Short & Sweet: At the Owl Woman Saloon, by Tess Gallagher

Welcome to the March edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is my third month reading short stories, mostly at bedtime.  At this rate I can read a book a month, and mixing stories with full-length books works well for me. This month I read At the Owl Woman Saloon, which I ran out and bought after it was featured in Belletrista.

At the Owl Woman Saloon has 16 stories set primarily in the Northwestern United States.  Some deal with people who work in logging, a major regional industry, but themes of aging and widowhood a paramount.  Like most short story collections, some stories spoke to me in very direct ways, and stood out from the rest:

  • The Leper: this story recounts everyday events for a couple living in a seaside village.  Gallagher captures a moment in time without attempting to tie up loose ends.  The woman takes a phone call from a distraught friend.  Funeral flowers are mistakenly delivered to her home.  She watches horses swimming in the sea.  Small, ordinary and yet extraordinary occurrences all beautifully portrayed.
  • Coming and Going: Emily, recently widowed, is visited by a deputy Marshall looking for her husband regarding a legal dispute.  She directs him to where her husband has “relocated.”  I could feel her pain while also laughing out loud at her deception.
  • Mr Woodriff’s Neckties: A man observes his neighbors as one of them declines and eventually passes away.  A good deed brings a sense of calm.  I loved this story; it made me think about mortality and the importance of enjoying today because you never know what the future holds:

On Sundays I see her gathering these same roses, now that they’ve bloomed, to take to the cemetery. It makes me wonder if they both knew while they were planting them that this was out there in the future. Or maybe they were so involved with earth and root balls and whether the holes were deep enough that they didn’t trouble to think ahead, except that eventually there would be roses. Maybe their minds were mercifully clear of the future.  That’s what I hope, anyway.  (p. 148)

  • The Woman who Prayed:  the book ends with this powerful story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair, and handles the situation in a unique and admirable way.

Gallagher is first a poet, which is clear in her beautiful prose.  More than characters or plot, her stories are best appreciated by letting her words, imagery and metaphor wash over you.

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Next month I’ll be reading The Thing Around your Neck, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Watch for the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Review: In the Woods, by Tana French

This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here’s the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob’s 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can’t help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there’s one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.

With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.

But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it’s difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, “guys aren’t like that.” It’s not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn’t do, especially with Cassie (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn’t authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.

Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it.  So if you’re intrigued, I say go ahead and read it.  And then let’s talk about it!

I read this as part of a group read hosted by Rebecca @ Love at First Book.  I can’t wait to discuss the ending with the group!

Review: Full House, by M.J. Farrell (Molly Keane)

Lady Olivia Bird is the family matriarch, ruling over husband Julian, sons John and Mark, daughter Sheena, and their estate, Silverue.  Lady Bird is domineering, cruel, insipid and self-centered.  She is focused more on her garden than on any aspect of family life.  She has a near-oedipal relationship with John, who has just returned home after being treated for a nervous breakdown, and practically ignores everyone else.  Sheena is in love with a young man named Rupert; Mark is still  young enough to spend most of his day with his lonely governess, Miss Parker.

Eliza, a family friend, visits Silverue just as John returns home.  Eliza has long loved Julian, although it’s not clear whether their relationship ever went beyond the platonic.  Eliza is a keen observer of the family dynamics:

Eliza said, “Dear, but it’s lovely for me,” and she went away leaving Julian to everything that was more important than she was. To dressing flies for his mad son. To waiting for his faithless, cruel wife. To his Life in which he had no smallest part. Well, so long as one knew where one was, nothing hurt one. Only unexpected wounds and defeats.  (p. 39)

Whoa!  Molly Keane does dysfunctional Anglo-Irish families in large country houses very, very well.  As Caroline Blackwood wrote in the afterword to my Virago Modern Classics edition:

Molly Keane “really knows” the shallow, sheltered world of Anglo-Irish gentry which has provided her with so much excellent  material. She  knows the facade of the beautiful romantic houses that her characters inhabit, and because she knows that facade so well she can make us see it.

Full House unfolds with a series of character studies, entire chapters focused on Lady Bird, Julian, Sheena, John, and sad little Miss Parker, who is waging a fruitless war against her facial hair:

Nor, when one is Miss Parker’s age, does one expect great results from any depilatory. However largely advertised. However highly paid for. Used with whatever trembling of the soul and carefulness. Still one does not hope too much.  One does not dare. (p. 90)

The children all despise their mother, and Olivia is oblivious to it.  Julian is ineffectual, enabling his wife’s behavior.  John is simply taking one day at a time, pretending life is completely back to normal.  Sheena hopes to escape through marriage, but the relationship is threatened by advice from a not-so-kindly relation.  Only Olivia can help her, but has to be able to see beyond her own needs.  In the end, Eliza makes it all turn out right for both Sheena and John, even though she knows there will be no reward for her in doing so.

