I to say that the deaf ones are not mad? In fact, though the youngest, I am Head Girl, because, through comparative youth, I am comparatively competent.

This correspondent, Sylvia, goes on later to note that “Being a Nuisance” is a way of staying alive (which does seem to explain Barnes’s compatriot Martin Amis, if not necessarily himself). She observes, “This Old Folkery is working out exactly like something from Balzac. We disburse our lifetime’s savings in order to hand over control of our lives.”

In the last tale, readers finally discover what the title means: For the Chinese, the lemon is a symbol of death, and “the lemon table” is a table in a café where the composer-narrator of “Silence” goes to talk with his peers about death. Of course he, like all the other narrators in these stories, is caught up in the indignities of the final prelude: “The demons manifest themselves. My sister in the mental hospital. Alcohol. Neurosis. Melancholy. . . . Cheer up! Death is around the corner.”

Death is around the corner for all of us, but this isn’t the book I want to take with me as I approach the turn. Humor does not make death bearable in the way that compassion does, and Barnes seems to lack compassion in these stories or, perhaps, is simply too dismayed by what he’s facing to render it. Julian Barnes is one of my favorite writers, but this book is a bit of a lemon.

A bigger lemon, however, awaited me in another favorite writer’s latest offering: Robert Olen Butler’s collection based on vintage American postcards, Had a Good Time,5 reads like an old joke book. Heard the one about the guy on a date with a one-legged girl? He thinks she won’t notice if he feels up her wooden leg, which he does for the better part of a hayride in “The Ironworkers’ Hayride.” The story ends with the old joke’s punch line, which, in case you don’t already know it, I won’t add here. Unfortunately, this is one of the better stories in the collection. In a review in this magazine a few years ago, I highly praised a similar book by Butler, the inventive Tabloid Dreams. In that one, he used headlines in the tabloids to generate stories. Those tales were rich, funny, and unpredictable. In contrast, Had a Good Time, like the guy’s date, is just lame.

Still, lame is better than paranoid. Barry Lopez, who has written so well about wolves, the arctic, and other topics in nonfiction, has penned a nutty screed (disguised as a collection of short stories) about American artists oppressed by a conservative government that looks awfully similar to the one currently in power. In Resistance,6 the artists have been forced into exile all over the globe for exposing the evils of the home government-capitalism, imperialism, racism, any bad old -ism you can think of. Apparently, everyone in America with the exception of these enlightened artists is a blind consumer in thrall to the advertising industry.

The holier-than-thou exiles receive threatening letters from the office of “Inland security, the group of people we had come to call the Idiots of Light, for the way they are dazzled by their god. Their ranks include people who celebrate the insults of advertising and the deceptions of public relations campaigns as paths to redemption.” Yawn. It gets worse. The Inland security meanies want these artists to stop “attempting to resurrect the past and have it stand equal to the present”-they have been exploring primitive art and reinterpreting it.

What I’d like to say to Barry Lopez is: Do you know anything about art history? All artists build on past traditions and take images and artifacts from other cultures, quite frequently primitive and ancient ones, and reinvent them for the contemporary moment. One simple example from early in this century: Pablo Picasso’s compelling, distorted portraits, painted after he discovered the compelling distortions of ancient African sculpture. Reading Resistance, I kept thinking that Barry Lopez doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but that isn’t stopping him from talking. Political axe-grinding never makes good art, and this book is no exception. It has a superior, snotty tone that reminds one of the problems Al Gore and, until recently, John Kerry have had wooing the average American voter.

Aging Masters

So much for three well-known writers in middle age. I also read new short story collections by two master writers in old age, John Rolfe Gardiner’s The Magellan House1 and William Trevor’s A Bit on the Side.6 Gardiner’s collection is superb, whereas Trevor’s seems comprised of cast-off “bits on the side.” Many of Gardiner’s stories had already appeared in magazines, including The New Yorker, but I could find no reference in the front matter of Trevor’s book indicating that any of these tales had appeared elsewhere first.

Gardiner and Trevor both include tales of prep schools in these collections, but Gardiner’s evince the master’s touch. One tale is told from the point of view of a student, “The Voyage Out,” another from that of a headmistress, “The Head of Farnham Hall,” but both convey their perspectives perfectly. Trevor’s “Traditions” bears the mark of a fine prose stylist, but it is murky to no good purpose (it took me several pages to figure out what was going on, where, and with whom). Alas, the tale seems to follow the precepts of its narrator, Oliver: “There was pleasure . . . in holding things back, in knowing what others didn’t.” Note to Trevor: It’s not pleasurable for readers unless there’s some payoff to the mystery in the end. There certainly was in Trevor’s magnificent novel, Felicia’s Journey, but not in these short stories.

