Shahrazad's Gift
by Gretchen McCullough
Cune Press

"When we arrived at the vet… I was thinking about how else we might raise the money for the kidney for my mother…. This clinic for animals was very shiny…"

This collection of stories, with a nod to The Arabian Nights, is set in Egypt and deals with a group of Americans, most of whom are writers or work at a university. There is a story about a displaced costume designer working on a lavish celebration while trying too hard to please everyone. The most grounded person she talks to is an elderly woman who snuck away from her tour group. In another, a professor takes a stand against pollution by having his students dump a ton of contaminated fish on the university's front steps. Some of the stories have touches of magic realism, while others border on the absurd. A common theme is the callousness and cluelessness of the Americans to the plight and humanity of the people sharing their world.

McCullough establishes from the very beginning that she is a practiced and professional writer. Her stories are literary and show the human side of a diverse collection of people, with all their warts, failures, and hope for redemption. This collection is interesting in that the stories are interrelated; minor characters in one tale will become main characters in the next. Also, McCullough should be recognized for taking some chances, and some pieces stand out above their peers. One story, for example, draws directly from Chapter Seven of Ulysses with its multiple headlines. Two offerings stand above the rest for their poignancy and epiphanic-like endings. The cleaning woman in “The Charm” is the most engaging character and one with whom the reader will attach. Also, the journalist from the story “Ice” is initially hard to like because of her fame-chasing, but seeing her settle into her skin and pick herself up really turns her into a heroine. Readers looking for a modern, interesting, and intertwined collection will find it here.

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