#readwomen2014

“…you only get one chance to have a first book, so make sure you stand behind every one of your sentences”

One Chance

What do you tell your students about getting published?

“I tell them not to worry about it just yet – that there’s no rush to get published, that they should spend years reading and writing and messing up, until they feel truly great about the work they’re putting out. When I was first writing stories, an older writer gave me a piece of advice that’s resonated over the years: you only get one chance to have a first book, so make sure you stand behind every one of your sentences”

Molly Antopol in an interview conducted by 7×7

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Adelle Waldman’s debut novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is definitely a must read.

“It’s not a comforting book, but it offers a mercilessly clear view into a man’s mind as he grows tired of a worthy woman…Waldman, herself a woman in her early thirties, has cleverly chosen to tell the story of our generation’s romantic chaos not from the perspective of a woman panicked that she’s wasting her prime but from that of a young man trying to enjoy his.” –The New Yorker

Her book is about the coming-of-age of a brilliant young literary man named Nate.

Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a modern man – who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety; who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down…The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness…

There are books one is happy having read and ultimately wants more from the writer or for the story to continue. Waldman’s novel is no different.

Throughout the story I found a lot of interesting material worth considering and that, for me, was what brought me to read her novel in the first place. From the very beginning we understand that Nate is “not the kind of guy who disappears[s] after sleeping with a women…On the contrary: Nathaniel Piven was a product of a postfeminist, 1980s childhood and politically correct, 1990s college education. He had learned all about male privilege” (3). All of this is very good and precise information but what draws me to Waldman’s character is what follows next: “Morever he was in possession of a functional and frankly rather clamorous conscience” (3).

Nate is 30 years old and his career is starting to hit its pinnacle stride – “he wasn’t looking for anything serious…he was [simply] focused on his career” (5).

The first chapter introduces us to the characters at hand. We have Jason and Peter, Nate’s best guy friends. Aurit is Nate’s best female friend. And Elisa, Nate’s ex-girlfriend who insists that “if [they] really are friends [then] why can’t [she] have [him] over for dinner with a few people?” (8) A question that is often the product of a post-breakup not officially quite over. Yet it’s within this get-together that Nate encounters Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” (8) the very girl that forces Nate to consider what it is he really wants. If there’s something that I really liked about Waldman’s novel it definitely is her detailed sketches of her characters.

It’s within this party that they quickly get involved in conversation that although it’s “supposed to be ornamental [and] aimed to amuse” (11) fails and falls into a discussion on Nate’s essay “about how one of the privileges of being elite is that we outsource the act of exploitation” (10):

“We get other people to do things that we’re too morally thin-skinned to do ourselves,” Nate said with more conviction. “Conscience is the ultimate luxury” (10-11).

What resonates here is that last part on one’s conscience. For Nate, this is important because a clean conscience is something that he considers the ultimate luxury yet finds to no avail in his relationship with Hannah throughout the novel.

After introducing us to the literary world that Nate resides in Brooklyn, New York City, Waldman places the second chapter of her novel to serve more of a back story to how Nate grew up.

“Nate had not always been the kind of guy women call an asshole. Only recently had he been popular enough to inspire such ill will” (17).

And as we come to find out, Nate was considered “nice”:

“Nate is not an alpha male, as Waldman is careful to show us; he has only recently discovered his allure. Raised in suburban Maryland by Romanian parents, handsome enough but too bright to secure a place among the cool crowd at school, Nate was of indeterminate social status as a teenager. This early experience makes him inveterately thoughtful and self-conscious” –The New Yorker

Part of me that is drawn to Nate as a human being is Waldman’s detailed description of his upbringing. It makes me want to understand/find out why Nate is the way he is. And then I find a passage that just seems to click:

“It wasn’t even about sex. Nate’s life had been somewhat short on friendship, real friendship, distinct from the sort of conditional alliance[s] he had…” (20).

Perhaps it comes down to friendship?

But it’s more complicated than that.

He is admitted to Harvard, a place “he couldn’t have been more naive, more uneducated in the social mores” (22). He is lost and he happily gives in to following a suite-mate of his until it’s too late to rub off his suite-mate’s influence too easily. It’s in disappointment and isolation that he eventually turns to reading in response to a “feverish loneliness… [that] he began to fear would be permanent” (27). However, he is eventually saved by his college girlfriend, Kristen, and it’s upon meeting Jason and Peter that he finds his time to be a happy one:

“It was so new – the girl and the friends. And he’d waited so long for both” (29).

