Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole

This memorable collection of reflective short stories about commonplace tragedies showcases a gentle, painstakingly accurate writing voice.

father brother keeper

Nathan Poole’s debut collection of short stories, Father Brother Keeper, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and is an emotionally evocative and varied experience. Its contents are rarely connected, as when two consecutive stories follow one family through generations of gentle conflict. However, even stories that don’t share characters do have in common their settings in rural Georgia and a series of small towns. Each is a miniature masterpiece of perfect, often tragic realism, featuring men, women and children dealing with everyday trials: illness, death, divorce, financial hardship.

An old man fights his dementia–“he was losing traction”–when his estranged daughter leaves her two small children with him and drives away. A young man finds more than a dozen bait dogs (fight dogs past their prime) abandoned on his family’s property and accuses the wrong man of the brutality. Two brothers react in different ways toward their mother after their father leaves. Two young neighbor girls who are friends contract the same illness but with different outcomes; mapping this divergence is a challenge for each family. In the stories labelled “Two from Sparta,” four generations live off their land in slightly different ways, each father learning how to make his way with his son. A young man sets out to find the oldest, biggest tree of each species in the country, to honor a death. “It would be an easy thing to do, and good… a dedication. The year I would learn the joy of calling each thing by its proper name.”

Poole’s achievement in this collection is just that, calling each thing by its proper name. Though perhaps simple in their subject matter, each story is weighty in its emotional impact, and sharply, poignantly real. The stories all feature people living simply, accommodating change if not embracing it, and struggling to move forward through whatever life hands them. Poole’s voice is original, authentic and starkly honest; he is clearly compassionate toward his characters even as he walks them through terrible everyday calamities. Father Brother Keeper is a slim book but one that demands to be read slowly and thoughtfully, so that the hints of redemption can percolate. Meticulous, gorgeous and brooding, these stories will appeal to connoisseurs of the short story as well as fans of traditional Southern ways of life and literary fiction.


This review originally ran in the February 5, 2015 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 barrels.

Teaser Tuesdays: Father Brother Keeper by Nathan Poole

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

father brother keeper

Usually I pick out these teaser bits for you especially, but with this lyrically wonderful little book, I opened at random and found these striking lines.

All night long the dealership lights gleam in the madness of the razor wire. Large violent curls, beautiful and intricate, hang in bobs up the tall inverted parabola, and it makes you wonder, seeing all that razor wire, seeing it shine all night long, just who is living in there, and why all that fuss, and what would they do to you if they met you on the street. Would they say warm, strange things to you? Would they tuck you in, hand you the gift of a story, an old knife, kiss your forehead softly like a mother?

I think it’s a fine test of poetry, to open a book and fine something like this. The content is excellent, too.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Killdeer: And Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

There is something for everyone in this very special collection of moving stories about the farming life, and the human experience.

killdeer

Michael Cotter, born in 1931 on Minnesota land his family had farmed since the 1870s, was scolded from an early age: “Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” As a hardworking livestock farmer, his natural inclination toward storytelling had to be suppressed. He was nearly fifty when he attended a workshop that reactivated his artistic side and began his storytelling career. The Killdeer and Other Stories from the Farming Life compiles his stories, full of simple humor and pathos of his life experiences and storytelling prowess.

…Click here to read the full review.


This review was published on November 6, 2014 by ForeWord Reviews.

IMG_4538


My rating: 8 kittens.

book beginnings on Friday: The Killdeer and Other Stories From the Farming Life by Michael Cotter

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

killdeer

Michael Cotter was always a storyteller; but he didn’t get to grow fully into that role from the beginning.

“Cut out those damn stories and get some work done around here!” That was my most dreaded message from my dad. Our farm was a livestock farm and it was pretty labor intensive in the early years.

Happily for his readers, he did get around to it, however. I’m really enjoying this collection. The title story “The Killdeer” comes especially recommended.

