Book Review: The Shell Collector: Stories


Sometimes you come across an author where you simply cannot read enough of their writing.  Whether it's the writing, the tone of voice, or the remarkable stories, great writing is an inexplicable gift. In my bookworm world, Anthony Doerr is the author for me. As much as I loved Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning book, All The Light We Cannot See, I was even more impressed by Memory Wall Stories, a collection of short stories which stick with me even a year later. His memoir about raising twins in Four Seasons in Rome made me love Italy even more, which is no small feat.

This week, I tackled his first collection of short stories, The Shell Collector: Stories, and I am still ridiculously impressed. While there are underlying themes in these eight stories, each has a tone of its own with characters who are both memorable and compelling.

Of all of the stories, the one which gives the book its title, The Shell Collector, was my favorite. In a mere 30 pages I came to love this blind man who lives on an isolated island in Kenya. The story made me gasp with its turns and has one of the finest written closing paragraphs ever.

As in EVER.

I want to quote it, but I don't want to spoil the joy of those of you who will come to it naturally. I DO hope you'll come to it naturally because the metaphor is so apt for the character and so perfectly summarizes the story that I almost cried.

Hyperbole? Perhaps... but I don't think I could over gush.

The second story in the book is The Hunter's Wife and is aptly told, but with not particularly likeable characters. Still, it's so clever and unexpected I can see why it won the O. Henry prize.

One entrant, A Long Time This Was Griselda's Story, is a fabulously woven tale which makes exactly one point. The characters are expertly crafted:

"In 1979 Griselda Drown was a senior volleyballer at Boise High, a terrifically tall girl with trunky thighs, slender arms and a volleyball serve that won an Idaho State Championship despite T-shirts claiming it was a team effort."

He leads us down the story line in short order with descriptions which both tell us where we are headed and make us want to follow along. I appreciate his economy of words.

"Griselda strode to the rope-gate entrance, the ticket seller's cage, where a dwarfish ticket taker stood on a stool, and Rosemary plodded behind, the foothills of Boise lifting beyond the tent peaks, brown and hazed, into a pale sky.  Griselda dug a pair of wrinkled singles from her pocket and passed them through.

This is how we told Griselda's story, later, in check-out lanes or in the bleachers during volleyball games: two sisters strolling the midway, single file, Griselda in the lead and Rosemary behind."

Can't you see these girls, one tall and athletic, the other slow and plodding?

The riveting stories continue with one particularly haunting tale of a Liberian war refugee and one amusing narrative about  American and British fishermen.

“The Americans fished on, not hoping for much anymore, perhaps for a miracle, searching for small things to be happy about, because they were Americans and this was what their upbringings had taught them to do."

I underlined that line twice, but was equally amused by the rest of the paragraph.

"They found a brief happiness, for example, in the potato chips that came to their rooms on expensive china and in the genuinely hopeful way the hotel girl asked if they’d had any luck. They took pleasure in their morning calls to the Lufthansa man, his wriggly explanations for the canceled flights to Norway. They smiled at the way a church had been built so the setting sun hit it high and perfect and orange, and the way they could follow the river to a park where miniskirted women lay in the grass with headphones clamped over their ears, and even at the way the little student-girls came filing down at noon behind their English-teaching beauty to call them fools.”

I know many of you may not be short story fans, but tackling Doerr's work is a treat.