Posts Tagged ‘stories’

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing Rebecca Lee’s wonderful story collection Bobcat and Other Stories for the Chattahoochee Review (33.2-3).

OF DUST AND EROS: A REVIEW OF REBECCA LEE’S BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES
lee_bobcatBobcat and Other Stories. Rebecca Lee. Algonquin. 2013. 212 pp. $14.95 (paperback).

One of my favorite poems is George Herbert’s “The Pulley,” in which he speaks of the “glass of blessings” God bestowed upon man at his creation. God imparts strength, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure, but withholds “rest,” believing that if he gives him everything, man would “adore my gifts instead of me.”  As Herbert writes,

Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.

 The characters that populate Rebecca Lee’s Bobcat and Other Stories experience the same restlessness of Herbert’s poem. Lee’s characters are all propelled by desire: for love, connection, recognition, understanding, and a place in the world. Their desire as perpetual restlessness drives Lee’s stories and their characters, most of them academics, artists, and students.

The book opens with “Bobcat,” a big story in a small setting, and perhaps my favorite, about a dinner party between friends and narrated by a pregnant lawyer questioning the authenticity of her friends’ troubled relationships, as well as her own. I had just read the title story when I visited a friend one night while his wife and daughter were away. Over dinner we caught up on the routines of our lives. My friend spoke about a recent outing with his family he described as “nearly perfect” if not for an ongoing disagreement with his wife that left him frustrated and weary. He believed they would never settle the issue, and the constant friction troubled him. It was then that I fully understood Lee’s story, particularly the sentence in which the protagonist’s husband is seen squatting in an Irish field: “This field grew out of not dirt, but pebbles really. It surprised me that anything could grow out of those stones, but there was a bright-green grass that seemed to be thriving, and a lot of bluebells” (16).

Lee guides us through the cozy but extravagant dinner party with friends and colleagues, in which the French dessert, a terrine the protagonist attempts, the “perfect melding of disparate entities,” reflects how relationships survive and fail in similar states (3). Such an assembly of ingredients, such care and effort to create a dessert barely contained in its own wobbling shell. The volatile mix of components feels like the marriages we witness in the story—a chaotic splendor, each one on the verge of collapse. It’s what they, and, by association, we do with this potential for collapse that keeps us invested and going forward. When a friend of the protagonist declares she wants none of it and asks why people fall in love and get married, the narrator rationalizes that “nobody really knows. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed not to do it” (12). It’s in the doing, in the attempt at order, that we find the answer. Lee reminds us, “You would no more expect to find peace within a family than you would expect to find it in yourself” (16). We are all chaos barely contained. Though the protagonist’s marriage will not survive infidelity and a miscarriage, she recognizes, like her client, a Hmong immigrant on trial for allowing his wife to die when he refused to seek Western medical treatment, that sometimes God requires “a living sacrifice in place of a person, to balance out the forces of life and death” (19).

I found familiar territory in the other stories too, as Lee evokes nostalgia for an academia cradled in perpetual autumn, when professors were wrapped in “elaborate historical” (65) selves, comfortable and imposing in offices overlooking campus color, when “murderous innocence” (63) and youthful desire were offered in exchange for knowledge and distinction. Her nostalgia is steeped in an appreciation for art and language, its limitations and possibilities, musical descriptions affectionately rendering scenes on college campuses, across elegant dinner tables with colleagues, and at rural artistic residencies. There were so many lovely passages that my copy of the book is dyed in yellow highlighter. This review could easily have been a collection of those lyric moments. Lee’s characters allude to Ovid, Rilke, Auden, and Wharton. Readers outside academia or the arts might find the nostalgia isolating. But academia merely gives Lee’s characters a setting in which to struggle with the universal desire for permanence and order. Lee finds particular wealth when she mines the relationships between student and teacher, as told from the student’s point of view, reflective, often whimsical, first person recollections that probe the mysteries of relationships, art, and language.

In “The Banks of the Vistula” we witness a relationship borne of deceit when a freshman plagiarizes her first linguistics paper in order to stand out. Her professor recognizes the plagiarism, stolen from a rare text of Soviet propaganda, and they embark on a game of cat and mouse in which the young woman’s professor befriends and eventually coaxes her to own the text she has stolen at a university symposium, despite its outdated and shocking content. The student Margaret says:

He was my teacher… and [he] stood in front of the high windows, to teach me my little lesson, which turned out to be not about Poland or fascism or war, borderlines or passion or loyalty, but just about the sentence: the importance of, the sweetness of. And I did long for it, to say one true sentence of my own, to leap into the subject, that sturdy vessel traveling upstream through the axonal predicate into what is possible; into the object, which is all possibility; into what little we know of the future, of eternity—the light of which, incidentally, was streaming in on us just then through the high windows. (65-66)

