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Overview

The path from Europe to Africa has been much traveled in literature but rarely in such an evocative, nuanced, and even playful way as in N.S. K?enings's THEFT. Here are five seductive tales that move with grace and subtlety between the two continents and reveal with insight and wit that what seem to be very separate worlds are not so far apart after all. In Pearls to Swine, a lonely childless socialite invites her American goddaughter to spend the summer in her mansion. In Wondrous Strange, a spirit medium is ...
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Theft: Stories

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Overview

The path from Europe to Africa has been much traveled in literature but rarely in such an evocative, nuanced, and even playful way as in N.S. K÷enings's THEFT. Here are five seductive tales that move with grace and subtlety between the two continents and reveal with insight and wit that what seem to be very separate worlds are not so far apart after all. In Pearls to Swine, a lonely childless socialite invites her American goddaughter to spend the summer in her mansion. In Wondrous Strange, a spirit medium is haunted by the ghost of an ancient African djinn. In Setting Up Shop, a young Zanzibari woman dreams of traveling to the U.S., even as a local entrepeneur courts her relentlessly, even promising to leave his other wives for her. More praise for The Blue Taxi: The world K÷enings has created in her accomplished debut is tragic and exhilarating, as is her portrayal of weary, left-behind colonialists, poverty-stricken natives and the uneasy manner in which each regards the other.--Publishers Weekly K÷enings skillfully weaves together the stories of individuals from disparate cultures converging in a city that is entering a new era of political independence.--The New Yorker
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Editorial Reviews

Nancy Kline
This exuberant story collection by N. S. Köenings resembles her first novel, The Blue Taxi, in its irreverent, hilarious and frequently moving take on postcolonial life—and the human condition in general.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Personal strength and resiliency are recurrent themes in Köenings's surprising and inventive collection (after the novel The Blue Taxi) of five longish stories. They focus largely on relationships and loss, beginning with "Pearls to Swine," about a narrow-minded wealthy woman whose vision of herself as a magnanimous host is threatened when the invitation she extends to two young women has unforeseen consequences. Expectations are equally disrupted in the title story, which tracks the parallel mishaps that befall a naïve female tourist in Africa and a bus ticket boy, Ezra. Assistance comes from the beyond in "Wondrous Strange," when at a séance a woman receives instructions from an African spirit regarding a ritual she might perform to revive her ailing husband, and by extension, her own sense of competency. Köenings's writing is dense but focused, and she often suggests the endings of her stories early on, allowing the reader to focus on the characters' reactions, thoughts and emotions. The collection's richness and complexity prove Köenings to be a skillful and imaginative storyteller. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Kirkus Reviews
Five short stories set around the world, from the author of The Blue Taxi (2006). "Pearls to Swine" is a comic gem in which a perfect snob, Celeste, vents without censure or apology. A paragon of good taste, Celeste decides that the only fixture her graciously appointed home in Spa, Belgium, lacks is a guest to appreciate it. She resolves to invite two: the daughter of a friend from New York and a young woman who has taken refuge in a local convent after getting pregnant. Neither guest follows the script their hostess has imagined for them. The convent girl is particularly disappointing. Says Celeste: "What did I expect, you ask? Someone thinner, first of all." Celeste's outrage is purely aesthetic: She is offended that the girl doesn't look like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. "Wondrous Strange" is quite different but equally enjoyable. In it, an African djinn gives a middle-class, middle-aged English woman instructions for healing her husband's strange malady. In the aforementioned stories, Koenings demonstrates an incisive yet generous understanding of human behavior that is reminiscent of A.S. Byatt and Iris Murdoch, and, like those authors, she is willing to entertain mystery without dissecting it. Occasionally though, in both "Pearls to Swine" and "Wondrous Strange," nervous, amateurish tendencies appear, and these tendencies unfortunately dominate the collection's other three stories. The title story is an interminable series of extravagant descriptions; "Sisters for Shama" is an elaborate concept-a storyteller conjures imaginary girls to replace a lost sibling-and not much else; "Setting Up Shop" is basically gossip arranged in the shape of short fiction. In these stories, Koeningsrelies heavily on exotic settings (East Africa, the Indian Ocean coast), overwrought metaphors and preciously ethnographic characters while providing little narrative substance. An uneven collection, but the best entries are outstanding.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316029155
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 3/25/2008
  • Sold by: Hachette Digital, Inc.
  • Format: eBook
  • File size: 652 KB

Meet the Author

N.S. Köenings holds a B.A. in African Studies from Bryn Mawr College and a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology from Indiana University, where she also completed her M.F.A. in fiction. She currently teaches at Hampshire College.

