Short takes

February 6, 2011

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By Robb Forman Dew
Little, Brown, 304 pp., $24.99

In “Being Polite to Hitler,” Robb Forman Dew revisits a character from two previous novels, Agnes Scofield of Washburn, Ohio, a town seemingly populated almost entirely by members of Agnes’s extended family. Anchored mainly in the 1950s, the novel occasionally jumps backward or forward in time. The author has imagined an entire past and future for characters major and minor, and she periodically distributes tantalizing morsels thereof.

The inner life of women, and of Agnes in particular, is Dew’s subject matter, along with its corollary, the relentless littleness of daily life. The novel develops in exquisite detail the pressures of preparing a big-family, small-town Christmas; the nurturing of pets, often so much more rewarding than nurturing one’s fractious family; and other minutiae. Larger events — Central High in Little Rock, Ark., is integrated, Russia’s Sputnik shockingly penetrates the heavens — register briefly, usually in the consciousness of others well outside the novel’s immediate social circle.

Arch yet affecting, conventionally realistic one moment, metafictionally ironic the next, and leisurely to the point of outright eccentricity, the narrative defies easy characterization. Very little seems to happen, except for much of mid-century American reality.

WHILE MORTALS SLEEP: Unpublished Short Fiction By Kurt Vonnegut
Delacorte, 272 pp., $27

With high hopes one takes in the subtitle: “Unpublished Short Fiction’’ by Kurt Vonnegut. Those hopes get a rude awakening. These are not story ideas the Hoosier sage was noodling with at the time of his death in 2007 but early, generic efforts that should be approached with suitably modest expectations.

They come to us from another era in more than one respect, as the foreword by Dave Eggers points out. First, this was the period shortly after World War II, when popular magazines were ravenous for short stories and yet these remained unpublished. The era is also remote from us in sensibility. These pieces date from a time when men were men and women were girls, or crones, with a short stopover in between as rapacious harridans. One after another of these tales from Vonnegut’s apprentice period ends with a clang, squashing flat whatever was emerging as charming or subtle.

What strikes the reader most is the distance in terms of more than years that the author of these formulaic fables had to travel to become Kurt Vonnegut, Superstar.

By Bradford Morrow,
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320 pp., $26

Not getting cold chills enough from the winter weather? Try this atmospheric thriller by Bradford Morrow. Its narrator, Cassandra Brooks, is a dowser, a water witch, a useful if spooky skill that runs in her family. At times of stress, however, when what she calls her “monster” is upon her, Cassandra’s paranormal gifts take a darker turn, assailing her with frightful visions and hallucinations.

No sooner does the novel open than Cassandra comes upon a horrifying sight, the corpse of a young girl hanging in the forest. When she returns with the sheriff’s men, the corpse is gone. Or was it never there to begin with? A female diviner and unapologetic single mother with a history of mental instability, Cassandra is already a near-pariah in her rural hometown. As a shadowy figure begins to stalk her, Cassandra’s second sight tells her there is a monster on the loose, and that she is in danger. But who will believe her?

In addition to scaring the daylights out of us, “The Diviner’s Tale” stands up for the offbeat and unconventional in human nature, though ironically the novel becomes progressively more conventional as it makes its case.

Amanda Heller, a critic and editor who lives in Newton, can be reached at