Translator, novelist, and short-fiction specialist Davis (Almost No Memory, 1997, etc.) assembles another fine collection of 54 wry, haunting pieces, old and new, brief and long, nearly all previously published. The title story is indicative of Davis’s humor, appending to “Samuel Johnson Is Indignant” only this: “that Scotland has so few trees.” Most of the remaining pieces offer a bit more. In “Old Mother and the Grouch,” one of several tales concerning quietly desperate married life, an older couple grouse and bicker their way through meals, phone calls, and lovemaking, all the while intimating that they’d be hard-pressed to survive alone. An equally prominent theme is that of women under duress, exemplified in “Thyroid Diary” by a professor’s wife and translator with an underactive thyroid whose thought processes seem to be slowing and unraveling, wreaking havoc on her work and daily routines but somehow opening her up to the joys of etymology. From an earlier period of Davis’s writing come stories with an eastern European flair and Kafkaesque quality: “In a Northern Country” describes a frail old man who journeys in search of his missing brother to a remote village where, surrounded by fearful strangers, he becomes sickened to the point of death.
Outsiders, self-doubt, and alienation: all form the bedrock upon which Davis sets up an off-kilter, edgy universe distinctly her own.