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Paola Corso's debut story collection jumps abruptly from one character to the next, but leaves a distinct impression

Given that the novel evolved out of medieval story cycles such as Boccaccio's Decameron and The Heptameron by Margaret, Queen of Navarre, it should be no surprise that linked story collections are back in fashion. The only question is why it took so long.

Indeed, the overlapping story collection seems preternaturally designed for the modern reader. Short enough to cater to our shorter attention span, but still possessing the pleasures of narrative, it features the best of both worlds.

And yet with the new freedoms of this old form comes renewed responsibility. Raised on a diet of chronological stories, most readers will need a bit more hand-holding - be it thematically or by tone or by details and locations - to teach them to read this kind of book. Even Boccaccio interrupted his narrative on occasion to explain to readers what exactly it was he was writing.

Would that Pittsburgh-area native Paolo Corso, in town next week to teach a Master Class at Gemini Ink, had done some of the same in her debut work of fiction, Giovanna's 86 Circles, for here is a colorful book in need of direction. Set in and around Pittsburgh, it features 10 stories about women in Italian-American families, all narrated in the first person. Slowly, however, a reader comes to realize that this is not necessarily a cohesive menagerie. The "I" of each story may or may not be the same person, which is strange since the second characters are introduced so glancingly we have to assume we will meet them again in later stories. We don't.

As a result, Giovanna's 86 Circles is best read as a montage of portraits - a poet's stepping stone into fiction. Quick glimpses of Rust Belt Pennsylvania accrete into a portrait of a time, a region, and a group of Italian-American women whose ties to the old world are loosening.

Giovanna's 86 Circles
and Other Stories

By Paola Corso
University of Wisconsin Press
$21.95, 144 pages
ISBN: 0299212807

Kissing cousins:
flash fiction and prose poetry

Taught by Paola Corso
9am-4pm Sat, Oct 8
$80 member;
$90 non-member
Registration deadline: Sep 30

Gemini Ink
513 S. Presa

As the title suggests, there is a kind of frisson to the book raised by overlapping. So a story about a woman going to a thrift store and discovering her mother's clothes runs right into another story about a young girl learning to appreciate her grandmother's knitting. Two other tales share the thematic terrain of adult life as seen through the eyes of a child. Although a narrative never fully develops, a sort of gallery of snapshots does, which is interesting given that Corso's volume of poetry included photographs by George Thomas Mendel.

But here it is Corso's prose that does the time-lapse photography. With her swift and gritty sentences, she conjures a world where houses were painted gray since the mill soot would turn them that color anyway, where Jell-O stood for dessert, and pineapples salad. It was a humble, if pinched, society, down on their luck but at least rich in tradition. Corso honors that fact here, and then some. Now if she would only remember to put these testimonial snapshots into motion.

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