13 MAY 2017 | KAREN KAO
I like to travel light. No books (well, maybe one or two). My backlog of Financial Times weekend sections so I can jettison once read. And nowadays, I load my iPod with fiction podcasts.
It took me a while to rediscover the joys of having a story read to me. Now that I have, I’m determined to listen to every single fiction podcast of The New Yorker, all the way back to 2009. In each podcast, an author is invited to choose a short story from The New Yorker archive. That author reads the story and then discusses it with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. So it’s a two-for-one: entertainment and education.
I’ve already lavished praise on Tobias Wolff’s short story, “The Night in Question” and its amazing sense of an ending. The ending is everything in “Bullet in the Brain.” Anders is a cranky old man who hates his job (book critic), the time he’s wasting waiting for a bank teller, the bank robbers who storm inside and speak in cliches. In a moment of suspended animation, we see all the things that are not going through Anders’s mind as the bullet travels to its inevitable end.
In William Trevor’s short story “A Day“, a woman goes through her daily ritual: dressing, shopping, drinking. Neither she nor her husband are named. We don’t know where they live or what sort of work her husband does. All of our attention is directed to the Other Woman, Elspeth. We know the instrument she plays at the orchestra, the age of her child, the color of her tea cups. Yet none of this is spoken of between husband and wife. She keeps his secret just as he keeps hers.
the bitter oleander
I travel light because I know that, inevitably, I’ll buy more books. No matter that I have 80+ books towering beside my bed. On my last trip, I received the gift of the Fall 2016 issue of The Bitter Oleander from its contributor and my friend, Nicole Simonsen.
Her short story “Pobrecita” tenderly captures one of those moments in time that demarcate the before from the after. A young American girl goes to visit her grandmother in Mexico.
You prefer flour tortillas, but Abuelita says you are in Mexico now and have to learn to like the corn ones. You also have to learn how to make them – slap, slap, slap – between your palms, just like her. But first you have to learn the way to the mill and what to say to the man who will take your corn and grind it into masa, how to get the correct change so you won’t look like a mensa or an Americana.
The girl’s blue eyes startle the inhabitants of this Mexican village. As does the pale skin of Oleander contributor Katherine Sanchez Espano north of the border. A father-daughter road trip is interrupted when the Wyoming police hear that:
an older Mexican man was abducting a young white girl.
Living on the hyphen informs Sanchez’s work, as in her poem “Fish”:
The fish arrived in my dresser drawer / swathed in socks, its eyes calm as a desert.
the masters review
Once home, my reading backlog reproaches me. Piles wait for me everywhere, in the physical world and on-line too. My in-box is about to explode with newsletters from The Masters Review, Narrative Magazine, Literary Hub and Submittable. Somehow, I find it hard to concentrate on-line. When faced by a screen, my attention span shrinks to the size of a Presidential tweet.
I’m all the more grateful, then, to stumble upon “The Drownings” by Brenda Peynada in the January 27 blog of the Masters Review. From the eerie first person plural, we see a community fascinated and terrorized by swimming pools.
In the water, none of us are awkward.
Enter the outsider, Rosa. She comes from someplace north and cold. The other kids try to get Rosa into the pool but she can’t swim.
We’ve forgotten our first drowning, even our second, but seeing Rosa this way kindles in us a new fascination. Why can’t she let go? It’s so easy for us, to toss aside memories, release fear and love, like when we first jump in the pools, the resistance and then the weightlessness.
Rosa has strange memories of snow. She’ll never fit in.
Some people hate to leave home but I love to travel. I can go back in time. Become a blue-eyed girl in Mexico or a pale-faced Cuban. Die at the hands of bank robbers only to live another day in alcoholic misery. I can dive into a pool and never resurface.
What a creepy, wonderful way to come home.