August 2019 Reading: I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking; Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You; The Monsters of Templeton; Little Fires Everywhere

I’m Fine, But You Appear to Be Sinking by Leyna Krow (2017)

Having just read Aimee Barrodale’s short story collection, I was delighted to find that the stories in this book were equally quirky and original, albeit very different in style. There are fifteen stories in Krow’s book, seven of which share the title ‘Spud & Spud II’ and are a continuation of the same tale (although each Spud story is narrated by a different character). In between the linked stories are standalone works that nevertheless share certain themes – a fascination with the natural world, and the changes it has undergone in our lifetime and, in Krow’s vision, beyond. There is a tinge of darkness, particularly in ‘Excitable Creatures,’ which has a fantastic ending, but there is also humour and warmth here, as well as great originality.

What struck me most about this beautiful collection was the sense of wonder contained within the stories, a love of the natural world even as the shadow of climate change (and in one story, the apocalypse itself) hangs over us. Much as I admired Barrodale’s stories, Krow’s work has more heart, and resonated more with me than ‘You Are Having a Good Time’. The characters show real compassion, and relate to each other in a less brittle, more forgiving way. There is a kindness and sense of connection in these weird and wonderful stories that left me with a warm glow, as well as a lot of questions about squid.

Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You by Alice Munro (1974)

My third short story collection in a row with a great big title, this is the earliest collection of Munro’s stories that I have read since I belatedly ‘discovered’ her earlier this year. Her second collection, in fact, containing thirteen stories whose main defining feature seems to be their open-endedness. I feel that these stories in particular demand rereading, so I will keep my initial comments brief.

Once again, Munro presents ordinary life in simple prose, but the perceptive nature of her observations reveals the complexity of her work. ‘How I Met My Husband’ is a kind of anti-romance, riffing off the expectations of that genre and gently subverting them. The title story is definitely one that I need to revisit – I confess I read it too quickly, and I think I missed some important details. There is limited scope here in one sense – her female narrators are all concerned with relationships, without exception, but isn’t that an almost limitless subject? Above all, I continue to be awed by the way Munro uses her clear, simple language as a conduit to her thoughts, avoiding the frills and flourishes that other writers might indulge in. This was not my favourite collection by Munro so far (it falls somewhere in the middle) but it has made me determined to embark on a future project of re-reading all of her works in order. One day!

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)

(A little side-note: this is the 50th book I have read this year, a figure so much higher than any other recent year that I might allow myself a little virtual high-five. Okay, done.)

I wanted to love this, having become a recent Groff convert; I was so excited to read her first novel, and the opening lines, in which an actual monster is discovered in the lake of the town of Templeton, promised much. However, I have to admit I came away disappointed. The main narrative concerns Willie Upton, a graduate student returning to her hometown in disgrace, and her search for the answer to a riddle posed by her mother, Vi, who informs her that her father is a man from the town that she is not prepared to name, but will give her certain clues in order to help her work it out. Hum – this was one of my problems – the central mystery is so contrived, and could be so easily solved by her mother JUST TELLING HER, that I immediately became frustrated with the whole premise. The idea of Willie digging through her family tree and unearthing secrets and voices who speak in their own right is a good one, but I was so turned off by the lack of plausibility that I read the book quite sulkily (not unlike Willie herself, who is pretty petulant for a 28-year-old).

There are glimmers of Groff’s beautiful later prose style here, but not nearly enough, and the different historical figures who surface to tell their stories didn’t have sufficiently distinct voices. It was also hard to keep Willie’s increasingly complicated family tree straight, despite the use of portraits and diagrams included in the text. It is certainly an ambitious book, and the imagination displayed is impressive, but it felt overstuffed and flawed in a way I just couldn’t overlook. On the plus side, Groff’s later novels and short stories are so masterful that I suppose I can forgive her a shaky start, and, as I plod on writing my own first novel, I can comfort myself that I, too, can only get better.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

Set in Shaker Heights, a planned community in Ohio with privilege and order coming out of its ears, this book opens with the Richardson family’s beautiful house burning to the ground. Another promising start, and, for me, another slight disappointment as I continued to read. The novel is very well-written, and the characters are strong, particularly the contrast between Mrs Richardson and Mia Warren, her artist tenant, who moves to Shaker with her teenage daughter, Pearl, but the plotting is almost too tight, the twists and turns too contrived.

The book contains three main subplots, all focusing on babies: the Richardsons’ friends are in the process of adopting an abandoned baby when the mother makes a reappearance; Mia has a secret about Pearl’s birth that Mrs Richardson sets out to discover; Lexie, one of the Richardsons’ four teenage children, has an abortion. Thematically, this is strong, and there is some lovely writing on motherhood, including a moving section about how parents have to cope with the gradual withdrawal of physical contact from their children as they get older, which may or may not have made me slightly misty-eyed and perhaps even squeeze my too-young-to-object kids a bit tighter. However, as a whole, the book lacks urgency; it unfolds in a carefully controlled manner, ironically devoid, as Lionel Shriver points out in a review for the Guardian, of fire. I quite enjoyed reading it, but there was no aftertaste, nothing to make it linger in my thoughts after I closed the book. To quote Shriver’s review, it is well-designed, “But does it have a point?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s