Gardiner, on the other hand, mixes both humor and mystery into several of his stories; and whenever he employs suspense, he delivers a revelation. In this very strong collection, my favorite tale was “Fugitive Color,” which details the experiences of an American painter teaching at an expatriate art school in Provence in the 1980s. Devorah Francke is a serious artist, a figurative painter in an abstract era. Justin Reynolds, the louche director of the Roussâtre art academy, lures her out to teach wealthy American students, a.k.a. “orphans of suburbia.” As she soon discovers from a colleague, most of the students are “‘tragic cases, failures in everything else. They’ve been taken in and pampered by art departments everywhere. They’re over here, putting a little French patina on résumés that have never been written and probably never will be.'”

They are also defiant, especially Melanie Thayer, “a thrust-lipped malcontent from Indiana,” who swiftly deems Devorah’s insistence on precise palettes “‘another reductive exercise.'” The hostility of the students is matched only by the sinister atmosphere of the beautiful monastery in one of the “perched villages of the Vaucluse” where the academy resides. There’s a secret history to the Brothers of the Little Gate Monastery, one involving the licentious Marquis de Sade (a biography of him is the only book Devorah can find in her lovely balcony room overlooking the valley).

Before her stay in Roussâtre is over, Devorah begins receiving Gothic death threats in the language of the Marquis de Sade. For Gardiner (as for Chekhov, one might add), character matters more than plot. Devorah is a serious artist, and the treacherous academics around her cannot derail her from painting. On market day in the village

She saw the labor and product of the whole village displayed on these few acres of ancient Roman cobble: the previous week’s urine, guano, blood, scales and withered greens barely washed away, and now a fresh delivery of the same plenty to sell in a day or be lost. It was that way with painting en plein air too; catch the light in time or lose it. … Underfoot she recognized a sliver of squid cartilage, like translucent plastic. She picked it up and stared through it, refracting the market stalls all across the square, bending the light over everything that could be harvested, dug, or picked; baked, pickled, confected; snared, shot, netted, or hooked. And beyond these, a bazaar of all that could be tinkered, stitched, joined, or cobbled. She was thinking, this must be what she had come for, this fresh and filthy market. . . . Something here was worth capturing, worth taking home.

This is a luminous piece of writing about art and the artist’s vision. In my collection of mid-year books, only one other fiction writer treats fine art with the same empathy and knowledge, and that is A. S. Byatt, whose latest collection is discussed at the end of this review.

Talented Newcomers

Every season, first books appear by a crop of new writers worthy of ink and paper. In my swath of the year, the two best were Bret Anthony Johnston’s Corpus Christf and David Bezmozgis’ Natasha.10 Johnston ‘s collection is smooth and satisfying, but it very much has the feel of something produced in collaboration with other writers-a carefully crafted workshop book polished to a Ray Carver shine. “Waterwalkers,” the first story, reminds me in particular of a Carver story-not that that is a bad thing. Still, I’ve come to think of these kinds of tales as “threeelement stories.” One element is a conflicted relationship between two people who have a history together, the second element is a kind of weather or atmosphere that mimics or intensifies that relationship, and the third element is a tragedy in the past that is the source of the conflict. The story reveals, then resolves the conflict through a serendipitous moment of understanding between the characters.

Johnston sets up the elements well: “Waterwalkers” takes place during a hurricane in Corpus Christi, when a man and his longestranged wife are brought together again to survive a second disaster (I won’t reveal what the first one was). After years apart, they suddenly find themselves spending the night together in her sister’s house. “Nora had coped with the events one way and he’d done it another. While he burrowed, she fled. Yet here they were. The wind straining against the house, rain like pebbles on the plywood. Holding her gaze was impossible, but he stole glances. . . . He stayed guarded, flexed against whatever else had changed, ready to absorb how her presence would dissolve his memories, like water on sugar.”

The fury of the hurricane outside enables the couple, for the first time in all those years, to talk about the tragedy they share, their memories of years together. The moment of understanding comes with the climax of the hurricane:

The electricity blacked out. Wind and thunder coupled with darkness and lightning to give Nora enough courage-or fear, or pity-to nestle into his shoulder on the couch. Had he been standing, the smell of her hair, more oily than fragrant, would have buckled his knees. . . . Neither said anything, not even when she began to weep quietly into his chest. What, finally, could be said?

