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Originally published Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

Northwest authors' short stories limn inner and outer landscapes

Northwest authors Midge Raymond and Mike O'Connor take their readers on armchair tours of out- of-the-way places, from Antarctica to a small timber town, in their short story collections "Forgetting English" and "Unnecessary Talking: The Montesano Stories." Raymond reads Tuesday June 7 at the University Book Store's Seattle location.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance: Midge Raymond

The author of "Forgetting English" will read at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the University Book Store's Seattle location (206-634-3400; www.ubookstore.com).

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"Forgetting English"

by Midge Raymond

Eastern Washington University Press, 116 pp., $16.95

"Unnecessary Talking: The Montesano Stories"

by Mike O'Connor

Pleasure Boat Studio, 173 pp., $16

There are short stories and memoirs that are travel narratives in disguise, immersing us so thoroughly in other places that we resurface slowly, blinking in surprise to see familiar surroundings.

As good luck would have it, two new books from small presses do just that, albeit in very different ways.

The short-story collection "Forgetting English" by Seattle writer Midge Raymond transports the reader by closely observing characters' routine gestures and affect, and with carefully chosen material details which inform without contrivance. Parts of these polished stories, if read aloud, would sound like a smart patient describing a dream to a psychoanalyst.

Raymond's prose often lights up the poetry-circuits of the brain, less because of lyrical language and more due to things that work as both literal and symbolic nouns: stolen rings, voice-mail messages gone astray; heavy-footed humans in the middle of fragile habitats. The stories begin sometime after the event or adventure, as poems often do.

Women at the heart of the far-flung tales are strong, weak, wise, foolish; in other words, authentic. Most compelling is Deb, a scientist observing penguin colonies in Antarctica, who interacts with three different men, helping, saving, losing them in various ways. It is the penguins, though, that move her:

"Often, when I watch the penguins, I forget I'm a scientist. I become so mesmerized by their purrs and squawks, by the precision of their clumsy waddle, that I forget I have another life, somewhere else — that I have an apartment in Eugene, that I teach marine biology at the University of Oregon, that I'm forty-two years old and not yet on a tenure track, that I haven't had a real date in three years. I forget that my life now is only as good as my next grant and that, when the money dries up, I'm afraid I will too."

This isn't Chick Lit. Raymond has an unusual ability (not unlike writer Jim Harrison in his early fiction) to create utterly female or decidedly male characters who feel like kindred spirits regardless of where the reader sits on the gender continuum.

Small-town stories

A very different sort of traveling is found in "Unnecessary Talking: The Montesano Stories" by Washington native Mike O'Connor. He recalls his 1950s small-town boyhood with a great deal of — there is no other word for it — kindness. Yet there is no treacle or lofty metaphor underfoot here, just a boy's memories which ring true in the adult telling.

O'Connor writes about a life so removed from what kids experience today that it might as well be another planet. Summers of unsupervised bike riding and fort building? Not a single "play date" or SAT-prep class? Yet there are some things that never seem to change, and O'Connor seizes these with gentle humor:

"Now someone like red-haired Terry Ratchet ... well, he was good to have on your team because for one thing he was a year older and for another he had a kind of angry way of running, and being tackled. (I've later come to think his style, or lack of it, relates, perhaps, to what is called 'class war.') He wasn't fun to down because of his bony elbows, and when you tackled him somewhere near the sideline, afterwards you felt mugged."

O'Connor, an accomplished poet, translator of Chinese literature and former journalist, lets these stories sail forth without fuss, just as his boyish self was allowed to do on those long-ago Montesano days. Good decisions all around.

Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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