Friday, February 09, 2007


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.


Denguy said...

Unread books, yes, I have nine--four of the spines have been cracked.
I might finish one on Monday as crazymumma is taking BOTH of my kids for the afternoon (she's crazy).

jen said...

I love your choices. We should start a book exchange forum, swapping and sharing - I know I'd love to read several on your blog.

Can't wait to hear what you discover next.

Joker The Lurcher said...

the "send in the idiots" book is brilliant!

metro mama said...

I'm reviewing Mothers and Sons tomorrow! I liked it too.

(As you know, I'm a big fan of the short story).

Terri B. said...

Ah yes ... the unread book towers. Mine tend to lean these days.

You've captured why I do not care much for short stories. I've never been sure why I don't care too much for them and always opt for novels. Now I know. Thanks!

NotSoSage said...

I have so many unread/unfinished books. I always tend to have at least five on the go at any given time. Very, very bad.

I always thought that boys stayed close to their moms and girls stayed close to their dads? No? Am I wrong?

nomotherearth said...

Exactly. I read fantasy series and dislike short stories for exactly those reasons.

I was actually pleased to have a Boy, because of the theory that boys are "mama's boy" and girls are "daddy's girl". I still cling to that.

Beck said...

We're building yet another wall of bookshelves at my house, so I can relate. I really like short stories in certain situations, like when I can't spare enough time for a whole book but I want to read something meaty. (post-partum or in the emergency room spring to mind.)
I hadn't read A Rose For Emily, and so I googled it so I could refer to it in your comments very knowingly and thus sound well-read. I really haven't read any Faulkner - I find him rebuffing for reasons I can't quite explain.

Andrea said...

I have Stumbling Upon Happiness on audiobook and have been loving it.

If it's any consolation, I call my mom four times a year and Erik calls his mom once a week.

Kelly said...

I got some unread books on the mantel. I, too, received The Thirteenth Tale for Christmas. And I'm still lingering over Prose's How To Read Like a Writer, and I got an Amy Hempel collected stories, and the newest Alice Munro collection. Not to mention, Jonathon Franzen's The Corrections and a collection of essays by Augusten Burroughs.


So many books, so little time.

Lawyer Mama said...

I feel the same way about short stories, but it sounds intriguing and I'll have to look for it.

edj said...

There are always exceptions, close mother-son relationships as adults. So much depends on the individuals involved.

And what brilliant children you have to buy you books :) Enjoy your stacks of unread-as-of-yet books. I like short stories myself, but only sometimes and in certain circumstances. Give me the novel anytime.

ali said...

i can't even tell you how many unread books i have sitting on my "to-read" shelf in my bedroom. it's a little embarrassing...and with my goal or 50 books in 2007...i better get crackin :)

Julie Pippert said...

I still don't know what I think about the 13th Tale. (Also a Christmas gift.)

I think it's like listening to a really technically proficient pianist play Chopin and not feeling any emotion at all.

I am really liking Purple Hibiscus.

nonlineargirl said...

In general I agree about short stories, but I count "Interpreter of Maladies" among my most favorite books. I am sure you have read it, or at least have it floating around your house somewhere.

kittenpie said...

Goodness, we're quite the opposite - Misterpie used to be in the habit of calling his parents weekly (and prolly does close to that still), while I could call mine five times a year - one for each of our birthdays and one for Christmas.

mom-nos said...

I've never been drawn to short stories. I wonder if there's any introvert/extravert correlation here. Short stories give the breadth that extraverts seem to like so much - you get to meet a lot of people and hear a little bit about each of their lives - while novels give the depth that introverts seem to cherish - you meet fewer people, but you get to know them very well.

I'd love to hear what you think about Alternadad when you get to it. I'm interested, but hesitant to pay the cover price for fear that it'll be a bit too much Alterna and not quite enough Dad for my taste.