The Great: "Tonight is a Favor to Holly"; "Nashville Gone to Ashes"; "In the Cemetery"; "Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep"; "Pool Night"; "Three Popes"
The Pretty Darn Good: "When It's Human"; "Today Will Be a Quiet Day"
The Forgettable: the rest
I'm not entirely sure what this tells you about a short fiction collection comprised of fifteen stories ranging from one-page to no more than twelve or thirteen in length. I can say that the six stories I listed above as 'great' are almost certainly worth the price of admission, though. For me, a number are forgettable because they're simply too brief, too shadowy to leave any sort of trace at all. Others reviewing her seem to rave over her ability to make impact in the 'flash fiction' form, but I've seen more interesting micro-fiction in workshops and on livejournal communities. Her sentences, yes, are brilliant, but stringing five brilliant sentences together does not a brilliant short story make.
In the stories that shine, this haziness can be a part of the appeal; we're rarely given to know what age or gender or name a narrator has, and this can sometimes operate to make everything more intimate, closer somehow to your experience as a reader. (On the flip side, one of the major flaws for me with this collection is that every narrator may as well be the same person - you could probably read these stories as a series of vignettes in a single, really fucked up life, and experience the one-hundred pages no differently.) There are sentences that will stop you dead. Take this, for example: "A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o'clock, I am not going to answer the door." This isn't particularly lyrical, or even particularly interesting as a concept - what it does do, however, is capture a moment in time so concisely, so perfectly that you yourself may have said it last night. Or how about this passage:
"The doctor couldn't make it to the picnics or to the skating--so he didn't show up in the pictures, either. The effect was of him saying after the flood: What I lose will always be lost. 'His problem is the past,' Grey said about his father. 'He says only do things you have done before and liked. Whereas me, what's coming is the thing I'm looking out for.' I thought the present was the safer bet. We can only die in the future, I thought; right now we are always alive."
What an astonishing insight - nothing particularly crazed or shimmering or flashy to it, but Hempel has a real talent for taking something entirely ordinary and looking at it sideways to reveal something else familiar and profound from that vantage point.
Definitely worth a look; I may end up reading the rest of The Collected Stories before the summer's out. Read this short collection in an hour or so and enjoyed nearly all of it, even if every story wasn't gut-wrenching.