Liza Wieland's new collection of stories offers the reader a spirited tour of the mid-20th century, a world fast receding into the digital haze.
You will find neither a euro nor a smart phone in "Quickening." There is hardly even a computer in this universe, which stretches from World War II France ("La Fenêtre," "Out of the Garden") to the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 ("Visions," an Eastern North Carolina family saga), to the bombing of the PanAm jet in 1988 over Lockerbie, Scotland ("First, Marriage"). The protagonist's grief-scarred love interest in that story still uses a typewriter to write his graduate school papers.
"Quickening" thus distances itself from the run of short story collections that chase after the changing light of present-day life. Wieland's stories are learned as well as literate, as she seeks to capture emotions and motivations acted on decades in the past with the poetic immediacy of what happened just the other day.
A professor of creative writing at East Carolina University and two-time Pushcart Prize winner, Wieland is a poet as well as a fiction writer, and it shows. Controversial 20th-century poet Ezra Pound appears in two stories ("Pound in Venice," "The Girl with Radium Eyes"), as does a gem-like description of Olga Runge, Pound's lover: "She was very small, white-haired now, with fine, chiseled features, as if she were halfway turned to stone."
Wieland can also speak convincingly in the voice of a person who's not quite as good a writer as Wieland herself. "Quickening" sometimes feels as if the same shy, romantic and reflective woman is narrating every story. Perhaps the archetype of this narrator is the nun of "Some Churches," who finds herself catching a baby thrown by its mother from a window in New York City ("The baby was long and light, like a loaf of bread") and dancing with a homeless man in Paris. Voice aside, Wieland has committed a bewitching alchemy here: She has taken the historical touchstones of our age and used them to "quicken" her characters - as well as the imagination of her readers.
David Frauenfelder blogs at Breakfast with Pandora ( myth.typepad.com).