After he graduates, Nate moves in with Kristen. Things don’t work out so well, they break up, and then Nate moves to New York – a place where “he had high expectations, both professionally and romantically” (31).

And it’s in New York that Nate begins to get a sense of how the dating scene worked:

“It was around this time that he began to understand what was meant by the phrase low self-esteem, something he used to think he identifies with intuitively. But what he had himself experienced was nothing like the total habituation to being treated badly that he encountered in some of the girls he met his first year in New York…But pity couldn’t be transmuted into romantic feeling…” (32-33).

Determined to make a living writing, Nate does just that as he settles and eventually becomes a “young, up-and-coming literary intellectual” (35). And it’s there where the back-story gives one enough information to seize Waldman’s Nathaniel Piven as a bright but flawed and emotional human being:

He had done his share to create [his post break-up] situation [with Elisa], and he knew it…

“Just so you know, it wasn’t about sex,” [Elisa] said… “I just wanted to be held…I wanted, for a little while, not to feel alone. You know?”

“I know,” he said. As he picked up his messenger bag and closed the door to her apartment, he too wanted to cry. (40)

It’s this kind of portrayal of her own characters that drew me in as a reader as I continued to invest myself into her novel. As Nate opens himself up to consciously accepting Hannah’s terms – “she wasn’t looking for something casual” (84) – the novel begins to pick up and their relationship slowly unfolds.

On their first date, Nate and Hannah get into a conversation about their pursuit for writing. Each taking a jab at their past, Nate at one point talks about his own upbringing:

“[He] didn’t grow up in a fancy intellectual environment but [he] was determined not to stay [content]…[he had] met kids whose parents were politicians and Washington Post columnists. [He] knew [he] wanted that, what their parents had. [He] felt like if they had it, there was no reason [he] couldn’t” (49).

Nate says many things in his many monologues throughout the novel and this definitely is one of the first signs of his feeling of entitlement. But what exactly is it that Nate wants? Hannah asks him.

“On the one hand, to do something interesting,” he said. “And on the other, to be admired for it.”

Boom.

I liked Nate’s response. And as he later recalls to himself: “success was something that just happened…if you were deserving, it was bestowed by the same invisible hand that ensured that the deli would have milk to drink and sandwiches to buy….” (50) But he admits that its more complicated than that – that is, one’s very ambition and writing.

Throughout the novel, readers also bear witness to the short attention span of a man, or more specifically, a man holding neurotic tendencies to over-think situations and be put off by others. Specifically when it comes to a friend’s appraisal, or as it so happens in his date with Hannah, his friend Jason:

“Still, the thought of his friend’s appraisal – Jason would probably call Hannah a seven (“coworker material”) – bothered Nate. He didn’t like the idea of dating girls Jason wouldn’t. That seemed wrong, since Nate was clearly the better person – more successful as well as more deserving” (52).

Coming back to Nate and Hannah’s conversation about their writing, Hannah offers an interesting insight to how she views books and writers:

“Oh, I don’t know,” Hannah said…”I think it’s vanity to want it both ways. You know, to want to write books because that’s your thing but also to want to be treated like a rock star” (53).

Later on in the story, we finally get a hold on a new character in the form of Aurit, Nate’s best girl friend – an interesting character that reoccurs in the novel.

Aurit had once espoused a system of categorizing people that he found useful. She said some people were horizontally oriented, while others were vertical.

Horizontally oriented people were concerned exclusively with what others think, with fitting in or impressing their peers.

Vertically oriented people were obsessed only with some higher “truth,” which they believed in wholeheartedly and wanted to trumpet no matter who was interested.

People who are horizontally oriented are phonies and sycophants, while those who are entirely vertically oriented lack all social skill – they’re the ones on the street shouting about the apocalypse.

Normal people are in the middle, but veer one way or the other (78-79).

As it happens to occur, Hannah doesn’t give in to sleeping with Nate right away. Although he stayed at her place for the night, Nate decides to wait and put off calling her. Aurit, in turn, reprimands him:

“I just hate the way so many men treat ‘dating’ as if it’s a frivolous subject…Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you” (79).

Dating in a nutshell.

