Friday, June 29, 2012

An Open Door

Reading a short story is like peering through an open door into an unfamiliar house. You're dropped into the lives of the residents. You watch for a while, people talk, things happen, and then the door closes – sometimes with a slam and sometimes very quietly. So my criterion for a good short story is simple – did I hang around until the door closed or did I just shrug and walk away?

When I chose to read a short story collection entitled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned I didn't really expect the stories to be about good deeds rewarded or true love conquering all. So I wasn't surprised that many of the characters in Wells Tower's stories were in some way either ravaged or burned or both. But they all passed my test – I never walked away before the door closed (although there was one where I maybe wish I had).

Tower's characters are bumbling, conflicted and confused, and they keep bumping up against forces they can't quite handle. If you think this sounds like overworked territory it's only because you haven't read Tower's prose. It's dark and funny, tight but beautifully descriptive. His characters recognize their own shortcomings in refreshingly honest voices.

My one caveat concerns the last story which, unlike the others, which are set in present day, deals with a band of marauding Vikings. Its title is the same as the collection's, and there's plenty a ravaging and burning, a little too much for my tastes. But the other eight stories more than make up for it.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Greek Delight

If you're looking for a book to occupy you on a long airplane flight or a rainy day at the beach, I can recommend the highly readable Skios by Michael Frayn. Frayn is no stranger to farce, having written the hilarious play “Noises Off” and the deliciously entertaining novel “Headlong” (Country Life).

Set on the fictional Greek island of Skios, this farce begins in a classic way with a case of mistaken identity. Nikki, the blond and ambitious personal assistant to the head of the Fred Toppler Foundation, arrives at the airport to pick up the featured speaker for the foundation's annual gathering. When she holds up the name Dr Norman Wilfred to the arriving passengers, an attractive scoundrel name Oliver Fox impulsively steps forward and assumes the role of a man scheduled to speak on the compelling topic of “Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics,”

How could he possibly pull this off, and why doesn't Dr. Wilfred immediately correct the error? You'll just have to put yourself in Frayn's hands and let him carry you through a dizzying series of wild taxi rides, lost luggage, mosquito netting, Greek security guards and so many mistaken identities that I lost count.

In the end Frayn can't quite keep all his plates spinning and things come to a crashing and somewhat confusing conclusion, but by that time I was so entertained that I didn't really care.