Life and its surprising twists

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Although Margaret Atwood is best known for her prize-winning novels, her collection of short stories displays her talents as well, “Moral Disorder: Stories.”

 

Each story ends with an appealing, satisfying twist. The stories are vaguely connected, with herself possibly as the narrator, about her sister, her school, her father and her mother.

One of my favorites is “The Art of Cooking and Serving.” The narrator is a 12-year-old girl whose mother just had a baby. The girl is a wonderful help, but misses out on social life because she is always babysitting.

In the stunning end of this story, the baby is crying and the mother asks the girl to go take care of him. The daughter finally asserts herself with, “Why should I? I didn’t have the baby. You did.”

When her mother slaps her, they both are shocked, but the girl can now go and play.

In the last story, about her aged mother, the girl now a woman entertains her mother by reminiscing.

“Boys at the Lab” is the title, about men who had worked for her biologist father. Her mother can’t remember them all anymore.

One amusing part deals with a man from India. The mother remembers him one day, but never recalls him again.

So the daughter makes up a whole memory about him, that he probably came from a wealthy family and arrived in good clothes with expensive luggage and a tennis racket — only to find the Lab is on a lake in the woods, replete with black flies and mosquitoes. This is Atwood at her most inventive.

Instead of Atwood’s little girl, we meet a little boy in “The Good Thief,” a Young Adult book by Hannah Tinti. Twelve-year-old Ren lives in a monastery that accidentally becomes an orphanage. Missing a hand, he is teased by his peers and passed over by any farmer who visits looking for a hired boy. Because it’s St. Anthony’s monastery, Ren wants to know about the saint. Once, when he is being disciplined, he steals the “Lives of the Saints” when Brother John looks away.

Benjamin Nab comes along, claiming he is Ren’s brother. He tells a fabulous explanation of Ren’s handicap and is allowed to take him away. But Benjamin is a scoundrel who lives by his wits. He plans to use Ren’s handicap to win sympathy and donations from crowds.

Although Ren knows the difference between good and evil, having been trained by priests, he impresses Benjamin and his buddy, Tom, with the thought that Ren is one of them.

Ren prays often and apologizes to the saints, but he treasures his stolen book. When Benjamin takes it to a store and agrees to sell it for five cents, Ren is so disappointed that he steals “The Deerslayer” from the store. Ren has a vivid imagination that helps him tolerate hardships; he pictures himself as the Deerslayer whenever he reads it.

Benjamin has revolting ideas for making money, the worst of which is grave-robbing. But Benjamin is clever at talking himself out of difficulty and into havens. They find a wonderfully sympathetic woman to feed and house them till someday, when they will pay her.

The woman is so kind that she finds leftover clothes that she mends and tailors to fit Ren, who really needs them after some escapades.

The title gives a good hint that Ren will turn out all right even as a thief.

Have you ever wondered about salt when you were cooking or eating?

Mark Kurlansky has studied it thoroughly in his book “Salt.”

Starting from ancient China, then Egypt, then Rome. He eventually reaches America, where the pilgrims originally had to import salt before they learned to make it.

The gold and silver strikes in the West created a demand for more salt, and saltworks sprang up all over.

No chance of reading about salt without hearing of Morton’s. The largest salt producer in the world, it runs a saltworks in the Bahamas. This particular plant furnishes salt for de-icing roads, for water softeners and for fishermen, but none for the table.

Wonderful illustrations include an underground banquet hall with everything made of salt, even the chandeliers. A pleasure!

All of the above-mentioned titles and more are available at the public library.