Astray
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44 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2012
Emma Donoghue gets into the heads and hearts of her characters as few other writers do. In "Astray," her new short story collection, she adopts the points of view of a wide range of characters in different eras, places and circumstances. Memorable characters include a Calamity Jane-like woman in the American West who retrieves an errant husband out on a bender; a Creole girl who has a dramatic coming of age in antebellum Louisiana; a trainer who bonded with Jumbo before the circus elephant was shipped off from England; and a young Hessian soldier compelled to prove his `manhood' while serving with the British army in New Jersey in 1776.

In a revealing Afterword, Donoghue says the idea for "Astray" came from her own experience as a two-time emigrant. She moved from her native Dublin to England for higher education, and from England to Canada for love and a family. She knows what it feels like to be a "stray" or "astray," and tells the stories of dozens of characters who are either departing, in transit or arriving at some destination, whether a physical place or a key point in their lives. The 14 stories are divided into those three categories: Departures, In Transit, and Arrivals and Aftermaths.

Each story is based on a historical person or event Donoghue uncovered in some old newspaper or archive. She brings these people and events to life by imagining their backstories and motivations. Many of the stories are told in the first person, and she is particularly adept at inhabiting the characters' psyches and expressing their feelings in the dialects, idioms and cadences of their time, place and culture.

I found "Counting the Days" and "The Lost Seed" especially good. "Counting the Days" is about a family fleeing the Irish famine of the 1840s. It juxtaposes the thoughts of an anxious wife crossing the Atlantic with the struggles of her husband who has gone before and is awaiting her in Quebec. "The Lost Seed" is quite different, a rather unpleasant but powerful tale of self-hatred and hypocrisy in Plymouth Colony in the 1630s.

Although Donoghue has been published since the mid-1990s, I had the pleasure of discovering her work in just the past year and have devoured most of her books. Her range is remarkable. Her novels, short stories, fairy tales and academic volumes are written with a clarity that makes them accessible to all readers. Whether dead serious or light in tone (there are some laugh-out-loud stories and a great piece of erotica in her collection Touchy Subjects), Donoghue never fails to be both entertaining and insightful. Slammerkin is as perfect a novel as has ever been written and is increasingly recognized as a modern classic. Room: A Novel is a thriller with great depth, an epic of survival and a profound ode to motherhood.

In the Afterword to "Astray," Donoghue says that Charles Dickens is her favorite novelist. I'm not surprised. Her prose is actually leaner than his, but in all the essentials she matches the master: great plotting, rich characters and a blazing moral intelligence. All are evident in "Astray."
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2012
This is one of the best story collections I have ever read. I would almost suggest this: read the "Afterword" first. The stories are varied, very varied. And each is based upon actual incidents. The opening story is fascinating, about a man who saves an elephant from cruetly. Then there's a story about exhuming Abraham Lincoln's body for the purposes of extortion. One of my favorites--and I laughed all the way through it--is "The Lost Seed," set in 1639 in the Plymouth Colony. Richard Berry narrates his angst about not finding himself a bride. It is just so funny. And then there is the last story about a lesbian couple, artists, one white, one black, now living in an assisted living situation where one has Alzheimer's. It is so touching. Ms. Donoghue has such a range of styles. This is a book I will be giving as a gift. There is absolutely no way that a serious reader could give this wonderful book a low rating.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2012
Donoghue's new book Astray is about voyages, the voyages we take when migrating to a new life, a new country, or a new beginning. As an immigrant herself, Donoghue really captures the mindset of the transient wandering into a new land and becoming someone else. Her stories are based on facts taken from archives of people from as early as the 1800s and even Jumbo the elephant who went abroad to America in 1882, which was by far the most touching story. The book is comprised of short fictionalized accounts of these voyages and for the most part are well written. Do not expect any major character development (as they are short stories) and the book, a mere 288 pages, was a fast read. Great book for a book club, but it's not unforgettable.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on November 5, 2012
Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel ROOM is one of the more devastating works of fiction of the past 10 years. The deceptively simple story of a modern-day woman raising her five-year-old son while never leaving an 11-by-11 room builds quiet power not only because of its unique premise but also because of Donoghue's talent for giving out just enough detail to create suspense. It's a brilliant performance.

Her follow-up book, ASTRAY, is similar to its predecessor only in its focus on characters who live on the periphery of society. The 14 stories in ASTRAY are mini-works of historical fiction, tales that occur in cities throughout England, Canada and the United States. From "The Lost Seed," a tale set on Cape Cod in 1639, to "What Remains," a portrait of a lesbian couple in old age set in Ontario in 1968, the stories collected here are about people like the protagonists in ROOM --- outsiders who are detached from their surroundings.

