“Hammam” by Carol Anshaw

Carol Anshaw

The Best American Short Stories 1994


One of the reasons I enjoy reading short fiction so much is because of the way authors make the reader jump right into a story and then a little bit later, jump back out. “Hammam” is a good example of this technique and I’m left wondering what will become of the three characters Carol Anshaw has sketched for me.

Carmen has been dating Rob for a few months and now she’s on a trip to Paris with him. Rob, a troubleshooter for a chain of hair salons, is on the trip to check on the Paris franchises. Accompanying them is Heather, Rob’s passive-aggressive and closed-up teenage daughter, who is taking time off from school because of an “ailment” that Carmen suspects is an eating disorder.

Before Rob leaves for a meeting, he asks Carmen to spend the afternoon with Heather. “Don’t make it look as though we’ve talked, as though you’re chaperoning. Just…if you could pretend to be interested. Whatever it is.” Carmen groans to herself, knowing they won’t be going to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, that Heather will be choosing something different and edgy from her Hip Pocket Guide to Paris.

Heather picks a hammam, a Turkish steam bath, “probably the worst idea…out of all the terrible ideas in her guidebook” and Carmen, who is painfully modest, wonders how she will manage with just a small towel in a bath full of strangers.

Something different happens, however. Carmen’s apprehension fades when she sees Heather’s shockingly bony frame which has been hidden under a defensive arrangement of black leather and jeans. As they move through the sauna rooms, Carmen watches Heather disappear in the steam and for a few moments they are lost from the world in the depths of the hammam. A strange connection between them results, something Carmen views as a beginning.

It’s a loose bond that seems forgotten at dinner, however, where Heather’s food issues are most obvious. An awkward conflict results and Rob must take sides. Despite Rob’s efforts to keep the three of them together, the dinner and the story end with a big question mark.

Anshaw provides just enough character details to leave them on the edge of a situation and now it’s up to the reader to finish the story. I like that!

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Reading update – All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot see

I’m busy reading All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr and I already know that this will become one of my favorite books. I’m about 100 pages in and, when I have to put it down, all I can think about is the characters Doerr has created, what they will do and what will happen to them.

To show you what I mean, here are a few lines that make me want to keep reading:

In another half second her father’s hands are in her armpits, swinging her up, and Marie-Laure smiles, and he laughs a pure, contagious laugh, one she will try to remember all her life, father and daughter turning in circles on the sidewalk in front of their apartment house, laughing together while snow sifts through the branches above. (p. 41)

And yet everything radiates tension, as if the city has been built upon the skin of a balloon and someone is inflating it toward the breaking point. (p. 70)

In her coat against the black trees, her face looks paler and more frightened than he has ever seen it. Has he ever asked so much of her? (p. 108)

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What’s up next? All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

all the light we cannot seeAll the Light We Cannot See
Anthony Doerr

I’m very excited to begin reading All the Light We Cannot See. I have been on the library’s waiting list for six months and I finally made it to the top!

In case you missed last week’s Pulitzer Prize announcements, Doerr’s book won this major prize for fiction. To see all the winners and some interesting facts about the award and about Joseph Pulitzer, check out my April 21 blog post, “2015 Pulitzer Prize winners announced.”

Here’s a nice preview of the book from Amazon:

From the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).`

Click on this link to see what Doerr thinks about winning the 2015 Pulitzer Prize.

And be sure to visit Anthony Doerr’s website and his biography page:

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Patrick Modiano wins 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature

 French novelist Patrick Modiano. Photograph: AP
French novelist Patrick Modiano. Photograph: AP

The decision is in and the prestigious Nobel Prize in Literature has been awarded to Patrick Modiano. Modiano, from Paris, is 69 years old and is the eleventh French writer to win. The prize is worth 8 million kronor, which is $1.1 million or £700,000. The Nobel Academy awarded the prize to Modiano: “For the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Modiano’s father had Jewish and Italian roots. His mother was a Belgian actress. His parents met during the German occupation of Paris and Modiano was born two months after the end of World War II. He often writes about Jews during the Nazi occupation and about the loss of identity, themes that occur in La Place de l’Etoile, published in 1968.

Peter Englund, the Nobel Academy’s permanent secretary, has this to say about Modiano:

Patrick Modiano is a well-known name in France but not anywhere else. He writes children’s books, movie scripts but mainly novels. His themes are memory, identity and time.

His best known work is called Missing Person. It’s the story about a detective who has lost his memory and his final case is finding out who he really is; he is tracing his own steps through history to find out who he is.

Englund adds that Modiano’s books “are always variations of the same theme – memory, loss, identity, seeking. Those are his important themes: memory, identity, and time.”

The Swedish Academy nominated 210 writers this year. Twenty made it to the secret long list and five to the committee’s short list. There was much outside speculation about who was being considered, and several writers’ names came up as possible winners, including Ngugi wa Thiong’o, from Kenya, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami and the Belarussian journalist Svetlana Aleksijevitj.

There are lots of articles online today about Modiano, but I think the best one is from The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/09/patrick-modiano-wins-nobel-prize-for-literature

You can also check out what The New York Times says here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/books/patrick-modiano-wins-nobel-prize-in-literature.html?_r=0

If you speak French or German, you can get La Place de L’Etoile on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=la%20place%20de%20l%27etoile

Missing Person is available in English on Amazon:


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“Babylon Revisited” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Babylon Revisited
“Babylon Revisited”
F. Scott Fitzgerald


When Charlie Wales returns to Paris, it’s a very different place. Only a few stragglers of the Lost Generation remain. Charlie proclaims he’s a changed man. He’s lived recklessly and lost everything and his wife is dead.  Now he has returned to reclaim his nine-year-old daughter from his sister-in-law and her husband, who have been raising her. Once again financially sound, Charlie proclaims to take only one drink a day, a trick he says he uses to keep himself sober.

This is an excellent short story. Fitzgerald describes the reckless days of Americans living in Paris during the Jazz Age, and the regrets Charlie faces when he returns. Despite Charlie’s earnest demeanor, you’re not quite sure about him. When you hear about his earlier years in Paris, including how he locked his wife out of their apartment during a snow storm, it’s hard not to consider this past. And when his drunken, partying friends seek him out, you’re not sure he will resist.

I really love reading about messy situations and flawed characters. This story, like much of Fitzgerald’s fiction, is based on experiences in his own life. He has a great talent for describing these complicated relationships and painful pasts. And, despite a feeling of ruin, there’s somehow hope in Charlie’s future.

Like all short stories by great authors, “Babylon Revisited” is a terrific way to sample and enjoy classic writing. It was first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1931.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald

F. Scott Fitzgerald is widely viewed as one of the greatest American writers in the 20th century. He is also considered a member of the Lost Generation and wrote much of his fiction during the Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age is a term he coined and represents the reckless nature of these times. “Babylon Revisited” was adapted into the 1954 movie The Last Time I Saw Paris, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Van Johnson.

In addition to many short stories, Fitzgerald completed four novels: This Side of Paradise (1920); The Beautiful and the Damned (1922); The Great Gatsby (1925); andTender Is the Night (1934). The Love of The Last Tycoon (1941), an unfinished novel, was published after his death.

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