Short Stories

I’m All Out of Love

Have you ever fallen out of love with an author? Recently on NetGalley I requested a book of stories by a writer whose stories and novels I used to love. I have read at least five of this author’s books (three collections, two novels), and one collection in particular I have recommended many times to people who were interested in reading short stories but were not sure where to start.

I was excited about this new story collection. (And I’ll confirm that I am not talking about Lorrie Moore’s Bark, which I own in hardback but have not even opened yet.) The first story was one I had already read when it was published elsewhere. I remember thinking it was okay. On second reading, I was even less impressed.

This author does tend to visit the same themes over and over again, but a lot of authors (Alice Munro, for example) do that successfully over the course of an entire career. I can appreciate this, as long as I continue to see the author handling certain themes or subject matter in new ways—when I can see the author has turned the thing this way, and then again that way, and realized that perhaps long-held ideas were misguided, or the result of pride or vanity or anything, really.

What I found in this new collection was that this author seems to have stopped seeing things through the prism of age or changing culture or world events and is instead viewing them through a single lens, one with an old prescription. I feel as though I have seen these characters before, in these same situations, responding in the same ways, and it leaves me thinking, “Really? Again?” It’s like watching an old friend repeatedly make the same mistakes. Or maybe it’s the way I’m reading? My expectations were too high, perhaps?

I am being purposely coy and not naming names (or even revealing gender) because I feel that I can still recommend the author’s past books. But I’m afraid I won’t be reviewing this one, and I’ll never suggest it.

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

All Hail Alice Munro! All Hail the Short Story!

Unless you live under a rock or simply do not care about literature at all (why are you here, by the way?), then you probably know by now that Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. I heard the news this morning on NPR. I gave a whoop and started to cry; I was so happy to hear the news because Alice Munro is my favorite author, and I know I’m not alone!

“This is quite a wonderful thing for me. It’s a wonderful thing for the short story.”—Alice Munro

But another reason to be happy is that this is such a significant award given to a writer dedicated to the short story form. I did not know, until I started this blog and became acquainted with other book bloggers, how many readers–even readers of ‘serious’ literature–have an aversion to the short story. I’ve often wondered why that is, but the attitude is not an uncommon one, even if the reasons are singular and unique.

“Because I work in the short story form, this is a special thing, to get this recognition.” —Alice Munro

Earlier this year, an article on Gawker took American writer George Saunders to task for never having written a novel. The premise? Real writers write novels…enough playing at all this short story business. Short stories are for MFA theses. They are for dallying and tinkering with between writing real books. They are not serious literature. That story garnered quite a bit of criticism when it was published, but hopefully now we can begin to put the debate to rest (or at least lock it in a closet where we can’t hear the muffled cries of outrage).

In honor of Ms. Munro being awarded the prize, I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite short story collections.  I hope you find something you like here.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro (Favorite stories: “Post and Beam” and the title story, soon to be a movie starring Kristin Wiig. Candian actress, director, and activist Sarah Polley also made the film Away from Her, which was based on “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the last story in this collection.)

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

“Well I hope [the prize brings a new readership], and I would hope this would happen not just for me but for the short story in general, because it’s often sort of brushed off you know as something people do before they write their first novel, and I would like it to come to the fore without any strings attached sort of. It doesn’t have to be a novel.” —Alice Munro

*Alice Munro quotes from her telephone interview today with Nobel member Adam Smith. You can listen to the call in its entirety here.

**Image from The New York Times

***Updated 10/14/2013 to add link for short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” now available on The New Yorker site.

New Year, New Books (Part 2)

Please pardon my really super fabulous photography skills. Thank goodness I don’t have a food blog. I actually have thought about sharing some recipes here from time to time, but every picture I take of food…well, something happens, and let’s just say the photo never looks like anything anyone would want to eat. Ever.

As promised, in New Year, New Books (Part 1), I am sharing the “real” books I bought for Christmas. Even with the funky flash action I think you can kinda see all the titles. I am not ashamed to admit that Downton Abbey is completely responsible for my renewed interest in World War I, so I bought The Guns of August and The Proud Tower: A Portrait of the World Before the War, 1890-1914 by Barbara Tuchman, as well as Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davis. The Guns of August won a Pulitzer, so it must be brilliant. I expect good things.

