A short story collection? Nothing in those three little words makes my heart beat any faster. Been there. Read that. Okay, so how about a short story collection involving big names like Linda Sue Park, Nick Hornby, Gregory Maguire, Roddy Doyle, and others? Again, nothing too new, but now you’ve peaked my interest a little. I’m warily sniffing about the idea. Finally, the capper. It’s not just a short story collection. It’s a bunch of stories that begin with a single tale and then branch off into a number of different directions. With that, my friends, I am sold on the idea. But wait, there’s more! What if the money from this book went to Amnesty International? If the writing were halfway decent you wouldn’t be able to tear me away from the book, I suppose. The good news? Not only is the writing decent, and not only are the stories moving, but the book holds together shockingly well. Shockingly.
The first story sets the tone. In Linda Sue Park’s tale, “Maggie,” Gee is dead. He was Maggie and Jason’s grandfather and worked as a photojournalist, traveling the world. After every grand adventure their grandpa would come back to Maggie and tell her the stories of who he had seen and why he shot their pictures. Now Gee is dead and Maggie can’t reconcile herself to this loss. Even though he’s left her a puzzle of a last gift, she hardly has the heart to give it the appropriate amount of attention. When at last she does, she finds a beautiful little carved box full of seashells. Seven seashells, in fact, with instructions to “Throw them all back.” So begins “Click”. From here on in, nine other authors pick up Park’s story and run with it. Some of them are far more interested in Gee and his adventures around the globe. Others stick closer to home, looking at Maggie’s family and how they mature over weeks, months, and years. And some stories offer a balance of both, showing both familiar and strange faces along the way. The result is a well-rounded series of tales, all that happen to begin and end with the mysterious man who preferred to be known as Gee.
In a way, I would have loved a bit of end matter discussing the degree to which the authors in this book played off of one another. An interview with the authors, perhaps. We know that they all read Ms. Park’s initial story and worked from there but to what extent did they ever read one another’s stories? Did they discuss ideas to avoid crossover? Did they like what the other authors were coming up with and played off of one another as a result? At first glance this may not appear to be the case, but there were several stories with facts that appeared in one creation only to pop again in the next.
Because the stories flow into one another without any mention of the author’s names (except at the beginning in the Table of Contents) you sometimes forget that more than one writer is working on this book. Sometimes. Other times an author’s style is so distinctive and biting that you could guess their identity by their prose alone. Listen to this sentence: “There were stares and glares, and pondering and wondering, and medicines and needles, and much talk coming out of many flapping mouths, and much black writing written on much white paper.” A closer look at the location of the story alongside the quality of the writing and it’s little surprise that this is the work of David Almond. Maybe you’d have more fun reading the book through without constantly glancing back at the list of authors, but I could never do that. And everyone puts in the time. That’s nice. I guess the strongest recommendation I can offer is that there isn’t a story here I’ve forgotten. At the same time, I can’t really pluck out my favorite. I mean, it’s impossible. Perhaps I inclined the most towards with Roddy Doyle and his humor. After all, it’s hard to compete with a writer who conjures up a grandmother that started mourning her husband two years before he actually died.
Admittedly, it doesn’t always work perfectly. Maggie can seem older in an earlier story and then younger later. Jason’s fun, then a punk, and then finally wise. Stories that take place in the future inform you of the fact with a kind of bop-you-over-the-head method. And at the beginning of the book we’re told how important the telling of stories is. Then in a later tale the grown Maggie berates her great-niece for “tell[ing] stories.” It seems inconsistent more than anything else. Also, I was left wanting after reading Gregory Maguire’s final story. It wasn’t that he didn’t wrap things up. He did. But he offers us a vision of the future that is surprisingly bleak. It doesn’t taint the rest of the book, nor is it a bad story. It’s a perfectly good tale, all told. It just has a darkness to it that leaves the reader feeling a little morose. It’s a world where photography is an art of the past, people are constantly monitored, and Maggie’s now a dying dowager with a great-niece for company.
Always fun to guess what the publisher thinks the age range is on this kind of thing. Now there are some mentions of extra-marital affairs and some mild violence (though the guy who gets his big toe stuck in his ear is probably a lot more memorable than the slaps anyone else endures). Scholastic is saying it’s 12 and up. 12 and up is probably a very good range, now that I think about it. Younger kids won’t get all the references in this book, but there’s certainly something here for everyone to enjoy. I’ve read a lot of short stories in my day, and when they remain as impossible to dislodge from my brain as these are, you know somebody’s doing something right. A lovely collection.
(CONTINUED IN PART TWO)