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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Blueprints for Building Better Girls – Elissa Schappell



Before I get started, a little housekeeping.  For the record, Blogger is a piece of shit.  You see, when I go to my dashboard and click “Followers,” it shows me only eight of you lovely readers.  This has been a problem since I started the blog, and it kind of goes back and forth:  one day I can see you all, all 18 of you, and the next, zero.  Or four.  My friend Emily is listed twice, also.  It is maddening, I tell you, but rather than force my poor bedraggled husband to build me a website, thus placing our marriage in extreme jeopardy, I’m dealing with it.  (Also, other hosting sites cost money, and I’m cheap.)  Blogger seems to have recognized this problem (like, since 2009, or something), and it appears to be a common one, but they can’t/won’t fix it.
 
Also, because of yet another Blogger bug, up until now I haven’t been able to respond directly to your lovely comments, so I have been trying to email each of you directly to thank you for them.  But alas!  It looks like this feature is repaired for now, as of the Twilight post.  So in the future, I plan to respond directly to each comment, because I LOVE them, and they really help me to stay motivated.  Hopefully the respond feature will continue to function – let’s all cross our fingers.  It’s frustrating.  (Especially if you consistently teeter on the edge of full-blown OCD, as do I.)

Here’s the moral of that story:  You get what you pay for.  Anyhoo – on to the book!

It seems like it’s been a long time since I’ve read a collection of short stories.  No particular reason why; I think most fiction readers tend to gravitate toward novels initially, but I’d kind of forgotten how rewarding stories can be, and how much I truly enjoy them.  This is a wonderful collection.  Don’t you love the title?  I have to admit, that’s what sold me from the get-go.

I read an essay once, by Amy Tan, perhaps (I really can’t remember, but that’s the luxury of having my own blog, is that if my sources aren’t precise it’s okay nobody’s gonna arrest me), about the American attitude to short stories.  Her conundrum, as I remember it, was in trying to decipher why short stories are hard to sell to the American public.  It would seem that Americans would love short stories, as opposed to novels – they’re quick!  And easy!  And to the point!  You can read one in a hurry: at the doctor’s office, while waiting for the bus, in the carpool line.  NO TIME IS WASTED!  But short story collections don’t make money, and are deceptively HARD to write.  Many authors consider them the most difficult genre.  They require the plotting of a seasoned novelist combined with the wordsmithery (is that a word?  Wordsmithery?  Well, now it is) of a poet.  They have to be tight.  Nothing superfluous, each and every phrase building economically to climax and to theme.  So while short stories might appear “easy” or “quick,” they are anything but.  And it is possible that this undercurrent of complexity is why they typically don’t make money.  Most readers are looking for escape (hey, myself included, much of the time), yet short stories require brainwork on the part of the writer (obviously) as well as on the part of the reader.  You can’t skim a short story – you must engage with every paragraph.  It’s a different kind of reading, I think.

Anyway, I loved how Schappell set up her collection.  The stories are interconnected, which is somewhat typical to the short story genre.  For example, in the first story, “Monsters of the Deep,” we meet Heather as a promiscuous teenager, and the collection concludes evenly with Heather, again, this time as a parent struggling with her past in “I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once.”  Characters offstage in one story are highlighted in another, and each character is in some way affected by the experiences of the others.  In this way, Schappell uses the interconnectedness of the stories not just as gimmick, but as a central theme of the collection: we are all connected.  One person’s life experience affects another’s.

My favorite story in the collection was “Elephant,” because it was so relatable to my own life at the moment.  Two young mothers form a friendship at a playground.  Sounds mundane, right?  But Schappell’s talent lies in magnifying what seems commonplace and makes it fascinating – like an anthropological examination of a tribal ritual.  Personally, I loved her description of new motherhood and how we “recognize” each other within it:  “It was seeing the identical expression, the haunted, bewildered look of the POW in the other woman’s face.  How did this happen?  This moment of recognition had caused each of them to look away.”  Later Schappell mentions “the social groupings that spring up naturally in places like playgrounds and prisons,” which I thought was so…apt.  Motherhood is a sort of prison camp at times (I adore my children, don’t misunderstand me here), and I’ve always thought that the only way to survive it was to have a group of fellow parents with whom you can be totally honest.  But it can be damn hard to find those people, y’all.  Along those lines, here’s my favorite part:

Other mothers had presented themselves as potential lifelong friends but had ultimately been drawn back to work, had given in to the siren song of the suburbs, or despite their initial bonding, had proved incompatible once you discovered they spanked, voted Republican, or when you were over for a playdate made you put a nickel in their “swearing jar” every time you cursed.  Paige’s quip as she stuck a dollar in the jar just in case – that the swearing jar might more accurately be renamed “the therapy jar” – was not appreciated.  As a result, the potential friend pool became shallower, the pickings slim.  In that way, the playground wasn’t unlike a singles bar.  As time passed, standards fell, until they found themselves being seduced by a copy of Swann’s Way in a New Yorker tote bag, a woman in Ray-Bans wearing an R.E.M. T-shirt with pearls.