Sort of by accident I ended up with two Civil War era reads. I have had Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln on my wishlist since President Obama was elected the first time around. America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation by David Goldfield was a very recent addition to my wishlist after I heard Nancy Pearl talk about it on NPR back in November 2012. (For the record, she also talked about Liz Moore’s Heft, which I also purchased.) Here in the South, the Civil War never dies, and after many states started petitions to secede after President Obama’s recent election (and to be fair, not just states here in the South), I was curious to read about this concept of “nation” at a time when people seem more divided than ever.

I guess you can see that lately I am going through some kind of history craze (oh lord don’t let it leave me now that I spent all my Christmas money). I bought Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created after hearing this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air.  Trust me: he’s so engaging, if you listen to the interview, you’ll want to buy the books, too!

Of course, I had to buy some more fiction (although who knows when I’ll get to it, with all those other huge tomes and the fact that I read about 30 words a day). Because I feel like practically the only person who has not read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, I decided it was high time I got around to it. I know I added The Report by Jessica Francis Kane to my wishlist back in 2010 not long after I read Sarah Waters’s The Night Watch because I was interested in reading more novels about World War II. The two Charles Portis novels, Norwood and The Dog of the South I bought because I love True Grit so much, I am determined to read all his books. I bought only one short story collection, American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and has been on my list since it was published in 2009. And then, finally, I bought Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity, because I’ll never stop dreaming…although with all this reading to do, who has time to write?

*Just a little note: All these links are from Amazon, but I am in no way affiliated with them and I do not make any money should you choose to purchase one of these books because you know how cool I am and you probably want to read all the same books I read. I feel so much better for having said that.

Paris Review: Dorothy Parker

Interviewer: How about the novel? Have you ever tried that form?

Parker: I wish to God I could do one, but I haven’t got the nerve.

Interviewer: And short stories? Are you still doing them?

Parker: I’m trying now to do a story that’s purely narrative. I think narrative stories are the best, though my past stories make themselves stories by telling themselves through what people say. I haven’t got a visual mind. I hear things. But I am not going to do those he-said, she said things anymore, they’re over, honey, they’re over. I want to do the story that can only be told in the narrative form, and though they’re going to scream about the rent, I’m going to do it.

Interviewer: Do you think economic security an advantage to the writer?

Parker: Yes. Being in a garret doesn’t do you any good unless you’re some sort of a Keats. The people who lived and wrote well in the twenties were comfortable and easy living. They were able to find stories novels, and good ones, in conflicts that came out of two million dollars a year, not a garret. As for me, I’d like to have money. And I’d like to be a good writer. These two can come together, and I hope they will, but if that’s too adorable, I’d rather have money. I hate almost all rich people, but I think I’d be a darling at it. At the moment, however, I like to think of Maurice Baring’s remark: “If you would know what the Lord God thinks of money, you have only to look at those to whom he gives it.” I realize that’s not much help when the wolf comes scratching at the door, but it’s a comfort.

*photo from nndb.com; interview excerpt from The Paris Review Interviews, vol. I

Paris Review: John Cheever

Interviewer: What comes first, the plot?

Cheever: I don’t work with plots. I work with intuition, apprehension, dreams, concepts. Characters and events come simultaneously to me. Plot implies narrative and a lot of crap. It is a calculated attempt to hold the reader’s interest at the sacrifice of moral conviction. Of course, one doesn’t want to be boring…one needs an element of suspense. But a good narrative is a rudimentary structure, like a kidney.

*photo from Wikipedia; quote from Paris Review Interviews, vol. III

TSS: May is Short Story Month

sunsalon1Happy Mother’s Day to all you mothers out there. My own “child,” my cat Diva, is unfortunately under lockdown in our guest bathroom. She had to have radioactive iodine treatment for hyperthyroidism, which is common in older cats (she is 17, but doesn’t look a day over 10…even the vet cannot believe it). We have to keep her semi-isolation for two weeks, and lap cat that she is, she is not happy about this fact at all. Let’s just say, I am not expecting a gift. Not even a card.

