Friday, April 26, 2013

One More Story From This Close

This is the third post in which Sue and Margie talk about a short story collection they both loved called This Close by Jessica Francis Kane. This time they're talking about Margie's favorite story, Next in Line. 

We tried to talk about this story without revealing key plot points, but decided we were tiptoeing around too much. So if you want the story to reveal itself to you first, maybe you should go read it and then come back and join our discussion. 

Margie: I loved Next in Line, the story about a young mother who believes her toddler caught a fatal case of meningitis in line at a CVS, or as her husband liked to call it, "Come Visit Satan." I don't know if I will ever go into a CVS again without thinking of this family.

Sue: God point. I will always think of Jessica Kane when I go into that store!

Margie: The mother says she thinks of CVS as a "secular gateway," and I couldn't agree more. We go there for prescriptions, pregnancy tests, diapers, sympathy cards and almost everything else in between. It's part divine, part utterly banal, such an overlooked and random place in our lives. How perfect that Kane set her story there.

Sue: As much as I loved Next in Line, it made me uncomfortable, like I should let this poor woman/couple grieve in private. Who can imagine such a tragic thing, and who knows how they would respond.

Margie: But isn't that what literature does best? It enables us to imagine a tragic thing, to process it, as if by observing someone else go through it, we can begin to make grief less solitary, less frightening. I get why the mom haunted the aisles of the CVS after their daughter died. Maybe good stories are like an inoculation, a little protection against our own pain. (And can't you get inoculations at a CVS now too?)

Sue: I get why the mom haunted the aisles of the CVS, but I was worried throughout the story that this terrible tragedy would destroy her relationship with her husband and I didn't want that to happen. Men and women usually have such different ways of grieving, and you can see why often something as sad as this tears a couple apart. I like the way it appeared that wasn't going to happen here. Enough time had to pass and then they were going to be okay.

Margie: But how awesome is that? You're talking about this make-believe couple as if they are real. You worry about them and want them to be okay. And to go back to the last story we discussed (The Essentials of Acceleration), this is the real kind of grief - the deep, messy, scary kind of grief - that Holly never seemed to have. The mom in this story blamed herself for putting her baby down on the floor for just a moment, and she couldn't get over it. She was in such pain that she couldn't even call her baby by her real name throughout the whole story - she just called her "S." But she didn't try to "accelerate" through the grief, she kept going back to the CVS until she found a way to forgive herself. Even if she was pretty wacko to keep going back, her husband finally went there with her and talked her through the pain and guilt. Until his wife could say: "My daughter's name was Susanna Jane. End of story." Wow, what an ending!

By the way, I just went to a CVS yesterday. The pharmacist was very nice. There were no creepy ladies in black muttering scary prophecies. But just in case, I used the hand sanitizer in the back of the store next to the pharmacy counter. So that's good.

Sue and Margie Highly Recommend: THIS CLOSE by Jessica Francis Kane. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Day Two with This Close

Join Margie and Sue as we discuss a new short story collection we both love: This Close by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf Press 2013). 

Sue: I think my favorite story in This Close was The Essentials of Acceleration. Each time I look at the story, I see something new. In fact, to have this chat with you I reread it, underlining and taking notes, and finally I just had to call you to talk about it. Honestly, there is so much there.

Margie: I loved how it started out with such understatement. The narrator Holly speaks with such a flat tone that you underestimate her, might even dislike her. Here's a 41 year-old woman who has lived with with her widowed father for 20 years, ever since her mother died in a car accident. She says: 
I am the neighbor you don't know. The neighbor who doesn't do anything wrong, but for some reason you just don't like her very much. Maybe it's the way she treats her elderly father. You think she could be nicer.
Sue: Holly's inability to open up to anyone, even her father, makes me wonder if she is consumed with resentment about the way her life has turned out. It seems she doesn't have a single friend other than Leo the mechanic.

Margie: Yes, what was up with Holly and her crush on the mechanic, and her thing for cars? Her father seems like this adorable little old man, a retired English professor who loves books and gardening (a dream dad, if you ask me), but Holly doesn't share any of his interests. Instead, she'd rather think about cars. 

Remember the scene where Holly and her dad are driving somewhere, having a discussion about cars? The dad doesn't even know that the car Holly drives is a Taurus and she gets pissed at him. There's an uncomfortable silence and then the dad says, " 'Ask me for my biography and I will tell you the books I have read.' Do you know who wrote that?" Holly has no idea. She's not a reader. Instead she volleys back: 
"Fiesta, Taurus, maybe next an Expedition. Do you know what those are?
My father shook his head.
"The names of the cars I've owned."
 Jeez, what great dialogue. That is so not about the cars!

Sue:  No kidding. And then the dad says, "I think you needed a different kind of father." Isn't that sad? He blames himself for their lack of connection. He doesn't say, "I wish I had a different kind of daughter."

