Short stories, female authors, prizewinners and New England

Labor Day Weekend!  The last hurrah of summer and the heralding of Ugg boots and the pumpkin spice latte.  The picture is a white tulip because I am in denial that summer is closing up.

My son also starts kindy this week.  His behavior in school might be a little touch and go, but I am not the professional here and I must trust the cat herders better known as kindergarten teachers to help him be successful.

I am not sad about this milestone.  I never thought I would make it through his infancy.  He has been loved and wanted since before he even existed and is a kind and empathic child, but I have so much else to fill my time than simply caring for someone small.  Paradoxically (and altogether normally) I try to snatch up the chances I have to be close to him while he still wants me.

But today the post is about short story collections by women authors.  Female masters of the craft.  Not only masters, but they are all about people living in New England, synchronistically enough.  Three books of short stories by women with the same setting.

It started with the BookRiot Read Harder 2017 Challenge I am not doing (haha) with

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The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (A book of short stories written by a female author)

I have long felt incomplete as a reader without this treasure trove under my belt and now that I have read it, I was correct in that surmise.  The first story absolutely blew me away and I found out later that it was of course published in The New Yorker.  Like, of course it was.

This one also got the Pulitzer in 2000, which pleases me due to its’ heavy theme on immigration and assimilation.  I read BookRiot’s post on tackling the Pulitzers and how they are mostly white men with white men problems. I never wanted to tackle the list in its’ entirety but I have wanted to do 2000-today and this book made me glad I made that choice. (Although there are sadly some abandoned books hiding out in even that snippet of the list).  It is adept and beautiful and presents complex but also every day  issues without being heavy handed or maudlin.  For example, in the title story, a man who drives taxis for tourists gets attention that he thinks is special and personal from a pretty and trapped wife, only to find, after he has created a love affair in his mind, that she has misunderstood him and wants him to help her understand her own devastation. It generates empathy and understanding for the experiences of those new to being here.  It’s an essential piece to being well read.

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Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman

I randomly selected this book as a lighter break to The Underground Railroad.  I didn’t do badly with getting through that one in a timely manner but it’s difficult constantly caring about a protagonist in whose safety you can never be assured.  Sometimes when I am driving between clinics I need lighter fare and I thought this was it.

Turns out this really wasn’t lighter, even though it was shorter.  The stories center around a house that was built in early New England by a fisherman whose intention it was to start farming out of love for his wife and who drowned, with his sons, at sea.  The mothers complex grief seems to color the stories of all the future inhabitants.  And there is lots and lots of future grief to be had by that house as it moves forward in time, with a white blackbird as a swooping harbinger. It is a place that started as manifested dream and others try to make it manifest as their own separate dreams along the way. Usually when the stories are their most soul crushing it ends and another one begins to crush your soul in a new way.  So I had a solid week of reading that pressed on my optimism about life.

And so with these two under my belt I decided to go for three, and another Pulitzer winner whose audio was already in my Audible:

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Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Now, I feel that Strout is often highly praised and I feel like I have heard more praise for My Name is Lucy Barton but I was also more aware of it when it was released. I will want to see how I feel about Lucy in comparison to this one.  Olive is a series of interwoven but independent short stories in themselves with Olive as the thread, even when she is an ancillary, rather than the point of view character. Some are further removed through her husband.  Maybe because this is the freshest read and I was considering this post throughout the foray of reading it, but this one to me was largely about white people grappling with grief and disappointment.  I got bored of some of the problems, although I feel that Olive’s sadness and bafflement over why her son would move away to have his family and his life away from her that continues despite his explanation is something that many parents of adult children can relate to.  A side of her that is hinted at in the first story is further expostulated on later, and it takes her awhile, but thankfully she eventually gets some insight and tries to do better.  I was more frustrated with the book before this point, which happened in the last 30-40 minutes of the audiobook. I was finishing it on a short errand drive and I felt vindicated when she finally pulled her head from her rear. Clearly she remains likable though, evidenced by how much I wanted her to do better.  Essentially, though, this is a book for white people grief and disappointment.

Olive Kitteridge did not dazzle me as much as other Pulitzers (not as much as Interpreter did, certainly) and yet I did not think it was the total baffling waste of space as A Visit From the Goon Squad,  or abandoned as Gilead.  It was middling.  I don’t know what the selection committee felt was so remarkable about it.

Different people from different places intersecting in New England with women writing about it. These books were all very different, as only a good writer can write about the same place and make it new throughout time and personal histories.

The next post is up for debate in my mind, but stay tuned.

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