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Read an Excerpt


Theft
Stories

By N.S. Köenings Back Bay Books
Copyright © 2008
N.S. Köenings
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-00186-1


Chapter One Pearls to Swine

Western Europe, Summer 1980

A weaker person than myself might have been changed by so much rudeness. By what happened in the garden. But I am still the same. I will not frustrate a hungry child or snub a thirsty man. With proper guests, a visit would be smooth. Our home and grounds are gracious. I have not given up. I do still like the sound of silverware on dishes, and a good raspberry jam ferocious in a jar. A bedsheet turned down by the pillow, an ironed towel on a chair. But you know, vraiment on ne sais jamais. Think twice, I say. Be careful. Because once you've given them a washcloth and a bed, nothing can protect you. Not your sweetness, not your natural desire to involve an honored stranger in your life, and not even-here's the worst-not even your good taste.

And yet, how pleased I was at first. Before telling Gustave my idea, I went into the tower rooms one after the other and gazed onto the grounds. Just look at those big fields, the pine trees in the distance! See how pale and blue the town, the bathhouses, the spires, so small from our fine heights! And closer in, how promising the urns looked on the patio-filled with snow just then, but already I could fathom them abubble with petunias. And beyond the berry hedge, the real curiosity: the animals Gustave fashions from the bushes. Now, that's something to look at! A camel and a horse, an egret and a pony. Yes, we have a world unto ourselves. Filling my big eyes with grass, the pines, and sky, I practiced what I'd say when I went up to his office: Gustave, I'd say, in a bright, loud voice so he would have to pay attention, it's time we had some guests.

It isn't that we're lonely or have nothing to do. Gustave has many things to occupy his time. There's that big collection of clay potsherds and celadon, and nice beads made out of glass, which he has gotten through his work-for we have crossed the world on lecture tours and digs-and he has other hobbies. A person in Bulgaria, to whom Gustave pays large sums, mails butterflies and moths. Gustave frames the specimens and hangs them in the hallway. Those butterflies alone could give an afternoon of pleasure! And, as I've already mentioned, there's that very special zoo: the topiary, as Gustave likes to say.

Every other Tuesday in the summer, people come from town to see, though Gustave worries for the beasts. He fears the children will strew carbonated drinks and ice creams in the flowers. But I called l'hôtel de ville especially, to say that they could come. To date, which you would notice on your own if you were to come out on a tour, and as I've already said, Gustave has a horse, an egret, a camel, and a pony. He's begun a tortoise, too, but it is taking him a little longer to complete, which I for my part think, ha ha, is not a big surprise. And better twice a month when you expect it than at any time they please, I said. So the people come from town, though when they do, Gustave goes upstairs.

I myself am always busy. I could have my hands full, for example, with just the correspondence. Though we've not traveled in some time, I keep in touch with all the people we have met. Why, just three days before the first girl came I wrote another letter to Morocco's Minister of Culture, and I told him, as I always do, that I will never let myself forget how kind he was to us, how nice the ride on the Corniche so very long ago, and how much I did appreciate that very sweet mint tea. He'll reply in his own time, I'm sure. And of course, I cook, I pickle things. I read.

I make preserves for us when the berries come in summer. I like to tease Gustave and say that both of us excel at keeping things just so: You dig and prune, I say. I pickle and conserve. We're both proud of how we label things-Gustave says precision with a label separates the shoddy from the great. In fact he had just typed up a card for a new butterfly and was pinning the blue thing onto a heavy cotton sheet when I went to his office. I said, to see if he would soften up, that those gauzy little wings were the color of our winter sky, but he did not answer me. He said something about labels, and I had to interrupt. That may well be, I said, about the labels, but what we need here is guests. Some visitors, I said. All those foreigners we've met, they've been so generous with us. It's our turn now to push back into the world the kindness we've received.

Gustave was thinking of the bushes, if you please. "I don't want strangers tramping on the grounds," he said. He was mumbling, as usual, pin between his lips. I told him I would never ask into our home a person or any pair of persons who would be capable of tramping. Tramping. We ought to send some invitations for the summer, when everything is best, I said. We have so much to give.

"Do what you like, Celeste," he said, and because he couldn't open wide for fear the pin would fall, his voice came out a blur. I did do what I liked, of course, although I wish sometimes, looking back, that Gustave had put his foot down. Afterwards, he said it could have been predicted. That mixing comes about through hard, unpleasant business: if you find a Chinese plate with a plain old East Coast pot, you'll know there was a war. Never some sweet intercourse, or friendliness, or trade, as I thought might be likely. Gustave, whose place it is to know, insisted: war, each and every time. And as to pots, he even said, "It's fortunate for us their owners are long dead and we won't see the carnage for ourselves." Well, that may be fine reasoning or poor when it comes to beads and bones, though I reserve my judgment. What I do know is that he doesn't understand the world of living beings like I do, that we need company and gentle conversation. Gustave even said this morning, "At least they didn't hurt the bushes." The bushes!

