Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"The Secrets of a Fire King: Stories" by Kim Edwards

Short stories fit so nicely into my life. I don't know why I don't read more of them. Maybe it's because sometimes they can be so ____________ (fill in the blank with words like "weird," "pointless" or "inexplicable"). Every now and again you'll find a stellar collection like Salinger's Nine Stories, or a nice compilation of ghost stories. Those annual Best American Short Stories books can be pretty decent too. But I have found that, in general, selecting a book of short stories can be a little risky in a kiss-a-lot-of-frogs sort of way.

Happily, this book was nowhere near as slimy as a frog. I really quite enjoyed it. Short stories don't give me much time to think deep thoughts, so pretty much all I've done is jotted a few notes on each story. I was amazed at the author's ability to create such variety--her characters have such a range of nationalities, occupations and socioeconomic statuses, and still each one of them seems so real and believable.

The Great Chain of Being: The story of Eshlaini/Rohila. This could have been fleshed out into an entire, year-spanning novel.

Spring, Mountain, Sea: A young carpenter fresh out of the Navy and the wife he brought back from Asia deal with cultural differences. This, too, could have been an entire novel, covering the time from the early years of their marriage, through the birth of their three children, to the death of Jade Moon. Interesting how the idea of a person's name and its importance was a theme in this story as well as the previous one. I also liked how, in such a short story, the author was able to cover so many years while bringing just a few significant events into sharp focus.

A Gleaming in the Darkness: A glimpse at the life and work of Marie Curie through the eyes of one of the cleaning ladies at the university. This kind of made me want to read a biography on Curie.

Balance: Traveling acrobats have spent years trying to successfully make love while standing on their heads (literally). Then, ack! Choose your own ending! What happens??

The Way It Felt to Be Falling: Funny title to follow the last story. Coincidence? Anyway, this one is about skydiving. Pretty intense in the middle when I was sure Stephen would choose to plummet to his death. I wonder if the author has experienced skydiving before? If not, she did her research well, because her description was dead-on.

The Invitation: The expatriate lives in Malaysia for 30 years before she realizes that the superiority she feels, which she thought was so carefully concealed (even from herself), is completely unfounded and the source of an equally great contempt in those around her.

Aristotle's Lantern: Utopian scientific community in the South Pacific. As I read I thought how different this community was from that of Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery. This new community was so welcoming of the idea of growth and change. Even so, though, I felt a foreshadowing of impending doom.

The Secrets of a Fire King: The lives of traveling evangelists and a fire-eater are intertwined.

Thirst: A thirsty woman watches her three daughters play on the beach. Why is she so thirsty? Is she a diabetic? No. Is she pregnant? No. Is her thirst really not that big of a deal, something insignificant? No. The answer is something I never would have guessed! This may have been my favorite story of the collection.

Sky Juice: Two Asian women, bonded by the loss of their respective brothers, escape prostitution only to be separated from one another by the loneliness of mail-order marriages.

Gold: A poor Malaysian man is struck by gold fever until a brush with death transforms his obsession into religious fervor.

In the Garden: A wealthy Pittsburgh steel magnate shares what he believes to be the elixir of life with his beautiful young neighbor who refuses to be bound by convention.

Rat Stories: Conversation turns to past experiences with rats as a small group shares drinks after a dinner party. Claire then unexpectedly finds out that her husband is another sort of rat, but oddly enough, she doesn't let on that she knows.

The Story of My Life: The daughter of a famous abortion protester realizes that her mother is a manipulative liar; she leaves so that she can live her own life instead of her mother's.

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