On reading a short story by Anthony Doerr

This reading adventure began in A Corner of Cornwall, with Sandra, who said that although she wasn’t usually a reader of short stories, she’d found Anthony Doerr’s collection, The Shell Collector, ‘exquisite’. That’s the kind of recommendation that makes me seek out the nearest copy. In this case, luckily, at our local library.

I’ve met quite a few people who don’t read short stories.

‘Why not?’ I ask, preparing to pounce, to convert them. I will say, without modesty, that I’m quite good at that.

That claim is, of course, not entirely true. The people who’ve become converts to short forms of fiction because of me, have arrived in my short-story-appreciation-classes, so they must, at some level, have been prepared to be converted. I didn’t go out onto any street and convince anyone.

The truth is that winning people over is a matter of finding the right kind of story, and helping them to find the key, or perhaps I should say, ‘keys’. I do like fiction that can be peeled back in layers. Sometimes they’re simple seeming plots, like the third story in this collection, So Many Chances.

Dorotea San Juan, a fourteen year old in a brown cardigan.The Janitor’s daughter.Walks with her head down, wears cheap sneakers, never lipstick. Picks at salads during lunch. Tacks maps to her bedroom walls. Holds her breath when she gets nervous. Years of being the janitor’s daughter teach her to blend in, look down, be nobody. Who’s that? Nobody.

That’s a nice opening, a quick glance: a neatly summed up characterisation that says to me ‘event on the horizon’.

After all, one of the main rules for a story beginning is that we are at a moment of significant change. A character is about to shift from static to active. All my instincts tell me that Dorotea is about to go from nobody, from blending in, to… well, something. That title, So Many Chances, has to mean something.

It does. Dorotea’s father is about to swop jobs. He’s taking his wife and daughter away from Youngstown, Ohio, to a new opportunity in shipbuilding, in Harpswell, Maine.

That’s exactly what I need, I’m reading on, absorbing the doubts and anxieties of Dorotea and her mother, but all the same, I’m already anticipating a new school. I’m leaping ahead to this opportunity for Dorotea to be noticed. She’ll be able to recreate herself, be somebody.

Doerr’s writing carries me along, he’s so precise that even the most simple moves are elegantly presented.

Dorotea tells nobody and nobody asks. They leave on the last day of school. that afternoon. Like sneaking out of town.

Though there is one that defeats me.

Her mother sits stern and sleepless behind tracking wipers, lips curled above her chin like two rain-drowned earthworms, her small frame tensed as if bound in a hundred iron bands.

I’m still failing to visualise a mouth shaped like two rain-drowned earthworms. But that’s such a minor flaw, when there are so many other beautiful sentences to enjoy. As the journey progresses, and they move closer to the ocean, ‘Dorotea fidgets in her seat. The energy of a cagged fourteen-year-old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate.

I could keep quoting.This story is so beautifully written that there are a lot of moments I’d like you to share. If you’ve wondered how realism can be made to resonate, then this story is worth a look.

Be warned, other stories in The Shell Collector are not so firmly grounded. They have their own, different kind of beauty, that I also loved. To sum them up, I repeat Sandra’s assessment of this collection, and say, ‘exquisite’.

There are two more thing to say about my reading of So Many Chances. I’ve resisted the temptation to place before you stepping stones of incidents that will lead you through the events. I don’t want to risk spoiling what is a beautifully paced read, should you also decide to enter Dorotea’s life.

My final comment is about the finish, which I think is beautiful. Once I got there, the closing scene was obvious, it was the only one that made sense. But until that moment, I wasn’t sure how Doerr would, could or should draw the threads together.

Review: Tales of the River Vine: “The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket”

Jean LeeSome titles are irresistible.  As soon as I saw that Jean Lee’s new short story was called, The Boy Who Carried a Forest in His Pocket (TBWCAFIHP), I knew I would have to read it.

The story opens with Mrs Schmidt inviting herself and her son over to her neighbour’s house, on a hot Sunday afternoon, because she believes beer is the devil’s juice, and her husband and his friend are indulging, in her home.

I liked ‘the devil’s juice’, but better yet, I liked that Mrs Schmidt believes organised sport is more wicked than alcohol. This could have been played for comedy: instead there is a hint of sinister, and gothic touches.  When the boys are sent off on a picnic, the main item in the list of warnings for what to beware of is, ‘The Wall’.  If I said any more, I’d give the plot away, and really, you should have a look for yourself.  It’s short, tantalising, and can be downloaded from Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook.

TBWCAFIHP is the first story in a sequence that leads to the November release of Jean’s fantasy novel for Young Adults, Fallen Princeborn Omnibus.  We’re promised a series of on-line story releases over the coming months, as tasters.

I confess now, in case you hadn’t guessed it, that it’s a long time since I was a Young Adult.  However, the way I see it, if I could read adult novels when I was not so old, why shouldn’t I enjoy reading writing not aimed at my age group now I’m an adult?

Labels, who needs them?  Well, sometimes.  Not though, when it comes to genre.  I’ve a broad taste in literature, and if the writing hooks me, I don’t mind how it’s marketed.

If you want to know more about the background to the stories then I recommend a look at Jean Lee’s blog. She’s got some interesting insights into her writing processes, too.