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Originally published June 29, 2014 at 6:06 AM | Page modified July 1, 2014 at 10:39 AM

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‘Problems with People:’ the things that divide us

The stories in Bainbridge Island author David Guterson’s new collection “Problems with People” are linked by a common theme: People are different, and those differences can make you crazy.

Special to The Seattle Times


“Problems with People”

by David Guterson

Knopf, 163 pp., $25.95

David Guterson’s aptly named story collection, “Problems with People,” layers irony and humor on top of a single idea: Other people are made in their own image, not yours, and those differences can make you crazy if you let them.

The Bainbridge Island author best known for his novels — “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “Our Lady of the Forest,” “The Other” and “Ed King” among others — has a sharp eye for the quirks and contrariness that seem to emerge more freely as the wrinkles set in.

The collection starts with the search for romance and gets stronger — and funnier — as it progresses to a cast of curmudgeonly characters as seen from the next generation down. Middle-aged men, often lawyers, try to keep the lid on aging parents. One example is “Hot Springs,” which features a judge on a holiday weekend that’s no holiday from his Mom and Dad.

It’s Christmastime, and as a good Jewish son who is married to a non-Jewish woman, the judge must endure both his mother and the cheap tinsel that goes with the season. As he drives north from Seattle to British Columbia, Mom does all the talking.

“You know what I dislike about Canada?” she opines. “Everyone here is lily-white. Everyone here is a WASP.”

The judge interrupts.

“You’re sitting next to a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Mom. My wife. Your daughter-in-law. For whom ‘WASP’ is a derogatory term.”

Mom, leaning forward and putting a hand on her son’s shoulder, takes orders from no one, even a judge. “It’s a description. It describes. Don’t you know that?” she replies.

Other truth-tellers are the sick old man in “Hush,” whose dog walker must juggle his advice with the snarling pooch put in her charge, and the cranky Holocaust survivor in “Krassavitseh,” whose son has brought him to his native Germany to bear witness to the genocide.

The son, determined to show refinement and restraint, shakes the hand of their attractive female tour guide at trip’s end.

“What kind of goodbye is that?” his father declares, pulling the young woman into a parting hug.

Although Jewish characters appear intermittently through these stories, Guterson’s theme is universal: Getting along is push-pull, whether the power struggle exists between generations or between spouses.

In “Politics,” a doctor flies from America to Nepal after his estranged wife suffers serious injury in a car accident there. At the hospital in Katmandu, he announces his plans to transfer her to India, where she can get better medical care.

Can’t afford it, she says. I’ll pay, he says dismissively. Don’t want you to, she replies. This small window into their world, pitting his plan to take charge against her intention to decide for herself, spotlights the reason that their marriage is on the rocks.

If you’re the controlling sort — and who isn’t, to some degree — it’s often hard to give those closest to us the autonomy they want or even deserve. As his parents “approximated dancing” in the previously mentioned story, “Hot Springs,” the Jewish judge remarks to his wife, “I don’t get them at all.”

“Don’t try,” she advises, wisely. “Let’s dance!”

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and book critic.

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