Winter Count – 4/5 Stars
This is a small collection of mostly atmospheric and impressionistic short fiction, more sketches than stories, by the travel and nature writer Barry Lopez. He is most famous for his longer nonfiction like Of Wolves and Men, Arctic Dreams, and you might be hearing his name more prominently in the next few months based on early reviews of his latest book, Horizon.
This book is a series of small fictions that mostly deal with little moments, painted scenes, character sketches, and other little things like this and the effect is somewhat detached, but the writing is absolutely gorgeous at times. It doesn’t make me want to go out and find more of his fiction, but has gotten me more interested in his nonfiction works. The book comes in at about 100 pages and has black and white water color sketches that accompany many of the stories. It’s an oddly soothing work.
“My father grew up in the north of Spain, in a fishing village in Asturias called Cudillero. He moved later to the south of England, then to America. As he grew older he lost his desire to travel alone and asked me to accompany him. We always went to Spain together. I met members of his family who still lived in Asturias and came to know better his relatives in Madrid. I still thought of them as his relatives rather than my own, for they remained distant and unfamiliar to me, even after I met them. They had opposed his marriage to my mother, I understood.”
Cast a Cold Eye: 4/5 Stars
This is a relatively short collection of stories by the writer Mary McCarthy. She’s most well-known for a novel, The Group (which I love) and a memoir, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (which I have not read). This collection blends the two and presents four fictional short stories and three short memoir/autobiography pieces.
The stories are in general quite good and have the same kind of wry sense of humor presented in almost serious tone so that the humor is incredibly dry and almost imperceptible. The opening story is about a woman in a quite disappointing marriage who promises herself that she will leave her husband as soon as the petunias are in bloom. She does this in order to both establish and delay the eventual decision. Throughout, she spends time considering whether or not she wants to actually tend to the flowers or sabotage, and she considers murdering her husbands because that would be actually irrevocable as opposed to leaving him, which could always be reversed.
Another very good story is about a man of no strong positive or negative features, so that everybody kind of likes him and no one hates him. What this ends up creating in his life is an intense pressure put upon those around him. The best of the memoir pieces involves the narrator Mary McMarthy passing by a Catholic storefront called CYE and trying to figure out what the letters, if anything mean. It’s an interesting musing on the nature of knowledge and knowability and the questions of whether that kind of things helps you learn anything or get to truth.
Tell Me a Riddle: 3/5 Stars
This is a small collection of stories and one small novella by the writer Tillie Olsen who is most famous for her short story “I Stand Here Ironing” — which most of you have probably read.
The rest of the stories are a kind of fractured and impressionistic chaos. There’s a long novella about a decades long marriage. There’s a visit to a Black church by two well-meaning white ladies. And there’s a recounting of a sailor’s last chunk of time on Earth. Each then pieces together the different fragments, voices, collections of noise and effluvia from those lives and presents them on page, with mixed results. Fragmented writings can be very rewarding or it can be too obtuse for its own good. Both are true here.
Here’s a chunk:
“And why does Alva have to talk now?
“You all right? You breathin’ deep like your momma said? Was it too close ‘n hot in there? Did something scare you, Carrie?”
Shaking her head to lie, “No.”
“I blame myself for not paying attention. You not used to people letting go that way. Lucy and Bubbie, Parialess, they used to it. They coming since they lap babies.”
“Alva, that’s all right. Alva, Mrs. Phillips.”
“You was scared. Carol, it’s something to study about. You’ll feel better if you understand.”
Trying not to listen.
“You not used to hearing what people keeps inside, Carol. You know how music can make you feel things? Glad or sad or like you can’t sit still? That was religion music, Carol.”
A Blue Tale: 2/5 Stars
This is my fourth Marguerite Yourcenar book of the year and the first one that caused me to read a little more about her personal life. Because this book is short — small pages, three stories etc, there is a longer biographical introduction to her. I learned a little more about her writing career, and mostly I learned that her publication name is an anagram for her actual last name, which maybe suggests why I had such difficulty pronouncing it in my head.
Anyway, this is a series of three stories, none of which is very long, that represent some of her first written and published work. It’s not juvenilia really because she was around 25 or so writing the first of them and because she started working on her other much more mature, longer, and famous work Memoirs of Hadrian about the same time.
Instead, it’s the early work of a writer. This usually means works that are relatively underformed or underedited or rely too heavily on convention or influence. And all of that is more or less true here. They are ok stories and one of them is solid in that it’s a well-rendered sketch.
But it’s not a book that really lends itself as anything other than a scouring of a writer’s notebook and other pieces of writing looking for one last place to publish a little. The introduction even admits as much. So it’s not the good, professional and well-rendered pieces to come, but maybe a historical artifact.