Category: Short Stories

Tom Hanks’ collection ‘Uncommon Type’ are my type of stories

Let it be known that I am a big Tom Hanks fan. Like HUGE. You’ve Got Mail is my favorite movie, and Hanks is my favorite actor. So when I learned that he had a book of short stories coming out, I just had to get my hands on it.

And guess what? America’s dad can actually write.

hanks gif

Uncommon Type is a collection of short stories and Tom Hanks’ first book of fiction. These 17 stories are simple in nature, diverse snapshots of lives from past to future. From a man who decides to date his friend and gets a lifestyle overhaul to a man who keeps bowling the perfect game, these stories are sentimental and sweet, just like Tom.  

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia in this collection, which can best be seen in a four-part series of stories called “Our Town Today with Hank Fiset,” in which a writer comments on the shift from print to digital newspapers and other “good ole days” discussions, via his typewriter (of course). This theme is also strong in “The Past is Important to Us,” a Midnight in Paris-esque story about a man who keeps going back in time (literally) to the World’s Fair 1939.

uncommon typeThere is also, of course, the underlying presence of typewriters. For those of you who don’t know, Hanks has a slight obsession with the machine. He even typed up this collection on one. So he made sure that one crops up in each of his stories in some way, just another element of the “yearning for older times” theme that’s present throughout the book. In particular, “These are the Meditations of My Heart” is all about a woman who falls in love with typewriters.

As I read this collection, I couldn’t help but compare the stories to Hanks’ movies. That WWII veteran reflecting on the friends he lost in “Christmas Eve 1953” gave me images of Saving Private Ryan. The immigrant from a war-torn country in “Go See Costas” reminded me of The Terminal. And “Alan Bean Plus Four” definitely had Apollo 13 vibes. Even minor characters in other stories had me pondering one of the star’s many roles. There’s one story, “Junket in the City of Lights,” about a debut actor’s packed touring schedule that I assume Hanks drew upon personal experiences to write. He even said in an interview that he wrote many of these stories while traveling for films or on press tours.

What I love about this collection the most is how diverse it is. Hanks definitely played around with character, style, and setting to tell a larger story about humanity and how things change over time. The most powerful story in the book is “Go See Costas,” a heartfelt depiction of immigration. But there are also light-hearted, comedic moments in the book to balance out the more emotional ones.

Unlike a lot of stars-turned-author, Hanks actually holds his own as a strong writer. While I think he played it safe and could have done a little more risk-taking with this debut, he is a good storyteller, and I look forward to any more pieces of fiction he comes out with next.

Thankful for Jeffery Eugendies’ ‘Fresh Complaint’

I recently told someone that Fresh Complaint, Jeffery Eugenides’ new collection of short stories, is so well-written I could cry.fresh complaint I lied. I had already cried, specifically while sitting by my apartment’s swimming pool and reading the story “Early Music.” I don’t think anyone saw, but if they had, I would have told them the truth–that one of my favorite authors has reminded me how much I love books, and that I am not sure I will ever be so passionate about anything else.

It all began three Christmases ago when I did something completely out of character: I went home to California without a book. The going home part is normal enough, but I am the type of person who always has a book. Work, coffee with a friend, shopping? There’s probably a book on the front seat of my car or hiding in my purse. My plan was to find something random to read at home, some literary junk food to pass the time. I distinctly remember looking through my shelves one night, thinking, “I should probably start reading more adult fiction,” and picking up The Marriage Plot. That was when I fell in love.

There is something about the way Jeffery Eugenides tells a story. Instead of focusing on plot points or crazy adventures–although his works contain both–he draws the reader towards the characters themselves. He begins by introducing us to a character and her current life. Then he steps into a short flashback, and then another with more details, until we are caught in a whirlwind of the past and the present. When we know the characters as intimately as we know ourselves, Eugenides allows them to progress, or regress, and we proceed with them. In his story “Complainers,” two women become friends despite unlikely circumstances. As they grow older, one moves away and eventually develops dementia. Her friend’s attempts to help are both painful and relatable, set against the backdrop of a snowstorm. “Timeshare” is about a man whose aging parents throw themselves into renovating a motel in Florida. Each person’s feelings towards the property are unique, and it comes to symbolize dreams for reliving life. My favorite story, “Early Music,” is about a man who based his entire higher education on learning to play an early form of the piano. Now, years later, he is called daily by debt collectors asking for his remaining payments on this instrument. Despite having a wife and children to support, he cannot bring himself to give up his dreams in the form of the clavichord.