I mentioned this yesterday, but May is Short Story Month. Dan Wickett at the Emerging Writers Network blog has long been an advocate for a national short story month, and this year Poets & Writers magazine is getting into the mix and supporting the idea as well. I am late to the party as usual (and in fact was technically not even invited), but I greatly support the idea of a national short story month so I have decided to devote every Wednesday for the rest of the month to discussing short story collections I have read and enjoyed in the past, hopefully to help generate more interest in the short story as a form. I’ve never understood the whole West Side Story thing between the short story and the novel, like they were rival gangs squaring off in the aisles of bookstores and libraries. I have also never understood why some people believe that the short story is some sort of practice for writing a novel. The forms are distinct, but they are both meaningful. I don’t think anybody would ever say (I would hope nobody would ever say) a poet writes poems because he or she is not ready to write a longer work. They are all distinct forms of art, and no less valuable for it.

A few weeks ago–when I was completely unaware of Short Story Month, by the way–I mentioned that I wanted to spend more time discussing short stories. Part of my inspiration for wanting to do so was finding Charles May’s excellent blog, Reading the Short Story. I cannot remember how I found it, but I am so happy that I did. Charles discusses individual stories, collections, and the form and art of the short story as a whole. He is a passionate advocate for the short story, and the literary world could use more people like him. After reading his blog, I realized that in my earlier post about the short story I may have done the form a disservice. I said that I had studied them so deeply that for a period I could no longer enjoy them. That statement is not entirely true. I certainly did not mean that stories are so opaque, take so much work to unlock, that one must read so deeply that reading becomes a chore. I think a lot of people put that sort of pressure on the form–having to read for language and metaphor rather than “story,” whatever that means–and expect it to be more difficult than it really is. I simply went through a period of time where I worked so hard to understand how writers constructed their stories, from the point of view of trying to understand how to construct my own, that I had exhausted myself. My disappointment in my own writing was at an all-time high, and my energy for reading at an all-time low.

Anyhow, I am not here to discuss my own efforts at writing, but rather to talk about stories and collections I have enjoyed in the past, and as the year continues, to share some new (to me) collections with you. I’ve already reviewed several collections, including Mary Yakuri Waters’s Laws of Evening, Bobbie Ann Mason’s Shiloh and Other Stories, and Lauren Groff’s Delicate Edible Birds. Over the coming weeks I hope to highlight stories from Marly Swick, Mary Robison, David Gates, Amy Hempel, Antonya Nelson, and Charles Baxter, among others, and I hope that you will share some of your favorites in the comments.

*Short Story Month logo designed by Stephen Seighman; copied from Emerging Writers Network

Paris Review: Alice Munro

May is Short Story Month, and Alice Munro, along with being one of my favorite writers, is an undisputed master of the short story form. If you have not read any of her work, I suggest you get your hands on one of her collections, pronto. My personal favorite is Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage.

Interviewer: Were you a big reader growing up? What work if any had an influence?

Munro: Reading was my life really until I was thirty. I was living in books. The writers of the American South were the first writers who really moved me because they showed me that you could write about small towns, rural people, and that kind of life I knew very well. But the thing about the Southern writers that interested me, without my really being aware of it, was that all the Southern writers whom I really loved were women. I didn’t really like Faulkner that much. I loved Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers. There was a feeling that women could write about the freakish, the marginal.

Interviewer: Which you’ve always done as well.

Munro: Yes, I came to feel that was our territory, whereas the mainstream big novel about real life was men’s territory. I don’t know how I got that feeling of being on the margins; it wasn’t that I was pushed there. Maybe it was because I grew up on a margin. I knew there was something about the great writers I felt shut out from, but I didn’t know quite what it was. I was terrible disturbed when I first read D.H. Lawrence. I was often disturbed by writers’ views of female sexuality.

Interviewer: Can you put your finger on what it was that disturbed you?

Munro: It was: how can I be a writer when I’m the object of other writers?

*photo from abebooks.com; interview from The Paris Review Interviews, vol.II

Sunday Salon: Cheating

sunsalon1Lately my main squeeze is Gone with the Wind, but I admit it: I’ve been stepping out with Best American Short Stories 2008, edited by Salman Rushdie. In a sense I can’t really consider it cheating; after all, I’ve been with this collection at least once every year since 1992. Usually I buy it in January and read it straight through from cover to cover. This year has been unusual in many ways, one of which was my not getting around to cracking the spine on this collection until this month. I’m about halfway through and I must say, I am underwhelmed for the first time in many years. I’m not sure if Mr. Rushdie and I simply have different taste, or if perhaps it’s just my mood. Most of the stories are fine–but then, that’s the problem. They’re just fine. And they’re supposed to be the best.

