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Forms of Devotion: Stories and Pictures

by Diane Schoemperlen

Be warned: despite the old-fashioned type face, the woodcuts, the prayer-book layout and the title, Diane Schoemperlen’s Forms of Devotion is not the sort of book you’d find in the dusty bookcase of your most religious aunt. But like the devotional guides and the instruction manuals it echoes, this extremely funny and clever book should be read slowly, perhaps one story a day. That way the pleasure will last longer. The underlying seriousness will be more apparent too.

Schoemperlen has played with literary conventions in earlier work. For example, “None of the Above” in her 1990 collection The Man of My Dreams is a story told in multiple choice answer form, while her novel In the Language of Love consists of 100 chapters, some several pages long, others not much more than a dictionary definition.

This time she shakes up the reader’s expectations in every story.

The title piece is a consideration of the attributes of the faithful. It is divided into seven parts that bring to mind the seven deadly sins or the seven cardinal virtues: faith, memory, knowledge, innocence, strength, prayer, and abundance. It is not a paean to virtue, however, but an ironic reflection on the difficulty of living in a dangerous world.

“On Looking Further into the Bodies of Men,” full of sharp, wickedly funny observations, made this reader laugh out loud while “How to Write a Serious Novel about Love” made me both nod in appreciation of the love story told and wonder if it couldn’t be usefully studied in a creative writing class.

Also memorable is “How Deep Is the River?” which turns the conventions of math problems (Train A and Train B travelling between City X and City Y) into a meditation on destiny.

To be sure, a couple of the stories are less successful. The book as a whole, however, can be reread with as much profit and far more pleasure than a devotional text. And the last line of the first story really is the kind of thing you might do well to remember in tough times: “The faithful lean steadily into the wind.”