The Thing Around your Neck
By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Read Oct 2020
This reader continues to find this author quite remarkable. In Half of a Yellow Sun, she enabled this reader to better understand the challenges faced by the Nigerian peoples following being “made” into a country by lines drawn by Europeans for their convenience and the Biafran war. In Americanah she explored the challenges of encountering what it means to be “black” in the US and the issues associated with trying to return to your native country’s culture after spending years studying abroad. In both cases the characters engaged the reader deeply.
This reader describes this collection of twelve short stories as exquisite. In each case the story is a human one with universal themes, but the intersection of cultures, usually Nigerian and American, provides a unique perspective to each.
By Alice Munro
Read April 2020
Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. The prize motivation was “master of the contemporary short story”. This reader thoroughly agrees with this Nobel Prize website (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2013/munro/facts/) quote about Munro: “These [stories]often accommodate the entire epic complexity of the novel in just a few short pages.” It is quite astonishing that in 20-30 pages we can gain deep understanding of the narrator or protangonist and pertinent characters—past and present—and the conflict(s) they are confronting in this story. The timeline of the story often shifts numerous times, but seamlessly and naturally. Her skill in using this structure, in part, allows for so much of the pertinent past to inform the reader regarding the present situation. Often a pivotal moment or event is included in an amazingly delicate way.
The story Train provides beautiful examples of these skills. A soldier is returning to his hometown after the war via train. However, he jumps off the train before it reaches the station for some undisclosed reason. He encounters a woman with a cow in a run-down house and small farm and somehow ends up first doing a few chores for a meal which eventually turns into living there for a number of years while he fixes up the place and does odd jobs in town as well. The woman develops a medical problem, which the reader eventually assumes is breast cancer; the protagonist drives her to Toronto for treatment. After the woman, while in her hospital bed, reveals both a disturbing secret from her past and that she plans to bequeath him the farm in her will, he goes for a walk. On this walk he wanders into doing a favor for a man which results in our protagonist eventually becoming a super for the hotel/apartment building owned by the man. One day a woman comes in looking for her daughter. The protagonist never meets or even sees her but knows who it is by her voice. The author concisely provides the backstory of their past as well as a discrete phrase that may explain why he chooses to leave this job, get on a train, and get off in a new town to find work.
Astonishing is the word this reader kept saying while reading this collection of ten short stories and a set of three stories the author indicates are definitely autobiographical. These autobiographical stories provide wonderfully described glimpses of major maturation points in the author’s life.
In Eye, we learn that the narrator (the author) had her mother to herself for a number of years but a little brother and little sister suddenly arrive in quick succession. “It was with my brother’s coming, though, and the endless carryings-on about how he was some sort of present for me, that I began to accept how largely my mother’s notions about me might differ from my own.” In this story as well the narrator is taken to see the body of her nanny who was hit and killed by a car while she was walking. “Yet for a long time when I did think of her, I never questioned what I believed had been shown to me. Long, long afterwards, when I was not at all interested in any unnatural display, I still had it in my mind that such a thing [the corpse winking at her] had happened. I just believed it easily, the way you might believe and in fact remember that you once had another set of teeth, now vanished but real it spite of that. Until one day, one day when I may even have been in my teens, I knew with a dim sort of hole in my insides that now I didn’t believe it anymore.” The story Night describes a poignant moment between daughter and father in which he gives her straightforward but actionable advice “People have thoughts they’d sooner not have. It happens in life.” This allows the narrator to deal with a troubling thought and move on. When the narrator is describing this scene to us now she is able to see into the character of the man who was her father more deeply than she could understand when the scene happened. She can now imagine what he might have been confronting that morning in their lives which would become progressively more difficult. Then the author snaps us back: “Never mind. From then on I could sleep.”
This reader now faces losing the library e-book copy for the second time as the check-out period expires, but this reader is not quite ready to lose this book. A purchase is likely about to occur, as well as further exploration of this author.
By Lauren Groff
Read Nov 2019
In Florida, Lauren Groff provides the reader with unforgettable stories. This reader was often literally stunned by what the author was saying and how she said it. “Helene was in the viscous pool of years in her late thirties when she could feel her beauty slowly departing from her.” “…the moon really was laughing at us.”
Groff repeatedly engages time and the universe in her stories and requires us to face into the vastness of them in comparison with the finite period of our lives. One of her characters is overwhelmed with the state of the planet-climate change, volcanos, etc., and is concerned her children will be the last humans.
Although not a Florida native, Groff has lived in Gainesville, FL long enough to understand much about the raw Florida that is being turned into pavement and amusement parks, although even these can’t conquer hurricanes that are a staple of Florida. She sets one story in the midst of a hurricane. She sets another at an old hunting camp in a swampy region filled with many wild animals including snakes and a panther. In “At the Round Earth’s Imagined Corners” she invokes both the reality of the propensity of snakes in Florida’s wilds and the reality of the impact of paving over the swamp on the habitat of these snakes and other creatures. Interestingly the pavement and buildings are those of a growing university; shouldn’t an institution focused on knowledge creation and dissemination be aware of the impact of loss of the wild? Two stories involve women who leave Florida’s blistering heat and humidity of the summer for tourist-free setting with milder climates and in so touches on an interesting reality of living in Florida.
At the same time, the stories draw us into the here and now of these characters. The mother who is so concerned about the planet forgot it was Halloween so didn’t prepare her children for it and doesn’t have a trick-or-treat supply at the ready. The woman living through the hurricane is confronted by visions of unresolved relationships from her past. The family vacationing at the hunting camp is clearly in distress. The mother whose herpetologist husband is fighting the university’s spread into the wild has to leave her son behind to escape the physical and mental situation her husband has created in the home. One woman who takes her children to France for a month in the summer to escape Florida’s heat is also escaping her husband’s focus on work to exclusion of the family. Interestingly she eventually decides she belongs in Florida, not France.
Although the stories have somewhat dark elements with respect to the fragility of the earth and the issues individuals must face daily in the midst of general decline around them of the planet, Groff provides three stories with children playing central roles that demonstrate there is hope in the long run. The children vacationing in the hunting camp deal with a calamity and compassionately care for their mother while waiting for help to arrive. Two children abandoned on an island in the middle of a swamp endure their situation and find a path to their salvation from their dire circumstances. The mother escaping Florida by a trip to France with her children to do research on a French author is refocused by her children on the role she plays in their lives and the impact they have on hers.
The story endings are purposefully not tidy. Rather they challenge the reader to pause and consider what really has happened, what that really means, and how the reader will go forward with this new perspective on the world and its inhabitants.
Groff has certainly gained a new fan who will seek to experience her other work.