In An Uncharted Countryby Clifford Garstang
The award-winning stories that make up this linked collection showcase ordinary men and women in and around Rugglesville, Virginia, as they struggle to find places and identities in their families and the community. They experience natural disasters, a sun-worshipping cult, Vietnam flashbacks, kidnapping, addiction, and loss. The book's opening story, "Flood, 1978," follows Hank, who comes to understand his father's deep sense of grief over the death of his wife. Later, in "Hand-painted Angel," Hank's sons see the family spinning apart as their father ages and family secrets are disclosed. In "The Clattering of Bones," Walt mourns the collapse of his marriage after the loss of a child, but in the collection's title story he recognizes his emotional need for family. The concluding story, "Red Peony," unifies the collection, as many of the book's characters come together for a tumultuous 4th of July Celebration.
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Meet the Author
Clifford Garstang grew up in the Midwest and received a BA from Northwestern University. After serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea, he earned an MA in English and a JD, both from Indiana University, and practiced international law in Singapore, Chicago, and Los Angeles with one of the largest law firms in the United States. Subsequently, he earned an MPA in International Development from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and worked for Harvard Law School as a legal reform consultant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. From 1996 to 2001, he was Senior Counsel for East Asia at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., where his work concentrated on China, Indonesia and Vietnam.
Garstang received an MFA in Creative Writing from Queens University of Charlotte in 2003. His work has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, The Ledge, The Baltimore Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Potomac Review and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize and is a Fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
He currently lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
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I’ve read a few linked short story collections in the past. Some were very good and others, not so much. As I looked back at what qualities made the difference, I realized that it could be illustrated using what is called “coupling” in computer science. (The computer geeks can read the Wikipedia entry, for others I’ll give my higher-level definition.) In simple terms, coupling is low if different modules or sections of a computer program mostly stand alone with a minimum number of links to other sections. Generally, low coupling is good, high coupling bad. Those linked short story collections I didn’t like had too many things linking any one module (or story in this case) to many others. The stories were all clearly happening in the same short period, shared many of the same events and characters. In the worst cases, the reader ends up feeling as if they are reading a poorly structured novel with too many points of view. In contrast, "In an Uncharted Country" has few linkages between the stories. A minor character in one is sometimes the main character in another. One story might reference a past event detailed in another story earlier in the volume. But each story stands alone with just enough links from one story to another to give the reader a little more knowledge about the current happenings. As knowledge and different perspectives accumulate, the reader immerses himself into the fictional town of Rugglesville, VA (where all the stories take place) and gets to know the people of the town a little better. By the time you finish the final story, you’ll feel like an honorary Rugglevillian. **Originally written for "Books and Pals" book blog. May have received a free review copy. **