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Binocular Vision: New & Selected Stories Paperback – January 11, 2011
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A finely tuned collection by writer's writer Pearlman combines the best of previous collections (How to Fall; etc.) with austere, polished new work. Pearlman's characters for the most part are stiff-upper-lipped Northeasterners who take what comes and don't grumble: in "The Noncombatant," Richard, a 49-year-old doctor suffering gravely from cancer during the tail end of WWII, rages quietly in his small Cape Cod town as celebrations erupt and memories of the wasted lives of the dead are swept away. A fictional Godolphin, Mass., is the setting for many of the stories, such as "Rules," in which the well-meaning staff at a soup kitchen try not to pry into the lives of the "cheats and crazies, drunks and dealers" who frequent the place. "Hanging Fire" is a perfectly crafted story about a 21-year-old college graduate, Nancy, on the cusp of embarking on life and certain only of her obligation to herself. The tale of retired gastroenterologist Cornelia Fitch in "Self-Reliance" reads like the fulfillment of Nancy's own self-determined trajectory: after a successful career, she determines how she wants to leave this life: with dignity and a wink. This should win new converts for Pearlman. (Jan.)
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*Starred Review* There is a vast difference between reading Pearlman’s stories in a magazine or anthology and reading this collection. In settings ranging from unnamed South American countries to the Boston suburbs, from the current day to the last century (e.g., the Russian Revolution, WWII), depictions of people, places, and manners are so perfect that the stories become totally immersive. The characters, always interesting, are limned just as strongly whether female or male, young or old. The Latin American minister of health (called the Cow by her enemies) in “Vaquita” and the old man studying Japanese at age 75 in “Relic and Type” both linger in memory long after the book is closed. Stylistically, the stories are complex in their use of language, with technique incorporated seamlessly to engage and provoke readers. Many describe the lives of Jews who have integrated into the modern world and who examine the resonance of Judaism in their lives. The stories’ disparate lengths are no impediment to these qualities. The shorter “The Story” is just as involving as the longer “Binocular Vision.” Give this wonderful collection to fans of such classic short story writers as Andre Dubus and Alice Munro and novelists like Nicole Krauss. They will thank you. --Ellen Loughran
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How then, I kept wondering in making my way through one astonishingly understated tale after another, could it be that I'd never heard of Pearlman before my partner's enthusiastic recommendation?
Happily, I've since discovered, I can take comfort in the fact that Binocular Vision and its author seem to have taken even much of the mainstream literary establishment by surprise. This is strange given that Pearlman is the author of over 250 works of short fiction and non-fiction, as well as three previous story collections; it is doubly strange when one considers that Binocular Vision is the only book ever to be nominated for the National Book Award, the Story Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in the same year. That distinction will, in short order, prove justifiable to anyone fortunate enough to undertake Pearlman's short fiction.
This reader, for one, would be hard pressed to recall stories so alive with intelligent, thoughtful, highly principled characters--men, women, and children confronting a variety of human predicaments odd and frightening, heartbreaking and humorous. I can honestly say there isn't a story among the 34 that I didn't like and there are at least five or six that I count among the best I've read.
That Pearlman's protagonists face their individual dilemmas while maintaining an eerie sense of calm detachment seems in keeping with the author's "cautious" approach to story telling. Indeed, Pearlman's prose is so deceptively simple and coolheaded, so composed, that the reader sometimes barely notices the thermostat being turned up a few emotional degrees until suddenly, they are in the flush of a breathtakingly revelatory moment.
In the story, "Inbound," a precocious seven-year old girl accidentally separated from her parents during a Boston day trip undergoes an intellectual/psychic transformation and returns to her parents in the first blush of a dawning adult sensibility.
"She foresaw...that as she became strong her parents would dare to weaken. They too might tug at her clothing, not meaning to annoy...She felt her cheek tingle, as if it had been licked by the sad, dry tongue of a cat...She had to return to her family now; she had to complete the excursion."
In the beautifully moving "Tess," a mother looks in lovingly on her bedridden daughter, afflicted from birth with permanent physiological and neurological damage, and then calmly surpasses--in a single compassionate act--all the well-intentioned humanity of an entire hospital's professional staff.
"I put the blanket back on. I watched her ear for a while. All those windings and curves. My little girl's little ear.
I got the toy she liked best from the windowsill. The red floppy dog. They always forgot it. I put it in a corner of the crib. Then I unscrewed the end of the heart tube from the aqua clothespin and I slipped it under the blanket so the blood would pool quiet and invisible like a monthly until there would be no more left."
In another gem, "On Junius Bridge," a scrupulously reserved innkeeper--whose establishment provides safe-haven to an ever-changing gaggle of introverts and misfits--foils the kidnapping of a wealthy guest's autistic son and is shocked to find herself offering a well rehearsed sanctuary.
"Lars is not particularly precocious, doesn't read anything except entomology, doesn't even read very well," [the boy's father said.]
She favored him with her expressionless gaze.
"My brother in New york... he too is...narrow." She spoke at last, as loudly as she could. "It is possible that in a century or two the interpersonal will cease to be of value."
"Practiced by a few eccentric devotees," he agreed. "Like swordplay."
"I could keep the boy," she heard herself cry.
"No," he said, perhaps sparing her, perhaps turning the remainder of her life to ash."
The collection's final piece, the stunning "Self-Reliance," presents a retired physician in her 70s who, confronted with resurgent cancer, decides to navigate the ultimate life challenge with typical independence.
"Cornelia pushed off vigorously, then used a sweep stroke to turn the canoe and look at the slate roof and stone walls of her house...Then, as if she were her own passenger, she opened a backrest and settled herself against it and slid the paddle under the seat. She drank her concoction slowly, forestalling nausea.
Sipping, not thinking, she drifted on a cobalt disk under an aquamarine dome. Birches bent to honor her, tall pines guarded the birches. She looked down the length of her body. She had not worn rubber boat shoes, only sandals, and her ten toenails winked flamingo."
These are stories that steer clear of facile epiphany, that (as in real life) rarely achieve resolution, but that relish--always with an understated modesty--the sudden disclosure of a simple, sometimes unexpectedly fundamental, verity.
Perhaps it really is, then, that brilliantly executed modesty, that `cautious' artistry, that renders Pearlman's stories so beautifully and completely...convincing.
Jack A. Urquhart is the author of several works of fiction, including the story, "They say you can stop yourself breathing" and the story collection, "So They Say."
to classics like de Maupassant and O'Henry. A great short story
gives you an entire world and entire people in twenty pages or
less. While these stories vary in many ways, from settings in Eastern
Europe, Central America, to suburban Boston, with central characters
ranging from children, teenagers, young men and women, to the old and
dying, the author's confident, almost-gentle prose gives them a
similarity of tone that makes reading them all at once a bit
difficult. I needed to read them all in just a few days because it's
a selection for my book club. This made them blend together, which I
think was unfortunate. Most of the stories have Jewish
cultural references, where family history and assimilation or
secularization are issues. The strengths and weaknesses of the
connections between people are also a recurring theme. The prose is
beautifully crafted yet rarely calls attention to itself.
I recommend these stories, but suggest not reading them all at once,
as I did, but savoring them one at a time, to bring out their distinct
I had a hard time differentiating the older work from the newer in terms of figuring out a timeline. Usually I would expect the more recent work to be slightly better polished, or more exacting, but Pearlman's writing is consistently even and engaging. There is a definite tone to the collection, yet each story stands on its own like a giant magnificent redwood. I LOVED this book.