This is my fourth Molly Keane novel, and I can now see themes common to her novels: the Anglo-Irish gentry in decline, horrible mothers, weak men, and biting satire.  Altogether, they make for a very good read indeed.

Short & Sweet: Mrs Somebody, Somebody by Tracy Winn

Welcome to the February edition of Short & Sweet, my feature dedicated to short fiction.  This is the second month of a personal project to work my way through at least nine volumes of short stories residing on my nightstand.  I’ve found the short stories to be perfect bedtime reading. Sometimes I can read a story in a single sitting, sometimes I need two bedtime reading sessions.  And before I know it, I’ve made my way through an entire book!  Now it’s become a habit.

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Mrs Somebody Somebody reminded me how much I love connected stories.  Set in Lowell, Massachusetts, the book begins with the arrival of unions in Lowell’s textile mills.  Several years later, industry has died and the town’s demographics have changed dramatically. Characters wander through multiple stories.  Children reappear as adults.  A girl who featured prominently in one story is identified later only by the color of her shoes.  But the reader knows who she is.   These are gritty stories of life’s hardships: a man returns from the war and has trouble reconnecting with his wife.  Over the course of three stories, a little boy grows into a troubled man.  Immigrants struggle to make their way in American society.  The first and last stories are both about Stella, a mill worker turned hairdresser.  They wrap around the entire collection, providing a surprising but somehow fitting conclusion.

Mrs Somebody Somebody is an impressive debut effort.  If you liked Olive Kitteridge, you’ll like this book (and if you haven’t read Olive yet, then read that one too!)

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Next month I’ll be reading At the Owl Woman Saloon, a collection by Tess Gallagher.  I ran out and bought this after it was featured in Belletrista.  More in the next installment of  Short & Sweet!

Review: The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the Flood is Margaret Atwood’s sequel, or more accurately companion, to Oryx and Crake.  Both novels are set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world, where Atwood shows what might happen to our society if we continue the destructive behaviors she believes are destroying our planet.  Where Oryx and Crake told the story through the eyes of two men, The Year of the Flood centers on two women, Toby and Ren, survivors of a devastating “waterless flood.”  The women met as members of God’s Gardeners, an environmentalist sect.  Through flashback Atwood covers the 20 years leading up to the flood.  She describes in detail day-to-day life with God’s Gardeners: their leaders, rituals, and hymns.  Atwood’s world is also populated with genetically engineered animals, unusual food, and corporations who claim to be doing good in the world while actually wreaking havoc.

The book got off to a slow start, as Atwood meticulously built her world.  But about halfway through, the pace suddenly accelerated.  Characters’ lives intertwined, including some key figures from Oryx and Crake.  The catastrophic nature of the flood left people stranded and alone, foraging for food while remaining ever on guard against predators.  Were there any “good guys” left, or would this all end in a Hunger Games-style fight to the death?  Will the planet survive?

The story was both suspenseful and thought-provoking.  And while I would probably agree with Atwood on several points, I found her treatment heavy-handed.  This was especially true of the God’s Gardeners.  I loved their self-sufficiency and animal rights activism, but the homilies and hymns in each chapter were a bit much.  Still, I’m looking forward to the third book in this trilogy, MaddAdam, which is scheduled for publication in August.

Review: Some Tame Gazelle, by Barbara Pym

2013 marks the centenary of Barbara Pym, a British novelist with a unique gift for capturing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of post-WW II England.  Her characters are usually middle-aged women, clergy, and academics; her debut novel, Some Tame Gazelle, includes all three.

Harriet and Belinda Bede are sisters, unmarried and of a certain age.  Belinda is devoted to Henry Hoccleve, a love interest from her youth, now married to Agatha and serving as archdeacon in the village.  Harriet is routinely pursued by an Italian count who inexplicably also lives in the village.  Every few months he proposes marriage, and Harriet routinely declines.  Instead, Harriet focuses her attentions on each new curate arriving in the parish, knowing full well her attentions will not be seen as anything other than maternal.  Both women are perfectly comfortable sharing a house and caring for each other as old age approaches.

The entire village is quite comfortable, actually.  Everyone goes to church on Sunday, and social life revolves around community activities like the annual garden party.  People tend their gardens, women knit, and everyone seems to have at least a cook/housekeeper to prepare Sunday lunch while they are away at worship.  This routine is disrupted when Agatha goes away on holiday alone, and both academics and a bishop visit the close-knit community.