Or as Nate essentially says in response to that: #firstworldproblems

Classic Aurit. Take whatever she was personally interested in and apply all her ingenuity to turning it into Something Important. It never occurred to her that there was anything more worth caring about or thinking about than upper-middle-class women’s search for happiness…

“I don’t know,” Nate said… “It’s easy to overstate the importance of whatever you’re personally affected by…I just don’t think dating is quite the scourge of modern life you’re making it out to be. I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. It’s just one aspect of life and certainly not the most important one” (79-80).

As Nate moves past his fear, he recognizes how “he and Hannah were soon going to move past new-person territory,” (84) a marking point in making their relationship official.

Perhaps the salient issue was not why but simply that he didn’t want to be in a relationship. His work fulfilled him, and his friends provided all the conversation and companionship he needed.

…Nate wanted to argue…that women want to be in relationships because on a gut level they don’t like being alone (85).

Sometimes he remembered how lonely he had been in high school and the early part of college, even in his early years in New York…Surrounded by friends and reasonably established, he felt lucky. He knew he’d been lucky (89).

Nate and Hannah’s relationship starts off well. However, as unspoken tension builds up, it’s hard not to see it’s eventual doom slowly surface and unveil itself:

When you’re single, your weekend days are wide-open vistas that extend in every direction; in a relationship, they’re like the sky over Manhattan: punctured, hemmed in, compressed (154).

Hannah speaks of a “vibe” that has been felt for quite a while, that somehow she is “the person forcing [him] to give up [his] freedom” (156). Any opportunity to talk is hindered by Nate, his “thoughts had been far removed from relationship issues, and he didn’t feel like getting drawn into another of those conversations…He didn’t want to feel like the big bad wolf just because he wouldn’t play this particular feminine parlor game” (160).

In an article on the New York Magazine entitled “Letters From the Creative Man-Child: What Writing a Novel Taught Me About How They Date,” Adelle Waldman writes about modern relationships:

“You’ve got to genuinely value not only the other person, but the relationship you’re building.”

Another thing that got to me about Nate was how easily he got bored. I believe that if I had to pinpoint Nate’s demise to a couple of reasons, it would boil down to two. His “boredom,” “critical voice,” and his higher ranking of his career  that eventually leads to his doom:

In the process of wheedling Hannah back into good humor, Nate, too, was revived. Having a project – getting back in to Hannah’s good graces – dispelled boredom and silenced that critical voice. He told her (because women love talking about personal life) about Aurit, who was flipping out because Hans was still balking about moving to New York.

“She treats his concern for his career like it’s a transparent excuse. I’ve got to get her to quit that before she really pisses him off” (169).

When their relationship indeed does come to an end, Hannah still admits that she likes him – that “there’s [simply] something about [him]” (186) that she can’t pinpoint. Yet she recognizes that what “[they’ve] become has been sapping something from [her]” (186) and that she needs to feel that Nate is willing to rekindle their relationship – it’s not a solo effort nor is it a one way streak:

“I need to feel like I’m not in this alone, the only one who cares about what’s going on here” (187).

Nate agrees but falls short on his part of the deal. He grows bored and inconsiderate:

“He looked at another woman. Big f***ing deal. He didn’t have the energy right then to deal with this unbearable, this boring tension between the two of them” (196).

His boredom is “broadcast[ed] as contempt for [Hannah]” (197). Exchanges are made once more but this time they officially terminate their relationship: “Relationships shouldn’t be this hard” (200).

Consumed with guilt after ending his relationship with Hannah, he feels terrible:

“…for the person with more power in a relationship to refuse to take seriously the unhappiness of the other, simply because nothing is forcing them to, is the ultimate dick move” (206).

Trying to balance out Aurit’s argument, Nate reaches out to his friend Jason who gives a couple of interesting points himself:

“As a rule, men want a reason to end a relationship, while women want a reason to keep it going. That’s why, after the fact, men look to all the things that were wrong with the relationship, to confirm the rightness of ending it. Women, on the other hand, go back and search for what might have been different, what might have made it work”

“Men and women on relationships are like men and women on orgasms, except in reverse. Women crave relationships the way men crave orgasm. Their whole being bends to its imperative. Men, in contrast, want relationships the way women want orgasm: sometimes, under the right circumstances”(214).

