What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours

9781594634635_p0_v2_s192x300Helen Oyeyemi’s name was in the wind.  I heard her mentioned in the book I was listening to on Audible, The World Between Two Covers, and a friend suggested reading Oyeyemi’s celebrated Mr. Fox for a book club discussion. When Nancy Hightower of the Washington Post described Oyeyemi’s collection of short stories What Is Yours Is Not Yours as ” a series of loosely connected, magically tinged tales about personal and social justice,” and NPR called her writing masterpieces,  I decided it was time to read her.  Besides, the library conveniently produced What Is Your Is Not Yours in a day.  The universe must be calling.

Keys and locks connect the nine short stories, and as I read the first – “books and roses,” I had the same feeling I get when reading Haruki Murakami – what was I missing?  Some important undercurrent lurked just beyond my grasp, and if I could decipher the meaning, the reward would be great.  Despite rereading the first story, I’m still not sure.

Montserrat, a foundling girl left in a Catalonia chapel with a key hanging around her neck. grows up and finds work in a laundry, where she encounters Señora Lucy, a painter who also wears a key. The strange connection between the two women’s unrelated stories surprisingly merge at the end when Montserrat discovers she and Lucy are linked, as the keys unlock a beautiful garden, and a window into their lives.

Oyeyemi used revealing language to underscore her messages, and comprehension of her plots seemed secondary to reading her words, so I continued.

“Some new tax that only people with no money had to pay.  Or yet another member of the county police force was found to have been an undercover gangster.  If not that then a gang member was found to have been an undercover police officer. An Ottoman-style restaurant opened in a town nearby; it served no food but had a mineral water menu tens of pages long, and fashion models came to drink their way through it while we played football with their bodyguards.”

The second story “‘sorry’ doesn’t sweeten her tea,” begins with a house of locks and two friends, a rock star, and you-tube. Sisters Day and Aisha, who are being raised by their father and his boyfriend, deal with the news that their favorite singer has been accused of savagely beating a woman.When the rock star is exposed by the victim on you-tube, his fans’ reaction is to praise rather than condemn him, and he cynically uses his exposure as a vehicle for his next popular song.  Young Aisha, an ardent fan, now demands not only accountability but also his repentance.  The ending is satisfying, if other worldly, but had me wondering how we would all like to see some comeuppance for those who tend to “get away with it.”

Happy to have found Helen Oyeyemi, I will keep reading – seven more short stories in this book, and hope I will be able to discuss them with someone who has read them.

Have you?

Related Review:  Haruki Murakami

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The Matisse Stories

9780786158270_p0_v1_s192x300Only three short stories in this small volume – The Matisse Stories – by A.S. Byatt, with each story revolving around a Matisse painting.

Each includes a feminine protagonist pushed to her limit. The women are ordinary at the beginning – an older classics professor and her hairdresser, an overworked mother and her housekeeper, and a college dean with the task of deciding the fate of an erratic doctoral student.  The beauty of Byatt’s writing is the familiarity of the circumstances that morph into crisis mode.

in “Medusa’s Ankles,”when the professor is sitting in the chair listening to her hairdresser, you may recall your last conversation with yours.  Most likely, though, your hairdresser was doing the listening.  In Susannah’s case, her patience snaps when she is faced with a redecorated salon and a substitute messing with her hair.  Ironically, the hairdresser sublimely sees Susannah’s extreme action as a sign to move on – perhaps to another career.

In “Art Work,” Mrs. Brown, the housekeeper, patiently observes her frantic overlords – a woman trying to juggle career and family as the primary breadwinner, with an artist husband who thinks too much of himself and his untalented work.  In the end, Mrs. Brown launches her own artistic sensibilities into a lucrative career, and perhaps motivates her former boss to finally follow her own dream.

