The Shell Collector – Anthony Doerr (2002)

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This was a collection of short stories that was pure joy to read. (I know! Short stories and I don’t usually get on very well.) Author Anthony Doerr is a well-established fiction writer and has been widely published, and from this offering, it’s absolutely clear why he is. He is a sickenly perfect writer in every stretch of the imagination, and I just thoroughly enjoyed every story and every page.

My experience with short stories is mostly composed of reading short stories that end too soon with reference to their endings or sometimes don’t even finish. Sometimes I feel that the typical short story only tells half a story (and that authors use Po-Mo as an excuse to explain that) or it feels unfinished in some way. But that was not this experience at all.

Doerr’s stories are perfect in every way. (I know – high praise.)  As in any collection, there are some pieces that are stronger than others, but even the weaker ones were great. (It was a question of tiny degrees, I think.)

Look at this writing:

“[The young girl] trembles at the idea of ocean nearing. Fidgets in her seat. The energy of a fourteen-year old piling up like marbles on a dinner plate…”

And this description of a fair ground:

“At the fairgrounds, we saw them in the parking lot inhaling the effluvium of carnival, the smells of fried dough, caramel and cinnamon, the flap-flapping of tents, a carousel plinking out music-box songs, voluptuous sounds bouncing down tent ropes and along the dust of the midway. Wind-curled handbills staple-gunned to telephone poles, the hum of gas-powered generators and the gyro truck, the lemonade truck, pretzels and popcorn, baked potatoes, the American flag, the rumblings of rides and the disconnected screams of riders – all of it shimmered before them like a mirage, something not quite real…” (p. 97, “For a Long Time This was Griselda’s Story”)

Just look at the lusciousness of some of those phrases: “effluvium of carnival”, the “plinking” of the carousel, the curled staple-gunned handbills, the “disconnected screams” of the riders. Swoon. It’s not often that you get to enjoy this high quality of writing…

The stories are diverse, but seem to have a common theme of living with the natural world: a man who lives on an island studying shells who becomes a reluctant healer, a lady who had an experience in her younger life and becomes a spirit healer of sorts, a group of US fishermen compete in an international fishing competition… There was also an ongoing theme of water (sea, lake, snow, river) and the creatures who live in it. Each story was down-to-earth and each story was so exquisitely written that it was a joy to read.

I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but this really was a great collection to read. I highly recommend this title if you’re looking for fantastic fiction writing with good plots. Stories were as long as they needed to be and the plots were compelling. This was great.

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