Occasionally, we get the opportunity to share our thoughts on the outside work of our past contributors, as well as other projects that we think would interest readers of A cappella Zoo. To send something for possible review, especially new work relevant to magic realism and slipstream, email us at editorATacappellazoo.com.
Short and flash fiction by Tania Hershman. Salt Publishing, 2008.
Over the years, I’ve made an effort to become more aware of short stories and why readers tend to either love or ignore them; I’ve fallen for two types of experiences:
The first type was easy to recognize and crave: that quick pow of an image or feeling that lingers long after an investment of only minutes of reading. When I first read Tania Hershman’s The White Road and other stories, I did not feel that pow. I confess the collection bored me, and later I remembered only two or three of the longer, more developed stories.
The good news is that by the time I plucked the collection from my shelf again, I was much more open to another type of short story experience: the brief, in-the-moment pleasure that comes from beautiful prose. The White Road became engrossing on second read. The even better news is that the allure of this pleasure warmed me up to some major pows that I had somehow missed a year before.
Now I can whole-heartedly recommend these stories.
As editor/publisher Alan Rinzler has said, “Short stories are easy to digest, and can provide a little emotional sparkle or epiphany in one quick take. That’s particularly true in these busy techno multi-tasking, attention-deficit times, with readers seeking the revealing, surprising, twisting, inspiring or ironical dose of feelings that can illuminate the truth about their lives.”
Hershman certainly accomplishes in these twenty-seven quick tales what Rinzler claims we readers love about short fiction. The weakest of these stories only made me smile. Only? A five-minute read is well worth a smile in my book.
Even still, let’s look at a story that really burst with payoff. I’ll skip the titular story, “The White Road,” which has received plenty of well-deserved press and praise. I’ll even skip “Rainstiffness,” my personal favorite, since you can read an excerpt here. Instead, I’ll focus on “Self Raising,” delightfully subtle in its magic and sober in its realism. And speaking of techno times, this story, like many from The White Road, begins with a quotation from New Scientist. These intros seem to be appropriate for our technical age—and for a former science journalist like Hershman—and they add an illuminating perspective to these already surprisingly complex stories. "Self Raising" in particular juggles this and other layers, hopping with ease between action and back story, cakes and chemistry. Not all experiments result in such successful and digestible storytelling, proving Hershman to be a true athlete of prose:
“I make them out of flour, sugar, eggs, like you would any cake. But they’re not any cake, they’re lab coats and test tubes, DNA and petri dishes, just like in Science at school, when I used to get things right and the teacher would say, Excellent, Madeleine, that’s exactly what happens when magnesium oxidises, and he’d smile at me and I’d grin at him, and the rest of them’d laugh and throw things and call me Swot…”
The tension is already set to fester between the science of Madeleine’s promising past, and the art she’s had to settle for. This develops further in the first of a series of deliciously layered vignettes, which are integrated throughout the story:
“The Lab Coat: chocolate cake, marzipan, chocolate buttons. Marvellous, they said to me, sent photos from the party, showed the professor cutting it, cutting my cake, all the scientists standing watching, while he’s slicing into it, right down the middle, right through its heart.”
Like Hershman’s other stories, “Self Raising” is worthwhile because of the author’s skills in doing a lot with little, in fleshing out characters, and in balancing the event of the story with the frame of its context. Her stories almost never rely on her uniquely clever ideas as a crutch. They’re honest and daring, particularly in their depictions of womanhood and motherhood. They pin down the human experience with emotional precision, sometimes even giving that memorable pow with the pleasure of the read.
Tania Hershman knew she was doing the literary community a favor when she started The Short Review, which provides a much-needed space for reviews of short story collections. Now she gives even more with a highly worthwhile collection of her own. I rarely read a book twice, but this collection merits yet a third read.
—Colin Meldrum, editor, A CAPPELLA ZOO
Tania Hershman has contributed two flash stories to A cappella Zoo: "We keep the wall between us as we go" in our debut issue and "Einstein Plays Guitar" in Issue 5. Hershman has become widely published and awarded and much of her work can be read or even listened to from her website.