Out of the eight stories I’ve read (there are twenty in the collection, and one of the remaining stories is an Alice Munro story, which I’m almost guaranteed to like, and also one Tobias Wolff story that makes me hopeful), only one has really stood out as excellent (“The Year of Silence,” by Kevin Brockmeyer) and one was solidly good (“From The Desk of Daniel Varsky,” by Nicole Krauss), and the rest have been sort of meh. Disappointing. For instance, I love T.C. Boyle’s stories, as a rule, but the opening story of this collection, “Admiral”–well, it feels like he’s phoning it in, as they say. Same with A.M. Homes and Allegra Goodman. 

I cannot remember the last year I didn’t plow through this collection, finishing it in a day or two. But I’m finding that when I get to the end of each story, I’m more than ready to set the book down. Perhaps it will improve as I go on, or upon a second read. Maybe after last year’s really stand out collection–with guest editor Stephen King, no less; you could have knocked me over with a feather–this one just seems sort of (yawn) typical. Last year, after all, had Lauren Groff’s wonderful “L. DeBard and Aliette,” Karen Russell’s “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” and Jim Shepard’s amazing “Sans Farine,” a story told from the point of view of the man who operates the guillotine during the French Revolution.

Or maybe these modern stories aren’t gripping me because I’m so wrapped up in the Confederate South, so much so that when I’m not reading I’m yammering on and on about the story to my husband. In fact, I can hear Scarlett stamping her feet and demanding my attention even as I write this, and I think Rhett’s going to show up again soon, and I definitely don’t want to miss him. Happy Sunday to everyone!

Reader’s Journal: Delicate Edible Birds

Several years ago, bookstore shelves suddenly seemed crammed full of story collections about twenty- and thirty-something mini-skirted women who were unable to love, unable to hold down a job, unable to commit, unable to lose weight, unable to find a boyfriend. After tearing through four or five of these collections–all interchangeable, really–I found myself unable to read anymore. The characters in these books were little more than overwrought, angst-ridden, boozy versions of the girls on Friends, and at some point I wondered if book publishers were starting to suffer from the same disease as record labels, the disease where they find one band or album that’s a hit, and then try to recreate it, over and over again. This formula works well for creating popular books that sell, but probably does not work so well for supporting art.

What a shame, then, for Lauren Groff, because Delicate Edible Birds is art. The nine stories in this collection all focus on women at different stages in their lives, at different points in history, even in different countries. These stories read like tiny novels, self-contained worlds, even as ideas bounce and echo between them, so that the collection as a whole reads as a sort of palimpsest, a complicated history of women’s experiences that transcends both the personal (or domestic) and the political and enters a sort of nether region: these stories read more like allegories or fairy tales–an element Groff relies upon heavily–than traditional short stories. Groff reminds me of another favorite writer of mine, Margaret Atwood. As in Atwood’s work, there always seem to be darker forces at play, bits of magic shaping fortune.

If I did not have to return this book to the library, I would keep it and read it again, probably more than once, because I can find no way to come at it head on. This collection is like some complicated piece of furniture from the Eighteenth century: it looks like a table, but flip that lever and up pops a set of shelves, some drawers. Open the drawers or pull another lever and find more drawers, little slots, secret removable boxes. It’s both wondrous and infuriating, because I feel as though I’ve taken it all apart, but I have no way to put it back together again so I can show it to you.

So I’ll talk a bit about the stories. Although I enjoyed almost every story in the book and would like to talk about all of them, I’ve picked a few: “Lucky Chow Fun,” “Majorette,” “Sir Fleeting,” and “Blythe.”

In “Lucky Chow Fun,” a young woman, Lollie, looks back to tell the story of a sex scandal that gripped the small town where she grew up; “The year,” as she puts it, “we natives stopped looking one another in the eye.” Like a lot of teenagers, Lollie believes herself to be wise beyond her years: “I imagined myself a beautiful Cassandra, wandering vast and lonely halls, spilling prophecies that everyone laughed at, only to watch them to come tragically true in the end.” In truth, Lollie is always looking in the wrong direction, imagining danger when there is none, and missing the most obvious signs. For example, her younger sister, Pot, owns an ever-expanding collection of taxidermied birds, but Lollie never stops to wonder how Pot–a fourth grader with no friends to speak of–is adding items to her collection with such regularity, even as she worries that Pot will be abducted or raped by someone in the woods. And at the Lucky Chow Fun, the Chinese restaurant at the core of the scandal, she thinks only of the greasy food and whether one of the boys on the diving team will ask her to the winter dance, missing altogether the signs of what’s really happening.