Donoghue uses actual events as the inspiration for each of these pieces. At the end of each story, she describes the sources on which she based her narrative. "Man and Boy" is the tale of Matthew Scott, the man who from 1851 to 1882 was the keeper of Jumbo the elephant at the London Zoological Society. When Scott learns that P.T. Barnum has purchased Jumbo and wants to bring the animal to America, Scott has to coax Jumbo out of his sit-down strike while at the same time hiding his own sadness over his friend's distress. Donoghue tells us that she based her story on reports from the Times of London and on two books, WILD ANIMALS IN CAPTIVITY (1898) and AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MATTHEW SCOTT, JUMBO'S KEEPER (1885). She then fills in details that her story leaves out, such as Scott's success at finally getting Jumbo into a crate and their four years together as part of Barnum's troupe.

This is the pattern throughout the book: a snippet of history followed by an explanatory note. One of its virtues is the range of stories Donoghue tells. "Onward" is about a 33-year-old woman named Caroline who sees gentlemen "visitors" at her home to help support her brother and toddler daughter. Her brother writes to "a distinguished gentleman" who takes an interest in helping people in such dire financial circumstances. Only in the author's note do we learn that this man was Charles Dickens, and that he paid to send Caroline to Canada to start a better life.

In "Last Supper at Brown's," set in Texas in 1864, a slave learns that his master plans to exchange him for calves. The master's wife, who hates her husband, suggests poisoning his dinner and running off with the slave. "The Body Swap" is a fictionalized account of the attempted theft of Lincoln's body from his tomb in Illinois's Oak Ridge Cemetery in 1876. And "The Long Way Home" is about Mollie Molloy, a woman who dresses as a man and is hired to return a drunken Arizona prospector to the pregnant wife he has abandoned.

Donoghue is one of the more lyrical authors writing today. The most satisfying aspects of ROOM were her empathy for her characters and her ability to dig deep into each character's personality and make us feel their internal struggles. All of these new stories feature her lyrical prose. The best of them, including "Veritas," in which a young woman becomes obsessed with the circumstances behind the death of a cousin, and the aforementioned "What Remains," in which an elderly sculptor copes with the mental decline of her longtime partner, are nuanced explorations of heartbreak and loss.

Many of the stories in ASTRAY feel thin, however. All too often, Donoghue sets up a premise and then abandons the story when the tension is about to mount. One could argue that the drama in the real-life tale of "Man and Boy" lies not in the attempt to get Jumbo onto the ship bound for America but the circumstances that befall him and Scott after they leave England. Donoghue stops the story as soon as Jumbo is in his crate. She does the same throughout, giving us sketches rather than fleshed-out narratives. But it's clear that Donoghue is playing with the genre of historical fiction, which she has already mastered in books such as SLAMMERKIN. ASTRAY is an assemblage of beautiful prose and fascinating premises, an experimental combination of fiction and history.

Reviewed by Michael Magras
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
As quoted from Virgil,the characters in these stories have left their homes to find varying degrees of sanctuary in another world. Each story is matched with its historical inspiration. I found some stories resonated with me more than others. In particular, I was struck by the story of a woman forced into "middle class" prostitution by the death of her parents. She seeks a new start for herself, her brother, and her daughter. Other nominees would be a young Creole girl yearning for Paris and a young woman joining her fiancé who does not know he is dying of typhus.
The stories present very simply, but this can be deceptive. After closing the book, I find myself pondering the future for these characters. A character to tease my mind is high praise for me. A book that drives one by the wind is always a good choice.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
ASTRAY

I have recently become a big fan of the short story and this book does not fail to entertain. Told in a different tempo, full of unique yarns, this collection of fourteen shorts is a definite must read.

What Emma Donoghue did was write short stories based upon newspaper clippings, old letters, documents, etc from the past. She magically reconstructs and fabricates stories -- based on honest to goodness facts -- and wrote some of the best, exciting, wonderful stories I have ever had the joy to read.

All of them hold a special place in my heart -- they are just that soulful and compassionate -- but a few of my extra special favorites are --

COUNTING THE DAYS -- A husband ventures to America before bringing his beloved family over. He wants to get a home, work, get established. Lines were taken verbatim from thirteen letters that were written by Henry Johnson and Jane McConnell Johnson. Each paragraph jumps from his thoughts to her thoughts, ping-ponging back and forth, telling their story. This tale takes place in the 1840's.

DADDY'S GIRL -- Minnie Hall tells her story regarding the death of her father. Or is he her father? Secrets have been kept and hidden well, and now Minnie just doesn't know what is what and/or who is who. This story is based on the life of Murray Hall who was born in 1831 and passed in 1901. Nothing about Murray Hall is what it seems. And his poor daughter, Minnie, is at a loss. What was her father?

