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The author of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1988) presents a collection of three long short stories and one short novel, with mixed results. In "The Practical Heart," the narrator recalls the proclivities of his great-aunt, daughter of a Scottish immigrant to Chicago. The reader is teased into perhaps believing she had her portrait painted by John Singer Sargent, but the whole story comes across as arch and gimmicky. "Preservation News" is a fey portrait of a man who has just lost his battle with AIDS but who spent his last breath in the pursuit of the preservation of historic properties; however, the storytelling voice is too cloying. But "He's One, Too" offers an ironically sympathetic portrayal of a married man arrested for lewd acts with a younger man. And in the longest and most moving piece, "Saint Monster," a son remembers how the relationship between his ugly but kind father and his beautiful but faithless mother forced him into prematurely dealing with the rawer aspects of adulthood. --Brad Hooper
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This collection of four novellas places Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All) in the pantheon of America's best storytellers. Indeed, the title novella, an ode to a great aunt who takes an artistically inclined young boy under her wing and shows him through kindness the meaning of love, won the National Magazine Prize. In it, the narrator imagines the grand romantic adventure she, as the daughter of an impoverished immigrant, never had. Each of the tales explores the impact that one individual can have on another and how courage and beauty can arise from the most unexpected sources. There is the young preservationist dying of AIDS whose joy in saving old homes never falters and whose smile in the face of death continues to bring happiness to his survivors. There is the pillar of the community whose sudden disgrace confirms a young boy's determination to tell the truth, to be out in the world. Lastly, there is "Saint Monster" the amazingly "ugly" man whose love and devotion to his son transcends race, public humiliation, and even death so that in the end, for the narrator, even "the bilge [flung by a fish leaping suddenly from a weedy canal at a moment of enlightenment] tasted like shrimp, like rust, a life: my dry mouth savoring every drop." These stories may all arise from Gurganus's Carolina home soil, but their messages are universal in scope. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/01.] David W. Henderson, Eckerd Coll. Lib., St. Petersburg, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
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The four novellas in this collection by Gurganus (Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, etc.) divide neatly into stylistic halves. The first two, "The Practical Heart" and "Preservation News," are written with an almost Jamesian attention to the semaphore of implications and elided emotions that mediate social pretenses. "The Practical Heart," which tells how the narrator's great-aunt Muriel Fraser came to be painted by John Singer Sargent, first builds a story, then deconstructs it. The story is foregrounded in the collapse of the Fraser family's Scottish fortune, which maroons the clan in Chicago, where Muriel goes from being a pampered heiress to a piano teacher. But the second chapter in this story takes us behind the scenes of the fiction, showing how Muriel, a stubborn, fragile woman, became her nephew-narrator's first guide to life outside of parochial Falls, N.C. In "Preservation News," Mary Ellen Broadfield, an 81-year-old woman of quality in Falls, writes the obituary of Tad Worth, the moving spirit behind the local preservationist scene. Openly gay, martini-loving, gossipy and unkempt, Worth carved a space for himself in Falls that would have been unimaginable in an earlier era. The next two stories, written in a more freewheeling style, inhabit the dark side of that earlier era. "He's One, Too," tells of the ruin of a local businessman, Dan R., caught feeling up a 15-year-old boy in a rest-room setup in Raleigh. "Saint Monster" is a memoir of Clyde Melvin Delman Sr. by his son. Clyde, an ugly, much cuckolded salesman, spent his life passing as white. Although the first two novellas are beautifully realized, the last two are needier texts, requiring an empathy on the reader's part that they don't quite merit. 14-city author tour. (Oct. 4) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved