Shoes Hair Nails, by Deborah Batterman

Full disclosure: Deborah and I are online acquaintances and agreed to exchange books. This short story collection is her first book, but I certainly hope it won't be her last.

Since I've been trying to learn more about book cover design, I first studied this one and my reactions to it. The title and the graphic of high-heeled, pointy-toed white satin slings decorated with braid and glitter would seem to indicate something in the chick lit genre. However, the way the flat, black background almost overbalances the shoes and white text tells me that these stories will be much darker than the usual froth of boyfriends and diets.

Sure enough, however innocuously these stories start—a mother's shoe collection, cleaning a new apartment, setting off to visit parents—they end up drilling deep into the characters' psyches and releasing unsuspected emotional truths. I found each story profoundly moving in its own way. Never having been a girly girl—I was a tomboy right from the start and didn't really know what to do with a jar of fingernail polish, much less a pumice stone or clay mask or other beauty accoutrements—I don't get chick lit. But I do know what it's like to lose someone dear to me and be overwhelmed with grief mixed with guilt. I do know what it's like to do without a parent and make the best of what I have.

Batterman excels at capturing the small details that make a character in a story seem like a real, if quirky, person you might meet in a grocery queue or at a bus stop. For example, there's a mother who dabs at things, dabbing her eyes or her children's cuts so that it's the father who has to take a child with a stitch-serious cut to the doctor. There's the man who thinks the sympathetic woman sitting next to him at a burger joint must be an alien from outer space: “The aliens always ask the right questions and always know what you're thinking.”

She's a master with images, too, and how they reinforce the story. The items named in the title each has its own story in which the image plays a part but does not intrude on the story, not an easy balance to achieve. For example, the narrator of one story has just moved out of her boyfriend's place into a much less desirable apartment. One of the features he first criticises is a partial wall extending halfway into the living room “Like an unfinished thought”. The hesitant half-wall placed me right in that space, that scary, can-I-make-it-on-my-own space.

Batterman also knows how to circle around a story and, as Emily Dickinson said, “tell it slant”. I regard as failures nearly all of those stories that have tried to address that terrible day in September when I lost two friends in the World Trade Center and the U.S. lost its sense of security. The only one that has worked for me so far only referred to it in the most oblique way. Batterman's final story succeeds because she approaches that day indirectly, through the emotions of one woman and her particular, small slice of the tragedy.

There's an element of forgiveness in many of the tales that I found particularly moving. I enjoyed these stories and even went back and reread a few of them. They seem true to me and to say something about our shared life as humans in this crazy world.

The Surrendered, by Chang-Rae Lee

Another of my favorite authors, Lee writes about silent and detached men, left isolated by their disconnection from their past. In this, his most recent and most harrowing book, Lee gives us three characters who draw us deeply into their lives, their hurts and small triumphs, their pasts. June is a middle-aged Korean antiques dealer, near death from stomach cancer and searching for her estranged son. Hector, who worked in the Graves Unit during the Korean War, is a janitor in a New Jersey mini-mall and spends his free time propping up a bar. Sylvie is the missionary’s wife whose fragile beauty illuminates the orphanage where June landed after the war and where Hector worked.

Lee gives us plenty of warning that their stories will twist around each other and their fates depend on each other as much as in any classical tragedy. June hires a private investigator to find her son, sharing with him the sprinkling of postcards that show he’s still alive in Europe somewhere. The PI asks her if she really wants to find him, saying, “‘Sometimes people think they want something when in fact they don’t.'” He first finds Hector, the man who rescued June during the war as, starved almost to delirium, she follows him to the orphanage. Hector has his own demons, as does Sylvie who comes with her husband to run the place. All the children love her and vie to be the one adopted, but none more than June. Sensing the traumas behind June’s stoic manner, Sylvie spends extra time with her and allows her free run of the bungalow. The question, though, becomes whether giving in to such benevolent impulses is ultimately helpful.

We all want to be good. We want to be heroic. We’d like to think that we’d jump in the river to rescue a child, go into a burning building to save a baby. But in reality we are—most of us—paralysed in that first moment and then subject to the temptation to avert our eyes and move on. When I first read the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in college, I was deeply affected by their predicament. It’s a terrifying thought that there is only one decisive moment when you can step up or step aside. These days I understand that there can be many such moments, large and small, in a lifetime. What Lee brings home to me in this book, though, is that the guilt of turning aside at a critical moment can twist your life and haunt you forever.

All of these people are damaged, as I suppose we all are to some extent. As Lee describes a man Sylvie knew during college: “Jim was gentle and soft-spoken and obviously bighearted, but there was something ruined about him and it was this that she always saw in his face when he opened the alley door, his expression pleased but with the shattered eyes of a man who could see perhaps only the drenching sadness in beauty.” Understanding their pasts and the burden of guilt they carry, we can begin to understand who they are now and why they behave as they do. In thinking about the significance of the title, I was reminded of Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, a massive novel structured by dream logic that I found difficult to read. The two books couldn’t be more different except that, just as in Ishiguro’s book a character can go through a door and find himself in an entirely different part of town, so here the characters encounter unexpected minefields in each other, booby traps laid down years before by their own particular and horrific experiences, forgotten perhaps, unmapped, but still armed and lethal.