The beautiful “Fialta” explores a similar student/teacher dynamic when an architecture student discovers the incongruities between desire and fulfillment at an artistic residency (Fialta) hosted by the fabled mentor Franklin Stadbakken, whose single restriction is that residents not sleep with each other. The protagonist finds his longing for Sands, another resident, is complicated by Stadbakken’s own problematic interest in the student. He asks Sands if Stadbakken is in love with her. “‘Not in love, no,’ she said. Which of course made me think that his feelings for her were nothing so simple or banal as love” (169). Like many of the other stories in this collection, underneath the narrative tension we find that life is like “the simplest buildings,” which ought to be “productions of the imagination that attempt to describe and define life on earth… an overwhelming mix of stability and desire, fulfillment and longing, time and eternity” (178).

In “Min,” Sarah, a restless American college student in the late 1980s, accepts an invitation from her classmate to spend a summer in Hong Kong working for his father at an overcrowded and politically sensitive refugee camp. She also agrees to interview prospective brides for Min’s arranged marriage, using the notes his grandmother took when fulfilling the same duty for Min’s father years before. While Sarah wrestles with her own desire, for both Min and a clearer understanding of a world out of balance and suffering “compassion fatigue,” she discovers that longing does not always lead to fulfillment (102). In the grandmother’s notes, she finds a formula for women: “two-thirds contentment, one-third desire,” a principle that “seemed to capture the entire world in its tiny palm” (117). Summer ends and Sarah concludes her interviews, introducing Min instead to an unlikely prospect she meets in a street market: an outspoken Filipino amah whose background would be “a lot to overcome” (125). As Sarah witnesses Vietnamese refugees preparing to be deported, she realizes that desire can sometimes become a liability, an ache that will never be satisfied.

Lee unearths beauty in every landscape whether in a post-dinner party bliss and the fantasy of timelessness that resides there to the “collection of mangled bones” that “every man stands before as he declares life good.” Like the husband in the title story, Lee believes words are “fascinating—their origins and mutations, their ability to combine intricately,” and shades each story as a “collection of treasures, a pleasure-taking, a finding of everything praiseworthy.” Her characters long for fulfillment professionally and personally, but find that human relationships are thorny and happiness is elusive. In this transformation of desire into art Lee finds life in the “little treats—little chocolates and liqueurs, after the meal, so that as the night decelerates there is no despair” (28).

BYARM_24

Illustrated by Max Currie

 

Now, how does it feel to be one of the beautiful people? Ozman said, as he applied lipstick to Kumi’s celebrated pouty lips. Her efforts at resistance only smeared the makeup across her cheeks and over her chin, until she looked like an inept clown. She laughed weakly. The defiance that had been there died, fear growing like the dark rose around Kent’s eye. Ozman gently lifted Kumi’s hair from her eyes, inspected his work, then stood and turned to include Kent, opening his arms. Now, for my final and most magnificent trick.

A ghostly Middle Eastern rhythm played on the stereo, its spell maintained by an electronic hum, hand slaps against a drum, and the drone of vaporous voices. Outside, the sun sank beneath dark scattered clouds, as if somewhere in Tokyo an oil fire burned. Sunlight reflected off the skyscrapers’ glass. A stormy autumn evening was on its way.

Your husband ruined my marriage. Do you understand that? My one and only. Something you people don’t seem to know anything about. Ozman pulled Kumi up by her arms to her knees and bent to kiss her, more a caricature of a kiss than anything. You think I didn’t love her, is that it? That it was just some made-for-TV thing? A part of the act? Ozman stared at Kumi. His eyes watered and he shook his head. I loved her, you stupid, stupid people.

Kent struggled harder against the duct tape but couldn’t free himself. Kumi had turned her head up to the ceiling, away from Kent’s. He was grateful; he had nothing to offer her but panic and regret. Ozman stepped away. He touched his hands to his lips, muttered as if in prayer and stared out at the darkening sky. He didn’t speak again for at least a minute. Kent thought Ozman might have changed his mind, seen the folly in his revenge scenario. He thought Ozman might forgive him if he asked.

Bullet

Ghost Stories

Posted: July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

Since I read and wrote about Chris Coake’s haunted You Came Back, it’s put me in the mood for a good ghost story. And it made me think of a few of my favorites. Kelly Link’s “Stone Animals” plays with the form/genre, i.e., it plays with the idea of what a “ghost” can be, much like Coake’s book. And I like that as much or more than outright transparent specters.

“Stone Animals” – Kelly Link – Check out this beautiful illustrated edition (with letterpressed cover) of Link’s story from Madras Press

“The Circular Valley” – Paul Bowles – In his collection A Distant Episode.

“Sea Oak” – George Saunders – In his collection Pastoralia.

These are only a few so I’ll probably add more as I remember them.