If you crave intimacy with a character the way I do, you will not get enough of his Eugenides’ writing. On the other hand, the amount of detail is intimidating. People shy away from his novels because they think they are too long, or too detailed, or too boring (none of which are true). I was a bit apprehensive that his short stories wouldn’t incorporate the trademark detail and introspection. But this is exactly why his short stories work so well. In just a few pages, Eugenides is able to capture a person, their entire life, and boil it down to the important scenarios. If you have been intimidated by the sheer length of Middlesex, or bored by the idea of the Marriage Plot, or put-off by the subject of The Virgin Suicides, this is the collection for you. It’s time to stop being afraid and pick up Fresh Complaint.

The Real Housewives of America: ‘American Housewife’ by Helen Ellis

I am not an American housewife. And although I joke that my life goal is to marry strategically, become a trophy wife, and live comfortably on someone else’s money, I am nowhere close to marriage, financially advantageous or otherwise. Despite this fact, I recognized myself in the stories of American Housewife by Helen Ellis. Smart, concise, honest, and a bit creepy, this is definitely the most entertaining collection of short stories I have ever read. (Plus, she’s coming to the Mississippi Book Festival in less than a month!!!)

The women of American Housewife display a wide array of American stereotypes, from the New York socialite to the Southern lady. Stereotypes exist for a reason, so of course these figures are recognizable to me, both as women I know and as myself. But Helen Ellis takes the familiar forms a step further. A neighborly conversation between two lovely and civil women becomes an all-out decorating war. A feminine writer who takes part in a reality TV show finds herself psycho-analyzing her competitors until no one can hide from their faults. A young woman married to a bra fitter questions her husband’s attention span, given the constant temptation in his line of work.

Each story appears to be about normal, stay-at-home women. They are perfectly polite and rather lovely. But as the story progresses, the strange details and heightened emotions escalate until you suddenly find yourself somewhere you never imagined the story could go. An all-inclusive book club morphs into an unsettling hostage situation. The domestic tragedies of an apartment building become more personal and more connected to the lonely, delusional wife. mop segwayAnd Tampax decides that their sponsorship of a woman’s novel warrants extreme “productivity encouragement” in the form of house arrest and abductions. Towards the middle of each story, I began to connect the bizarre details. But every single time, the story went even further, until I found myself whispering, “Ohhhhhh, I didn’t think she would go there, BUT SHE DID.” The story would not end until I was thoroughly unsettled and, frankly, creeped out in the best way possible. I pride myself on my ability to see plot twists from a mile away. With Helen Ellis, I had no idea what would happen in the next five seconds.

American Housewife is hilarious and satirical. It’s more than a little unsettling, and always surprising. And yet beneath the manicured nails, cherry-red lipstick, and unshakable poise, there is a wealth of honest emotion. These women go extreme lengths to protect themselves and the things they value. They choose people to love, and care for them without question. They know exactly who they are and how they want their lives to be. It is rare to find a collection of stories that celebrates strong, feminine characters while embracing the ridiculousness that is being an American woman. We are complex creatures, full of duality, and I appreciate a writer who can portray this with a healthy dose of sarcasm. I enjoy recognizing myself and laughing at the reflection.

Helen Ellis will serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.

ms book fest

Julia ‘Delights’ in Sharma’s short stories

life of adventure and delightAkhil Sharma’s third book, a collection of eight short stories entitled A Life of Adventure and Delight, is complex in a way that I did not anticipate. Throughout their individual stories, a host of interesting characters find out what it means to be a good person. Each story has a way of making you think it is over, but each leaves the reader with the sense there is always so much more to it. Each story holds so much emotion and feeling. Along with an ever-present theme of loving despite flaws, there is an overarching theme of exposing the inner workings of the human heart juxtaposed with the deepest traditions of Indian culture. At times both darkly comedic and deeply emotional, these eight stories present the many different complex relationships between humans which require love: husbands and wives, parents and children, and even friends and enemies.

I am not sure I have ever read a more moving collection of short stories. Each story seems to have its own individual impact on the reader. I was riveted from the very beginning. This collection is immensely enjoyable, lovable, and quotable.

“It’s a big world. A lot of people are worth loving. Why love someone mediocre?”