Pym is delightfully witty, capturing perfectly the village’s rich cast of characters.  Henry has an inflated view of his abilities; his sermons are known for their length and liberal use of quotations from obscure sources.  His idea of a perfect party activity is to read aloud to his guests. Really, Henry just likes hearing the sound of his own voice:

There was of course nothing she would have liked better than to hear dear Henry reciting Milton, but somehow with Agatha outside and so much to be done it didn’t seem quite the thing.  Also, it was the morning and it seemed a little odd to be thinking about poetry before luncheon.  (p. 21)

But his talents are largely lost on his flock:

The congregation suddenly relaxed. It was just going to be one of the Archdeacon’s usual sermons after all. There had been no need for those uncomfortable fears. They settled down again, now completely reassured, and prepared themselves for a long string of quotations, joined together by a few explanations from the Archdeacon. (p. 107)

The minor characters are just as amusing.  There’s a brilliant scene when the local seamstress refuses to eat food Belinda provided after discovering a caterpillar in the vegetables.  Sock-knitting and the perils of the Kitchener stitch are covered in more detail than I would expect to find in a novel.  Pym’s writing had me chuckling all the way.

The plot was also satisfying, with just the right amount of conflict and uncertainty even as I knew everything would turn out all right in the end. Some Tame Gazelle is an ideal comfort read.

Check out Heaven-Ali’s post for an equally complimentary view of Some Tame Gazelle.

Review: Pomfret Towers, by Angela Thirkell

Discovering a new author is so much fun, especially when they have published many books, and you know you have those to look forward to as well.  Such is the case with Angela Thirkell, and Pomfret Towers which is part of her 29-volume Barsetshire series.  I received this book from a Secret Santa, and was looking for fun, light reads over the holidays.  Pomfret Towers fit the bill completely.

The novel is set in Barsetshire, a fictional English county created by Anthony Trollope.  Where Trollope’s novels are set in the 1850-60s,  Thirkell’s take place in the first half of the twentieth century.  Pomfret Towers centers on a weekend house party for the young people of Barsetshire, hosted by the elderly Lord and Lady Pomfret.  For Alice Barton, it is her first house party and she’s scared to death: unsure of what to wear, how to conduct herself, and what to expect of servants.  Her first instinct is to excuse herself completely, but she is convinced to attend when she learns good friends Roddy & Susan Wicklow will be there, along with her brother Guy.  Once at Pomfret Towers, Alice meets a couple of young men who capture her interest, and the feelings seem to be mutual.  But Alice is an unlikely match for both, so one wonders throughout how all this will turn out.  Needless to say, over the course of the weekend there is much courting, and matchmaking by older members of the party, and Thirkell keeps the reader guessing about how people will pair off.  Because, of course, they do.

Thirkell delivers the romantic storyline with a strong dose of social satire, poking fun at certain character types.  Besides Lord Pomfret, who provides considerable much comedic value, she makes fun of authors, like this one:

Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. … When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded upon the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours. (p. 3-4)

There are also annoying party guests, social climbers, and several all-around good people.  Mix them up with an interesting and funny story line, and you have a highly enjoyable novel.  I look forward to reading more of this series.

Review: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary, by Ruby Ferguson

53 - Lady Rose & Mrs Memmary

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is a tribute to 19th-century Scotland.  First published in 1937, it was reissued in 2004 as Persephone Books #53, with the usual classic endpaper.  It’s a simple story, a comfort read, told by the elderly Mrs Memmary, caretaker of the once magnificent, now crumbling, Keepsfield estate owned by the Countess of Lochlule.  The setup involves a group of tourists who stumble upon Keepsfield, now available to let as a holiday home.  One of the women falls into conversation with Mrs Memmary, encouraging her to talk about the estate and the family that once lived there.  Mrs Memmary is somewhat reticent, but tells her about the day Rose, the current Countess, turned six.   The woman asks more questions, which leads Mrs Memmary to relate more chapters in Rose’s life.  The reader can imagine Mrs Memmary and the woman spending a couple of hours over a cup of tea, while the rest of the tourists explore the estate.