This moment represents a small, good thing for the storm-tossed couple. When the winds die down, they will probably drift apart again but cherish this memory of consolation. Johnston is a good, careful writer, but he will be a better one when he moves beyond the workshop formula and into his own narrative style.

David Bezmozgis already seems to have found his. I loved the stories in Natasha because they are obviously written by an iconoclast. Bezmozgis’ family moved from Latvia to Canada when he was seven, and these stories are told from the point of view of a Jewish-Russian immigrant boy growing up in Toronto. Bezmozgis has mined his own experiences-no formulas for him-and shaped amusing, touching tales from them.

The tales follow Mark Berman from his first days in Toronto to a point in his twenties. In the first story, “Tapka,” the language barrier between Mark and his new country slowly diminishes.

The first spring, even though most of what was said around me remained a mystery, a thin rivulet of meaning trickled into my cerebral catch basin and collected into a little pool of knowledge. By the end of May, I could sing the ABC song. Television taught me to say “What’s up, Doc?” and “super-duper.” The playground introduced me to “shithead,” “mental case,” and “gaylord,” and I sought every opportunity to apply my new knowledge.

A couple of years pass, and Mark, who started young, swims easily in the new culture while his parents still feel like aliens. “I was nine and there were many things I did not tell them, but there was nothing they would not openly discuss in front of me, often even soliciting my opinion. They were strangers in the country, and they recognized that the place was less strange to me, even though I was only a boy.”

Bezmozgis’ stories treat dark themes-anti-Semitism, poverty, madness, and death-but they treat them with humor. Unlike Julian Bames’s catty, fretful wit, Bezmozgis can laugh at both himself and the strange twists fate takes. For example, as Mark’s family reminisces about the Zionist group that helped them get out of Latvia, they also remember dodging the Israeli agents who were intent upon taking them to Israel. Mark’s family longed to go somewhere, but not there. “Why were we so ungrateful to the State of Israel, which had, after all, provided us with the means to escape Russia? The answer to [this question], for my father and uncle, was 150 million angry Arabs.”

The Hermans are no less Jewish for wanting to skip a future in Israel. In fact, the line above occurs early in a story about Mark’s experiences in Hebrew school. And one of the last stories in the collection, “Minyan,” told when Mark is much older, is about the ten men required to hold a sabbath service. In Mark’s grandfather’s apartment building, filled as it is with old Jewish residents, a minyan is not easy to come by: too many people are sick or atheists. Zalman, the synagogue’s gabbai, laments two of the atheists.

One a product of Stalin, the other of Hitler. But what do you say to a `man who asks you, where was God when the Germans were shooting his parents and throwing them in a hole? It isn’t a pleasant conversation. And who here didn’t lose someone to the Nazis? … So what am I supposed to do, let the bastards win? Because who wins if a Jew doesn’t go to synagogue? I’ll tell you who: Hitler.

Bezmozgis captures the voices of his characters beautifully, and also the motivations of Mark as he comes of age. The best story in the collection is indeed the title story, “Natasha,” which I urge readers to discover for themselves. I can’t wait to see David Bezmozgis’ next book.

Higher Purposes

Two collections intrigued me because they took on Americans’ longing for spirituality in the midst of material wealth and carnal cravings of all kinds. Erin McGraw’s The Good Life’ ‘ is the lesser of these two collections, but only because it opens with a rather frivolous story whose main characters are shallow and unlikable. Here’s a snippet from it: “Neither of us could stand Dik, and we worried about his sway over Alice, but he provided first-rate conversational fodder. With savage mimicry, Martin was now recalling Dik’s discussion of the crucial, toooften-neglected role of ritual in daily life.”

The second story is better, and by the third, “Ax of the Apostles,” McGraw has hit her true purpose. The heart’s blood of this book flows through the stories about priests and laypeople coming to grips with suffering and its purpose. Several characters try to fill the voids in their souls with food or alcohol. Father Murray, in “Apostles,” loses over a hundred pounds and then succumbs to a lust for food so huge and shameful that he sneaks to the seminary’s kitchen after midnight to raid the refrigerator, meanwhile pretending to ascetism in the noonday cafeteria.

One of his students maddens him, for he seems to know nothing about pain. “He didn’t have a clue of sorrow’s true nature or purpose: to grind people down to faceless surfaces, unencrusted with desire or intent. Only upon a smooth surface could the hand of God write. Every priest used to know that.” Turns out that this seminarian does know something about pain: how to inflict it.

At least three stories treat the trials of Roman Catholic priests in modern-day America, and they are among the best in The Good Life. Unfortunately, weak stories like the opener dilute the book’s success as a whole.

Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven1’2 does achieve the summit. The linked stories (the subtitle of the book is A Ring of Stones) work well as standalones and positively sparkle as interlocking stories. Characters appear in more than one story, and events that we have seen from one person’s angle are given a different emphasis from another character’s. Further, this book grabbed me from the opening sentence: “I had my own ideas about a higher purpose, but not enough ideas. I could have used more.” The narrator of “My Shape” sits in bus stations fantasizing about places she might go; she takes ballet lessons, dreaming of being a dancer in a Broadway show. Starving for the glamour she can’t find in her middleclass, Midwestern life, the most this heroine can achieve is a job as a dancer on a cruise ship. She then marries a French crewman.

Nothing she does, however, is satisfying for long because the craving for real fame-a Broadway stage beneath her feet-prevents Alice from settling for what she has. The story is an amusing tale of how she learns acceptance after first suffering humiliation at the feet of a harsh New York dance instructor.

And this character, Duncan, narrates the next tale, “The High Road.” This story is the best in a book full of excellent stories. (Not surprisingly, after it appeared in Ploughshares, it won an O. Henry Prize.) Duncan is a bitter man; his acidic personality drives away a man he loves and then, years later, he meets a second, Carl, a singer who is pining for his own lost lover, a composer who died of AIDS. When Duncan tries to convey his feelings to Carl, the young man invites him to his apartment. In the apartment, Duncan sees shrines to the dead lover and Buddha. Carl tells Duncan, “‘People don’t think enough about celibacy. … It has a long history as a respected behavior. It has its beauty.'”

Then Carl goes on tour to sing his dead lover’s songs-compositions set to the words of Gaspara Stampa, a Renaissance poetess-and Duncan tries to quell his grief with celibacy until Carl returns to New York. Duncan struggles to be a better person, but, like all the other characters in these stories, his own sharp desires undermine him. Unable to tolerate his pain, he hurts other people, such as Alice in the first story.

The stories in this collection just keep getting better, moving back and forth across history (the next story is about Gaspara Stampa herself) and cultures (the title story is of American missionaries in China before the Boxer Rebellion) and each character’s struggle to reach a higher place where love doesn’t lead to endless longing. Or, as Giles-who later becomes Alice’s second husband-says: “I could see that sex and religion were always fighting over the same ground-both with their sweeping claims, their promises of transport-and each ran into the breach left by the other, each tried to fill in for the other’s failings. Forms of devotion, forms of consolation.”

Ideas of Heaven reminded me of another of my favorite books, Marguerite de Navarre’s Heptameron, written by the sister of François I in the 154Os. She, too, took on the big topics of sex, religion, celibacy, and love interpreted from different characters’ viewpoints. Her characters also know each other-they are five men and five women of noble birth forced by bandits, floods, and bears to take temporary refuge in an abbey. They pass the time by telling each other edifying stories on a topic chosen each day by a different character.

Joan Silber, then, is writing in a time-honored tradition. The fourteenth century gave rise to the short story, with books such as Boccaccio’s Decameron ana Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, making the genre popular. Silber’s version rings pitch perfect for our era. Ideas of Heaven ranks as one of my two favorite books this year; the other was A. S. Byatt’s Little Black Rook of Stories.13

The Uses of Enchantment

Fairy tales and folklore underpin all stories. They are the ur stories that reveal our deepest fears and desires. Once upon a time, they were the only stories, and they were told around a fire among people who could not read or write. They still have a primal power to reach beyond our civilized exteriors to the vulnerable animals hiding inside. Dreams take us back to that enchanted landscape where things happen that defy reason but make their own kind of sense. Byatt’s collection opens with such a story, “In the Forest,” whose first line reads, “There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in a forest.” The tale goes on to explain that the girls, Penny and Primrose, met as evacuees from London during World War II. They had traveled by train through blacked-out stations to an old mansion in the countryside where they were to be billeted with hundreds of other children.

Once there, milling about, not yet sorted into dormitories, the girls decide to go into the forest they can see from the terrace. There, they see a terrible, supernatural thing that haunts them both all their lives. Forty years later, they meet at this same mansion, now a national museum, as tourists. Talking for the first time about what they saw all those years ago provides a brief spurt of relief-they know now that they’re not crazy. Still, their entire lives were shaped by that hour in the forest. Neither ever married or had children; darkness shadowed them all their after days.