So I sent out my invitations, one to my old friend Sylvie, who now lives in New York, U.S.A., and the other one to Liège, which although it is not very far from here you might think another country. I wrote to La Maison des Jeunes Femmes Abandonnées, which has a well-known program for the girls they like to help. From New York, Sylvie wrote to say it would be wonderful if Petra came to see us. The House in Liège was also very gracious. The nuns would send us an unmarried girl who had fallen into difficulty but would by then be on the mend, and to whom our kindness was surely going to do a proper world of good. I had brightly colored dreams in which the two became great friends. It was exciting to envision-one girl come from Liège, another from America, not a thing in common but their girlhood and the grounds.

We've been all over Europe and the best places in North Africa, but never to New York. I think it would be charming. I know some feel the U.S.A. is poor in taste, from the Rodeos to that big Statue and le foot Américain. Yvette said so herself when I told her where Petra would be coming from, and she was wrapping me a nice half kilo of pâté. She said, "Don't buy too much of this, then. Hamburgers, that's all they like to eat." Well, I took my regular half kilo and paid her no attention. I'm sure I don't agree. Where would we be now without Americans, I always like to say.

When I told Yvette the girl Thérèse would be coming from the House, she threw back her big head and gave a hard snort through her nose. "She'll steal the sheets from under you," she said. I thanked her very nicely and snuck a sample of salami while she was counting out the change. Her view of human nature is nothing to be proud of, but I can get along with people of all kinds. Don't I send my flowers to the abbey when the beds come into bloom? I was sure Thérèse would be well mannered, and that Sylvie's girl would bring me some nice gifts from big and busy, interesting New York.

Petra came three days before Thérèse. I had just washed the breakfast dishes, and was having a verveine by the window in the library upstairs, where Gustave has shelved my novels. Our place was blooming with the springtime! We had sparrows shaking in the trees, and the baby bees, though it hadn't quite got warm, were spying on the ivy. I was wearing blue. Gustave was standing by the window with a cup of Chinese tea, looking out at nothing as he sometimes does, and, nodding at the glass, he called out to me. "It must be Sylvie's girl," he said. I went to stand beside him, and as I pulled the curtain to the side I caught a whiff of his tobacco. I straightened up my slip beneath my skirt and set my toes right fast in the bottom of my shoes. I held my head high. Here we are, I thought, the hosts. And what a couple we still make. I stood beside my husband, and I looked down at the girl.

She had traveled from the station in a taxi. Her driver was a fat man, panting with the case he'd just extracted from the trunk of the Maria. He'd left the engine running. I could see the steam rise from the cab. And I could see the girl. Wild hair, thick and dark. A velvet purse was dangling from one long bony arm, and she was fumbling with her money. I thought Gustave must be wrong, that it had to be the other one, the unfortunate from Liège come a few days early. When she bent to gather up the coins she'd scattered in the stones, her spine showed through her dress. It can't be, I told him. That's got to be Thérèse. That cotton dress had seen far better days, and her white socks were bunched up at the ankles from a pair of buckled shoes. They must have got the days confused, I said, moving closer to my husband. Below us in the drive, the girl was nodding-bobbing at the driver as though he were a head of state, a king.

"No, don't you see?" he said. "She looks just like her father." All I could make out was that her dark-haired head was large and the rest of her was thin. The fat man raised an empty hand up to his temple and moved it in an arc out from his brow as if he were a gentleman tipping a good hat. The girl was easily amused, I saw. She giggled as he popped back into the cab.

I watched the taxi barrel down the drive, skidding on the gravel. Strange, I thought. Cars like his take people on fine trips now, and we don't think about it twice. Used to be a Black Maria meant the S.S. were out and coming to take stock. Well, the girl had no idea. As she said later, she feels like an American, doesn't know a thing about it, not Marias, not potato cakes, not hiding in a basement. And she's never heard of chicory.

Anyway she must have felt us looking at her, or perhaps a bird flew by, or there was a rustle in our ivy. Because she lifted up her chin and I saw exactly what she was. My goddaughter, what a sight. Gustave was right, she did look like her father-an Antwerp face with dusky, caterpillar eyebrows, like something in a cabaret. Though it was clear she was a girl, and it's true she was attractive in a serious sort of way, with a big and heavy head-a Hannah, or a Ruth, if you can get my meaning. Then I looked hard at her hemline and at those awful crumpled socks, and I caught sight of her knees. She did have stunning calves. That one time Sylvie came to Tunis with her husband, I remember thinking Hermann's shapely legs were wasted on a man.

She didn't have the sense to come knocking on the door. She just stood there, holding to the suitcase with both hands, that old purse drooping to the ground on its sorry knotted string. She stood biting at her lips, frowning at the ivy. A baby! Sylvie said she was sending a grown daughter and instead we got a baby. I thought, It's a good thing Gustave heard the car come in the first place, or she'd have stood there until lunchtime and we'd not have known a thing.