Dislocation, fantasy roil in ‘A Life of Adventure and Delight’ by Akhil Sharma

By Paul Rankin. Special to the Clarion-Ledger Sunday print edition (July 16).

life of adventure and delightIn Akhil Sharma’s collection, A Life of Adventure and Delight (W.W. Norton), we meet a sequence of remarkable characters in the throes of profound dislocation.

Five of the eight stories take place in the United States, while the remaining three occur in India. All, however, focus on characters struggling to preserve cultural roots and traditions even as they feel themselves getting swept along by the forces of modernity and westernization. These struggles produce narratives which are by degrees horrifying, heartbreaking, and hilarious.

In the opening scene of the opening story, for instance, we meet Gopal Maurya, recently abandoned by his daughter (Gita) and wife (Anita) and sleeping on a couch in the living room. Having banished himself from his own bed “in a burst of self-hate,” he’s resolved “to avoid comforting himself with any illusions that his life was normal.”

The absent women provide immediate backdrop for Gopal’s despair; together they also function more broadly, as a controlling metaphor which informs the dramatic tensions throughout and creates a coherence and unity that may collections lack.

Gita has become fully westernized; Anita has returned to India where she met a guru, achieved enlightenment, and moved into an ashram to sweep floors and pray. Left behind, cut off from every familiar thing, Gopal fantasizes about “calling an ambulance so that he could be touched.”

When his neighbor Mrs. Shaw comes over to borrow the lawnmower, he attempts “to extend their time together” by tangling “her in conversation.” Through she won’t even accept a drink–“Orange juice, apple juice, or grape, pineapple, guava. I also have some tropical punch”–Gopal clumsily pursues her, visiting a hair stylist rather than his “usual barber” and reading articles in popular magazines like Cosmopolitan for advice about what makes a good lover. Along the way, Gopal also fights to preserve his tenuous connection to the past by becoming involved in the Indian Cultural Association.

Each subsequent story centers on the particular desires and frustrations of its individual protagonist, but each explores similar themes of conflicted longing. In the wake of a recent tragedy, a young boy prays daily before a traditional Hindu altar at the same time he attempts to make sense of his loss by identifying with iconic western superheroes like Batman and Superman for whom personal catastrophe became the catalyst that reveled their true greatness.

A temple pandit places his cellphone on the cushion beside him while performing sacred burial rights and when, “Periodically it would ring, and he would gesture for (the others) to keep singing while he answered…with one hand played the harmonium with the other.”

A doctoral student at NYU uses the internet to hire prostitutes while maintaining the conviction that “any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her was in some way depraved and foul, and also unintelligent.”

A young woman, living abroad in America, soothes the pain of isolation by drinking more and more until “the drink overtook her,” at which point her husband “sends her back to her parents” knowing they “will kill her, because the shame of having an alcoholic as a daughter…is staggering.”

These stories are poignant, gripping, and subtly profound in their investigation of the moral complexities confronting all citizens of an increasingly globalized society. Each stands alone in its own right. At the same time, largely because of how deftly Sharma weaves these common threads of alienation and dislocation throughout, the sum is far greater than its parts.

Paul Rankin holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College, works as a freelance writer and editor, and is on the verge of finishing his first novel. He lives in Jackson with his family.

A Life of Adventure and Delight is the July 2017 selection of the Lemuria First Edition Club. Its author, Akhil Sharma, will appear at Lemuria on Tuesday, July 18, at 5:00 to sign and 5:30 to read.

We Lived Our Little Drama: Michael Knight’s ‘Eveningland’

Lately, I’ve been in the mood for short stories, so I found it the perfect time to pick up Eveningland, the latest from Michael Knight. I haven’t read his work before, but Knight is known for his ability to weave an engaging novella. Sure enough, his new book is a perfect example of beautiful southern storytelling.

eveninglandEveningland is a collection of Alabama short stories that mostly take place around Mobile and the Gulf Coast area. A teenage girl holding a thief hostage in her home. A young art teacher trying to figure out her life. A vengeful husband. A boy with a summer crush. Knight does a skillful job of connecting these seemingly unrelated stories into a tale about the complexities of life in all its forms.

