Saturday, August 13, 2011

High Tea and Rural Noir- Short Stories by Margaret Drabble and Bonnie Jo Campbell

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman, Margaret Drabble, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011

The short stories collected in A Day in the Life of A Smiling Woman have been assembled from over the course of the author's writing life, beginning in the 1960's. (Drabble is known best for her novels, which I sadly confess I have not read.... yet.)  The stories are very internal, very intelligent, and very elaborate explorations of inner emotional mood and crisis - and thus also sometimes rather intense. All of them were well written, though (and perhaps this is a danger when writing stories that are so internal) some left me caring more than others. My favorites included "The Gifts of War", a very moving story in which idealistic young students challenge a working class mother's purchase of a war toy for her son, and "A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman," in which a woman, facing both the more usual kinds of challenges (unsupportive husband, career, motherhood) and what is a surely a devastating health condition (and resulting inner panic), presses on, maintaining appearances. As a mother, both these stories touched me deeply, the latter in a very visceral way.

American Salvage, stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Wayne State University Press, 2009

There is nothing like having a brand new, complete rave of a novel come out to motivate a reader to catch up on the author's last work that's been sitting and waiting on the to-read list. For me, that work was Bonnie Jo Cambell's short story collection American Salvage (her new novel Once Upon a River has just been released to some breathtaking reviews).

I believe I have heard (seen in a tweet?) Campbell refer to her stories as "rural noir," and that seems to be a fitting description. Her stories are about average, working folks scraping to get by, both emotionally and economically. If you are looking for uplifting, you will need to look elsewhere: her characters are surrounded by poverty, violence, and a very discouraging amount of meth abuse. While I thought all the stories were well worth reading, some are more tautly written than others, some are more emotionally compelling than others. There were a few powerful stories such as "The Solution to Brian's Problem" and "Family Reunion" that really stood out for me as both; others had a quieter, less defined impact. They all linger with me, and I am eagerly awaiting my copy of Once Upon a River.

By the way, LitStack had a fantastic second week!  Lots of wonderful reviews and other bookish news (my reviews this week include Steve Himmer's the bee-loud glade and highlights from Shelf Unbound magazine but there are many other excellent articles)- if you haven't been over to visit yet, please check it out!

Happy reading!


  1. I don't know why, but I'd always assumed American Salvage to be historical fiction. Something about the woman's pose on the cover reminded me of a Depression-era photo of my grandmother as a little girl (though upon closer examination, the cover is very clearly contemporary...), which in turn made me think these were somewhat older, gritty stories. Perhaps it's because it's been so long since I've encountered contemporary fiction that truly dealt with poverty (or that had a rural twist to it)... Either way, seems like an author worth checking out.

  2. That's so interesting- the cover does have that feel to it, like it could be one of those old-fashioned garages or gas stations. There are aging salvage yards and old farmhouses in these stories that do evoke an older time, even though the setting is modern. Hope you get to enjoy them & would love to know what you think if you do!

  3. Those both seem like very interesting books. I like the first cover the most. The second looks oddly interesting. I have never heard of either, but I like the Day in the Life because it is short stories, and i love a good short read.

  4. Hi Lena, thanks so much. Yes that is a very charming cover, isn't it? Both very interesting sort story collections, and so completely different from each other.

  5. I also shared Biblibio's first impression of American Savage but only for seeing it on the page before I read your review.

    Drabble's collection intrigues me mostly for the emotional heaviness you described. People will probably one day dislike my work for being equally internal, I would be curious to see how she works.

  6. Would be so interested to hear what you think of Drabble's stories and whether you see similarities or not. (I usually like internal stories, and still thinking about why some of her stories appealed more than others. Hard to put a finger on.)


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