I found this book difficult to read because of the moving evocations of “the horrors of war and the sorrows of survival”, as Terrence Rafferty said in his review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the hunger and thirst that drove June to eat the stinking mud of the ricefields, the ripping away of her family one-by-one. What is ultimately explored here is the thirst for connection, denied, ignored, surrendered to. Perhaps it is the being there at the end that matters most.

Pearl of China, by Anchee Min

Pearl of China is actually the story of a woman named Willow growing up in the rural village of Chin-kiang where Pearl Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, works as a missionary. The two girls become friends after an initial misunderstanding. Pearl’s mother, Carie, becomes especially close to Willow, teaching her music.

As I’ve mentioned before, I dislike stories that use real people as characters. I think it’s an invasion of privacy, and also can’t help but feel the author is being a bit lazy not creating his or her own characters. So, feeling as I do, why did I read this book? For the same reason I read any book: something about it intrigued me. Also, I knew the next book I read would also feature a missionary in Asia and wanted something to get me in the mood. The use of a real person didn’t bother me so much here because Pearl is not only treated respectfully, but is also is not the main character. She’s really more of a foil for Willow.

Although covering the sometimes horrific events of 20th century China, I found the book a pleasant read. Min’s spare prose flows well. Her sentences are short and simple, nearly always employing the same structure: subject-verb-object. I’m surprised this book wasn’t in the Young Adult section. Certainly the simple prose is easy to absorb and the protagonist, at least in the beginning, is herself young.

The character I found most interesting was Willow’s father. Handsome and educated, a bit of a rascal, he prefers reciting poetry to working as a coolie, but everything he turns his hand to seems to end disastrously. Eventually he is reduced to stealing to provide for his family which, as the story opens, consists only of his ailing mother and seven-year-old Willow, but he is too clumsy to be a successful thief. He pretends to convert to Christianity in order to get meals and later employment in Absalom’s church. His attempts to mediate between the church’s conventions and those of the Buddhist villagers are endlessly entertaining, as he increases attendance until Absalom has the largest Christian community in China. However, it is his evolution from scamp to true believer that I found most moving.

Pearl struggles to get her stories published also aroused my interest. The prevailing norm in China at the time was didactic: to publish edifying works that would raise the peasant mind. Pearl’s stories about the world from the peasant’s point of view are repeatedly rejected by Chinese publishers. Her real success as a writer comes only after she returns to America although, as Willow says, “When she talked of home, she meant China.”

Willow’s childhood is the most fully dramatised section of the book. Later sections move rather quickly through her adult life, where Pearl’s influence on Willow becomes minor compared to the effects of the political changes shaking China. Willow’s childhood conversion to Christianity and her memory of her friendship with Pearl are repeatedly challenged, particularly after her husband becomes Mao’s right-hand man. Madame Mao alternates between wanting Willow to woo the Nobel Prize winner’s support for the new regime and castigating her for not denouncing Pearl as an enemy of the revolution.

In a way, I wish Min had done away with Pearl Buck altogether. A note in the bio says that she was ordered as a child to denounce Buck, and I don’t doubt that Min’s interest in the writer, piqued by this event, became the initial impetus for writing this book. Writers are often told to throw out the first paragraphs or pages of their work. It’s true that it sometimes takes a bit of dithering about and scene setting to get to the meat of the matter. It’s also true that sometimes, perhaps more often than not, the original impetus does not really belong in the final version. As Faulkner said, “In writing you must kill all your darlings.” Here I believe Min’s book might have been stronger with a fictional missionary’s daughter. Perhaps putting Pearl’s name in the title sells more books, but in a way it is false advertising since this isn’t her story so much as it is Willow’s. Willow emerges as a brave and believable woman whose life gives us an unusual view of China’s transformations in the 20th century.

Away, by Jane Urquhart

As the book begins, Esther remembers her childhood and her Great-Aunt Eileen telling her to be where she is. An old woman now, Esther faces her last day and night in her home on Lake Ontario. She uses that time, interrupted as it is by the sounds and imagined actions of the shift workers at the quarry next door as they work around the clock, to recall and relive once more the sequence of stories that Eileen told her so long ago.

The tales start with Mary, Eileen's mother and Esther's great-grandmother, who in 1842 stumbles upon a shipwrecked sailor on the storm-strewn beach of Rathlin, a small island off the northern coast of Ireland. This brief encounter marks Mary, such that all the islanders and Mary herself believe that she has been “away”, that is, taken by the otherworldly “them” and returned changed forever. The priest, Father Quinn, finds Mary a husband on the big island where she manages to lead a semblance of a normal life until the Hunger forces them to emigrate to Canada.