Aurit contradicts: “Men and women both need relationships just as badly; men just don’t know it” (215).

Ehhh.

Afterwards, the rest of the novel shifts to Nate’s relationship with Greer, a girl with noticeable differences to Hannah:

Nate was rarely bored. With Greer, there was always some distraction, a crisis or a fight or some fantastic scheme of hers…What Greer lacked in strict rectitude, she made up for in more feminine virtues, such as warmth and compassion. Like Hannah, she was lively and fun to be around. Unlike Elisa, she was willing to do things he enjoyed. She also had a strong caring impulse” (230-231).

His relationship with Hannah had shown him things about himself that he wasn’t entirely proud of, about what he really valued in a woman and what he claimed to value but in fact could live without (235).

What he and Greer has was pretty f***ing good. Moreover, he liked his life, his friends. He was pleased with his progress on the new book; perhaps that was, for him, more important than anything else. He was, whether or not he deserved to be, happy (240).

Perhaps it really did come to Nate’s poor ability to choose a woman…

~ppr

________________________________________________________________________________

(By the way, I definitely recommend reading Sasha Weiss’ article in The New Yorker as well.)

With her eye for social folly in the streets and restaurants of New York, Waldman resembles Edith Wharton. But where the manners and hierarchies of Wharton’s world are highly codified (and the scandal in her books is the arrival of someone who tries to break them), Waldman’s characters are set adrift in a world without clear rules, and they torment themselves trying to figure out if they’ve in fact violated some ill-defined conventions of courtship and sexual etiquette.” – The New Yorker

#readwomen2014

2014

This is the year to read women.

#readwomen2014

2014, The Year of Reading Women

As part of the new year, the Twitter hashtag, #ReadWomen2014 has been trending in the literary world. In an effort to raise awareness to being a gender-conscious reader, I’ve made it my goal to read more female writers this year. Of course, this by no means states that I won’t read something from a guy as well from time to time but you get the idea.

My list is generous (some I have read, some I have yet to read) and because I’m become addicted to buying books at the Strand, they’ve just been piled up (for now) to-be-read as soon as I get to them. They’re all a bunch of good ones which I’ve been meaning to get my hands and eyes on for quite some time:

Adelle Waldman’s debut novel

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Adelle Waldman

I’ve recently finished her novel and I really enjoyed it for the characters and how the idea of relationships were discussed . I even got to meet Adelle Waldman at an NYU bookstore event reading and it was great. She was totally cool! I got my book signed and we chatted for a bit. Stay tuned for my review/commentary on my reading of her debut novel in the very near future (next post most likely)!

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Karen Russell

Swamplandia!

Karen Russell

Karen Russell’s newest book and her 2nd short story collection

Vampires in the Lemon Grove

Karen Russell

I’m not going to lie. I’m bias when it comes to Karen Russell. Not only did I get to meet her but she was an absolute pleasure to talk to and stuff. She was really genuine and she’s a MacArthur Genius! How awesome is that! Her short story collections were great and although I have yet to read her novel, I have no doubt in my mind it will not disappoint when I do get to it. 🙂

P.S. She also has a digital-only novella, Sleep Donation, coming out this March! Get excited!

Sweet Talk

Stephanie Vaughn

Stephanie Vaughn needs to come up with more writing for me to read. Her short story collection is the only published material that has been available for quite a while and I definitely recommend everyone to read her book. I even wrote a review on it that highlights how awesome it was to have encountered her book.

Bad Behavior

Mary Gaitskill

14248504-mmmain

Molly Antopol’s debut book of short stories

The UnAmericans

Molly Antopol

This is a short story collection that has been building up so much recognition that I really want to be part of the hype. Her book came out in February and she was in NYC for a while. I can’t believe I missed her! I’m definitely looking forward to reading her book in time for her next visit in the city.

Last Last Chance

Fiona Maazel

Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely in Paperback

Woke Up Lonely

Fiona Maazel

Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely is a Believer Book Award finalist, placing among a group of “novels and short story collections [the editors of the Believer] thought were the strongest and most underappreciated of the year [2013]”.

Her latest novel, Woke Up Lonely, is set to launch as a paperback in April.

