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June 13-19, 2007

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Summer Shorts

Three essential short story collections for cooling the mind this season

By John Freeman

Helen Simpson, 'In the Driver's Seat' (Knopf; $22) This wicked little book dares you to laugh at dirty, serious things. If jokes about cancer, sex, children and the bitter end ruin your morning, you might want to steer clear of Simpson at the bookstore. But if the humor of George Carlin or Woody Allen keep a smile on your face, then she is a must-read. Here is the literary counterpart to these comics, roaring out of the short story form with a black cackle and an ironic wink.

In "Every Third Thought," a middle-aged woman develops a pathological fear of mortality after several friends succumb to breast cancer. At last, she is run over by a car and loses her leg. "Some sort of cloud lifted and I was out of the woods," she exalts. "No more doom and gloom! I mean, of course there were times when I felt sorry for myself, very sorry for myself, hobbling around in rehab being one of them, but I was always able to snap out of it. It could have been worse."

Simpson's is a rarefied sensibility, no doubt. She is not sentimental about love or sex or even parents. She understands that much as we try, it's virtually impossible to escape the prison we make of our own selves. "If I Make It" tells the story of a self-involved war correspondent who is diagnosed with lung cancer after a life-time of romancing his cigarettes. All at once he changes, and begs for a chance to start anew. Simpson grants him that reprieve, only to have him fall back on his old ways.

People in Simpson's stories don't always play well with others, and in the speediest of her stories, we watch on as tense situations unravel toward chaos. The title piece is a mean little story about a woman and her boyfriend pelting down the motorway at near triple-digit speeds in a car not meant to travel that fast. "The way a man drives gives a surprisingly accurate idea of what he's like in other areas," Simpson writes. "Does he crash his way through the gears? Does he speed, or stall? Does he get nasty at the lights?"

Many of her stories have this sort of intensely personal tone. They leap-frog over the traditional fluffery of literary narration to speak to us directly about truths they flatter us into thinking we had noticed all on our own.

The big realization--the one so many of Simpson's narrators struggle with--is the fact that we all die. It nags, tugs and lashes at so many of the narrators in this book that it's hard not to read the title as a quick jab in the readers' ribs and a nod at the Grim Reaper.

But not all these stories have such sharp edges. In "Constitutional," the final story in the book, a pregnant middle-aged woman strolls through Hampstead Heath at dusk, free-associating about her life, her friends, the fact that she will die and the observable world will careen on without her.

"Walking around the Heath on days like this when there is color and sun," she says, "I can feel it rise in me like mercury in a thermometer, enormous deep delight in seeing these old trees with their last two dozen leaves worn like earrings."

This is an amazingly beautiful moment in a collection full of fine writing. After making us guffaw and making us smirk, Simpson shows us what's going to help us get through not being in the driver's seat: acceptance.

Lydia Davis, 'Varieties of Disturbance' (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $13) It's a small misnomer to label this new book by MacArthur "Genius" fellow Lydia Davis a collection of stories. At least, they're not traditional stories: many of the pieces are only a paragraph long, some less. And Davis doesn't often follow a story from one place to the next. There are certainly no cliff-hang endings.

But then again, Davis has never been about cheap thrills or tidy forms. She's rather more like a literary equivalent of one of those technicians on CSI: she shows up in the vicinity of a story and immediately begins dusting for clues. How a story is put together, to her, is as interesting as what a story wants to tell us.

Varieties of Disturbance shows Davis at her technical best, telling stories through inspired deconstruction. "We Miss You" parses the sentiment from the cliché in a children's letter of sympathy for a sick classmate. "How It Is Done" analyzes the elisions in a high school sex-ed book.

Occasionally Davis' tone turns wonky, which is a shame, as she can be a clever stylist. "Insomnia," for instance, reads, "My body aches so --/It must be this heavy bed pressing up against me." "Suddenly Afraid" goes as follows: "because she couldn't write the name of what she was: a wa wam owm owamn womn."

A poet as well as a translator, Davis is extremely good at turning our perception on one line. Her best stories pile up one such mind-bender after another, and then turn this observational jujitsu on the form of the story--and often memory, too.

The collection's gem is a three-page riff called "Grammar Questions," in which the narrator lists the words she uses to describe her ailing father. "People may say 'the body' and then call it 'it.' I will not be able to say 'the body' in relation to him because he is still not something you would call 'the body.'"

This is tricky, sometimes miraculous work. Davis reminds us that words are tools, that stories are merely devices, but then in the space of just one sentence can make us forget all that so we can read, listen and believe.

Ahdaf Soueif, 'I Think of You' (Anchor Press; $13) These exquisite stories by Egyptian-born novelist Ahdaf Soueif feel like postcards from another era. They recall the sights and sounds of Cairo in the 1950s and '60s. They describe the pain and dislocation of a woman's move from the Middle East to England shortly thereafter. There is, inevitably, a story about the impossibility of going home again after making such a move.

Although best known for her sprawling epic novels, like Booker finalist The Map of Love, Soueif has an impressive ability to fold her work into the smaller form. Her stories have a more contemporary feel, sharper elbows. Several pivot on finely observed moments. Three of the stories follow the character of Aisha, who moves to England in the story "1964" and is harassed there as a Muslim. Another two follow Asya, who, like Aisha, is haunted by a marriage gone awry, as well as a miscarriage.

Soueif herself now lives in London, and one can feel the distance she writes across--as well as the loss--in creating characters who are plagued by homesickness and exile. "The scene of jasmine fills the air," begins "Melody." By the end of this book, we understand why a simple scent means so much to some.

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