I’ve quickly become a fan of Knight’s writing. From page one, his prose pulled me in, and I found myself reading several stories in one sitting. I love the way he plays around with perspective, choosing various narrators and points of view to tell each story. His writing is clear and to the point, while also quietly poetic. Each sentence flows perfectly into the next, and the rhythm often reminded me of waves lapping along the Alabama beaches.

wavesMy favorite story was “The King of Dauphin Island,” in which a real estate tycoon seeks to buy up and restore the crumbling island after the death of his wife. Relationships are at the heart of this collection, and I couldn’t help but care for each of the characters, though their struggles varied from infidelity to navigating middle-aged life.

I also appreciate how Knight framed the story with events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and Hurricane Raphael. He manages to put a face with the impact these events had on a personal level. I may not be from Alabama, but as a Mississippian who has visited Mobile and Dauphin Island numerous times, I think the stories have a vivid sense of place. Knight captures the essence of the area through his descriptions of the land and through his use of voice.

Overall, Eveningland is a well-written collection that demonstrates how life goes on through heartbreak and change. I would recommend it for anyone in need of some good southern short stories. I’m sure I’ll be picking up more of Knight’s works soon.

Micheal Knight will  serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.

Matthew Guinn reviews ‘Signals’ by Tim Gautreaux

By Matthew Guinn. Special to the Clarion-Ledger.

signalsTim Gautreaux’s career has been long and prolific, spanning three novels and two collections of short stories that have established him as one of the South’s finest writers. In his latest, Signals: New and Selected Stories, he marshals 21 new and selected stories into a sprawling collection that proves him to be a master of the form.

Signals is an apt title: In it, Gautreaux ranges far beyond his home turf of Louisiana’s bayous and backwoods and across the American landscape. The people of his fiction, however, remain familiar—the type of folk that one tends to see but not hear, from lonely spinsters to exterminators to house framers. Yet their sagas of wistfulness and small-time heartbreak bristle with the veracity of real life. Even when their stories are mean and brutal (“Sorry Blood” and “Gone to Water”), Gautreaux’s characters are fully fleshed enough to allow us to understand them even as we dislike them, recalling novelist Harry Crews’s maxim that “nobody is a villain in his own heart.” More often, however, the people of Signals are workaday folk trying to do their best in a world where the dogs usually bite, the beer is seldom cold enough, and the picnics tend to get rained out.

Witness the reluctant Samaritan narrator of “Deputy Sid’s Gift.” At confession for the first time in years to unburden himself of his treatment of a homeless man, he tells us that “everybody’s got something they got to talk about sometime in their life.”

And talk he does, spinning a tale of strained charity in which the spirit of compassion alternately flickers and dies. He recalls watching the homeless man “staring up into the black cloud bank, waiting for lightning. That’s how people like him live, I guess, waiting to get knocked down and wondering why it happens to them.” The passage rings out like the thematic center of Signals—stories of people watching and waiting, getting knocked down and wondering.

In “Idols”—arguably the book’s standout story—Gautreaux literally and figuratively dismantles the neoconfederate myth of vanquished glory and nobility. In it, Julian, the washed-up descendant of a Mississippi cotton baron, inherits the family’s dilapidated antebellum mansion. Returning to refurbish a legacy that never was truly his, Julian employs an African-American carpenter named Obadiah, pays him near-starvation wages, and reestablishes the old exploitative order.

By the story’s end, however, Julian’s dreams are indeed gone with the wind, but not in any way the reader will foresee. He is taught a searing lesson by a “long-suffering and moralizing carpenter” who resembles another carpenter of old. “Idols” is a finely wrought parable that deserves a place alongside the short fiction of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Tim Gautreaux

Tim Gautreaux

Yet for all the tragedy and misfortune in the stories, there is a vein of rich humor running throughout Signals. Perhaps no other contemporary writer save Chris Offutt bears the mantle of Mark Twain as deftly. The wry, dry, ironic tone that Twain introduced to American letters is alive in Gautreaux’s fiction. His characters muddle their way through life with an air of good-natured befuddlement, from “The Bug Man” who maintains that “(h)e was a religious man, so everything had a purpose, even though he had no idea what” to the city waterworks supervisor who has “a great desire to be famous, if only in a small way” (“Radio Magic”).

Often the violence in the stories carries a bawdy frontier justice reminiscent of Old Southwestern humor, such as when the bug man hoses down an entire abusive family with bug spray or when an old man hits a young lout from behind with “a roundhouse, open-palm swat on the ear that knocked him out of the chair and sent the beer bottle pinwheeling suds across the floor.”

