- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

Do you like to read but can never find the time? Do you start a novel, and become frustrated because it takes months to finish? Are you so busy that the closest thing to a book is the reviews each Sunday? Then you may be just the candidate for short story collections.
In the hands of a master, a short story can have all the elements of a novel pathos, humor, irony, farce, poignancy, drama, suspense, and gripping characters. It can linger in your mind, raise questions about life, love, and just about anything else associated with the human condition. If a novel is like a movie, then a short story is like a photograph. In both, authors can tell a tale, stir up feelings or make points, but the short story is a snapshot, a suggestive glimpse of something larger.
There are countless collections of short stories, but since they don't get the attention of novels, one may not be aware of the rich variety that is available. This month, the focus is on America four books of times and places gone by.
Pittsburgh Stories: The Selected Stories of Clark Blaise, Volume 2
(The Porcupine's Quill, $18.95, 144 pages) is a fine collection of nine stories. The author evokes the Steel City during the postwar years, mainly through the eyes of boys and their adolescent incarnations. Mr. Blaise writes with a visually powerful style, conjuring rich images that are never overdone.
The stories are embellished with simple yet sharp observations, sometimes laced with irony and humor. Mr. Blaise's journey into the comic, tortured world of teenage boys is particularly entertaining. In "Grids and Doglegs," the formerly overweight Norman takes the girl of his dreams to a dance. He confesses, "Despite the glistening car and my flashy clothes, my new near-mesomorphy, I felt like a worm as I slipped the white orchid corsage around her wrist. (I could have had a bosom corsage; when the florist suggested it, I nearly ran from the shop. What if I jabbed her, right there?)"
The Pittsburgh of yesteryear does not escape Mr. Blaise's gentle ribbing. In "The Waffle Maker," East meets West in the guise of a demure, Indian exchange student. The protagonist's mother has prepared a welcoming meal for the guest. "She asked if Laxmi liked Weiner schnitzel … 'I'm sure I will,' she said, 'thank you.' After a pause she asked casually, what exactly Wiener schnitzel was, in order that she might send the recipe home. I watched her face as my mother began describing pork tenderloin dredged in egg yolks and flour, then fried. Her voice never wavered. 'That would be the flesh from the pigs?' she asked, and I knew immediately she was vegetarian …"

Another very well written and structured collection is Italian Stories (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95, 298 pages) by Joseph Papaleo. In the 26 stories, taken together, Mr. Papaleo brings to life the experiences of southern Italian immigrants in the Bronx during 1920s and '30s, through to the the aging of their first-generation children, who have moved to the suburbs. The writer recreates a slice of American history, much of which is funny and endearing.
In "The Graduation," Johnny Mauro tries to explain the meaning of his prize-winning drawing to family and friends.
"'It represents the French knight Roland, defeating the infidels. It was executed in 1840.' 'Here I must stop you,' Mr. Mimmo said, and smiled to Mr. Mauro, who nodded respectfully … 'This is Orlando,' Mr. Mimmo said to all. 'A great Italian knight. Orlando. Orlando Furioso, Orlando who captured the Morgante. One thing I know. Orlando is an Italian knight.'"
But Mr. Papaleo is not simply a gifted storyteller. Through these stories he unflinchingly deconstructs the estrangement between the immigrants and their children, and the bewilderment of the aging parents, who, after a lifetime of adjusting to a new country, are no longer able to keep pace with changes and retreat into a world of nostalgia. Two friends in "Friday Supper," capture this intergenerational rift.
"I call my father's house the echo chamber. I hear the same words every time I go there … Followed later by the Greek chorus so you forgot your mother's birthday, your father's name day, your sister's anniversary, your niece's christening, your brother's saint's day. And whatsa matter you stay away; you must love your job more than you love your mother, your father, your brother, your sister, your grandfather's memory, your niece, just fill in the blanks."
If that is not enough, Mr. Papaleo also tackles those nagging existential themes of love, relationships, and personal fulfillment. In "Memories Reflected in Palm Springs," he pulls it together in one elegant paragraph. "Estelle was stunned and confused. Of course the youthful ardor had gone, she agreed. What was so bad about that? Look at our mothers and fathers and everybody else who is real. (Not the movies.) Real meant we had a child and a nest. It was the goal of centuries, achieved. Estelle tried to explain to me. Just fifty years ago. All our lives would have been spent trying to get a nest."

In Last Year's Jesus (Theia Books, $22.95, 224 pages) Ellen Slezak takes readers to urban Detroit of the 1960s and '70s, into the lives of working-class auto workers, many of whom are Polish-American. The opening story, for which the book is named, is at once cynical, amusing, and gloomy.
"I caught up with the Passion Play just as two horses draped in purple bathroom rugs left the corner of Pulaski and Campau. The Romans and almost everybody else in the play and in the audience were Mexicans. They'd come from their home parish, Holy Trinity, about five miles south, near Tiger Stadium. The Romans brandished broomstick spears and wore helmets that might have been mistaken for wash buckets spray-painted gold. Jesus followed, his white bedsheet tunic flapping in a breeze too cruel for April."
Although the nine stories are not all equally compelling, the author has an uncanny gift for writing from the perspective of children, thereby holding up an often unsightly mirror to adults. In the closing novella, "Head, Heart, Legs or Arms," she sensitively depicts a girl's comprehension of her baby sister's terminal illness.

Cedric Yamanaka gives voice to poor, mostly native Hawaiians, of Honolulu in Good Company (University of Hawaii Press, $14.95, 128 pages). With little hope for a better life, or confidence in their abilities, his characters eke out a living, search for work, help one another, and revel in the few moments of happiness that come their way.
All of this is conveyed with dialogue steeped in a Hawaiian accent. Comic situations temper the harsh environment.
In "The Three-and-a-Half-Hour Christmas Party," the protagonist of modest means finds himself at a swanky party hoping to meet a girl from the old neighborhood who had become famous. He thinks back about the last time they met."'Oh, Issac,' said Sheila. 'Look at all the instruments. I play the piano, you know. But I'm not very good. One of my favorites is the Hawaiian version of the 'The Twelve Days of Christmas.' The one that goes, 'Faaaaaive beeeeg fat peeeeegs.' She began to sing softly, to herself, 'Four flower lei, tree dry squid, twooo coconut, and one mynah bird in one papaya treeeee.'"

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer and reviewer who has lived in the Middle East and Europe.

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