YES.  Oh, how I can relate.  When I met my friend Jenny, I liked her shoes immediately.  They were gladiator sandals, worn a crucial season before they were trendy.  And she was deeply disturbed by my George H.W. Bush magnet, until she realized that its placement on my refrigerator was ironic.  It was a tricky time.  When I realized I could say “fuck” in front of my friend Emily, after having known her for approximately five minutes, I knew I could trust her to help me move a body, or at least the body of a dead animal.  These things resonate, people.  The bottom line?  Don’t underestimate the importance of female friendship.  These are the individuals who keep us women sane, enabling us to parent our children with kindness (at least, much of the time, one hopes).

13 comments:

  1. LOVE IT! Plus, I think we met on the fucking playground, right?? Yes, yes we did.....

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    1. YES! At swim team, no less. Fuck yeah.

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  2. Oh Sarah! I loved it so much. I cannot wait to read the book. You did an excellent job of writing this. I LOVE it. I really loved the excerpt you added from the book, it gave a perfect feel as to how the story must be. I think this subject really resonates with us now. Our kids are older and our needs as mothers have changed, we actually have perspective. For instance, for those shallow, I need you-you need me relationships, always pick the mother friend with a mini-van, because they can pick your kids up from school.

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    1. thanks! you will love this one. that whole story was full of spot-on observations, it was amazing.

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  3. Love it! and love that I can see other responses. I thought I was the lone responder all this time. I really love your writing style and look forward to seeing that message that you have a new post. I can't wait to read this book.

    However, I'm a little sad because I'm afraid I'm the friend that was "drawn back to work." But we still have book group - sometimes, and someday I hope to be able to run again. That marathon this weekend was so inspiring!

    Back to topic - great post.

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    1. kristine! i didn't even realize that about not seeing the other responders. dammit, blogger. well, hopefully that's fixed now. and yes, you're working, but you're here in spirit :>). i miss our tuesday night runs too! looking forward to your foot healing.

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  4. First off, how much is a real web blogger sight cost? Can we cyberly, is that a word, pass the "FUCK YOU Blogger" jar and fix this fucking problem? Just saying.
    Secondly, love your review and love the idea of this book. Love the prison and playground reference and completely agree about the motherhood badge of honor as well as the need to have real women friends...ones who you can not talk to for a week or month or year and just pick up where you left off. Also another good short story book is Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver.

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    1. thanks for the book rec, N'awlins! and the comment! hopefully blogger will TAKE NOTE.

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  5. Oh my goodness you made me laugh!! And yes, I said goodness because I'm married to your brother and the whole "fuck yeah" attitude didn't get passes to him. In fact, I would go so far as to say he has created something worse than a swear jar in our house. When I swear my wine gets taken away....for week, so yeah, another reason I'm not sure you guys are even related. Now I'm just a rebellious swearer.
    I will have to add this one to my list of books to read....short stories are right up my alley....next to people magazine. Was her style similar to "I was told there would be cake?". If so, I think I'll love it!

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    1. Melissa - that "taking away wine" is spousal abuse. BAD IDEA. have you read this yet?

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amber-dusick/parents-caffeine-wine_b_1192976.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

      also, this book is a bit dark, be warned! Thanks for the comment!

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  6. I'm so glad to have another collection of short stories to look forward to! Thanks for the recommendation!

    I used to completely dismiss short stories. I guess I thought of them as the lazy man's answer to the novel or something, but then I had kids and I was suddenly desperate to read, but totally pressed for time. Anyway, my sister-in-law sent me a copy of Alice Munro's *Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage* and it totally changed my perspective. Now I can't get enough of the genre. Alice Munro is incredible, all across the board, and I also really really liked *All Aunt Hagar's Children* by Edward P. Jones -- and right now I'm reading *Drown* by Junot Diaz. (Have you read his novel, by the way? The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. It's amazing. Possibly the best book I've read all year.)

    Anyway, I've gone completely off topic, haven't I? This was a great review though! Thanks!

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    1. thanks for the book recs. i love munro as well. i'll put the OSCAR WAO book down on my list - i keep hearing about it!

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