Parenthood, Cuba and wackiness

Fiction For May

May 20, 2001|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun

A first pregnancy, a child with cancer, a struggling single mother: much of the domestic terrain in Perri Klass' new story collection is familiar, already thoroughly mapped by such writers as Lorrie Moore and Amy Bloom. Yet there are moments in "Love and Modern Medicine" (Houghton Mifflin / Mariner Books, 240 pages, $13, paperback), Klass' fourth book of fiction, that seem brand-new.

In these 11 stories, most of the protagonists are professional women whose confidence is eroded daily by the provocations of motherhood. While love and medicine both make appearances in these tales -- Klass herself is a pediatrician, and some of the women in her book are doctors or scientists -- the stand-out theme here, as Klass writes, is "the most essential lesson of parenthood: the terrible vulnerability of the parent."

Sometimes Klass presents this condition comically, as in "The Province of the Bearded Fathers" ("Cambridge fathers, as far as the eye can see. Beards and blue jeans, academic pallor and witty T-shirts.") In other stories, circumstances are more dire.

"Necessary Risks" features an anesthesiologist who weathers a hurricane during a weekend alone with her chaotic 4-year-old daughter, while "City Sidewalks" follows a divorced mother who finds an abandoned newborn baby on her way to pick up her daughter from day care. By far the best tale, though, is "The Trouble with Sophie," which is funny and dire in equal measure, about the parents of a vividly unconventional preschooler whose teacher suggests the child has serious emotional problems. Klass marvelously evokes this couple's anger, fear, defensiveness and, yes, vulnerability in a story glittering with sharp-edged candor.

The daughter of Cuban parents who fled to Los Angeles in the 1960s, Ana Menendez is a former reporter whose first collection of short fiction chronicles the lives of memory-haunted Cuban exiles in Miami. The title story of "In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd" (Grove Press, 229 pages, $23) features four old men who meet in a park to play dominoes and tell jokes.

At each punch line -- of which the title is one -- there are more tears than laughter, for these jokes are expressions of loss that are only bravely masquerading as humor. Menendez offers many illustrations of exile and displacement among the citizens of Miami, "a city that considers itself too American to be Cuban and too Cuban to be American," in a lilting narrative that sways soulfully between past and present, longing and regret, joy and tragedy.

Anyone who read David Ebershoff's spellbinding 1999 novel, "The Danish Girl," knows of this writer's dark, intense prose style and themes of complex sexuality. His second book, a story collection called "The Rose City" (Viking, 220 pages, $23.95), while rather more unvaryingly solemn than one might wish, nevertheless has the same unsettling power as his novel.

Set mostly in the tidy, conservative city of Pasadena, Calif., Ebershoff's protagonists are boys or young men just beginning to confront their homosexuality. In "The Dress," a 10-year-old boy is caught wearing women's clothes by his horrified father in an affecting tableau of humiliation and rejection. "Regime" tells of a teen-ager who tries to control his sexual feelings by becoming anorexic, while in "Trespass," a boy becomes completely disoriented during his adolescence, learning finally that "passion for us all will remain a troublesome thing."

Patrick Gale, the British author of 10 previous works of fiction, is a very funny writer whose new novel, "Rough Music" (Ballantine, 368 pages, $25), includes a bittersweet dimension. Set at the same beach house in Cornwall, England, the book combines two plots that take place 30 years apart. In the 1960s, young Julian Pagett sets off eagerly for a beach holiday, only to see his family torn apart by the arrival of his uncle and cousin from America. Now, years later, Julian is a 40-year-old bookstore owner embroiled in an impossible love affair with his sister's husband. Meanwhile, his unsuspecting parents have their own problems: his father, a former prison director, is struggling to care for his mother, who is succumbing to Alzheimer's disease.

When the family gathers again for Julian's birthday at the same Cornwall cottage, memories of that long-unmentioned summer are dug up and aired out. Gale shows abundant skill in differentiating between Julian's childish and grown-up voices and in maintaining control over his busy, crowded and ultimately quite poignant narrative.

First-time novelist Jim Kokoris debuts with a hearty comedy about money and its discontents called "The Rich Part of Life" (St. Martin's Press, 327 pages, $24.95). Playing his recently deceased wife's lottery numbers, Theo Pappas, an absent-minded history professor in the Chicago suburbs, collects a $190 million jackpot.

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