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Roundup: Beach Books

In short ... For truly escapist fare, take up a collection

Sunday, July 06, 2003

By Sharon Dilworth

I realize that beach books are usually mystery thrillers or romantic page-turners. They're thick, plot-driven books, the kind you don't mind getting wet or sandy because you're not going to read them again.

But maybe Mavis Gallant has it right. Maybe short stories are the perfect reading material when escape is the issue. Gallant, a writer and master of the short story, advises, "Stories are not chapters of novels. They should not be read one after another as if they were meant to follow along. Read one. Shut the book. Read something else. Come back later. Stories can wait."

With Karl Iagnemma's debut collection, I was unable to wait. I devoured these stories. Iagnemma is a research scientist who specializes in robotics as well as being a talented and fascinating fiction writer.

"On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction"

By Karl Iagnemma
Dial Press ($22)

Among his many strengths is an ability to present a variety of worlds, with sheer authority and authenticity, most of which are underrepresented in contemporary fiction. Mathematicians, for- esters, iron ore miners, Indian agents and mannequin salespeople are showcased in these stories.

In "The Children of Hunger," a 19th-century physician, living in the wilderness of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, uses a Canadian soldier as a subject to complete his medical experiments on the digestive system. His wife, driven by cold and loneliness of the region, is the one who offers the soldier comfort. In an overly air-conditioned Marriott, the setting for "Zilkowski's Theorem," two mathematicians fight over equations, limitations, reputations and a girlfriend while at a conference in Akron. Finally, one gives up control and lets the outcome of a Boston Red Sox game decide his future. "Kingdom, Order, Species" is about a woman forester who longs for the romantic and thinks she's found it in the poetic language of a man who penned her first textbook on the plants of North America. Her decisions weigh heavily until she undertakes the mission of finding the textbook author and telling him how his words have changed her life.

Iagnemma crafts intriguing plots around absorbing historical details. Some stories were inspired by the journals of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and William Beaumont, recognizable names in Michigan: Beaumont is the name of the largest hospital in southeastern Detroit; Schoolcraft is a major thoroughfare and a community college in the north suburbs, named for the 19th-century ethnologist and Indian agent.

The generosity of Iagnemma's intelligence offers readers something new in short fiction. These rich and varied stories form an outstanding collection.

In "Willow Temple," Donald Hall's new collection, the author returns to David Bardo, a character in three different stories.

"Willow Temple: New and Selected Stories"

By Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin ($24)

In "Roast Suckling Pig," Bardo is having an affair with a voracious and practiced liar. Being the kind of man who doesn't credit women with much agency, he is caught off guard by his lover's manipulative storytelling. The title comes from a supposed pig thawing on the roof of her house; a nosy neighbor, however, informs the police that the woman is guilty of throwing her dead baby out the window.

Bardo's paramour admits to one lie, then another. In the end, the affair crumbles under the layers of deception. (How many other beach books can brag of pigs on roofs?)

The stories in Hall's collection are both deliberate and extremely wistful. They move slowly, tracing out time and memory, as if the author has opened a photo album and was showing the reader the details and problems of lives long ago. Hall, who is primarily a poet, works with grace and skill in these contemplative stories.

The title story in Pulitzer winner Nadine Gordimer's "Loot" is about an earthquake that takes place on a metaphorical plane.

"Loot and Other Stories"

By Nadine Gordimer
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($23)

A social satire that warns against greed and evil, it offers redemption to the writer who understands imagination. This story is a strong testimony to Gordimer's reputation as one of the world's most respected writers. The other stories in this collection are less experimental and more complex in themes and character development. In "Generation Gap," for example, a father, to the astonishment of his grown children, leaves his wife. Just as they accept the changes brought about because of his desire, the young girlfriend abandons both Africa and their father. They children are left with the duty of comforting him

In "Mission Statement," Gordimer again explores the hazy compromises of emotion and love's denial, especially when one partner senses the inappropriateness of the relationship. Her characters are politically and emotionally savvy but, for all their intelligence, they still are bound by the limitations of their desires. Gordimer is brilliant with these kinds of quiet conflicts and, when her stories center on these concerns, they are achingly beautiful.

Perhaps it's time to reconsider the nature of a good beach book. What better way to escape than by savoring a short story much in the same way we savor our time in the sun.

Sharon Dilworth is author of the short story collections "The Long White" and "Women Drinking Benedictine" and teaches at Carnegie-Mellon University.

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