Lady Rose grew up in a very privileged environment, never wanting for material possessions but also, as was typical of wealthy society at the time, distant from her parents.  She sees Scotland as superior to England and, really, anyplace else, as does everyone around her:

“So I shall take your hand, child, and turn you to the sea — like this — and I shall say to you, read, and fill your mind with the wonderful history of Scotland; look, and fill your eyes with the glorious beauty of Scotland; dream, and fill your soul with the poetry and romance of Scotland; and let the love of your country be always in your heart, Lady Rose.”  (p. 51)

Rose attended an English boarding school and, at eighteen, made her debut and became engaged to a Scottish nobleman.  She fulfilled her duty as an heiress and wife, but here her story departs from the expected norm, and Rose turns out to be a surprisingly strong character.  She acts rather impulsively on her convictions, resulting in irrevocable change that, as these things do, has profound positive and negative consequences that make for interesting plot twists.  You will have to read to learn more.

Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary is aptly described by Persephone Books as “a fairy tale for grown-ups,” with the simple prose I would associate with other fairy tales.  Each of Mrs Memmary’s flashbacks are introduced in a way that reminded me of old movies.  Can’t you just imagine this bit on screen?

So old Time seized his book and began to turn back the pages, ten, twenty at a time — more than seventy pages of yellow leaves. Through them all the great white house gleamed whiter, and soon the Greek girl at the fountain was laughing as the waters of a bygone day gushed over her reaching fingers.  (p.21)

This book didn’t exactly bowl me over, but it was an interesting representative of a literary period and a pleasant diversion.

Review: Tipping the Velvet, by Sarah Waters

In Tipping the Velvet, author Sarah Waters tells the story of Nancy Astley, a young Victorian woman who leaves her seaside village and the family business for the footlights of London’s music halls.  But there’s a twist that makes this story unique:  Nancy begins her theatrical career as dresser for Kitty Butler, who performs dressed as a man.  Eventually Nancy becomes Nan King, and part of a popular double act with Kitty.  And Nan and Kitty fall in love.  Nan is comfortable with her new-found sexual identity (but at the cost of severed ties with her family).  Kitty, however, can’t admit it to anyone else, and ultimately not even to herself.  The resulting tension has long-term effects on both Nan and Kitty.

Over the course of the novel, Waters takes Nan from the music halls and mean streets of London up to the very highest levels of society.   Her message seems to be, “lesbians can be found in all walks of life, and they’re really just like everyone else.”  Waters’ description of love between women is refreshingly candid, and shown to be pretty much the same as heterosexual love.  She also skillfully handles the stigma and fear associated with homosexuality in the Victorian era.

These themes were probably enlightening to many readers when this book was published in 1998.  In 2012, I found it all a bit heavy-handed and predictable.  At certain points in the novel, Nan would find herself surrounded by a new community of people, made up of mostly women.  I knew almost immediately where Waters would take the story.  Unfortunately, it took Nan forever to discover the lesbians in her midst.  I also wasn’t terribly impressed with Nan, who seemed to discard people right and left if they were no longer convenient, and would later have sudden epiphanies about how much those people actually mean to her.

In the end, the book was mildly enjoyable and pretty good considering it was Waters’ debut novel.  However, I recommend Fingersmith as  a better example of her talents.

Review: Blaming, by Elizabeth Taylor

Amy and Nick are an average couple, happily married for years and looking forward to spending their later years together.  Unexpectedly, while on holiday, tragedy strikes and leaves Amy a widow.  Paralyzed by grief and confusion, Amy accepts help and support from Martha, another member of their holiday touring party.  Martha is an odd duck, someone Amy would never have befriended otherwise.  But after returning home she feels indebted to her, and Martha becomes a regular visitor in Amy’s home. Martha helps fill otherwise long and lonely days, and slowly Amy begins rebuilding her life.

Amy’s son James and his wife Maggie repeatedly extend invitations to visit, but Amy is proud and doesn’t want to intrude (and, to be fair, James and Maggie have invited Amy more from a sense of duty than anything else).  Amy’s housekeeper / cook, Ernie Pounce, tries to please her through his efficient service, better-than-average culinary abilities, and fond memories of Nick.  And Gareth, her physician and long-time family friend, drops by often just to chat or have a meal.  But Martha makes herself such a presence in Amy’s life, that Amy is oblivious to care offered by relatives and close friends.   And yet, when Martha most needs Amy’s help and support, Amy fails her.

Blaming was Taylor’s last novel, published just months before her death.  It is a quiet, sad book, perhaps reflecting Taylor’s own mood at the time, since she knew she was dying of cancer.  It is moving in her typically understated way, and yet she also unleashed her brilliant wit in portrayals of Ernie, and Amy’s two grandchildren, lightening the mood at just the right moments. While Blaming is not as strong as some of Taylor’s early and mid-career novels, it is a fitting conclusion to her work.