Downstairs, Gustave took her case away. She tried to shake his hand, but instead he put his arm around her shoulders and brought her in himself. I was quite surprised at him, although you will agree Gustave can be disarming when he remembers where he is. Arching her long neck like a farsighted person at a bug that's landed on their chest, Petra looked as if no man had ever put his hands on her before. What a cardigan! I thought. A thing the color of pea soup that slid all over her, and by the time she'd come into the foyer it had fallen off her shoulders and was bunched around her elbows. To convince myself again that this was the delinquent girl instead, I squinted. I opened my eyes wide. Let this not be mine. But it was not to be.

At that moment I was so distracted by her looks I couldn't think what her name was. Gustave-bless him, he always knows what things are called-must have sensed what I was thinking. "Petra," he said (to help me, I believe), "this is your godmother, Celeste." When she looked at me and smiled, she looked exactly like her mother and it took my breath away. Here is what was strange: she had her father's lips, full and wide from top to bottom, but quite short side to side, yes, Persianlike, you know, but when she smiled and brought out dimples, I could see old Sylvie laugh. What a combination. Dear God, I thought. Out loud I said, "That settles it. Petra. Goddaughter-of-mine." Gustave rolled his eyes, but I think he was amused. I kissed Petra on both cheeks and while I was leaning in she took my hands with hers and held them very tight. She kissed me back with her eyes closed. I smelled milk and eucalyptus on her. She's not a woman yet, I thought, no, she's just like a sick child.

I told Petra I'd have lunch for her quite soon, that she should bathe and change her clothes. She didn't speak, but she turned pink. Sylvie's smile and that dark hair. I never did get used to it. Gustave took her to the tower room, which I thought would be pleasant for her since you can see the chamomile and from the other window on clear days the bathhouses in Spa. I wanted her to understand how nice it is here, and to make sure Sylvie knew it, too.

She spent a very long time upstairs, I thought, and she used a lot of water. When she came down, her hair was even blacker. She'd tied it in a rag and changed into some trousers. I myself don't wear them, but women these days will, and she looked a little better than she first had in that dress. Brown trousers with a periwinkle blouse, and the pea-soup cardigan again. I thought she looked Polish. Or Italian. Petra.

For lunch we had salade frisée and eggs and some nice slices of roast beef I'd got in town from Chez Yvette. I asked Petra if she had ever eaten this before and Petra said that yes, her mother made it here and there, but the lettuce she was used to was not so nice as this. That bath must have done her good because she wasn't shy at lunch. She finished off the salad and asked for more meat twice. She clutched the fork in her right hand and barely used the knife, which I forgave her at the time, because they left when she was three.

Petra's French was not too bad. She didn't have an accent when she spoke, and although later I kept hoping that the girl would make mistakes, she didn't. But she thought hard about what words to choose, and sometimes she'd wait with her mouth open in an "o" until the right thing came to her. Son séjour améliorera peut-être son français, her mother'd written, hoping we could get the language streaming through her daughter's blood again. Elle n'a personne avec qui parler. Well, Petra had two people now to speak it with, and I impressed the fact upon her. We'll talk a lot together, you and me, I told her. I have a lot of novels. Petra nodded carefully across her empty plate. She was quiet for a moment. I wondered if she was imagining the two of us together on the terrace, as I was, companionable, sipping our cassis.

As it turned out, she spent very little time with me, even early on. Instead, she worked it up to say that she was very enthusiastic about walking by herself. She would like to see the grounds alone. Like a mental convalescent, I thought then (she did sometimes seem gloomy). "J'marche vite," she said. And I thought of telling her that I, too, in my time, could keep up a fine pace, but she smiled like Sylvie does, and to be truthful I felt warmly towards her, yes I did. I thought, She is a good child.

Gustave, who is not a hearty eater, was already drinking coffee. He said to Petra that if she was going to be looking at the topiary could she please not touch the animals, as he liked to be meticulous with the shaping and the binding of the boughs. I did feel he was harsh with her. He should put up a sign, I sometimes say-"Do Not Feed the Animals!"-and see what people think.

After lunch, Petra followed me right into the kitchen and I almost fell over with the shock of it when I turned and saw her with our three plates and silverware stacked up in her arms. The cardigan had slipped right off her back again. "Can I help you?" she asked me. I thought of telling her that it's not done to stroll into strange kitchens dropping dishes into other people's sinks-that's rude even in Morocco. But I didn't, no, I slapped those words right back down my throat, and said, Not today, dear. You sit down and start behaving like a guest. She was not stupid, no. I think she understood. She handed me the plates and then her mouth closed and she shuffled back without another word.

(Continues...)




Excerpted from Theft by N.S. Köenings Copyright © 2008 by N.S. Köenings. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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