I am an unabashed fan of Richard Russo. As a longtime resident of upstate NY (WNY), his writing speaks to me. He is a master at capturing the dichotomy of die-hardiness/hopelessness that characterizes small manufacturing towns.
This collection of 3 shorts stories and a novella is physically simple and beautiful. Four slim volumes are slipcased and include postcard-sized original paintings by Richard's daughter, Kate. The paintings are very evocative and greatly add to each of the pieces. I found myself not wanting to open the volumes all the way so I could preserve the initial look and feel; I'm sure that as the years go by, I'll get over that so I can mark up my favorite passages.
And therein lies the *only* disappointment with this set. I understand where Russo is coming from in his rant against Amazon [...] and his opposition to ebooks, but I love Amazon and ebooks, and it would have been much easier to capture all the great quotes to go back and mull them and take notes and such if this book was available in digital format. But that's a small nit; I also happen to adore physical books.
I read the stories in random order - just pulled one out of the set and read it. The first story I read, "Intervention", is very good but the weakest piece in the set. It's about a realtor who has just been diagnosed with cancer and how his relationships shape his decision for moving forward. His wife, old friend, brother, and posthumously his father and uncle, all make an appearance and weigh on his mind - especially the relationship between his father and uncle - and he gains insight into his relationships with each and comes to terms with his diagnosis through the lens of how each has acted in certain situations. A good read.
Of the four pieces, I had already read "The Whore's Child", a wonderful story about a nun who crashes a writer's fiction writing class in order to write something very important to her. The story within a story (one of my favorite conventions) is wonderful and unfolds dramatically. The framework of the nun's story is equally compelling and ends up teaching the narrator some things about his own life and choices.
"High and Dry" is really wonderful - a reprinting of a piece Russo did for "Granta", and a sort of tribute to his hometown of Gloversville, NY. It revolves around the dangerous work of glove-making (where'd you THINK the name of the town came from?) and all of the men who have suffered, been hurt or maimed, or died from working in this toxic manufacturing industry. Russo is at his best when he talks directly about upstate New York, and unflinchingly describes the hard life people experience, and the various ways they become trapped in that life. The ending of this piece is just amazing - so touching.
"Horseman" is the final story I read, and it's tied with "High and Dry" as my favorite story in the set. As in all the best Russo stories, a character's life is shown from two completely different angles (and provides multiple dimensions/motivations through which to view the characters' actions). The story opens on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving break. The main character, a college professor, has just caught one of her students cheating. His reaction is not what she expects and she ducks into the campus bar to commiserate with a colleague. Another colleague (an old lecherous drunk) prompts a memory of a relationship with her graduate school mentor and his opinion of her writing. All of this ties in with her personal life - her mentally-challenged son and caretaker (of the son) husband, who she feels is under ambitious. Framing the whole tale and providing an ominous rhythm is a children's poem, "Windy Nights." The main character cannot get this poem, which her son demands be read to him every night by her husband, out of her head. It haunts her, like her shortcomings with her son haunt her. You can actually read this story online at "The Atlantic" website, but it's much more enjoyable to read under the covers, with the actual book in your hand.
Overall, not an essential Russo book, but one I'll treasure and go back to as the years go by, simply to immerse myself in the language and familiarity of small towns and their characters.
If you haven't read "Nobody's Fool" or "Straight Man," go out and read them right now! They are both introductions to the great storytelling power of Richard Russo.