I have too many books.
This, I know, is an unusual admission for a blogger to make. By and large, we prefer TV to books, and when we do buy a book, we’re able to read it rapidly due to the copious amounts of free time afforded by our current lifestyles. All of which is to say, I am a giant cliché, I know. But bear with me.
From where I sit now, at my kitchen table, I can see two stacks of unread books. There are my birthday books:
(Recommended by Mom-NOS and given to me by Bub.)
(Recommended by Mary P. and given to me by the Pie. It’s a good thing my kids keep up with their blog-reading, isn’t it?)
And then there are my Christmas books:
Finally, we have the books Random House was kind enough to send me in response to my faithful promise to post regular reviews on my blog:
All in all, there are twelve unread books stacked on the toychest and on my kitchen counter. These, mind you, are just the ones I can physically see right now. There are more unread books upstairs - some thirty of them, I believe.
Living at my house is kind of like living at the library, except without all the comfy chairs. Despite the general swampitude, however, I snapped up twelve (12) of the proffered Random House books, and they’ve been arriving in the mail for several weeks now. For my first review, I picked Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, a collection of short stories about, um, mothers and sons.
Short stories are not my favourite genre, I have to admit. I say this advisedly, having taught many of the classics of the genre for my first-year fiction course. The trouble with short stories is that they’re too much work: with a novel, you invest a bit of time getting to know the characters and setting, and you expect to reap the rewards of that investment with a hefty 300 pages or so of good reading. Fantasy novels, which require a much greater initial investment (learning a whole new geography, littered with oddly named characters and strange magical beings) often keep on paying back that investment for ten or twelve books, each of which might be a thousand pages long.
Short stories, on the other hand, are stingy: just when you’re getting attached to the characters, they come to an end. The truly classic short stories make sure that the ending is a doozy: stories like "A Rose for Emily" or "A Cask of Amontillado" create a looming sense of menace, and then close with a single evocative image, a grey hair on a pillow or a man bricked up inside a wall. Necrophilia and suffocation are the pay-off for the reader’s willingness to put in the effort of sorting out the story’s deceptive and/or convoluted narrative.
The trouble is, these tricks get old. What seems like an exciting twist the first time it’s used becomes a painful cliché the second. Toibin’s solution to this problem is to end his stories just before the moment of resolution. The first clue that the story is over in this volume occurs when you turn the page and read the title of the next one.
What this technique loses in terms of the ending it regains at the beginning: there is a simplicity to these stories that draws the reader in quickly. Some are told from the perspective of the mother, others from the point of view of the son, but in all cases the narrative focuses squarely on that formative relationship. It’s easy to become emotionally involved with the characters, easy to sort out the dynamics of what often turns out to be a conflict between old and new Ireland. One of my favourite stories, for instance, details the struggles of a widowed mother of three who shocks the neighbours by converting her heavily mortgaged grocery store into a chip shop. Her teenage son is more conservative than she: he envisions himself as an important local merchant, aping the pompous, traditional manners of his elders; he doesn’t notice that "his" business is founded upon his mother’s willingness to fly in the face of convention.
When the Bub was in utero, one thing I struggled with upon learning that I was carrying a boy was the idea that boys grow away from their mothers. As Scarbie Doll pointed out this morning, some women call their mothers three times a day; many men call their mothers four times a year. The distance between mothers and their grown sons looms large in this book, but underlying that is the tight, living bond that runs between them. There are sons in this collection who have not spoken to their mothers in decades, sons and mothers whose inner lives are largely unknown to one another. But something about the ragged, open-ended structure of these stories allows Toibin to capture the open wound that is the mother-son relationship, the connection that cannot be severed by time, or geography, or opposing personalities.
Critics have praised this book for its bleakness, calling it honest and unsentimental (because you know, of course, that one cannot write about mothers and sons without evoking the terror of sentimentality!). I value the book for the opposite tendency, for the way it uncovers in even the most deeply flawed relationships those unexpected moments of compassion and connection.
Friday, February 09, 2007
I have too many books.