My ten-year-old son saw me engrossed reading this story, which I told him was a modern fairy tale. He wanted to read it, and did. The thing in the forest is rather frighteningly described, and I asked if the story had scared him. “No,” he said. “It made me sad.” His response shows how well Byatt told the story. The most fearful thing it portrays is a war that robbed two little girls of a normal childhood. Their fathers were killed, and they were separated from their families. That episode in their lives has haunted them ever after, robbed them of security. Byatt is a fiction writer with the wisdom of a psychologist: She shows, in a finely wrought tale, how childhood experiences color the rest of our lives.

All the stories in this collection resonate with wisdom, and all are beautifully written. Byatt knows so much about so many things and yet wears her knowledge so lightly. Her story, “Body Art,” showed me the difference between recording a topic and reinventing it. This tale takes place at a hospital in London called St. Pantaleon’s that specializes in gynecology and obstetrics. One of the doctors, Damian Becket, has turned from his religious faith to a faith in saving women and babies, and to venerating good art. His intervention brings art students from an allied College in to decorate the wards; and when one of these, an anemic waif named Daisy Whimple, falls off a ladder from hunger, he catches her.

Becket’s taste in art is abstract, but Daisy isn’t impressed by the banners he’s cajoled various artists into making for the hospital. She “cast her eye over the brush-strokes and said unenthusiastically, ‘Yeah, very nice, very colourful. Pretty.’

‘What sort of work do you do?’ asked Damian Becket levelly. ‘Not like this, I take it.’

‘Well, no, not like this at all. I’m into installations, or I would be if there was any space anywhere I could get to install anything.'”

Although the girl annoys him, Becket worries about her as he worries about all of the women at St. Pantaleon’s. The hospital has a long history and, in its dark, dusty basement, a huge collection of medical instruments and curiosities:

Shelf after shelf after shelf of syringes: cartridge syringes, laryngeal syringes, varicose vein syringes, haemorrhoid syringes, lachrymal syringes, exhausting syringes, made from ivory and ebony, brass and steel. . . . Shelf after shelf of glass eyes. . . . Saws and vices, forceps and tweezers, stethoscopes, breast-pumps and urinary bottles. . . . Prostheses of all kinds, noses, ears, breasts, penises, wooden hands, mechanical hands, wire feet. . . . Human brains and human testicles in jars of formaldehyde. Shelves of fetuses, monkeys, armadillos, rats, sows, boys, girls, and an elephant. Monsters also. . . .

There’s much more, and anyone who has been to a medical museum, such as the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, or the museum at Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, will recognize the fascination of these grotesque objects. In “Body Art,” an art historian tells Becket, “You need someone to make a start on conservation advice and cataloguing. Someone brave, who won’t get bogged down, and won’t be slapdash.” Becket, who is worried about the starving artist, recommends Daisy.

And then the story really takes off. I don’t want to give away the two brilliant twists in the tale, but I must say that A. S. Byatt has made an ingenious art object out of elements most writers would never have the wit to put together. Forget the three-element story of MFA programs: Byatt’s stories have innumerable elements; and while readers succumb to the charms of supple prose and intriguing characters, she is assembling these disparate parts into magnificent machines that defy imagination. Every story in this collection left me gasping at the fertile brain and accomplished hand of its author. Every story made me long to write one like it.

Of course, I’ll never come close, but Byatt’s tales make me want to try. Great fiction summons us to understand it, and some of us to try to emulate it. Either way, it’s a gift.

1 EVENTIDE, by Kent Haruf. Alfred A. Knopf. $24.95.

2 THE SUMMER GUEST, by Justin Cronin. Dial. $24.00.

3 MUCH ADO ABOUT JESSIE KAPLAN, by Paula Marantz Cohen. St. Martin’s Press. $23.95.

4 THE LEMON TABLE, by Julian Barnes. Alfred A. Knopf. $22.95.

5 HAD A GOOD TIME: Stories from American Postcards, by Robert Olen Butler. Grove Press. $23.00.

6 RESISTANCE, by Barry Lopez. Alfred A. Knopf. $18.00.

7 THE MAGELLAN HOUSE, by John Rolfe Gardiner. Counterpoint. $24.00.

8 A BIT ON THE SIDE, by William Trevor. Viking. $24.95.

9 CORPUS CHRISTI, by ßret Anthony Johnston. Random House. $23.95.

10 NATASHA: And Other Stories, by David Bezmozgis. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $18.00.

11 THE GOOD LIFE, by Erin McGraw. Mariner Books. $12.00p.

12 IDEAS OF HEAVEN: A Ring of Stories, by Joan Silber. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. $23.95.

13 LITTLE BLACK BOOK OF STORIES, by A. S. Byatt. Alfred A. Knopf. $21.00.

Copyright Hudson Review Winter 2005

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