Short, Sweet, Sexy
2003 hit me like a twelve-month sent straight from hell -- one of those years that roll around every decade or so in which all the planets align themselves against you with the precision of a sharpshooter's sights. I survived it by reading lots of short stories that matched my attention span, by reading feel-good stories to lift me out of the downs and by escaping into other people's lives when I needed a break from my own. Let me share with you, five of these books…
Elayne Clift: The Limits of Love
Xlibris (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-888-795-4274
Ever sat in a crowded coffee shop and wondered, as you sipped at your latte, about the secrets hiding behind the facades of the people sitting at the other tables? Elayne Clift uses this premise as the pivot of her little volume of short stories entitled The Limits of Love. And she does it in grand style too, showing the hidden love that nourishes (or perhaps eats away at) each of the select group of patrons who enjoy high tea one summer afternoon at "one of London's finer establishments."
The 14 stories in The Limits of Love reveal the richness and complexities of love. One story captures the first heady steps of a new love affair. Another describes a love that endures despite all the odds. Others touch on the pleasures of sexual love or the special love that sisters share or on the important, oft-neglected love for oneself.
The first story of the volume describes in turn, the occupants of each of the tea tables in the posh restaurant. Clift draws each grouping with just a few strokes of the pen and teasingly enough to pique her readers' desire to know learn more about her characters. So if you are one of those readers who eschew a volume of short stories because of the many new starts you must make after finishing each story, this might be a good book with which to revisit the genre. Clift weaves the stories together so skillfully together they become parts of a unified whole.
Linda Watanabe McFerrin: Hand of Buddha
Coffee House Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-56689-104-3
The Buddha's Hand, a strangely shaped and edible Asian citrus fruit, also works rather like a mysterious and invisible helping hand. It appears in the flesh, as it were, in the story bearing its name in this collection. It also works its magic more discreetly in all the other stories.
The anthology consists of 12 short stories about as many different women from almost as many different cultural persuasions. As the author writes in her foreword, "My environment is a diverse one and the stories gathered here reflect and rejoice in that."
From Faith in Kenya to Isabella in Mexico to Tamara in the U.S., who successfully disguises Malaysia as Guam, McFerrin's tales introduce us to women at a time of personal crisis in their lives. These warm, encouraging stories describe each woman as she faces her personal low, then show the ways in which an inexplicable Hand of Buddha helps her to lift herself out of it or, in some cases, to muster the strength to acquiesce to fate.
McFerrin narrates profound moments and life-changing decisions with an engaging subtleness. She achieves her effects through the understated elegance of her storytelling style. Definitely a book to pick up when you need to be reminded that nothing keeps a good woman down for long.
Emily Schultz, Editor: Outskirts: Women Writing from Small Places
Sumach Press (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-894549-13-9
Whenever I must admit to any preference in the writers whose works I read, I am obliged to concede that I harbor a partiality for the writing of Canadian women. So I opened this little anthology with extra anticipation of enjoyment. Outskirts: Women Writing from Small Places offers stories by 15 Canadian women from the furthermost reaches of that vast country, solicited, gathered and edited by Emily Schultz. Intended to bring to readers a sense of the place Canada, these stories do indeed reflect the unique lives of the women who live in the small towns and farms outlying Canada's great cities.
From this anthology I learned that when one lives in a sparsely populated part of a country, one encounters a unique set of challenges. One cannot avail oneself of a wide choice of acquaintance from which to choose friends, and one can also not easily escape the people with whom one finds that one must live. A remote place seems also to intrude itself upon people's lives so much more than does a city. Whether people must contend with a river that threatens to flood their home or with wild animals that endanger their lives on a daily basis, they must reach deeply within themselves to find the resources with which to survive.
The women writing from these small places display a unique strength of character, a steadfastness and determination that make me rethink the illusion I usually cherish, of idyllic, zero-stress life in the country.
Michelene Esposito: Night Diving
Spinsters Ink Books (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-883523-52-4
Night Diving tells the story of the first thirty years of Rose Salino's life. Rose fell in love with Jessie Spencer one day in the fifth grade when first they met. But life's path cannot run smoothly for two rather different young girls living in a straight world, and the novel relates the trials and the occasional terrors of their growing up.
For various reasons, neither girl's parents are particularly easy to live with. Not surprisingly, the warmth of Rose and Jessie's love weakens and flickers alarmingly low before they get a chance to pause, many years later, and consider the value of coaxing back to its full strength -- and whether each woman can find the inner strength to continue to feed that flame.
Michelene Esposito's slightly ironic tone and gently humorous eye for detail engage the reader from the first sentence. She writes a novel of triumph over troubles, a heart-warming account of good friendships and of people learning to live life as ordinary human beings and not as impossibly perfect ones. Esposito practiced for some while as a clinical psychologist and her novel certainly seems the richer for her professional insight into what makes people tick and the small precious things that make the living of life so special an adventure.
Great holiday reading for not-so-young adults like myself, Night Diving provides a heart-warming coming of age story that confirms that life allows second, even third chances to get it right.
Jenny Scholten: Day Stripper
New Victoria Publishers (Trade Paperback), ISBN 1-892281-10-4
Aubrey Lyle, the protagonist in Day Stripper, holds a college degree. But she soon learns that she can earn herself a far more lucrative living by employing her body in the sex industry than she could by using her mind in the usual avenues open to a history major. Most nights she can be found dancing (stage and lap -- strictly no touching) at the Naughtyland "Live Nude Girls" strip club in San Francisco's Tenderloin district.
Shortly after she discovers the body of one of her co-workers, strangled to death with her own favorite pink leather bikini, Aubrey realizes that the police aren't particularly interested in solving the murder of yet another sex-worker. So Aubrey resolves to try and find the killer herself.
This fast-paced novel offers mystery and delightfully wry humor aplenty but it also deconstructs seriously the many common myths and misconceptions that abound about the sex-trade, its customers and its underlying gender politics. Scholten critiques many of the societal assumptions and prejudices about the women who choose to work in an industry that most people prefer to ignore. She also makes a strong case for the right of women to be able to choose, freely and without censure, such a career.
Scholten herself also spent a number of happy years working as an exotic dancer after completing her university degree. As a result, she manages to set her novel pretty authentically into its background of life on the red-light side of the tracks. A thought provoking, mind broadening and very readable read.