Yet the strongest impression that Gautreaux’s latest leaves on the reader is a love of language, a reverence for good prose, for the craft of the word. At the conclusion of one fine story Gautreaux writes: “He closed his eyes and called on the old farm in his head to stay where it was, remembered its cypress house, its flat and misty lake of sugarcane keeping the impressions of a morning wind.” Few contemporary writers can match such prose, and it runs through Signals like filigree, reminding us that into mundane lives, big drama—and beauty—can often intrude.

Novelist Matthew Guinn is the author of The Resurrectionist and The Scribe. He teaches creative writing at Belhaven University.

Tim Gautreaux will serve as a panelist on the “Historical Fiction” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201H, and also on the “National Literary Panel” at 2:45 p.m. in the Galloway Sanctuary

Looking for Love: ‘Always Happy Hour’ by Mary Miller

always happy hourWith Always Happy Hour, Mary Miller has written a collection of short stories that pulled me in immediately. Each story had me wanting more and some were hard to shake. She really nails it with these stories, so much so that I found myself highlighting sentences over and over again.

Her stories are about women; women who could be me, you, or the girl that lives next to you in your apartment complex. They are all from different walks of life: some are teachers, some are in college, divorced, etc.–all wanting to find love. Some think they’ve found it, but can’t decide if they want to keep it. Some only want to give it. Others don’t think they’ll ever find it, because they’ve been hurt or because they’ve made poor decisions. In one of the stories Miller writes, “She thinks about the things that have hurt her and she thinks about beauty and how little of it she sees in even beautiful things. She wonders if people who’ve been hurt more see more beauty. She wonders how a few strung-together words can seem so meaningful when she doesn’t believe them at all.” Miller has a way with words, she writes these women’s thoughts out right and honest–it’s refreshing.

Miller’s stories are sometimes heavy, gritty, and disturbing. One that was particularly difficult to read was “Big Bad Love” about a young woman working at a shelter for abused children. This women is taking care of children that have seen things, felt things, and know things far beyond what they should. She’s close to one child in particular and states at the end that she just hopes the child will remember that someone, at sometime in her life, loved her.

One of my other favorites is called “At One Time This Was The Longest Covered Walkway In The World.” It’s about a young woman in a relationship with a divorced father of a four-year old boy. There are points in the story where she seems to adore the child, and then there are times where she wishes he wasn’t in the middle of her relationship with this man. While looking at the young boy’s brown eyes, she thinks to herself, “My boyfriend’s eyes are blue. I want to ask my boyfriend what color his ex-wife’s eyes are because if they’re blue, then the boy isn’t his and we could be spending our nights alone.” She seems selfish, but I think she’s just trying to figure out how to love someone who already has to share his love, and who has already created a family without her.

Miller’s stories are deep, funny, bitter, ugly, beautiful.

Tom Franklin had this to say about Always Happy Hour: “I adore Mary Miller’s stories, and you will too. Read this book and then read her others. Like, now.”

I agree. I’m off to read more of Mary Miller’s work.

Mary Miller will serve as a panelist on the “Stories from the South” discussion at the Mississippi Book Festival on Saturday, August 19 at 10:45 a.m. at the State Capitol in Room 201A.

‘Hot Little Hands’ by Abigail Ulman

Hot Little Hands is an awesome collection of short stories by Abigail Ulman. These stories span the lives of a few different adolescent girls and young women, ranging in age from thirteen to thirty. The lives of these women and girls are set in the US, the UK, Russia, and Australia. All of these stories are about girls trying to figure out how to navigate their way through life now that they are becoming an “adult,” whether this is in their teen years or late twenties. A lot of the stories deal with overcoming and understanding friendships, sex, innocence, love, shame, and attraction.

One story called “Warm Ups” is a complete gem and threw me for a loop. It still makes me shiver a little when I think of it. It is about a thirteen year old Russian gymnast who wants so badly to go to America to train for the Olympics. Her parents are hesitant at first, but finally give in and allow her to travel with her coach. Then… get that “oh, my God….holy shit. Wait, what?” moment at the end of the story. It’s perfect.

There is the right amount of seriousness and humor throughout this book, and I think most people are going to find a little bit of themselves in at least one of these stories/girls. These stories are going to take you back to those awkward years, those first boyfriend years, those years where you think you knew everything, and then you get into the years where you realize you’ve gotten older…..but you still don’t know what is going on in your life. Like, literally…you have no clue.

If you’re a fan of short-stories, dive right in to this one. It’s pretty sweet.

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