Friday, June 22, 2012

THE THINGS WE FEAR MOST by Gloria Vanderbilt (2012) Exile Editions, 139 pages

When Gloria Vanderbilt was in Toronto earlier this month to present the Carter Cooper Prize for Short Fiction to an emerging Canadian writer and an established Canadian writer at the tony Turf Lounge, I was seated at her table by her publisher Barry Callaghan, a long-time friend of mine who figured I was a sure bet for unabashed, lively conversation. Sweet of him, really.

I sat across from Ms. Vanderbilt--who at 88 is proof positive that age is just a number--and one of the winners, the equally lovely Sean Virgo, and beside one of her travelling companions, her long-time friend Marti Stevens, a theatre actress who stood up for Elaine Stritch at her marriage to John Bay at the Savoy in London when they were both in a touring production of Company. Well...what unfurled that evening was a series of extraordinary anecdotes about the creative life, including ones about John Gielgud, Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim, each of whom Marti mimicked brilliantly.

Two nights later I went to the Brigantine Room to hear Gloria read from her most recent book The Things We Fear Most, a collection of flash fiction narratives and short stories that seize upon a situation, moments rife with the static of quotidian disaster. Her prose is spare, measured, beautifully calibrated. She is grounded. Unspoiled. Honest. And, I don't say this lightly, but her presence is a balm. Consider her opening comment: "I was born into a sense of loss," or the equally philosophical, "I have many dark moments, but they pass. And, here we are. I always think that the best is yet to come." What an attitude.

Each of the narratives in The Things We Fear Most is a polished gem. She knows about tone and audience and how to make the weight of every word matter. That night she read "The Gold Dust Twins," a story about close childhood friends Daisy Balfour and Sally Wentworth who "although they had recently avoided one another for years, when they ran into each other by chance on Madison Avenue, there were cries and hugs, which is how they find themselves at the Carlyle, talking about old times and getting poodled." Doesn't that sound like an irresistible way to spend an afternoon? I plan to do just that when I'm next in New York.

Find your way to these stories, written by someone who prefers the slow intimacy of pen to paper and fusses over each draft until each punctuation mark earns its place. Gloria Vanderbilt is a marvel, trust me.

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