You Are One of Them

Elliot Holt

Elliott Holt’s You Are One of Them

Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng

Vida

Patricia Engel

It’s Not Love, It’s Just Paris

Patricia Engel

Chasing the Sun

Natalia Sylvester

The Safety of Objects

A.M. Homes

Meg Wolitzer’s “The Interestings”

Bastard Out of Carolina

Dorothy Allison

Monkeys

Susan Minot

The Interestings

Meg Wolitzer

FYI: This list is definitely bound to be updated in the future. There’s always so much more to read. And if you have any to recommend, please do!!

Moonlit Landscape with Bridge

Image

Photograph by Gil Inoue

I firmly believe that as a writer, it’s always in my best interest to read as much as possible. I try my best to keep up with what’s going on in the literary world through social media and much of it has to do with other writers.

Zadie Smith has been a name I’ve heard of for quite some time with her most recent novel, White Teeth, a huge hit. With her most recent fiction in The New Yorker, I’ve found the chance to finally read her and I can definitely say that I’ve become a recent fan.

-Spoiler Alert-

In this story, chaos has engulfed an unnamed country in which its’ Minister of the Interior features as the main protagonist. Accompanied by his chauffeur, the Minister embarks on a journey through the valley witnessing firsthand the crisis he has avoided for “three days” in which a storm is cited as the cause of the devastation:

“By the time they reached the valley, however, any hope one had that the television exaggerated was destroyed. The water had retreated, leaving behind a shredded world of plastic, timber, and wire”.

As they encounter people along the way, the Minister’s character is slowly revealed.

“We can’t get through this.”

“We are not going to get through,” the Minister corrected. “We’re going to stop. There are three crates of water in the trunk.”

…There were things that had mattered before the storm and things that mattered now, and the Minister fully understood that he belonged to the former category.

The story ultimately places three characters under a distressing dilemma where “one never really kn[o]w[s] a person until one [i]s caught in a situation of extremity with that person”.

The student of history vs. The student of human nature

The Marlboro Man ends up being the third character that sets the story rolling to its’ climax. Due to the storm, the prison collapses “flat as a pancake!” and prisoners are liberated as if “the Lord himself” did it. An escaped convict, the Marlboro Man holds the Minister and his chauffeur hostage. As the Minister confronts the Marlboro Man, he compares him to the devil as a young man, “a good student, very attentive, eager to get on, who nevertheless always learned the wrong lesson”. Their history is revealed as one where they both took part of a rebellion, a revolution, a commitment “to the future of their nation [in which they were] willing to risk anything for it”. The story ends without any deaths however, as the Marlboro Man escapes and the Minister lets him leave.

He felt as if he were releasing the spirit of chaos into the world. But wasn’t it already here?

MUST READ for sure!!

#readwomen2014

bad behavior

Would you read something considered taboo? Would it even cross your mind to write about it? This is the world that Mary Gaitskill calls her own in her short story collection, Bad Behavior. Considered a classic, her first book marked Gaitskill’s arrival into the literary scene. 

Set in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and peopled with working-class drug addicts, intelligent hookers, stable housewives, smug yuppies, and sensually deprived professionals, Bad Behavior depicts a cruel and tender world where romance and modern perversity go hand in hand.

In the first story entitled, “Daisy’s Valentine”, the story starts as follows:

Joey felt that his romance with Daisy might ruin his life, but that didn’t stop him. He liked the idea in fact. It had been a long time since he’d felt his life was in danger of further ruin, and it was fun to think it was still possible.

He worked with Daisy in the clerical department of a filthy secondhand bookstore on the Lower East Side of Manhattan…

He had watched Daisy for almost a year before making a pass at her. He had been living with Diane for eight years and was reluctant to change anything that stable. Besides, he loved Diane. They’d had such a good eight years that by now it was almost a system.

He had met Diane at Bennington. He’d been impressed by her reputation in the art department, by the quality of the LSD she sold and by her rudeness. She was a tall, handsome thirty-three-year-old woman…

And so begins the story.

I felt the author’s ability as a writer through the first few pages. The attention to details, the introduction of the main characters, the setting, and the quick scenes that give the reader a jab to what’s to come…the possibilities, the risk, the ruin of certain doomed characters that Gaitskill also displays among her other stories.

In “Daisy’s Valentine,” Joey’s stalker-like tendency to fascinate is locked specifically at Daisy:

For a long time he just looked at her. That alone made him so happy, he was afraid to try anything else. Maybe in would be better to hold her winglike shadow safe in the lock of his memory than to touch the breathing girl and lose her. (9)

Romance is certainly taken under a different light in Gaitskill’s stories and it really makes you think how quickly it can take a perverse turn for the worst.