The last story, “The Chinese Lobster,” focuses on a luncheon conversation between the graduate dean and the advisor of a doctoral student in art, whose final project has drawn criticism and the possible end of her pursuit of a degree.  In retaliation, the graduate student has filed a complaint against the advisor, who adamantly holds that the student is incompetent, does not appear for classes, and does not complete requirements – all true.  The standoff is now in the hands of the dean, who is trying to convince the advisor to pass the student on, forget about her, give her the degree, and move on, to avoid the trauma of a long investigation.

At first, the advisor is appalled, but in the end proclaims: “At the same time, exactly at the same time, I don’t give a damn…” – unfortunately, a situation I have seen in my own experience many times.

 

 

Honeydew by Edith Pearlman

9780316297226_p0_v2_s260x420The short stories in Edith Pearlman’s Honeydew are zingers.  When motivation to read a full novel is lacking, the compact pleasure of a well-constructed short tale delivers me from my inertia.

The setting for the first short story in Honeydew, “Tenderfoot,” is Paige’s pedicure parlor.  Bobby, a college instructor who lives across the street, befriends his neighbor but secretly spies on Paige and her clients from his upstairs window.  His torment revolves around a car accident and his “failure to act.”  The pedicurist becomes his confessor, but the mutual resolve of the story neatly ties them together while leaving the reader with a thoughtful problem.

After reading Laura Van Den Berg’s review in the New York Times – Edith Pearlman’s HoneydewI skipped to the two stories she had noted: “Honeydew” and “Castle 4.”

“In the title story, the headmistress of Caldicott Academy finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her lover, the father of her child, also happens to be the (married) father of a student who is mired in the dark wilderness of anorexia. The affair tumbles ahead; the headmistress suspects she will be forced to resign once her pregnancy is revealed; the starving student studies the stomachs of ants…” 

…“Castle 4” illuminates the intersecting fates of the characters — an anesthesiologist and his doomed patient among them — connected to a hospital that “was named Memorial Hospital but was soon referred to as the Castle…”

I’ve deferred the other stories for a while, when I need something short to get me going.

Now, I want to read a novel.

 

Close Encounter with a Canadian Bull Elk

When our wilderness tour guide failed to show us any wildlife during our twilight tour, she reconciled by offering a view of the aurora borealis later at 1 a.m. My friend Ellie and I gamely set our alarms and ventured out of our cabin toward the golf course, the site with least ground light. We heard rustling and saw two female elk, then suddenly he was there – a bull elk with a magnificent rack. He may have seen our flashlights or he may have just been rounding up the ladies, but we heard the growling grunt and then whistling sound, as he started his gallop toward us. Luckily, we were close enough to get back inside to safety. After one last look through the storm door, we decided the colorful night sky could wait for another time, and we were grateful not to have been added to his harem – it is mating season.

On a calmer note, I looked for bookstores by day. Disappointed to find the Banff Nook and Art Den closed, I found Indigo Spirit (a version of the now defunct American Borders Express) and a salesperson who read, willing to share her favorite Canadian authors – Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale), Alice Munro (Dear Life), Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants), Alan Bradley (creator of the Flavia de Luce mysteries) – among my favorites too but I had not realized they were Canadian.

I left with a light humorous book to help me through the long plane ride – “No Relation” by Terry Fallis. It has a bear on the cover – the one animal I did not see while in Canada.

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Tessa Hadley – Under the Sign of the Moon

Another Tessa Hadley story about a train – this time a short story in The New CV1_TNY_03_24_14Juan.inddYorker – Under the Sign of the Moon – involved me with her usual talent for creating relationships in unusual encounters.  What better place than a train for meeting strangers.  In this tale, Greta is traveling to visit her daughter, and meets a strange persistent man on the train.  Hadley melds the landscape around Liverpool with Greta’s life, describing the moving scene as Greta remembers her past, and wonders about her fragile future.  The ending offers a chilling possibility – who was that young man, really?

Hadley offers her perspective in an interview with Deborah Treisman – This Week in Fiction – Tessa Hadley, but you might want to read the short story in the March 24th issue and decide for yourself.

Review of another Tessa Hadley train story: The London Train

 

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