Summer reading time again. First down is True Tales of American Life, edited and introduced by Paul Auster (with grateful thanks to Paul C for the gift). I am a great fan of Auster’s fiction though, as readers of this blog will know, I think he has gone off the boil a little with his last few novels. When I first saw True Tales I thought ‘what a brilliant commercial project!’ Basically, through a radio programme slot, Auster encouraged his listeners to send in their own (true, short) stories. Of the four thousand-odd pieces submitted to what became the National Story Project, Auster selected 179 and these, edited by him and a team of helpers, became the published compilation. Each author is personally mentioned, of course, so the book was guaranteed considerable sales (relations, friends…). However, by the time I had got a short way into the book I had banished such cynical thoughts. The trademark of Auster’s fiction is coincidence rendered meaningful by subsequent events, and the best of the stories in the book out-Auster Auster in this regard. Scientists, psychologists, mathematicians and statisticians would doubtless have explanations for all of the apparently inexplicable coincidences and premonitions recounted by Auster’s contributors, but that is not the point. For, in telling their stories, these Americans tell us all about themselves and their land. Take, for example, this fragment: ‘A branch line of the Milwaukee Railroad ran from Sioux Falls through Vienna and Naples and on up to Bristol…’ Take any map of the US and Europe is all over it. It’s as though somebody plucked up all the names of European towns and cities, chucked in a few indigenous Indian names for good luck, then shook everything up and cast them randomly over the map. Some of the contributors were just one generation away from the immigrants who had first toiled to render so many inhospitable parts of the land habitable. If I had to choose one story from this book it would be South Dakota, submitted by Nancy Peavy, which recounts the mysterious disappearance of a local rich girl from a small German-Danish agricultural community on the South Dakota plains. Fields in that region had to lie fallow for many years, and the mystery was only finally resolved when such a field was at last put to the plough and her remains, together with those of an aborted foetus, were found; the victims of a botched job by a back street abortionist. If I have one quibble, it is with the title. It should have been True Tales of American Lives.