~~Deep South Book Reviews~~
by Augusta Russel Scattergood
NEW STORIES FROM THE SOUTH: The Year’s Best, 2003
Edited by Shannon Ravenel
My taste in short stories has always leaned toward those with characters and a plot, a beginning, a middle, and an end. In reading this year’s edition of New Stories from the South, edited by Shannon Ravenel, I almost skipped over Michael Knight’s “Ellen’s Book,” when I noticed the paragraphs numbered 1-34. The title refers to the story notes (1-34) Keith makes after his wife leaves him and Old Dog, the dog who shares their home and their bed. In hopes of winning her back, Keith prepares to write a story for Ellen. I laughed out loud when the police arrest him in the ladies room of the local movie theater where he’s perched in the stall next to his estranged wife. It would be a mistake to skip this sweet, sad, funny story.
Shoba Srinivasan, in the story “Cool Wedding” by Latha Viswanathan, is an Indian woman transplanted to Houston where she is a wife, a mother to two teenagers, and a matchmaker with her own website. The writing sparkles in this story told as a letter written to Shoba’s sister. Shoba describes their nephew’s “cool” wedding to his Cajun bride, Esther Robichaud, then gossips to her sister about a guest: “At the party, Ila is the same like always, talking with lipstick on her teeth. ‘You know my beta, son Suresh (whole Radio Shack store on his belt, I am adding) went to Bombay to brush up Gujerati, seek prospective bride. So far nothing worked out,’ she said, licking her teeth, swallowing her lipstick, and holding my hand.”
Don’t miss this story about assimilation, immigration, culture clash, and women in the 21st century.
Spot is the best dog I’ve encountered in literature in a very long time. In John Dufresne’s story, “Johnny Too Bad,” he drags a Barbie doll around everywhere he goes, howls at the theme song from Jeopardy till his master mutes the sound, hides in the bathtub when Hurricane Fritzy threatens, and survives a tornado with his “plaid scarf now trailing rakishly behind him.” The humans in the story are pretty good, too. Dufresne’s writing is so hilarious that I didn’t even realize it was a long, first-person monologue. So much for my preference for traditionally-told tales.
Culled from both literary and popular journals and magazines published inside and outside the South, each of these eighteen short stories includes biographical information and a brief note from the author about how the story came to be written. The appendix at the end lists the addresses and editors of the publications Ravenel considered when selecting the stories.
A case could be made that the 18th edition of New Stories from the South is not Shannon Ravenel’s best. The recycled, silly preface by Roy Blount, Jr., isn’t up to the standards set by previous essayists. In her memorable introduction to the 2001 edition, Lee Smith compared the evolution of southern writing to the restaurant scene in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. If you want to know anything about southern writing in 2003, skip Blount’s preface, read the stories, and draw your own conclusions.
While I’m not quite sure how a few of the selections made the cut, there are astounding stories here to treasure, told with insight, humor and sadness. Read about the sweet old ladies in Paul Prather’s “The Faithful,” who will remind you of somebody’s aunt or grandmother. The strange family in Steve Almond’s “The Soul Molecule,” who claim to have been adducted by aliens, and the young football player angry and trapped in the heat of Junction, Texas, in Brad Vice’s story titled “Junction” are characters who will convince you that the current state of southern writing is very good.
ZZ Packer’s story chosen for New Stories from the South, “Every Tongue Shall Confess,” is told by a Pentecostal woman, a registered nurse who prays over her patients, and Packer has you right in the church, singing in the choir with Clareese.
“Clareese’s cross-eyes roved to the back of the church, where Sister Drusella and Sister Maxwell sat, each resplendent in their identical, wide-brimmed, purple-flowered hats, their unsaved guests sitting next to them. The guests wore frightened smiles, and Clareese tried to shoot them reassuring looks.”
Right now I’m off to find ZZ Packer’s new short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. I’m counting on her becoming one of the strongest new voices of southern literature, and if all of her stories are as good as the one included in New Stories from the South, I have a real treat in store.
Readers may write her at email@example.com
Sela Ward’s Homesick: A Memoir
Rick Bragg’s All Over But The Shoutin’
Carl Hiassen’s Hoot
Louise Shaffer’s The Three Miss Margarets
Lewis and Peacock'sThe Gift of Southern Cooking
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