An inspired and inspiring collection of dictionary-prompted flash fiction.

TALES FROM WEBSTER’S

THE VERMINOUS RESUSCITATOR AND THE MONSIGNOR IN THE ZOOT SUIT

Shea offers a collection of inventive flash fiction in this literary debut.

Using Webster’s Dictionary as a trove of writing prompts, Shea has constructed 79 microfictions built around the alphabetical order of words in the dictionary. He explains the form in his author’s note: “The bolded key words on the left of the page are consecutive entries in Webster’s New World Dictionary…The text on the right is my connective tissue linking those words into a narrative, scene, or evocation of personality.” For example, the piece “Chablis—chador” links the words Chablis, cha-cha, chacma, Chaco, chaconne, chacun à son goût, Chad, and chador into a conversation between a couple of high-society types swapping anecdotes. “Wine can make me do the strangest things, my dear,” it begins, “like the time all that Chablis went straight to my head, and I did a stunning little cha-cha.” The tone of the pieces tends to be light since the nature of the form leads to absurd places. They often occur as dialogues or monologues, heavy on voice and personality, though occasionally fuller fables emerge. For example, “infinitude—inflation” tells the story of a man who wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and must see a doctor to correct the resulting havoc wreaked on his perception of the world. Most shorts are between one and four pages, though the author occasionally gets on a roll (“Nebraska—negotiation” is 12 pages long). While the premise is admittedly gimmicky, Shea does a masterful job fattening these strings of unconnected words into clever shorts. Even when they begin in relatively normal places—the investigation of a murder, say, or an antiquarian’s attempt to summon a demon via a séance—they quickly spiral into transforming litanies of trivia, word association, and literary allusions. The pieces succeed in drawing out unexpected pockets of poetry in the English language, like “aghast—agleam” with its repetitive “ag”s and “agit”s. He also manages to highlight the incredible diversity of loan words, compound words, hybrid words, and embedded idioms found in English, like in “Brazzaville—breathy,” with its catalog of bread words. Shea does not shy away from challenging sections of the dictionary either, proven by “quoit—q.y.,” “xanthus—xebex,” and “zoot suit—zowie.” The only slight bobble is the way the stories are formatted on the page with the dictionary words segregated to the left column and everything else to the right. This presentation is functional but not pleasing to the eye, and one wishes Shea had found a way to display the words that was more aesthetically agreeable. Fans of linguistics, puzzles, poetry, and humor will each find something to excite them in this work, and writers of all stripes will find themselves reaching for their dictionaries to locate some good stretches of words that Shea hasn’t yet used.

An inspired and inspiring collection of dictionary-prompted flash fiction.

Pub Date: N/A

ISBN: 978-1-60489-188-1

Page Count: 222

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2017

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THE THINGS THEY CARRIED

It's being called a novel, but it is more a hybrid: short-stories/essays/confessions about the Vietnam War—the subject that O'Brien reasonably comes back to with every book. Some of these stories/memoirs are very good in their starkness and factualness: the title piece, about what a foot soldier actually has on him (weights included) at any given time, lends a palpability that makes the emotional freight (fear, horror, guilt) correspond superbly. Maybe the most moving piece here is "On The Rainy River," about a draftee's ambivalence about going, and how he decided to go: "I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to." But so much else is so structurally coy that real effects are muted and disadvantaged: O'Brien is writing a book more about earnestness than about war, and the peekaboos of this isn't really me but of course it truly is serve no true purpose. They make this an annoyingly arty book, hiding more than not behind Hemingwayesque time-signatures and puerile repetitions about war (and memory and everything else, for that matter) being hell and heaven both. A disappointment.

Pub Date: March 28, 1990

ISBN: 0618706410

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1990

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Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

A PERMANENT MEMBER OF THE FAMILY

One of America’s great novelists (Lost Memory of Skin, 2011, etc.) also writes excellent stories, as his sixth collection reminds readers.

Don’t expect atmospheric mood poems or avant-garde stylistic games in these dozen tales. Banks is a traditionalist, interested in narrative and character development; his simple, flexible prose doesn’t call attention to itself as it serves those aims. The intricate, not necessarily permanent bonds of family are a central concern. The bleak, stoic “Former Marine” depicts an aging father driven to extremes because he’s too proud to admit to his adult sons that he can no longer take care of himself. In the heartbreaking title story, the death of a beloved dog signals the final rupture in a family already rent by divorce. Fraught marriages in all their variety are unsparingly scrutinized in “Christmas Party,” Big Dog” and “The Outer Banks." But as the collection moves along, interactions with strangers begin to occupy center stage. The protagonist of “The Invisible Parrot” transcends the anxieties of his hard-pressed life through an impromptu act of generosity to a junkie. A man waiting in an airport bar is the uneasy recipient of confidences about “Searching for Veronica” from a woman whose truthfulness and motives he begins to suspect, until he flees since “the only safe response is to quarantine yourself.” Lurking menace that erupts into violence features in many Banks novels, and here, it provides jarring climaxes to two otherwise solid stories, “Blue” and “The Green Door.” Yet Banks quietly conveys compassion for even the darkest of his characters. Many of them (like their author) are older, at a point in life where options narrow and the future is uncomfortably close at hand—which is why widowed Isabel’s fearless shucking of her confining past is so exhilarating in “SnowBirds,” albeit counterbalanced by her friend Jane’s bleak acceptance of her own limited prospects.

Old-fashioned short fiction: honest, probing and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-06-185765-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Sept. 1, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2013

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