Two Nurses, Smoking

Death, loss and the ravages of mental illness aren't the ingredients for light entertainment, but they make for a memorable reading experience in the exceptional story collection Two Nurses, Smoking by David Means (Instructions for a Funeral). These 10 stories are set in and around upstate New York and feature protagonists quietly tending to scars that life has inflicted upon them. The stories are formally inventive, and the lenses through which characters are seen aren't always conventional, as with "Clementine, Carmelita, Dog," told from the perspective of a "middle-aged dachshund with a short-haired, caramel-colored coat." The dog describes the grief of his widowed owner, Norman, before a stranger, thinking the dog is lost, takes her home.

Other pieces are equally affecting. In the title story, a male and female nurse form a romantic bond as they travel the mid-Atlantic region in a trailer that contains a "kidney pounder" machine and share stories of their pasts. "Vows" features another widower looking back on a marriage marked by his infidelity. In "The Red Dot," a restaurant owner is perplexed when his ex-wife, "horrifically afraid of water," sails to shore in a red kayak. And "Stopping Distance" is a stunning work about members of a bereavement group discovering "the Eros of grief." In one story, characters discuss Eadweard Muybridge, who figured out how to photograph objects in motion so that viewers could see the "amazing intricacy behind things you took for granted." These exceptional stories do the same. --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer

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