Margie: I know. That killed me. Because it's not so much that Holly needed a different kind of father, she just needed her mother. One of Holly's fondest memories of her mother was when she taught Holly how to drive in high school. Some of the best mother-daughter bonding goes on in a car, right? Especially with teens. So, . . . not to play therapist here or anything, but do ya' think Holly's just trying to hang onto her mother? That all this car stuff is her way of saying not so much "I don't like you, Dad," but rather "I miss you Mom"?

Sue: And instead of letting herself grieve, and share her grief with her dad (or anyone else for that matter) she'd rather put her foot on the gas. It's titled The Essentials of Acceleration after all. I think it's significant that Holly's dad was at the wheel when her mom was killed. He swerved to avoid hitting a deer. Holly probably thinks that if her dad was a better driver, her mom would still be alive.

Margie: Holly keeps insisting what a good driver she is, but yet she's really pretty bad at  it. She has one accident, one near-miss, and then hits a box turtle, all in one short story. So if she faults her dad for being a bad driver, she's really no better. She's such an unreliable narrator. So lacking in self-awareness it's almost funny. 

Sue: The story about Holly's accident is so revealing. First it sounds as if she swerved to avoid hitting a little boy, but later Holly admits the truth: 
It was not seeing the boy in the street that cause me to drive my car into the parked Lexus after my Wednesday burrito. It was seeing my my neighbor put her arm around my father, . . . And by that I mean it was seeing the way my father leaned into her, a small collapse, as if he were bone tired and he knew she would support him. I knew they were friends. . . . he enjoys talking to her about the books they've both read. Until that moment I didn't know how much the friendship mattered to him.
I think it surprised Holly to see what a true, compassionate friendship her father had with the neighbor woman. Holly's dad was closer to their neighbor than he was to Holly. 

Margie: And not just that, but Holly's dad was closer to their neighbor than Holly was. Holly was unfriendly to her neighbors, and at first you think she's just a bitch, but later in the story you learn it's all part of a very sad defense mechanism. As Holly says:
. . . are you being a bad neighbor or just protecting yourself? I really want to know because I'm interested in what we can and can't do for each other. What is fair to ask? . . .  Can you ask someone why she lives alone with her father? Where her missing mother is?
I think the answer is yes. A neighbor can become a friend if you let them. You can see how close Holly's dad was to their neighbor, but Holly wouldn't go there. Holly thought she was living "with the disaster" as well as she could, but she really wasn't. Not at all. Poor Holly! I don't know if I want to slap her or hug her! 

Sue: Okay, before you get carried away, let's shift gears and talk about your favorite story in This Close.

Margie: (Shift gears? Ha ha!) Well, my favorite story was Next in Line. But we're going to save that discussion for another post. Because that's a whole 'nother story!

THIS CLOSE by Jessica Francis Kane: Highly Recommended

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Sue and Margie Get "This Close"

Sue and Margie recently read This Close, a new collection of short stories by Jessica Francis Kane (Graywolf Press 2013) and we found that we couldn't stop thinking about them. 

We'd shoot off tweets and emails back and forth as we read along, marveling at the impact the stories were having on us. So we thought we'd share an extended conversation about this book that we love so much.

Sue: Let me start out by saying that this is one of my favorite collections of short stories EVER. The fact that we can get into a long conversation about each of these stories is amazing.

Margie: I agree. These stories remind me of some of my favorite short stories by Lorrie Moore or Laurie Colwin. There's so much between the lines that you have to stop and let it all sink in before you move on to the next story. 

In order to do them justice, we're going to talk about one story at a time. Today it's Lucky Boy. Join us again later this week when we talk about two more stories in the collection.

Margie: I remember we had our first conversation about this collection after I had just finished Lucky Boy, the first story in the book. It's about a young New Yorker's relationship with his neighborhood dry cleaner. The story hit a nerve because I absolutely love going to my dry cleaner. (Don't you go to the same one on Park Boulevard?) My dry cleaner is so nice. She knows that my daughter used to ride horses, that my husband's shirts are always same-day-rush-rush, and that my mother-in-law lives across the street, but I'm ashamed to say I don't even know her name. I think she's Korean.

Sue: We do both go to the same dry cleaner (whose name is Rosa) and although I don't stop there more than once a week, she does know everything about my family, including my mother who lives across the street, as well. She even went so far as to give me a gift for my first grandchild. The difference between our dry cleaner and the one in Lucky Boy is that I can't imagine our dry cleaner asking us for anything. That is when it kind of seems to cross some line.

Margie: Okay, now I feel really bad. You knew Rosa's name and I didn't. But I love what you say about crossing the line. That's exactly what happened in Lucky Boy, isn't it? The dry cleaner asked Henry to play baseball with her son, and he agreed. That's when everything got weird. Henry started to feel "entangled." He took Owen out to museums and out for hot chocolate, waiting for the outings to make some kind of sense. As if there are unwritten rules to these relationships that we can't breach without losing our way.

Sue: That's a perfect way of putting it. When a cashier at Dominick's with whom I was always friendly asked me if my husband could possibly give her well educated son (whom I've never met) a job, I felt very uncomfortable, and kind of felt like avoiding her after that.

