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Short and smart
Sure itís hot, but your brain isnít fried
BY NINA MACLAUGHLIN


CALL ME A SNOB, but I hate the concept of beach reads. Why should it be that just because the weather gets warm, our brains go into mush mode? Why should it be that just because weíre tossing hot dogs on the grill, wearing flip-flops, getting sunburned, scratching mosquito bites, watching the Sox, eating outside, drinking outside, rolling into work a few minutes late, getting caught in traffic on the way to the Cape, and shaking sand from our towels, our cerebral cortex canít handle anything more challenging than action thrillers and tales of torrid affairs in the flimsy paperbacks on sale at Star Market? Itís as if, as soon as the mercury rises above 80 degrees, a switch gets flipped in our heads that dims the literary lights. Summer shouldnít mean sacrificing content, quality, or sophistication in what you read.

Thatís not to say there arenít certain books not especially suited to the chunk of time between Memorial and Labor Days. The Sound and the Fury doesnít scream summer; nor does Gogolís Dead Souls. Late May through early September proffers more distractions than do, say, February and March, and, as a result, time and attention spans are necessarily shorter. But the solution isnít volumes of meaningless pap drowned in cliché. When time and attention spans are short, read short: dip into short stories for your summer reading. Below youíll find a selection of new and recent collections that wonít numb your mind and will leave you plenty of time to stare off into the sea.

KELLY LINK has an uncanny knack for casting spells over her readers, for luring them into the dark places ó the attic, the underworld, a realm beneath a hill. Her first collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, was published by Small Beer Press, a tiny independent publisher in Northampton founded by Link and Gavin J. Grant that, according to its Web site, is "committed to publishing short story collections and novels by authors we feel are slipping through the cracks." These stories bend and transcend genre as Link stirs together myth, mystery, horror, and fantasy. Her second collection, Magic for Beginners (Small Beer Press, 272 pages, $24), is due out in July and promises the same mix of the sinister and the surreal. But the stories ó more suggestive than they are descriptive ó shouldnít be pigeonholed as only for sci-fi and fantasy fans. Because for all Linkís use of fairy tale and phantasm, she roots her stories in the life that we know.

The narrator in "The Faery Handbag," for example, tells the story of her grandmotherís magic bag ó a bag so black it feels like "when you stretch out your hand at night, to turn on a light, but all you feel is darkness" ó which if opened correctly leads to a secret realm, and if opened incorrectly leads to a howling, hairless Cerberus-like dog. The story begins in the Garment District, in Kendall Square; thereís a sly reference to the Star Wars prequels; and, beyond the handbag, itís a story of young lost love. Fairy tales and myths may be timeless, but these stories are of this moment. Link will read from Magic for Beginners on June 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Mass Ave, in Cambridge.

While Link borrows from fairy tales and myths, Tennessee Jones borrows from the Boss. Bruce Springsteen released Nebraska in 1982, an album that swerved from his foot-stomping rock to raw, sad, stripped-down acoustic songs saturated with deviants, lowlifes, dirt roads, and desperation. In Deliver Me from Nowhere (Soft Skull Press, 150 pages, $12), Jones, who was born in Appalachia, takes the album and turns the songs into stories one by one. Jonesís stories, like Nebraskaís songs, are spare, melancholy, unrefined. You can almost hear the harmonica wail and almost feel the bump of a truck speeding over a rocky dirt road. Springsteenís "Nebraska," the chilling opening track, is told in the voice of the infamous spree killer Charles Starkweather. Jones tells the story from the perspective of Caril Fugate, Starkweatherís young girlfriend, who rides shotgun as he kills his way through South Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming.

"State Trooper" (the song from which the bookís title is derived), is a speeding story, an escaping story. The narrator "hated those fucking small-town boys for trying to get away from their lives by pretending they didnít care about them. I want to show them how it looks if youíre not pretending, if you really didnít fucking care." Jonesís words are at times more lyrical than Springsteenís. "Fear is a big sword that cuts down everything in its path," he writes. "Time ainít no straight line anymore." Jones will read from Deliver Me from Nowhere on August 10 at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street, in Newton.

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Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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