Hunting Island, SC – Sunrise


 I. The Low Country

A few weeks back I went adventuring in South Carolina–in and around Edisto Island and other parts of the Low Country near Charleston. I was there to visit old friends, two guys I’ve known for nearly 25 years now but rarely see, but stumbled upon what I believe will eventually make a good piece of immersive, long form nonfiction. And I want to talk a little about it as the story develops.

One, who now lives in London, was visiting family; the other lives just northwest of Charleston along the Edisto River. The Low Country is beautiful–sandy soil, palmetto trees, and Spanish moss–and is a special place for me. Much of my mother’s family is from this area and has been for over three hundred years. I visited my grandparents near here. I also spent a memorable summer on a barrier island near Beaufort, SC (aka as Pat Conroy country), where I first met these two guys.

After our brief reunion, I intend to spend some time with one of the two on the cockfighting circuit. After what I’ve seen, I want to take a closer, objective look at this (blood) sport. Emphasis on objective for I don’t want to examine the ethics behind this mostly illegal sport but simply the subculture within America, particularly here in the Southeast. I will have to wait until the fall, for after June they don’t fight the birds again until September/October due to the excessive heat here.

II. The Good Doctor

MD (aka “The Good Doctor”) is older by ten years, though when we first met he was barely out of his twenties. But I was a dumbass of twenty, and he seemed like the wise old uncle who’d seen it all. In fact, he’s a country boy who grew up on a Low Country farm. He stands 6’6″ and has arms that swing like tree limbs, long and full of hardwood. As a young man, he boxed for awhile, making a name for himself as a bare knuckle boxer. I recall one whiskey-soaked evening in which we also heard a story about boxing a bear, but like all things from MD you have to take a step back. He’ll tell you anything, mostly because that’s what you want to hear.

MD picked me up at the Charleston airport and, after offering me a cold Corona from a cooler in the back, said we needed to stop by his farm, 500 acres of sandy soil, pine forest, corn fields, and a cock farm.

III. The Cock Farm 

I knew that MD had been into cockfighting for years, but didn’t know how serious he’d become as a “cocker” – that’s right, a cocker. I’d never seen him fight a gamecock and we’d had many sessions over beers in which we argued the ethics of what some call a blood sport. But the old man had gone pro and was now into raising champion cocks on his farm, hundreds of them spread over a couple of acres, blue barrels turned upside down with a tiny doorway cut into them (shade huts for the roosters) dotting the field like a plastic stonehenge and roosters strutting as far as their tethers would let them. And the sound–my god, hundreds of crowing cocks proclaiming their territory all at once, a symphony of five notes in a never-ending loop. A concert of noise that might either drive you mad or set you smiling at nature’s harmonies.

A Handsome
Cock

MD gave me a quick tour of the farm, roosters scurrying as we walked by. I’d never seen anything like it, birds everywhere, including hens and chicks in abundance. He scooped one of the roosters off of the ground and held it before me, a handsome bird whose feathers glistened in the sun. Because these are gamecocks, the comb and wattle (the red bits on top of their head and under their beaks) have been removed as they can be detrimental in a fight. I’m not an animal guy so arm’s length was as close as I wanted to get. He insisted I hold my arm out, palm up. Reluctantly, I did. He gently placed a mean-looking bird in my hand. And there it sat, beady, bird eyes blinking away, head bouncing in anticipation of whatever the hell roosters anticipate. Bird in hand, I reached up to stroke him, and realized MD had vanished.

Cockteaser at Rooster-Rama!

He’d gone to retrieve another gamecock. He wanted to demonstrate their instinct to fight each other. If you put two roosters before each other, he said, they will fight instinctively until the other is dead. For this little sparring match, he put on the boxing gloves, orange rubbers that go over their spurs, which the birds use to hurt each other. Even with the gloves, MD explained, they would beat on each other until one was dead. They know nothing else.

MD fitted the gamecocks with boxing gloves and dropped them to the ground together. They were at each other before their feet hit the grass. The feathers around their neck, called hackle, flared for a fight, great feathered coronas around their necks. The birds put up their feet as if wielding swords. They stabbed with their beaks.They jumped and flew at each other, driving feet and beaks first, each aiming to top the other.

Admission: it was riveting watching these two beautiful animals go at each other, so intent on harming the other bird. MD didn’t let the fight last long–again, they’ll kill each other if allowed, he told me. He returned them to their tiny plots of dirt and grass and blue barrel. Once out of sight, the birds relaxed and likely forgot all about the fight.

Other cultures, he said, where cockfighting is a significant and more-accepted part of the culture, such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Thailand, at al., augment their cocks with “blades”  they fasten to the rooster’s feet to insure a bloodier fight. In North America, this practice is generally frowned upon, he said, but showed me some of the blades from Mexico and the Philippines. 

