- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 4, 2003

From the very first page of Donald Hall’s Willow Temple (Houghton Mifflin, $24, 224 pages), it’s clear we are in the hands of a master. There is a soothing quality about the 12 stories spanning almost 20 years in the career of this prize-winning author and poet. Call it a spirit of gentleness, dignity, and respect. Mr. Hall’s world is refreshingly populated by well-meaning parents, hard-working adults, and most prominently, by wonderfully complex children who convincingly mature and even grow old before our eyes.

Not that we are taken on a rose-colored fantasy. The collection contains its fair share of cads, scoundrels and dysfunctional families. But they are balanced by decent men and women who stoically brave life’s inevitable difficulties, take pleasure in the good moments, and act honorably under the most trying of circumstances.

In “Christmas Snow,” Mr. Hall portrays several generations of a family coming together in the midst of a blizzard in rural New Hampshire, where most of the stories are set. Mr. Hall has a knack for composing opening sentences that create a sense of immediacy and connection. “The real snows I remember are the snows of Christmas in New Hampshire. I was ten years old, and one night I woke up to the sound of grownups talking. Slowly I realized that it wasn’t that at all; the mounds of my grandfather and grandmother lay still in their bed under many quilts in the cold room. It was rain falling and rubbing against the bushes outside my window.” The power of childhood experiences that become memories in adulthood is explored throughout the collection.

“The Ideal Bakery” is a sadly beautiful and touching tribute to fatherly love, evoked through recollections of boyhood breakfasts of freshly made crullers, circa 1939. “The first bite was the best, and my father and I looked into each other’s eyes as we bit into the tender sweet crust that ‘melted in the mouth,’ as my father put it, and we grinned with a pleasure greater even than our anticipation.” Years later, memories of these cherished moments are relived over and over again. “Like everyone I live in many places and they are all inside my head … Several times a week I am ten years old sitting in a booth at the Ideal Bakery, loving my tender father, who smiles across the tabletop.”

One of the most odious characters in the collection is David Bardo, who is the central character in “The Accident, Lake Paradise and Roast Suckling Pig.” This final story, set in Washington, D.C. during the first half of the 1960s, is scathing, ironic and darkly funny.

• • •

Marjorie Sandor’s absorbing second collection, Portrait of My Mother Who Posed Nude in Wartime (Sarabande Books, $13.95, 211 pages), could have been a novel. In choosing short fiction as the medium, she reveals her own talent and the immense capacity of this genre to break through its boundaries.

Clara is the cosseted, only child of well-off Jewish immigrants in small-town Indiana. By the age of 11 she turns inward, with disastrous results for the rest of her life. “She felt, at the time, shunned by life, as if it didn’t think her worth the effort, and was deliberately keeping away. It made her wild, that feeling … But this was a secret, cherished craziness; the opposite of what showed.”

The 10 stories flow one from the other, though once in a while the finely wrought prose becomes a bit overdramatic. Clara is ordered by her dying father to marry Abe, a poor ambitious doctor infatuated by her beauty and culture. Rachel, their daughter and the narrator, tells us: “I can’t stop looking at my parents, wishing for them a different beginning. They seem so alone, with only their separate secrets for company, secrets that will grow the way a child does, with blood coursing along beneath the skin, carrying its invisible history of fantastic desire and ordinary betrayal.”

Two mismatched people, each with promise and weaknesses, bound together in a lifetime of disconnection and disappointment. Ms. Sandor deftly unfolds this all-too-common reality, adding unexpected touches that keep it from becoming mundane. In the final story, “Malingerer,” the voice of Abe, now deceased, alternates with that of Rachel’s, to reveal a life-long secret with a shocking twist at the very end.

• • •

In Brownsville, Texas, on the Rio Grande River, Mexico is so close that people on each side practically breathe the same air. In a debut simply titled Brownsville (Back Bay Books, $13.95, 189 pages), Oscar Casares, a native son, takes us into his world of blue-collar Mexican-Americans, some second and third generation, others illegals who can barely speak English. For most of us, it’s a world we could never know as intimately as portrayed in the nine stories of the collection.

The dialogue and situations are a treat, though non-Spanish speakers may have to take a few passages slowly. In “Mrs. Perez,” a widow and would-be crime buster, discovers a talent for bowling, which empowers her in ways she could never have imagined while married to a traditional man who forbade her to work as a nurse’s assistant.

While not every story is equally engaging, “Domingo” is a memorable, poignant tale about an aging, illegal immigrant. Although he knows “he would work the rest of his life and still die poor,” he collects the strength left in his body to prune trees, mow lawns and clean the swimming pools of Brownsville’s well-to-do in order to send money home. On what would have been the birthday of his baby daughter, who died 20 years ago, he decides to visit a local shrine of sorts, an alamo tree people say has the image of the Virgin Mary on its bark. “He wanted her to know that her father had kept her memory alive and that he always would as long as God gave him air to breathe. He had not forgotten what day this was, and if she were here, he himself would sing ‘Las Mananitas’ to her, the same way her mother had done on her first birthday.”

Shaazka Beyerle is a Washington writer.

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