Books

Review | 'foreign ground' Story collection excels at surprise endings

Iowa City author Kate Kasten takes her readers around the world — and deep into the psyches of her protagonists — in her new short story collection, “Foreign Ground.”

The collection’s eight stories feature individuals struggling to cope with new situations that lead to misunderstandings, sometimes of others but often of themselves.

The book’s opening story, “The Teaching Test,” focuses on a Chinese immigrant hoping to pass an English test that will allow him to teach in an American university. The piece has a bit of a “check the boxes” feel, as Kasten carefully describes each obstacle Professor Li Da-Ming encounters. As a result, the story feels more instructive than immersive.

“Home Fires,” the collection’s third entry, finds Kasten hitting her stride. The story imagines a young man who grows up unaware of the nature of the Nazi prison in his town.

He later immigrates to the United States and joins the military during the Vietnam War. It’s a dark story, but Hans Stollman comes fully to life on the page. Similarly, Hanna — a young wife embarrassed by her sexual yearnings — is convincingly rendered in “Pacific.”

Kasten has a taste for the surprise ending, a device employed unevenly in “Foreign Ground.” Sometimes, a twist successfully brings a story to a close, but in other cases — notably in “The Jack Story,” an otherwise strong piece about a family vacation gone wrong — the surprise seems forced.

Characterization is clearly Kasten’s strength, a strength she has demonstrated in previous work, including novels “The De-Conversion of Kit Lamb” and “Too Happy.”“Foreign Ground” is an imperfect collection, but offers many pleasures nonetheless.

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