While I don’t entirely buy the rationale that cockfighting is natural–cockfights go until one is dead or gravel injured, after all, and for money (not much natural in that), it was an irresistible moment in which these beautiful creatures revealed the darker sides of animal nature, the instance heightened as over a hundred birds crowed their passion and swagger.

Next time: Here Comes the Rooster – Part II: The Silence of the Lambs

I talk about the short story at Atticus Books blog.

Puerto del Sol
Vol 47 – Summer 2012

Part I: The Gin and Tonic and Lime

My short story “A Very Wiggly Tooth” is out in the Summer 2012 issue of Puerto del Sol.

This story has had an unusual evolution. I began the story during a lull in the novel draft I have just finished (“For the Love of Mary Hooks”). I find it helpful (at least I did this one time) when a longer draft begins to sag in the middle and I need to kickstart the imagination, I work on shorter fiction or nonfiction. The novel demands such a long stretch of a single note that it’s difficult to hold that note through to the end without taking a breath. Working on shorter pieces feels like that necessary breath.

So it was that I took advantage of a break in the routine when my wife and daughter left me at home while they traveled and wrote a bunch of short fiction, among them the initial draft of “A Very Wiggly Tooth.” I had the key image for “Wiggly Tooth” in my head for some time–the gin and tonic and lime that opens the story.

“It happened when I was seven and losing teeth.

I tell you that because tonight I met a man who smelled of gin and tonic and lime. The smell of my father: the way I will always remember him. Even his last breaths were minted with that sweet cocktail of gin and tonic and lime as I lay over him trying to push air from own my lungs into his. In bars and restaurants, at parties, if I see a man drinking a gin and tonic from a highball glass or get a green whiff of juniper, I’ll go home with that man, if he asks, even if he doesn’t. There is no bitterness there, only pale-green memories of a man I adored.”

I’ve long wanted to tap into what I’ve learned as a father of a daughter–a unique relationship among parental relationships. Like most parents, I suspect, I worry about the million ways in which we fail our children. And by “we,” I mean I. But even the best of parents doesn’t always get it right, for whatever reasons. Yet, our children love us no less for our failures and faults. God help them, they just keep on loving us, forgiving us without even realizing they’re doing so. Ideally, that understanding–our recognition of our own failures and our children’s capacity for loving even the weakest of us–leads to being better parents, better people. In my own obsessive way, each night I recount in what ways I’ve failed my daughter that day. It’s almost always the small stuff–a preoccupation with the computer (“just five minutes, peanut, just one more email to send then…”), a need to sit and listen to the radio for a few minutes, a household or work-related problem to solve, etc. It all boils down to not spending time with her or not spending enough time with her. And that’s all she really wants from me–my time.

I wanted to write a story about a father who fails his daughter in much grander ways–as a dysfunctional, drunk oddball whose grief for his lost wife has proven insurmountable. But he loves his daughter and she loves him and they get by on what seems like that alone. The potential for a maudlin story, I hope, is undercut by the daughter’s strong, rambling voice and the father’s not always sympathetic behavior.

Originally, that potential was undercut by a zombie–that’s right, the father originally had returned as a zombie because he wanted to make sure his daughter was taken care and knew that he loved her, which she was all right with. I think I just really wanted to write a zombie story. I abandoned the zombie and just made him an oddball, but part of me still feels like this is a zombie story.

Part II: The Wiggly Tooth

A Vary Wiglee Tooth
by HLB

The wiggly tooth has a different evolution–the photograph above. I took this photograph because I wanted to make sure I never lost the image. My daughter, the losing of her first tooth imminent, wanted to keep us updated on the status of the tooth. She posted this sign on the bathroom wall to let us know that the tooth was, indeed, “vary wiglee.” I liked the simple posting so much–misspellings, drawing and all–that I left it hanging for as long as it would stay stuck to the wall. Then I took the photograph.

And then the tooth wiggled its way into my story. And then and then and then…

The story employs a rambling (lots of long sentences), first-person narrator (the daughter) developing a non-linear story that often recoils on itself and runs off on tangent after tangent, spiderwebbing finally into a cohesive narrative. The wiggly tooth of the title was at first a red herring that never resurfaced after the first sentence. Later, after the zombie father was removed, it made its way back into the story.

The story and narrator are both unconventional and will probably drive any reader with a short attention span mad to the point of tossing the journal at a wall in frustration and disgust. For those with more patience, I am hopeful you will find what the editors of Puerto del Sol found–a story of a deeply flawed father and his loving daughter.

I sent the story to Puerto del Sol because they are a journal that often takes a chance on an unusual story, often publishing fiction that plays with form but still loves narrative. Thanks to the editors at Puerto del Sol for seeing what I hoped they’d see in this story. / CB

Next time on Animal Planet: I recall a serendipitous glimpse into the world of cockfighting and the wilds of nature after a weekend of adventuring in the South Carolina low-country.