Reviewer Karen Dahood : Karen lives in Tucson, AZ. After 35 years as a writer for businesses and nonprofits, she has turned to writing mysteries,the subtext of which addresses ageism, unpreparedness for aging, and America's wealth of experience and wisdom. Learn more about eldersleuth Sophie George at the Website Moxie Cosmos; Making Sense of Life Through Writing.
Author: Kurt Stern
Publisher: Grosvenor House Publishing, 2015
Mr. Stern is the “old fashioned” (i.e., familiar) kind of émigré. Born in Germany in 1927, he moved to England with his parents in 1939, then eighteen months later to Argentina, where he lived for 17 years, throughout the Peron regime. By then a married mechanical engineer, he moved with his wife to Bogota, Columbia where they stayed for eight years before returning to Cologne in 1965, then to London in 1980. He has since taken up story writing as a hobby, his intention (note the title) to keep readers from getting bored.
This he does by relating funny little incidents he says have grown out of his “phantasy.” At first I wondered if they weren’t taken from real life, perhaps expansions on tiny, human interest news notes collected from inside pages over the years. Unexpected turns of events, human foibles, life’s absurdities. But believable. This led me to thinking about what separates short stories from “sketches.” Since Stern has a breadth of places to describe, he might be inclined to sketches, intriguing and revealing. He could be content to provide insights to different cultures, not to mention several eras (after all, he is eighty-eight). Yet he says in his prologue that he is looking for universal traits.
In short stories, something has to happen. The reader must be moved. At first, his stories puzzled me, more than anything. I looked back over my highlights and concentrated on Stern’s ways of stirring emotions. In “Brazil,” he takes us to a forest, “an all embracing environment of giant proportions.” That scene does not reveal anything; it conceals what next might happen. Another tale cites the popularity of magicians in London, most specifically, a Chinese performer known for walking on water and conducting mass hypnotism. This illusionist happens to live where a Member of Parliament known for his controversial activism jumped from the fifth floor and disappeared. The illusion of the incident is repeated twice without finding his body. Eventually, and disturbingly, it is discovered by the riverbank, broken in many places. Reading this, the relationship between China and England was on my mind with the recent visit of President Xi Jinping to the United Kingdom (to cement business deals). But what were relations at the time the story took place? By snooping around the Internet I found out relations have been mixed (or I don’t understand them) and that the most famous “Chinese” magician to appear on London stages was an American. From that I deduce that trying to discover authors’ political motives is an endless road. I think if Mr. Stern were not so interesting himself, it wouldn’t matter. But I confess I Googled and found an address for him in Marylebone, near Wigmore Hall, The Wallace Collection, and Harley Street doctors. He was a director of a property listing firm from 2005-2013. Real Estate was just hotting up when he quit. (I am shamelessly curious!)
Other stories, sans politics, are just plain quirky; nudists go to a costume party; an expert in virtual reality sky dives and becomes drug-addicted. Stern tells horror stories. He’s cynical. He notes sheer irresponsibility.
Another question Stern’s collection provoked in me: What do short stories achieve that a novel can’t do for us? There’s the obvious: saves time. Truth be told, there are periods when I can concentrate only on the shorter form. This often happens between Thanksgiving and Christmas, on nights when I fall into bed exhausted but in need of that separation from life’s petty issues that fiction provides. But how does a short story work? Currently, I am thinking: A novel operates on our senses and our reason by a drawn out process of laying the groundwork of setting and characterization, and gradually unfolds a challenging plot. Also, there has to be a common ground, between writer and reader. Often that is an understanding of history, or a willingness to understand history.
Short stories, not so much. I could not engage with Stern on English/Chinese diplomacy. I do engage with him on the demographics of London. His most timely story takes place in an apartment building in northeast London where two inhabitants manage to preserve a microcosmic United Nations.
Finally, I conclude, that his effect on me was that of a charismatic new acquaintance. Stern pushed me one step beyond where I intended to go. Sometimes he deploys one-upmanship. Sometimes he points and says, “Look at that!” It’s totally different to reading a novel or nonfiction. It takes a rush of energy, and it’s exhilarating! Tired as I am.