Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Appearances and Other Stories by Margo Krasne — 160 pgs

In Krasne’s debut short story collection, women struggle for love and redemption while battling the bitterness of failed familial relationships, encroaching death, and humbling desire. Most of this collection is given over to several stories that chronicle the life of Alice, a young Jewish girl who slowly grows into an adult as the stories progress. Life for Alice is difficult, for she has to deal with a harping and exceedingly competitive mother and a loutish father. But in a stunning reversal, Alice turns the foibles of her parents back onto themselves and becomes a therapist, after having had much revealed to her over her years of being in the patient’s chair. For Alice’s family, it’s all about the appearance one makes, not what truly goes on behind closed doors. Even her brother is boorish and pigheaded, much like their father, and it's with a firm hand and an emotionally expressive air that Alice deals with it all. The other stories that populate this collection deal with a young woman traveling by train car who has the sudden experience of being recognized and reliving her glory days, while the final and most poignant story deals with a female photographer who, upon discovering that she has cancer, wishes to capture her death on film, forming her last exhibit. Each story is powerful and compelling and effortlessly pulls the reader into the internal dramas and struggles of these women—who are all at very different points in their lives, yet all harbor the same iron will to overpower the things that are clinging to them and pulling them away from their true selves.

This is the first short story collection that I’ve read in two years. It’s not that I don’t like the format, it’s just that sometimes I feel that short stories give me just a taste when I want the whole bowl. It’s hard for me to come to know a character in such a short span of pages, only to be pulled out of their world when the story ends, always too abruptly for my liking. This isn't Krasne’s style. Instead of giving the reader just a taste, she fills her pagespace to the brim, and just when you think the story is over, she tackles it from another angle until all sides are revealed. These interconnected stories, along with the standalones, didn’t leave me hungry for more but instead left me satisfied and full of warmth, and dare I say, sadness.

A third of this book is given over to the life of Alice. Alice is young and unsure of herself, but she knows that her mother is a jealous and possessive woman who, it's later revealed, will justify anything that she does in an attempt to get what she wants. The juvenile Alice finds that her only solace is to retreat and to become passive-aggressive, but as she ages and sees what her mother and father truly are, she comes away from each encroachment stronger and more able to manipulate her own feelings into a sort of reason that defies the pain of her youth. She is loving and caring, but her parents and even her brother feed off of this to provide her with fresh guilt and powerlessness, relegating her to an inferior position that she carefully examines, steps away from, and disowns. It’s hard to read about the neglect and the emotional coldness of her family, but Alice doesn’t dwell on the negative: She finds the solution, while still fully realizing that they are all pitiable creatures.

In the ensuing chapters, Krasne transitions beautifully to short stories that feel like whole and complete sketches that capture both a time and a place under a magnifying glass. The first story is called “At the Algonquin,” and while it tells the tale of a cabaret singer who is recognized on a train many years after her career has ended, underneath it evokes feelings of loss, failed attempts at second chances, and what the heart must face when it settles. it's a story that I read slowly, with a lump in my throat, for all the clues are there if one only looks. “Re-unions” tells the story of a woman picking up a man in a bar for a one night stand, but of course there’s more to it than that: The aching longing of a friendship that seems true but is only one of convenience, the timeless fact that friends grow apart and that they can be manipulated so easily, even when it's not intended. Her stories are like mirages. you look once and see something; yes, there is definitely something there, but then it morphs into something else entirely.

The last story was called “Stopping Time,” and this one broke my heart. When a cancer diagnosis is given to a woman who was once so vital and strong, she retreats into herself and into her mind. Her lover cannot help her and neither can her daughter. it's a series and litany of regret that marches through her mind, and the only thing she can do is what she’s always done: capture it on film so that she can know her own boundaries, and know that this is her final showdown with the camera. Only she isn't the photographer, but the subject, and to her grieving daughter there must be some closure. It was a bleak and heartbreaking story, but one that didn’t overwhelm the reader with maudlin sentiments as most stories like this would have. It was written in a hand that can feel the pressure of heartache but not the overbearing grief that accompanies it. It was brilliant, and when I closed the book, I felt the release of the photographer’s soul slip out of the pages.

If there was ever a short story collection to recommend, this is the one. it's a character driven set, and each character deals with her burdens in a very different yet entrancing way. If there is more from this author in the future, I will be reading it, for her tales took me by surprise and though they were sad, they offered no melancholy or inner turmoil. Just grace. Plain and simple.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

11 comments:

Suko said...

As is so often the case, your wonderfully written review entices me to read yet another book! The last story sounds incredibly brilliant.

hibilala said...

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Vasilly said...

Wow. I've never heard of this author before. I don't often read short story collections but this one sounds amazing.

Teddy Rose said...

OMG, you captured in words what I felt when reading this amazing gem! You should be an author! If you ever write a book, I want to read it! Thanks you so much for taking part in the Appearances and Other Stories Tour!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

It sounds like these stories would either have me hugely irritated over the dysfunctional characters or hugely depressed over what happens to them! LOL

Athira said...

I have recently begun to really like short story collections, if they are written well and have an underlying theme that doesn't saturate me, the more I read about it. I will have to look at this one.

Book Dilettante said...

I don't normally read short stories but this collection sounds worthwhile.

Brooke said...

Thanks so much for the short story recommendation. I always try to keep my eyes peeled for these guys cause I want to read more short narratives!

Buried In Print said...

Interconnected short story collections are amongst my favourite things: thanks for bringing this one to my attention!

BK Walker said...

Excellent review! Thank you for sharing.

Rhomy PP said...

great review!

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