The guys in these stories are, to be frank, patronizing and needy:

“I love you. I don’t care about anything else.  I want to cast my mantle of protection over you” (11).

And the women are masochistic: 

“I’m only nice to people who are mostly mean to me. Once somebody told me to say away from so-and-so because he beat up girls. They said he broke his girlfriend’s jaw. So I began flirting with him like wild…isn’t it awful? I actually wanted this nut to hit me” (12).

It’s when these set of characters are placed into one story after another that the thought of being rescued comes across their minds. Either one or the other of these set of misfits long for tolerance, acceptance, and an equal. When it can’t become a reality, it’s easy to see why they resort to fantasy.

“Why would you have a fantasy like that?” She looked disturbed.

“I don’t know. It’s not important.”

She continued to stare at him, almost stricken. “I think it’s because you feel estranged from people. You want something extreme to happen so you can show that you love them, and that you deserve love from them.” (18)

In “A Romantic Weekend,” the situation is more dark and perverse. Insecurity and “a state of ghastly anxiety” (27) completely envelops the main female character. Like other characters in Gaitskill’s stories, love is sometimes mistaken for something else.

She was in love with the idea of intelligence, and she overestimated her own. (29)

And mistakes are eventually realized a little too late:

How, she thought miserably, could she have mistaken this hostile moron for the dark, brooding hero who would crush her like an insect and then talk about life and art? (43)

“You have really disappointed me,” she said. “This whole thing has been a complete waste of time” (44).

Overall, I definitely believe that everyone should experience this book for themselves. Not to give much of any other story away (it’s really hard to do actually…), the rest of the stories are as follows (with a couple of quotes that I liked):

-“Something Nice” : Sometimes the oddest set of people tell you how special you are and it isn’t too late to change.

“Don’t you see how special you are? No other girl I’ve seen like this would ever have thought to say something like that. All they can think of is how to get more money out of me and here you are worrying about how much I’m spending. I’m not trying to flatter you, you are different” (61).

…When he thought of her he didn’t feel love or anything like it. He felt a sort of painful fondness (67).

-“An Affair, Edited” :

“It’s so interesting, now that I’m closer to success, I’ve become much less interested in it. I’ve always known that i would be successful, that I just had to work for it. But it was always out of reach, so I obsessed about it all the time. It was a goal. Now it’s more like a natural outcome, another element of my life to be experienced.”

“…Things are always less important once you’re assured of having them” (78).

-“Connection” 

-“Trying to Be” : “customer-hooker romance”

-“Secretary”

-“Other Factors” : 

“You have a way, you know, of shoving your vulnerability right into people’s faces. Or something that you call vulnerability, anyway. You sometimes do it immediately upon meeting them. You force people to deal with it…Don’t be angry with me for saying this…you used to do it a lot, and it’s kind of strange to be confronted so aggressively with somebody else’s frailty. Some people will want to protect you, as I did, but some people will want to hurt you. Others will be merely afraid of you, for the obvious reason that it reminds them of their own frailty” (163-4).

– and “Heaven”

Sweet Talk

I’m a sucker for short stories. Something about the art form of a writer focusing his efforts to tell a story not too short to be called a poem yet not too long to be called a novel draws me in. Perhaps, it’s the ability to read them in one sitting? You would think, then, I would like poetry as much, right? I like poetry but not as much as I enjoy the reading of a quality short story.

On my first attempt to renew this blog, I’m happy to announce that my first post of the new year will focus on my take on Stephanie Vaughn’s collection of short stories entitled Sweet Talk. (I finally found a copy of the book at the Strand so I just had to get it!)

 Sweet Talk

#readwomen2014 !!

Like Tobias Wolff, I too encountered Stephanie Vaughn through The New Yorker. Actually, Toby (can I call him Toby?) had a lot to do with it too. It was through The New Yorker’s Fiction Podcast series that Tobias Wolff was asked to choose a story from their archives to read and discuss with fiction editor Deborah Treisman for his first appearance. (On his second appearance he chose Denis Johnson’s “Emergency”.)