Margie: That's exactly what Henry felt, isn't it? The need to step away. I thought it was interesting that Henry's girlfriend Christina, who was a native New Yorker, seemed perfectly comfortable keeping these types of relationships at arm's-length. But Henry (a fellow midwesterner maybe?) wanted to be a good person, to treat these people like his friends, but yet they weren't. Don't we feel exactly that about our "help" - an uncomfortable mix of friendship, commerce, loyalty, intimacy, power? It's confusing.

Sue: And to think Jessica Kane fit all that into this one small story and called it Lucky Boy. Who was the lucky boy? Owen or Henry? And were either of them really lucky? I'm not so sure.

Margie: Before we finish up with Lucky Boy, I just have to quote the last few lines, because they really hit me when I first read them. It's Henry talking a few years later, after he has lived in New York much longer and has lost his (midwestern?) innocence:

But frankly, what else could have happened? Was I going to put Owen through college? Attend his wedding? Tell people he was the son of my dry cleaner - he's been waiting to dry clean my daughter's wedding dress for years? I can't tell those stories and I don't know any others. 
Henry doesn't know the story that would have made sense out of his relationship with Owen, so he just let it go. Geez, that almost makes me want to cry. Just think of all the stories we don't know. 


Next: Sue and Margie will be talking about Sue's favorite story in the collection, The Essentials of Acceleration.

THIS CLOSE by Jessica Francis Kane: Highly Recommended

Thursday, April 18, 2013

In Love With The Interestings

The folks at The Bookstore can't wait for you to walk in the store to share this wonderful book with you. So we'll tell you all about it right now and hope you'll rush over to buy it.

The Interestings is the story of a handful of teenagers who meet at a performing arts camp called "Spirit-in-the-Woods" in 1974. The story starts with their their first heady summer together (so much so that they actually call themselves "The Interestings") and follows them through their eventual coupling and careers, and then onward toward the present, with everything that middle age brings. 

These characters get under your skin. They burrow into your conscience and demand that you get to know them. By the time you're done, they're like family.

There's Julie from the suburbs, whose quick wit gets her into the camp's inner circle ("the hot little nucleus of the place") despite her white-bread background. Ash and Goodman Wolf are siblings from the upper west side of New York who have more in the way of family connections than raw talent, and Ethan Figman is a natural born cartoonist and the one member of the group with true creative genius. There is Jonah, a gifted guitarist who stifles his own talent, and Cathy Kiplinger, an aspiring dancer whose developing curves will get in her own way. To Julie Jacobson (who quickly transforms herself into a cooler "Jules") these new friends are the most interesting people she's ever met. Most of them will be friends the rest of their lives.

For many of us baby boomers, these characters are just like us. The historical detail in this book is so rich and precise that I kept looking over my shoulder - does Meg Wolitzer know me? She must! How else could she know that I too wore Dr. Scholl's sandals and corduroy jeans that swished together when I walked? I swear to God, my brother had the exact same red flannel lined sleeping bag as Ash Wolf, with "a repeating pattern of cowboys swinging lariats." 

Like the characters in the book, I was at a camp when I heard the news about Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation. (Okay, I'll admit, it wasn't an elite East Coast arts camp, but rather a no-frills Wisconsin trailer park.) But still. I was camping out with my high school friends, and I vividly recall how the entire campground broke out in celebration when we heard the news over our Zenith transistor radios. It was like a war had ended, and I guess it had. It was a little bit like the night we got Bin Laden.

What an inspired place to start a book, the summer that Nixon would "lurch away, leaving his damp slug trail." Wolitzer conjures up many other stunning details that portray the end of one era (powder blue Smith Corona typewriters, nasty-tasting Tab, aging folksingers, Moonies, Princess phones with long tangled cords) and the start of another (Ronald Reagan, computers, our first gourmet club dinner parties with cilantro, and the mysterious disease we would come to know as AIDS). 

The Interestings start out just like many of us did when we were in our late teens. You know. Obnoxious, smart and promising. Most Boomers seemed to have this faith that something would come of our talent and promise - that we were meant for great things. And then. Time marches forward and the Goon Squad arrives.

Not everyone succeeds. Not everyone is a genius. And if it's not you (odds are it probably isn't), what do you do? Do you keep fighting the good fight, or do you settle? If you settle, are you happy, or do you have regrets and envy the rest of your life? How do you deal with your friends and family who have more or less talent, success or money than you? Does it change your friendship? Affect your family dynamics? How do you learn to love what you've got, even if it's not what you thought you wanted?

The Interestings raises big questions that are hard to answer, whether you're a baby boomer or a millennial or something in between. What a joy it was to watch Wolitzer's characters grapple with them until the very end, when a middle-aged Jules concludes:

And didn't it always go like that  . . . all of it a little bit off, as if the world itself were an animated sequence of longing and envy and self-hatred and grandiosity and failure and success, a strange and endless cartoon loop that you couldn't stop watching, because despite all you knew by now, it was still so interesting.
And so it goes. How interesting.