books, Reading, Short Stories, Women Writers

“Birds of America” by Lorrie Moore

          “‘The thing to remember about love affairs,’ says Simone, ‘is that they are all like having raccoons in your chimney.’
          ‘Oh, not the raccoon story,’ groans Cal.
          ‘Yes! The raccoons!’ cries Eugene.
          I’m sawing at my duck.
          ‘We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney,’ explains Simone.
          ‘Hmmm,’ I say, not surprised.
          ‘And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead.’ Simone swallows some wine. ‘Love affairs are like that,’ she says. ‘They are all like that.'”

This collection of short stories was my first exposure to Lorrie Moore, and I am smitten. IMG_0004 Her stories are packed with sardonic characters wielding razor-sharp wit. Many of Moore’s characters are the fast-talking, bon-mot-laying people to whom I am irresistibly drawn in fictional worlds as well as in reality (though honestly their hyperbolic wit more frequently populates books and television than real life). I have read criticisms, in fact, of this very characteristic of Moore’s writing, but to me it is its greatest asset.

“Birds of America” is full of sassy witticisms about love and relationships, with each ill-used or unsettled woman more biting than the last. The following excerpts, from three different stories, may provide a taste of what Moore is serving – marriage, roasted on a spit.

“At night, she and Joe did yoga to a yoga show on TV. It was part of their effort not to become their parents, though marriage, they knew, held that hazard. The functional disenchantment, the sweet habit of each other had begun to put lines around her mouth, lines that looked like quotation marks – as if everything she said had already been said before.”

“Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically.”

          “Adrienne sighed. ‘But do you think people have sex here?’
          Kate smiled. ‘You mean casual sex? Among the guests?’
          Adrienne felt annoyed. ‘Casual sex? No, I don’t mean casual sex. I’m talking about difficult, randomly profound, Sears and Roebuck sex. I’m talking marital.'”

Despite the rather dim view and the often doomed-status of relationships throughout these stories, “Birds of America” isn’t at all discouraging or disheartening. There is levity in every story, a glimmer in every eye, and a snicker waiting to break free on every page.

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books, Reading, Women Writers

“A Tale For the Time Being” by Ruth Ozeki

          “Do not think that time simply flies away. Do not understand ‘flying’ as the only function of time. If time simply flew away, a separation would exist between you and time. So if you understand time as only passing, then you do not understand the time being.
          To grasp this truly, every being that exists in the entire world is linked together as moments in time, and at the same time they exist as individual moments of time. Because all moments are the time being, they are your time being.”  – Dogen Zenji, Uji

IMG_0947I adore writers who can successfully bend time, and Ruth Ozeki has proven that time, to her, is as malleable as clay. “A Tale For the Time Being” blends the stories of Ruth, a writer somewhat begrudgingly inhabiting a sleepy island town in British Columbia, and Naoko, a troubled and tormented teen in Tokyo, Japan. While strolling along the beach one day, Ruth discovers a barnacle-covered package, a package which contains a diary, a packet of letters in Japanese, a small notebook full of French missives, and an antique watch. Ruth, who is herself of Japanese descent, slowly reads through her treasure – what turns out to be Nao’s diary and the letters and diary of her great uncle Hiroki, a conscripted kamikaze pilot in World War II.

Naoko’s writings – of her “going from being a middle-class techno-yuppie’s kid in Sunnyvale, California, to an unemployed loser’s kid in Tokyo Japan”, of her torment at the hands of vicious bullies, of her great-grandmother “Old” Jiko – are written and read with such urgency that Ruth, though likely reading these scribblings years after their creation, feels intimately connected to them.

          “Print is predictable and impersonal, conveying information in a mechanical transaction with the reader’s eye.
          Handwriting, by contrast, resists the eye, reveals its meaning slowly, and is an intimate as skin.”

As Ruth’s readings progress, she begins to feel as though the diary’s actions are concurrently happening with her reading of them and that she could, in fact, impact their outcomes. She becomes lost in time, uncertain how and when the arc of Naoko’s story fits in with the arc of her own. Living on a stormy, nearly-desolate island, Ruth feels disquieted and displaced.

“It was only in an urban landscape, amid straight lines and architecture, that she could situation herself in human time and history. As a novelist she needed this. She missed people. She missed human intrigue, drama and power struggles. She needed her own species, not to talk to, necessarily, but just to be among, as a bystander in a crowd or an anonymous witness.”

Nao, like her ‘heir’ Ruth, is fascinated by the seemingly elusive concept of time. Her explorations and musings of time and of ‘now’ tickle the mind and belie her youth.

“If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really. …The word now always felt especially strange and unreal to me because it was me, at least the sound of it was. Nao was now and had this whole other meaning.”

Ruth Ozeki’s beautiful novel, “A Tale For the Time Being”, bends time and space in gorgeous ebbs and flows. Ozeki blends multiple narratives, embedding diary entries into a contemporary writer’s story, in a way which celebrates the seams and emphasizes the borders, even as those borders are being blurred. The novel is confessional and intimate. It dares you to put it down, challenges you to blink first.