In the 2012 Other Press edition of Sweet Talk, Tobias Wolff gives a warm introduction to his thoughts on Stephanie Vaughn’s short story collection. As he puts it, “though the stories vary in time and place and dramatis personae, there is a sort of spine running through the collection, and that is the cumulative, evolving portrait of Gemma’s family”. This is a short story collection that mostly (5 out of the 10 stories) centers around Gemma, the main character in which Vaughn focuses her stories.

“Story after story the confident adult world is revealed as a shaky edifice built not on rock but on sands yielding constantly to the influence of alcohol, war, bad luck, disease, and simple human frailty”.

Doesn’t this short story collection sound enticing?!

Spoiler Alert! –About to recap just one of my favorite stories, I suggest you read them all!– Spoiler Alert!

In the first story, “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog,” the father is introduced as a “tall and awesome” Army officer which Gemma’s grandmother (on her mother’s side) seems to constantly bicker about how her daughter should’ve married a minister instead. But like any authoritative father, Gemma’s father is dictatorial. He lays down the rules where at mealtimes he “lecture[s] on the mechanics of life” and on speaking with a “calculation and precision” that Gemma notices within him.

When you lose, don’t cry. When you win, don’t gloat. (6)

Vaughn also makes great use of the setting that she places her characters. One reoccurring symbol within two of her stories – “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” and “Dog Heaven” – is the mystifying might of the river.

“I don’t like the river,” [the mother says]. “I think it wants to hypnotize you” (10).

The river is described to have the power to draw you in literally but also mentally. In another instance, the father tells a story in which two men await their fate on a river barge “waiting to see whether in the next moment of their lives they would go over [the Falls].” The story concludes with their eventual rescue after staying still “all afternoon and night, listening to the sound of the water pounding into the boulders at the bottom of the gorge”. As they are asked to recount their stories, “the thinking man” talks about how he had spent the night playing poker in his head” while the other chooses not to speak.

He could not speak.

“The scream of the water entered his body,” said my father. He paused to let us think about that…

“He went insane” (11).

The first story takes a turn when Gemma’s father faces the reality that comes with a career falling apart. As his observant daughter, Gemma is there to see it, “not knowing the cause but knowing the consequences” (17) that come with it. As the story comes full fold, the tension between father and daughter comes to a daunting end. A father-daughter story that one can resonate with, provided beautifully by the details that Vaughn carefully chooses through her technique of language.

-End of Spoiler…kind of…-

The rest of the short stories included in the following order:

“Sweet Talk” : an interesting story of love and invention. I liked how the characters take jabs at each other mentally, hoping to make their “sting of the[ir] intention to hurt” felt.

“We’re on TV in the Universe” : a short story that kind of, kind of (bear with me!) resembles/reminded me of Denis Johnson’s short story “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” from Jesus’ Son (perhaps because a car crash occurs during both).

I was going to a party where I imagined that I would be noticed as an interesting person… (52)

“My Mother Breathing Light” : Centering around Gemma and her mother, death lingers in this story and hysteria develops between both women.

“Other Women” : To preface this one….Sometimes it’s hard to get rid of the ones we love. Harvey seems to love everyone, he doesn’t hate. Women are gravitated to him. As far as third wheeling goes, Susu (his ex-wife) takes the cake. The narrator finds a tough time grasping her presence until she realizes that Harvey isn’t as helplessly innocent of any wrong doing as he looks.

“He was always  a sucker for the basket cases” (83)

“Kid MacArthur” : Gemma’s brother is finally introduced!

“The Architecture of California” : It isn’t easy to remodel yourself. A couple takes the challenge and tries to live healthy but as the wife comes to find out, it isn’t easy. Getting rid of a vice by substituting them with another vice is never the answer.

“The Battle of Fallen Timbers” : Short story done with exact precision. Not everyone moves on especially when living in the past.

“Snow Angel” : Written in the 3rd person, Marguerite, a young mother of two is stuck in a blizzard.

– and (the best was definitely saved for last) “Dog Heaven” : I urge everyone to read this. Listen to Tobias Wolff read it. It’s so worth it !

“I came to on the grass with the dog barking, ‘Wake up!’ he seemed to say. ‘Do you know your name? My name is Duke! My name is Duke!’” (165)

NOTE...dramatis personae was Tobias Wolff’s fancy word for the list of characters that mostly feature within a work…

P.S. …And he said no to Toby.