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Swimmers by F. Scott Fitzgerald

My enjoyment of So We Read On (teaser here; review to come) convinced me that I needed to read Fitzgerald’s short story The Swimmers, which Corrigan regularly refers to. So I did. I found it easily enough online.

When we meet him at the opening of this story, Henry Marston is working in a bank and living in France with his two children and his French wife. He could make more money back home in the States, but that’s not what’s important – until it is. A nasty event prompts him to move his family to the U.S., where he is wealthier; but a recurrence of the same unpleasantness spurs him to make changes a second time.

Between the two events he meets a young woman who teaches him to swim. This takes place on a French beach, and the young woman is American; this juxtaposition (symbolism, even, as swimming stands in for Americanism) persists, and it will be his newfound ability and love for swimming that will free him at the end of the story.

The most noticeable element of this story is national differences, epitomized in the final paragraph, which closes out a remarkable last page. Sweeping statements and symbolism are very much at work here, and the language is lovely. Perhaps I’m suggestible after just reading Corrigan’s book which compares The Swimmers so strongly to The Great Gatsby, but I definitely recognized Fitzgerald’s voice as I remember it from his most famous work. There are also some strong statements about class, money, and values, similarly familiar to the Fitzgerald fan. And reference to the lost generation (no capitals here). Finally, I swear I heard shades of Cheever, but surely that’s just the confoundingly similar title to Cheever’s well known story

What can I say? It’s Fitzgerald. I recommend it. I’ll leave you with that final paragraph:

But when, in a moment, he left her he knew that she could never tell him – she or another. France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter – it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn, nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.

I’m willing.


Rating: 8 Southerners.

The Purloined Letter by Edgar Allen Poe

This is one of Poe’s better-known short stories, “The Purloined Letter”:

I cannot remember now why I printed this story out (from here, and thank you) to read on my lunch break. I read a line about it in another book – Mr. Mercedes, perhaps? Heck. Sorry. Suffice it to say, a Poe recommendation is always worthwhile.

Now I will try to answer the question: What makes Poe so great?

His tales rely not on the solutions offered to the problems presented – which, while no pushovers, are not the mindbending puzzles of the century. Rather, his characters are so very clever, come around to things in such intellectual twists and turns that we are dazzled; and perhaps the best bits are the dialogue. I love his flair!

“That is another of your odd notions,” said the Prefect, who had a fashion of calling every thing “odd” that was beyond his comprehension, and thus lived amid an absolute legion of “oddities.”

When the story opens, our narrator has stopped in to smoke a pipe with a friend, when the Parisian Prefect (of police) drops by to ask for help with a case. He is stumped, and wants to pick the clearly superior brains, in particular of the narrator’s host, Dupin, who we have met before (see the Murders in the Rue Morgue). A lady has lost a letter that will get her in great trouble if her husband finds out about it; and she knows exactly who took it, because he took it from under her very eyes – and those of her husband, which is why she couldn’t cry out about it. She has engaged the Prefect to recover this document, which has become an object of blackmail. He has had his men very very thoroughly search the dwelling and person of the thief, repeatedly and using microscopes, needles, and probes. The letter is clearly not in the home; clearly not on the man; and yet he clearly would keep it near to hand to help in blackmailing the lady. What a puzzler!

Dupin sends him on his way, but he returns some time later, having given up; the considerable reward he’s been promised will clearly have to go unclaimed. It is an unsolvable mystery. This is when Dupin speaks up: for a portion of that reward, he will happily hand over the letter. The Prefect pays; the letter is produced from a drawer in Dupin’s desk. The Prefect goes away again, mystified but triumphant. And our narrator asks for the explanation, which of course is… I won’t spoil, but simplicity is always the answer.

