“Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories” 

“Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories” by Susan Minot; Knopf, New York, 2020; 176 pages, hardcover, $25.

The spare, journalistic prose style in fiction was more or less invented by Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s and ’30s. Brief, straightforward sentences piled up to create a feeling of realistic, no-nonsense toughness. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s it turned into a preferred style for short fiction in America. It’s prized in the literary-industrial complex to this day, and you can see one of its variations regularly in places like The New Yorker magazine. Flat, direct, mostly spare grammatical structures that build up a feeling of flat objectivity, even emotionlessness, salted with understated, sometimes glib ironies.

Susan Minot, a resident of North Haven and New York City, is a master of this kind of writing. Her recent collection of short fiction, “Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories,” is compiled from stories published from the early 1990s to the last few years. Most of the stories are, true to their genre, about everyday people with everyday conflicts in everyday, mostly urban, settings. Some of their recurrent themes are relationships; the tendency of men to treat women like naive children, when usually the opposite is true; the emotional insecurities that are sometimes imposed upon, sometimes internally manufactured by women; the frictions inside family relationships.

A story that unfolds some of these themes most starkly is “The Language of Cats and Dogs,” in which Sophie, a woman presumably in her 60s, dwells on emotional tumults suffered decades ago during her last year of college. Her creative writing professor, a known philanderer, made clumsy, offensive passes at her, which in tandem with the sudden death of her mother threw Sophie for complicated emotional loops. One of the complications is that Sophie saw completely through the professor’s ridiculous behavior, but maintained an aloof, hyper-rational, almost numb bearing in response. The 60-year-old Sophie seems ambivalent about what she did and why. It is an emotionally probing story, either in spite of or because of the spare style it’s told in.

Of the other nine stories in the collection, three stray from the flat, hyper-objective, skillfully revealing style and subject matter of the others. “Why I Don’t Write” and “Listen,” are literary experiments comprising assemblages of what seem like overheard sentences and phrases. “Café Mort,” a more conventional narrative, is a fantasy in which a bustling café turns out to be a kind of surreal limbo place for dead spirits. (My favorite story in the book.)

Susan Minot has also written novels, poems, screenplays and plays, including “On Island” which premiered at Waterman’s Community Center theater on North Haven in 2018. “Why I Don’t Write and Other Stories” is widely available in book stores and online.

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“Cow Palace” by Anne Britting Oleson; Bedazzled Ink Publishing Co., Fairfield, California, 2020; paperback, $16.95.

“Cow Palace” 

Fans of Anne Britting Oleson’s novels “Tapiser,” “Dovecote”  and “The Book of the Mandolin Player” are likely to be enamored of her newest book, “Cow Palace.”

It’s the tumbling, mostly funny, sometimes sad story of the chaotic life of restaurant owner Dinah Galloway. Dinah is seemingly the only sane person in her circle, a sort of straight man to her friend Mirelle, who is an actress seeking roles, and her ne’er-do-well restaurant staff, which includes a husband and wife team in the kitchen who seem constantly on the verge of killing each other — literally. They are all constantly rollicking Dinah’s minute-to-minute world, while rollicking her inner world is the death of her husband. When an old friend shows up to give Mirelle a part in a show he plans to stage in the theater next door (also owned by Dinah), things go from crazy to nuts. Dinah’s struggle is to get normal.

“Cow Palace” does not have the gothic feel of Oleson’s earlier books. But it has some loose parallels in mood and characterization to Portland novelist Agnes Bushell’s “The House on Perry Street.”  Anne Britting Oleson lives in Dixmont, and has written three chapbooks of poetry in addition to her novels. “Cow Palace”  is available online and through local book shops.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

 

 

 

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