Later, Eileen herself, having traveled from the backwoods homestead of her childhood to the house on the lake, is touched in turn by a fleeting relationship with a man who is described by the men around him as “the best of us”, a man who could dance the world into being.

Urquhart is one of my favorite writers. Her prose sings with poetry, not just the songs the women compose and sing in their altered states, but everyday sentences imbued with a bardic lilt that makes me hold my breath and listen. This is Mary in the northern Ontario forest: “The woods suggested, in their uncertainties of space, transparencies of light—their rumours of entities glimpsed, then lost—that some magnificent event was always on the edge of taking place . . . “

If I had read this book when I was twenty, I would have seen only romance. In those days I read Faulkner's Wild Palms and grasped only a woman setting her eyes on a man for the first time and saying yes. I managed to ignore all that came later. Reading this book now in my cynical late middle age, it is old Eileen's voice that rings true to me: be where you are. I take this to mean: don't be seduced by all those lovely stories.

Subtly Urquhart expands that idea beyond the usual “First comes love; then comes marriage” to include all the romantic stories we use to frame our lives: the islanders with their myths, the two elderly brothers in Puffin Court living out an Anglo-Irish aristocratic fantasy and not perceiving the blight destroying their tenants' crops, the immigrants with their fight for Irish nationalism, the Canadians with their dream of a dominion that will magically wash away all inequity.

The book has won many awards, deservedly so. I have a few minor quibbles, disappointment, for example, at how skimpy and unmemorable Esther's own story is, surprise that a mother would do what Mary did, but these are minor indeed. This lovely story, with its warnings about the ability of stories to enchant those who believe them, will stay with me for a long time.

Resolution, by Robert B. Parker

Those who follow this blog know I'm a fan of Parker's work (see In recent years I've heard complaints about his later work, that it lacks the narrative complexity of his earlier work, that the brusque dialogue with its recurring booms of he said/she said makes the stories impossible to listen to on cd. Opening this book reinforces these criticisms: there's a lot of white space on these pages and only an abnormally large font gives the book enough heft to seem like a full novel. Yet I continue to read Parker's work, and not just out of loyalty or nostalgia for the days when I could bury myself in his world and come out changed. I still delight in these books. No matter how slender, they are still full of heart.

We say of some crime fiction that it is hard-boiled. Resolution seems to me boiled down to the essence of what makes a western. A man with a gun comes to town and is hired to keep the peace. He is the kind of person others look to. As Elmer Kelton said of one of his characters: “He knew what to do and was man enough to do it.” He is joined by a friend, and together they face the anarchy of a town where there is no government yet, no one to keep the peace, no one to turn to when you are in danger, no rules or laws to appeal to.

Everett Hitch is hired to sit lookout in the saloon owned by Amos Wolfson, who also owns the store, the bank, and much of the land outside of town. Yet he wants more. Not content with building a community that will become steady customers, Wolfson plans to extract every penny from the farmers, whom he contemptuously calls sodbusters, foreclose their mortgages and resell their land to a new crop of gullible marks.

His competition for richest and most powerful man in town is O'Malley, owner of the copper mine, who uses intimidation to take what he wants. Stark, owner of the sawmill, is different in that he takes the long view of investing in building a town and a community. The story reminded me of Deadwood, a tv series that Jake recommended to me which brilliantly traces how a society is created and how people and the town must change to accommodate the new social structures that evolve. I was curious as to how a group of strangers thrown together in a place with no society, no culture to dictate roles and behavior, would organise themselves, how a leader would be chosen or emerge, how mores and laws would develop. I don't think Lord of the Flies is the last word, that we would turn to crude violence and power-mongering.

Hitch's friend and former mentor, Virgil Cole, is the most interesting character to me. A former lawman, he wrestles—mostly silently—with issues around when it is right to use his gun. When he was a lawman, even if he and Hitch mostly wrote the laws themselves, it was easy for him to justify shooting men who broke those laws. Now, being just a man with a strong sense of right and wrong and skill with a gun, it is less clear.

The dialogue is terse. These are not men who talk a lot. There’s not a lot of description of waves of grain and purple mountains. Instead, there is the matter-of-fact building of tension as the various characters become more and more themselves.

A couple of other themes are relevant for today. What could be more contemporary than Wolfson’s desire for instant gratification, his desire to scrape every cent out of the people around him, even though he has no place to spend it? Also, there is much here about what it means to be a man. Men like Boyle, the rookie gunman, and Redmond, the farmer, brag about their courage and ability, wanting respect but unwilling or too impatient to develop the skills that will earn it. Much has been written lately about how boys are failing in our society, outpaced in education and achievement by girls. The Women’s Movement has done a good job of freeing girls from past restraints and opening doors. Attention now needs to be paid to our boys, and a conversation begun about how boys become men and what it means to be a man in our society.

Parker’s work, as always, goes to the heart of these important questions. What are our responsibilities to each other, what makes a man a man, how do we build communities when the greedy few are determined to take all the wealth and power for themselves: these are questions that affect how we envision what our society will look like in the future. I will miss him.