After the town scandal breaks, Lollie tells her mother, “ ’…I don’t think people are made to take truths straight-on, Mom. It’s too hard. You need something to soften them. A metaphor or a story or something.” Lollie is the person who needs the fairy tales, the folklore, and the myths. She cannot face the truth of her father leaving, of what happened to her town, even as she looks back as an adult to tell the story.

“Majorette,” my favorite story in the collection, outlines the life of a woman from birth into middle age. Such a simple thing, it seems, a life where nothing spectacular happens: siblings arrive; parents drink and fight; girl discovers a dream, dates, stops dating, studies, twirls, goes to college, meets a boy–meets the boy–marries, has children of her own. Everything about this girl–she has no name–is in the details, the moments Groff chooses to frame, from the banal to the resplendent:

“On Saturdays the girl pushed the littlest three in the swings at the park when her mother was in the church basement, waiting for a boxful of dented cans and dandruffy cake mixes. At home, there were endless projects, her mother bent over the sewing machine crafting trousers out of curtains, remaking some little Anabaptist’s dress into something the girl wouldn’t hate, perhaps even a skirt the other girls would finger with envy, wondering what boutique it was from.”

“She took that hollow ringing in her and twirled it away, twirled in the basement in the foulest weather, when her hands stuck to the metal in the cold and she could not practice on the lawn. In her bed at night, her fingers flicked imaginary batons in the air. She sent batons spinning up like whirligigs into the night sky, batons flipping around her body like ions to her atom, batons spinning about her like glittering wings. She twirled through her legs and over her body as if her batons were her very own limbs.”

“Sir Fleeting” tells the story of a woman’s involvement with a rich playboy throughout the course of her life. The woman–we never know her name, only the playboy’s moniker for her, la bergere, or the shepherdess–meets Ancel de Chair on her honeymoon with her first husband in Buenos Aires. She says of her husband: “I knew my husband, knew he had always congratulated himself for seeing the allure of a farm girl he thought other men would overlook.” But the truth is, throughout the story, even through her second and third husbands, after she has dropped weight and gained money, after several–if you will, fleeting–encounters with Ancel de Chair, after she finds herself in a high rise apartment with a respectable art collection, preparing for her granddaughter’s wedding, she still thinks of herself as the farm girl, and it is her final visit with Ancel de Chair that releases her from the spell, enables her to see herself as she really was, really is.

My least favorite story in the collection was “Blythe,” and I admit this is probably because the sort of dysfunction on display in this story holds no interest for me in life or on the page. In this story, Harriet, a lawyer-turned-housewife, attends a poetry workshop where she meets a fellow student, Blythe, and is swept up into a tumultuous friendship. Blythe resembles some sort of Anne Sexton feminist** nightmare: smoking, drinking, pill-popping, plagued by anorexia. She becomes a performance artist, in a very Cixousian “write the body write the blood” sort of way, and as she develops and performs her pieces, alienating her husband and her children, growing ever more uncontrollable, Harriet trails along behind her, picking up the pieces and putting them back together again, sublimating her own wishes to write for the sake of her friend, which she explains as “midwifery”:

“I admired how Blythe used her body, the shock of her, there was too much Milton and Frost in me for my own stabs at such dramatics to be anything but undignified. While Blythe created new pieces at a fevered pitch throughout the summer and fall, I wrote of gardening and politics, of sense and memory, of things safely domestic. I saved the secret thrill of transgression for Blythe’s work, proud to help her birth her strange little creatures, because it was midwifery. I was the one to contact the galleries, to drive Blythe to the theaters, to call the press, to organize. I was the woman behind the camera for the videos of her performances, Blythe’s very first audience. All the while I scribbled poem after poem in the ragged notebooks I salvaged at the end of my daughters’ school year, and only dared show Blythe the best.”

She’s like a stage mother of the damned. Of course, I didn’t skip a page. The writing was too good, and the whole time I was reading these stories, I worried that I might miss something. I’m sure there are drawers I didn’t open, knobs I missed, buttons and levers overlooked. Read this yourself, and see if you can uncover all the secrets, scrape away the layers, find the magic.

*image from amazon.com
**I have nothing against Anne Sexton, by the way, or feminism