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.

Don’t Look Now – Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier (1966)

A book of short stories by the Mistress of Macabre, Daphne du Maurier (really Dame Daphne)… Again,      a title that I picked up who knows where and outside my normal reading topics. I am usually not a big fan of short stories, but fabulously, these short stories were actually long enough for me not to feel cheated. (Note to self: how long has a short story has to be before it turns into a novella?)

There are five stories in this particular volume, each with its own level of suspense and weirdness, although on the surface, the stories are pretty non-scary. It’s only as you get through the story and get deeper and deeper into the plot that du Maurier winds the tension up and the end and BAM. Usually some type of twist that you had *no* idea was coming. (I do love me a good unpredictable ending.)

Four of the stories were really well done – interesting, great characters who I really felt for, believable action and that twist at the end. But one story was actually really dreadful. It was a romance of sorts, but between two twisted people with twisted ideas about things so it wasn’t that believable. The story also had not aged well at all – I imagine in the sixties when this was written, there was a lot of shock, horror, awe at some of the things her characters get up (casual s*x, talking about s*x like it’s a grocery list, aren’t we so hip talking about s*x…) but when I read it with twenty-first century eyes, it was eye-rollingly bad. It reminded me of one of the more campy James Bond films from the sixties – all “hot pants and innuendo and rolling around under the sheets” sort of thing.

However, despite that one, the other stories were actually *really* good. She is really good at dialing up the tension in her stories and developing her story – both her characters and their actions are very believable. The last story focused on a group of (very) English people who were in Jerusalem for a trip with their vicar. Their original vicar had become sick and had to stay on their cruise boat, and their pinch hitter vicar was someone who was much younger, not well prepared and who they did not know or really respect. He did his best, but with this particular crowd, there was no winning. As the tour proceeds, various awful things happen to the calamitous tour group individuals, and it ends up as a comedy of errors (except more awful than funny).

This whole book was really very well written, with good plots (excluding that one I talked about). The book was published in 1966, and so this edition had well read pages that were yellowing around the edges from age, each page fell open (as evidence of much use), and it was just the right size. ( I know these characteristics are not about the actual writing per se, but I think they all add to the overall package of the reading experience…but then I am a nerd.)

I saw the film of “The Birds” when I was about twelve, and couldn’t go out outside for ages without having to think myself “Cover your eyes”…. I still think that to this day when I see a flock of black birds flying around… And apparently, “Don’t Look Now” was made into a film during the 1970’s but haven’t seen it or heard about it…

So – overall grade for this book – not bad, but nothing to shout from the rooftops. I thought “Rebecca” was waaay better…