Picks and Pans Review: Not Where I Started from
Kate Wheeler's short stories make for effortless travel between places as disparate as the pantry of an Argentine villa and the basement of a Burmese monastery. Her characters are often self-absorbed American women in faraway places searching for spiritual resolution but finding themselves disillusioned.
Perhaps because Wheeler spent most of her childhood shuttling among several South American countries, she is blessed with an uncanny ability to summon up a foreign ethos in a brief description. In the story "Improving My Average," a young girl recounting her family's short slay in Cartagena recalls dancing with a lame maid. "We hardly needed music, for in Cartagena an itching syncopation lived in the air itself. On that big balcony we pursued each other, wriggling our shoulders like lovesick pigeons, burning each other's faces with imaginary candles."
Stringing together all Wheeler's tales is the thread of spiritual yearning, epitomized in the story "Snow Leopard, Night Bird." A few followers of a New Age guru in Mill Valley, Calif., discover that their so-called "liberated" teacher is actually abusing his spiritual power. In "Ringworm," a woman, forced to leave a Burmese monastery prematurely because of political unrest, learns that her most profound spiritual connection after five months of meditation has been with a stray cat. This collection, decorated by both 0. Henry and Best American Short Story prizes, is the skillful work of a fiercely self-examining writer in search of a peace that becomes, again and again, the goal of her restless characters. (Houghton Mifflin, $19.95)