VANITAS -- Told by fifteen year old Aimee who is being raised on a plantation in the late 1830's in Louisiana. She finds a treasure chest in the attic and what's inside is a shocking surprise. Aimee wants to get to the bottom of her cousin's death and what really happened to her young relative. When she finally gets her answer -- at the expense of other people -- Aimee -- and YOU -- are very startled!

Like I said, each story was great and unique. The concept upon with Donoghue wrote these shorts was pure genius. After each story there is a page with an explanation of facts surrounding that story. I read THAT page first before each story as it enlightened that story and gave me background. Also, I looked up every character involved in each story and found information on them. Donoghue writes with grace, wit, and a true sense of the human factor. Her words are smooth and flowing. In each story she catches the true essence of the time period and characters involved.

This is a book full of short stories that are exciting, interesting, and full of a real sense of the human heart and soul -- and that's a fact.

Be sure to read this book by an amazing author -- Emma Donoghue -- she also wrote ROOM and SLAMMERKIN, just to name a few.

Thanks.

Pam
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2012
Even though I read reviews on this book before buying it, the subject matter was still such a pleasant surprise. Emma Donoghue, to me, is a literary genius--same as I feel about Wally Lamb. She took newspaper and/or written events from yesteryear and concocted a dialogue between the characters that could have transpired leading up to the recorded event. The conversations she created are perfect and so real that you want to believe that this is what actually happened beforehand.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
I started this book in the wonderful sound recording, its stories read by a variety of different performers. My long car trip over, I then read the second half in print. Both forms are marvelous, the recording especially confirming the variety of Donoghue's voice. Five of the fourteen stories are in the first person; two others are told through letters; the remainder vary in style according to their place and period, everything from Puritan New England in 1639 to Ontario in 1967, with side trips to Dickensian London and antebellum French Louisiana. It is not surprising that the recording needed multiple readers, British and American, male and female; Donoghue's writing has all this range and more.

For what she has done is to hunt through old civic records, letters, and works of history to find parallels to her own situation as an emigrant. (A double emigrant, actually, moving from Ireland to London first, and thence to the New World; exactly the pattern of my own journey, as it happens.) She is interested in the liminal nature of emigration, the special conditions that drive us to it, and our ambiguous situation upon arrival, being at the same time both acute observers and ignorant outsiders. Many of her stories are also spiritual journeys. As she writes in her Afterword: "Straying has always had a moral component as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you are far from home?"

The stories are grouped in three sections. The first, headed "Departures," blasts off like a double-barreled shotgun: a cockeyed conversation between the keeper at the London Zoo and his charge, the first elephant imported by PT Barnum, and a heartbreakingly sensitive account of an orphaned young woman forced into genteel prostitution in order to bring up her younger brother. The middle section, "In Transit," is less focused, but I was especially moved by the story of an Irish wife sailing to join her husband in Canada (touching on the same ground as Andrea Barrett's SHIP FEVER, which I reviewed recently), and by the series of letters tracing a mother's attempts to find news of her daughter given up for adoption in New York and eventually sent all the way to Iowa. The final section, "Arrivals and Aftermaths," contains two of the strongest stories of all: a complaint by an early Puritan of the licentiousness in the Plymouth Colony, while remaining totally blind to the flaws in his own character, and "The Hunt," a beautiful and terrible story of a lonely teenage conscript in the Hessian army fighting against the Revolution, whose first experience of love is sullied by inevitable betrayal.

This last story is up for a major prize, as well it should be, for Donoghue has the essential gift of making her characters come to life on the page. Historical though they may be, the stories seem so personal. Many of them show a confident feminism, featuring strong women behaving in unexpected ways. There are also several hints of same-sex relationships. But male or female, old or young, early colonist or recent arrival, all her characters emerge as living, breathing human beings, treated with the miraculous compassion that is surely the author's greatest gift.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Definitely one of the best story collections I've read. I sometimes find with story collections there are stories I love, ones I think are "OK", and others I don't particularly like. Not in this case. Every single story is brilliant in its own way. There is enough variety in Astray to keep everyone happy. I particularly liked the last one which is a particularly interesting read considering the choice of characters (shall allow people to read that and judge what I mean). I loved the opening story about the elephant, it was touching to read. There are characters in very story which the author has got into the heart of and they all seem "real" and not just a "person in a book". Loved the use of the different characters in different places and circumstances. I loved the "Afterword" and am almost tempted to say "read the Afterword first" as it explains a lot. Enjoyed the historical details in the stories and it showed they were well researched and made the stories interesting and you weren't bombarded with facts and figures.

Will definitely be reading more of this author's work and highly recommend anyone wanting an interesting read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2013
When I heard this discussed on NPR I thought it sounded intriguing. As it turns out it is way too much speculation with contrived dialogue and the post-scripts don't give enough information to be useful. I kept thinking- "What's the point?" "Am I supposed to be interested in these people?" "How come " Very disappointing.
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