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Book Reviews

Fathers & Sons: An Anthology

by Alberto Manguel, ed.

Mothers & Daughters: An Anthology

by Alberto Manguel, ed.

While the premise of Alberto Manguel’s silkenly stitched together anthologies seems simple – parents and children – the depth of both books prevents nostalgia or superficiality from fogging the excellence of the 20 short stories in each. Ignore theme and the stories are still hypnotic.

Author Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842, Ethan Canin in 1960. The 100 years of short stories comprising Fathers and Sons wander continents to reveal tension, absence, resentment, and jagged devotion. Though these writers are truly international (four stories are in translation), the cadences and looping sentences seem haunted by Anton Chekhov; plot is Manguel’s main concern, and this slant results in an occasional sameness in the stories’ tone.

So what. The classics Manguel includes – Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and Richard Ford’s “Great Falls,” for example – are revived in the company of lesser-known beauties such as Kenzabur¯o –Oe’s “Aghwee the Sky Monster” and Canin’s “This Year of Getting to Know Us.” Manguel’s astonishing literary wisdom and worldlines, along with his devotion to and knowledge of the short story form, allow him to compile a collection that is immensely powerful. The power, though, does not ever stem from boy/dad clichés (the golf story has no tidy hole-in-one), or from reconciliations and sappy solved problems. These 20 writers do not drive toward simple resolution. For 100 years, it seems, boys have wanted one thing from their fathers: attention.

The stories in Mothers and Daughters are less reliant on plot, slightly darker in style and so more textured. Again, 100 years separates the 20 authors, and yet the characters – moms and girls – in this collection are generally self-serving and flawed. In many of the stories there is an odd emphasis on jealousy between mother and daughter, and unpleasant competition over suitors; mothers are pathetic, absent, sexually repressed. It is tempting to suspect a nasty agenda lurking in Manguel’s choices, since he admits to being a foreigner in the “country of women.” But the stories are so superbly written, and by such a range of writers, it seems more sensible to consider and accept the words of writers such as Carson McCullers, Dorothy Parker, and Angela Carter. These women – and others – suggest that the prevailing script for mother/daughter relationships relies on the tricks and devices of horror.

Manguel includes literary legends such as Katherine Mansfield, Daphne du Maurier, Edith Wharton, and Canada’s Sara Jeannette Duncan. In both collections, readers are urged implicitly to look again at these masters of storytelling – Kafka, Stephen Crane, F. Scott Fitzgerald, too. CanLit is slight but sturdy: Duncan is joined by Bonnie Burnard and Rohinton Mistry. Manguel also includes writers who may be unknown to Canadians and their impressive works are enough to prompt readers to special-order the more obscure titles.

While Manguel is an internationally renowned anthologist, an annoying quirk of his is the notion that each story requires a setup. While his short pieces are occasionally interesting, more often they are gossipy or repetitive, intruding on the story’s power by suggesting standard interpretations.

These 40 stories do not require a factual counterpart or historical context. Together, the anthologies celebrate families, the stutter and stammer linking parents and children. They also laud the short story form and its ability to amplify those conflicts. Most impressive in these volumes is how Manguel leads us compassionately to mourn relationships, to acknowledge and then be done with our own pain, move on.