Sunday, February 28, 2010

WAR DANCES: short stories by Sherman Alexie

I often call short stories the “popcorn” of literature. But that doesn’t mean I read short stories as light ephemeral pieces of work! No, short stories can offer quite a bit to mull over and chew on.

Take today’s collection by Sherman Alexie as an example…

The opening story of WAR DANCES could be ripped from any town’s headlines - a man is alone in his house when he hears someone breaking into his basement, confronts the intruder and unintentionally kills him. By taking us into the guilt ridden conscience of the young homeowner, Alexie gives us so much more than just a sad story – we’re offered the chance to commiserate (and agonize) with one man who has killed another (in this case the intruder into his home). Though he is not charged with any crime, the protagonist we suffer with our protagonist as he feels remorse and self-anger at what he sees as the cupidity and randomness of the situation in which he finds himself.

The title story, “War Dances” gyrates between a young father’s mounting concerns over his sudden hearing loss and memories of his father’s recent death in a sterile modern hospital. The suddenly hearing impaired young father rediscovers the comforts of his Native American traditions even as his father lay dying.

Yet another short story in this collection, “The Senator’s Son” plunks us smack into a tense exchange between a US Senator with presidential ambitions and his lawyer son. The son’s act of random violence committed against, ironically, his best childhood friend, sets up a tense interchange of blame and guilt, climaxing with this riveting statement: “If it is true that children pay for the sins of their fathers, is it also true that fathers pay for the sins of their children?”

In WAR DANCES Sherman Alexie writes from his experience as a Native American living in modern day Seattle , writing in a way that invites all of us into his stories. He is a great example of writing fluidly and expressively from one’s own experience – and in so doing allowing the rest of us to experience a world view that may not be our own but is nonetheless compelling and interesting.

I join with other reviewers and critics in finding Alexie’s work eclectic, intriguing and page-turning. Perhaps a reviewer for the Seattle Post put it best when she wrote: “Sherman Alexie mixes up comedy and tragedy, shoots it through with tenderness, then delivers with a provocateur’s don’t-give-a-damn flourish. He’s unique, and his new book, War Dances, is another case in point.” — Mary Ann Gwinn, Seattle Times. I hope you give Sherman Alexie a read and see if you don't agree!

STEP BY STEP: A pedestrian memoir by Lawrence Block

Many of us know Lawrence Bloch through one (or more) of the many quirky characters he has created in his many mystery novels: international spy Evan Tanner, New York City private detective Matthew Scudder, hit-man-for-hire John Keller or my favorite - almost-reformed burglar/used bookstore owner Bernie Rhoddenbar. In today’s book, Block introduces us to an equally fascinating character – himself! STEP BY STEP is a delightful read of the journeys of a modern American life – the pedestrian memoirs of an inquiring mind.

Block is as charming, wry and as folksy as ever when writing about his life as a observant pedestrian and as a skilled runner – from his youth to the present day, offering us ample stories of the many marathons, races and journeys he has taken across the country and the world - check out his memories of the 3 month, 650 mile journey over the Pyrenees – the famed Camino De Santiago. It's a great one-chapter example of his writing, observation and walking skills. Too, I hope you'll take the time to read the chapter in which Block and his wife decide to pursue the elusive towns named Buffalo - and end up touring the American countryside - by foot and by car - from Florida to Colorado and beyond.

More than a "pedestrian" read, STEP BY STEP may set us all on our won open-eyed wanderings across the continent and beyond!