Short Takes

By Barbara Fisher
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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By Anthony De Sa
Algonquin, 224 pp., paperback, $13.95

These beautifully connected stories follow Manuel from Sao Miguel, one of the tiny islands in the Portuguese Azores, to Toronto where he goes to seek a better life for himself. In Canada, he struggles to keep his dreams alive, but success eludes him, and his failure to fulfill his own promise drives him to drink and almost to despair.

His son, Antonio, smart and sensitive, wants to admire and respect his father, but sees too clearly his father’s many limitations. The family romance — how the father left home with nothing, went to sea, and was miraculously saved from drowning — governs the lives of mother, daughter, and son. But the son wants none of it; he wants to fit in, wants to eat Swanson TV dinners, have a mother who drives him to summer camp and a father who wears a shirt and tie to work.

The father’s point of view controls the early stories, giving way to the son’s in the new world. A reader begins by sharing Manuel’s powerful vision, then by sharing the son’s childish faith in his father. As the son grows into adolescence, his faith in his father slowly erodes, turning into disappointment, anger, scorn, and pity. A reader shares the son’s disgust. But in the end, a reader has compassion for them both — for the father’s early daring and later lapses and the son’s early love and later dismay. De Sa delicately balances the two points of view, demonstrating that the limited and self-centered vision of the father has not been passed on to his large-souled and empathetic son.

By Jennifer Vanderbes
Scribner, 352 pp., $26

This elegant and thoughtful novel develops its larger generational themes through the members of one family. The older generation, Gavin and Eleanor, embodies the concerns of the ’60s. He fought in Vietnam, returning home to a country that did not value his effort; she, graduating from Wellesley in 1970 and having the choice between domesticity and a career, chose to stay at home.

Their son, Doug, and daughter, Ginny, share none of their parents’ experiences or values. Doug, a real estate developer who callously displaces a black family, cares only about money. Ginny, an academic and single mom, authors a paper on “The Emasculation of the American Warrior” and improperly adopts a 7-year-old mute child from India. The selfish and short-sighted plans of the younger generation go terribly wrong, causing deaths, destruction, anguish and guilt to themselves, their parents, the Indian child, and the black family.

This paradigmatic American story plays out with perfect logic on Thanksgiving Day. Vanderbes has gracefully accomplished the difficult narrative feat of creating a family, which, while emblematic of shifts in the American way of life, is composed of completely realized individuals.

Literature and Social Reflection

By Robert Coles
Random House, 304 pp., $27

To the young, the intended audience, this book may be stimulating, illuminating and even stirring, but to the mature reader it feels condescending, pedantic, and self-consciously moral. Based on his longstanding course, A Literature of Social Reflection, for Harvard undergraduates, these lectures from Robert Coles read like lessons delivered from a wise and learned professor to the young, unformed, and as yet unread.

Coles gives capsule summaries and sympathetic readings to works of literature and art that lead directly to social and moral deliberation. He begins with James Agee, George Orwell, and William Carlos Williams, all men of privilege who observed from differing degrees of distance the lives of the poor. He moves on to Raymond Carver, Tillie Olson, and Edward Hopper, artists who lived the impoverished lives they reported on. Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, and John Cheever, writers who struggled with their own demons, inspire his most humane responses. The works he has chosen to look at all ask in various ways, “How does one live a life? What kind of a life? And for what purpose?” While these are important questions, they are the questions asked most ardently and often by adolescents. For those of us who have asked and, to some extent and with some comfort, answered these questions by living our lives, this book feels like a trip back in time, back to freshman year in college.

Barbara Fisher, a freelance writer who lives in New York, can be reached at bfishershorttakes