This entire story is set in Dupin’s “little back library.” The action is all removed, told in narrative; if this were a play, it would be done with the single setting, that darkened book room filled with pipe smoke, and two or three men talking. That in itself is kind of an attractive feature to me. Poe’s mysteries are cerebral; it’s all in the dialogue and the internal machinations. The likes of Hercule Poirot or Claire DeWitt, those detectives who solve mysteries by thinking, clearly owe a debt to Poe. In fact, Poe’s detective stories are credited with (at least in part) birthing the genre; but some modern-day versions follow him more closely than others.

The plot is lovely because it offers room for plenty of debate, being intellectual in nature. It is clever. But my favorite part is definitely the dialogue and the intricacies of the very clever players.

Poe’s cleverness is on display as well; I had to look up several terms & lines.

First, pardon my ignorance, but I had to look up what was meant by “the twofold luxury of meditation and a meerschaum” – what the heck is that?? It’s a pipe, of course. The Sherlock Holmes type, one assumes.

Others:

Procrustean bed: “an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is forced.”

recherche: “unusual and not understood by most people.”

And then the French! I copied out “Il y a parier que toute idee publique, toute convention recue, est une sottise, car elle a convenu au plus grand nombre” and Google Translate gave me the (very rough) “there a bet that any public idea, any agreement received is nonsense, because it agreed to the largest number.” Okay, I think I can follow that: what the masses easily buy is not necessarily the best solution, hm? But then in closing:

Un dessein si funeste, S’il n’est digne d’Atree, est digne de Thyeste.

Again, my rough Google translation gives me “if a fatal design is worthy of Atreus, is worthy of Thyestes.” I am totally charmed by anybody who invokes the Greek myths to close a mystery story. Although I could take a pass on the reference coming to me in French.


Rating: 9 ravens, how about.

Next up, I would like to read Shirley Jackson’s The Summer People, inspired by (what else?) my recent read of Shirley. Short stories referenced in novels, moving forward.

Have You Seen Marie? by Sandra Cisneros (audio)

marieWhat a lovely, lovely book. Fans of Sandra Cisneros, don’t be put off by the sometimes-classification of this short fable as a children’s book. Cisneros says in an afterword that she certainly never thought of it that way; she intended it for adults, and I can confirm that it works that way, very well.

This is a short, dreamy, poetic tale of a woman, the narrator, who has just lost her mother; a visiting friend (“I was the only person Rosalind knew in all of Texas”) has lost her cat, Marie. Together, the two women go walking the streets of San Antonio, distributing fliers and asking folks the title question: Have you seen Marie?

The voice and rhythms and lyrical style that I remember from The House on Mango Street are vibrantly present here. The women ask dogs, cats and squirrels as well as people about the missing Marie, and their reactions are noted, and charmingly represented as being every bit as important as the people’s. On the surface, this is the story of searching for Marie; but it is also the story of Cisneros losing her beloved mother, feeling like an orphan in her own middle age, and gradually coming to understand that “love does not die.”

As I mentioned, Cisneros is careful to point out that this was not meant to be a story for children, but rather one for adults, with the idea of helping others like herself deal with experiences like hers: losing a parent, or a loved one. I am very (very) glad & relieved that I don’t seem to facing this experience now, or soon; but I imagine that this book would indeed help. I appreciate its soothing musical tone and gently loving, inspired advice and creative understanding of death, what it means, the grieving process. It is a tender tale. Cisneros is inventive and calming and this is a beautiful, moving story about family and friendship. I highly recommend it, for anyone.

This audio version is read by the author, and so beautifully; I love her lilt; it’s perfect. I want to very much recommend this version (in both English and Spanish in one edition – one cd of each). But then, the print copy is illustrated by Ester Hernandez, and Cisneros is clearly very pleased with that aspect. Hearing her speak about their collaborative efforts on the illustrations (Hernandez came to visit & tour Cisneros’s San Antonio; she calls it documentary-style) made me regret missing the print. So there you are. Both, perhaps?? I think I will go out and get myself a copy of the book, too.


Rating: 10 trees along the San Antonio River.
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 456 other followers

%d bloggers like this: