Thunderstruck and Other Stories

By Elizabeth McCracken

(Dial Press, $26, 240 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of several excellent books: the heartbreaking memoir of losing her unborn baby, “An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination,” the delicately lovely novel “The Giant’s House,’ the story collection  “Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry” and  the novel “Niagara Falls All Over Again.” A former public librarian, and former resident of Massachusetts, she is now a faculty member at the University of Texas, Austin. Her husband is the novelist and illustrator Edward Carey.

What is this book about?

Here are nine stories from one of the most accomplished writers working today. They are often sad, often provocative and truly compelling, as their characters face challenges and make decisions that take them to places they never meant to go and from which they cannot return without undergoing great changes. The plots are simple: a bereaved young widower decides to toss out his landlord’s things in a quest to remake a rented home; a grocery store manager becomes enthralled by the case of a missing woman and her son; a father must cope with his daughter’s brain injury; another with the failed man that his son has turned out to be. The details are not complicated, but the telling, as is always the case with McCracken, is rich and strange.

Why you’ll like it:

“Thunderstruck” is a story collection that was long awaited – 20 years – by fans of McCracken’s inimitable style. She can be funny, incisive, poignant, lyrical without being precious and surprisingly hard-hitting: often all at the same time. Her novel, “The Giant’s House,” set on Cape Cod, is a kind of modern-day fairy tale about an improbable but not impossible love affair, and it is one of my favorite books of all time. This collection also shows off McCracken’s singular voice and appreciation of the world. I rate her as one of the best contemporary American writers: read this book or her others and see if you agree.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says, in a starred review: “McCracken’s short stories are like no others. Her distinctive voice, her slightly askew manner of looking at the world, her mix of mordant humor and tenderness, her sense of life’s ironies, and the jolt of electricity at the end of each tale make her work arresting and memorable. In this collection of nine short narratives (McCracken’s return to short fiction 20 years after Here’s Your Hat, What’s Your Hurry), a feckless, improvident father mourns the unwitting example he has set for his son; a grieving mother finds solace in a neighbor’s child, while that child’s mother is about to undergo a tragic loss; and a librarian has to live with a disastrous memory. In the title story, a father who must come to terms with his daughter’s brain injury muses: “Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure that you cleared the lip.” These stories, set in France, Massachusetts, Maine, and Iowa, are macabre yet anchored by precise details and psychological insight; they turn on ironic twists of fate and seesaws of luck. Readers will enjoy reading them twice—the first time quickly, because the plots are mesmerizing and strange, and the second to relish the dozens of images, aperçus, and descriptions (a handsaw is “a house key from a giant’s pocket”; “His hair looked like it had been combed with a piece of buttered toast”; “Amazing how death made petty disappointments into operatic insults”). McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions. “


In its starred review, Kirkus Reviews says: “These nine stories from fiction and memoir author McCracken (An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, 2008, etc.) excavate unexplored permutations of loss and grief. The volume starts and ends with bookending wallops. The opener, “Something Amazing”—combining a not-quite-ghost story about a grieving mother “haunted” by her dead child with the unfolding story of a mother unaware she is about to suffer her own loss—taps into every parent’s worst fears. The final story, “Thunderstruck,” follows a family in which the mother and father react in very different ways after their joint efforts to be good parents disastrously backfire. The rest of the volume deals with various forms of sorrow and coping. “Property” considers the stuff of grief as a newly widowed man moves into a rental house full of what he considers junk left by the house’s owner. In “Some Terpsichore,” a woman remembers an abusive former lover with horror and nostalgia. Memory also plays tricks in “The Lost & Found Department of Greater Boston”: A store manager’s memory of helping a young boy he once discovered being starved by his grandfather sustains him through his own losses, but the boy, now grown, remembers the incident differently. In “Juliet,” the murder of a library patron causes a series of off-kilter reactions among the librarians, showing that guilt is not limited to perpetrators or sorrow, to those officially bereaved. In “The House of Two Three-Legged Dogs,” a foolhardy expat in rural France realizes his son, whom he’s raised with outrageous carelessness, has betrayed his trust and left him broke. “Peter Elroy: A Documentary by Ian Casey” describes a different kind of betrayal when a dying man attempts to visit the former friend who ruined his life. In the surprisingly tender “Hungry,” about a woman caring for her granddaughter while the girl’s father (the woman’s son) lies in the hospital, food and a patriotic speech serve as metaphors for the power and limitations of love. McCracken’s skewed perspectives make this a powerfully if quietly disturbing volume.”

“A young girl’s ghost, two three-legged dogs, and a comatose American preteen in Paris are a few of the characters who live inside McCracken’s bizarre and magnetic gallery of short fiction. In “Something Amazing,” a woman is haunted by the recent death of her six-year-old daughter but discovers some release and joy in an unexpected place. “Some Terpsichore” tells how the strange love between a man who plays a saw with a bowlike instrument and his wife, whose singing voice mimics the sound of the musical saw, flickers out when he becomes depressive and physically abusive. At the heart of these pieces and her collection as a whole, McCracken (The Giant’s House) examines the connections among human beings and what happens when they lose one another. Through death, medical trauma, or some other mystery or disappearance, life changes for the individuals in these stories, not only for those who are left behind to live with the memory of their loved ones but for neighbors, acquaintances, and even strangers. VERDICT Anyone who enjoys short fiction will find pleasure and substance in McCracken’s witty, world-wise collection,” says Library Journal.

“Marvelously quirky, ironic, but, most of all, poignant . . . McCracken paints [her characters] with such rich detail that it feels as if we must know them,” says Booklist.

When is it available?

“Thunderstruck” awaits you at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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