Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Short Story Recs: Back to School Edition

Title: After Rosa Parks
Author: Janet Desaulniers
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print

Since her divorce, Ellie has become more cautious about making mistakes. Throughout the story, there's the feel of her treading carefully around places where land mines are buried (but can her anxiousness and caution help her sidestep them?). Her young son, Cody, has just started school and tries avoiding it, with its strange rules and people; he gets sent home ill. Her brother, Frank, a veteran who has traveled aimlessly, has come to stay with her; perhaps he'll be a father figure to her son.

There's little sense of permanence or promise in this story. Frank could disappear at any time. Cody perhaps intuits that school is the start of an initiation into a life full of small aggressions and other senseless acts that chip away at you, making you a small burrowing creature who can only face the scary world with your nose to the ground and your eyes downcast. To what extent does laying low and doing what you're supposed to do help you live?

Title: The Composition
Author: Antonio Skármeta
Translators: Donald L. Schmidt and Federico Cordovez
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

Pedro, a soccer-obsessed boy growing up in Pinochet's Chile, is vaguely aware that his parents are anti-fascist, but when he asks what an anti-fascist is, his mom tells him he's just a child, and children aren't anti-anything.
"Children are simply children. Children your age have to go to school, study a lot, play hard, and be kind to their parents."
His life is a fairly happy child's life, except for jolting events, like when his friend Daniel's father gets taken away by the police. Then one day at school, he can't avoid politics any more. An army officer shows up and tells the kids to write an entry for an essay contest. He asks them to describe exactly what their parents do and talk about in the evenings. Will Pedro mention that his parents secretly listen to the radio? Will he write about their conversations? Continuing to be an innocent child will require some political savvy.

Title: The First Day
Author: Edward P. Jones
Where I Read It: The Art of the Story

The story centers on a young girl's first day of school, taking her from her mother's side and the small circle of kids in her neighborhood. Without the child knowing it, this is the first major break she'll make from her mother, who is illiterate. School doesn't mean a simple separation during the day, which is enough of a poignant adjustment for most parents. It will mean taking a divergent path out of her mother's world. There's a mention at the start of the story that the girl will come to feel shame about her illiterate mother as she leaves her behind. The mother is at once subtly affectionate, unsentimental, determined and practical - trying to put a distance between herself and her child as a means of giving the child new opportunities. One hopes the girl's shame will pass with greater maturity.

Title: French Lessons
Author: Valentin Rasputin
Translators: Gerald Mikkelson and Margaret Winchell
Where I Read It: A Walk in My World

The young boy in the story is the first from his village to get sent to school in town. He barely has enough to eat (from what I remember, his host family might even be taking food from him), so he starts gambling with other boys to earn money for food.

His French teacher finds out about the gambling and, rather than have him expelled, she takes him under her wing. In certain ways, she is preparing him for life; for example, teaching him not to be intimidated by middle class parlors with books and nice furniture, and not to be too cowed by authority. She's taking a gamble as well, as the attention she gives him crosses the bounds in some ways of an ordinary teacher-student relationship. She's largely a mysterious figure, like a mischievous angel perched on his shoulder. She's his introduction to a wider world that isn't entirely threatening (and where, perhaps, a supportive relationship can exist even when there isn't a formal structure for one). And what is he to her? A protégé, a naive friend, or a child she'll never have? From what glimpses we get into her character, she seems afraid of dying inside like the other teachers. In her time with the boy, there's a playfulness that might be her downfall but adds color and maybe greater meaning to her life than the drudgery of the school.

Title: Proper Library
Author: Carolyn Ferrell
Where I Read It: Breaking Into Print

One reason this story stuck with me was the way its main character, Lorrie (a nickname for Lawrence), tries to find coherence in a life where he's stretched thin and pulled apart by multiple people. He thinks of himself as feeding the people around him. (I remember a metaphor of a pie - is love or life a pie, different people getting different slices, and if so, what's left for him? He's full of love, this boy; he has a giving nature, but how can he survive with such a nature?)

He looks after younger siblings and other family members. He desires another boy (and is targeted for being gay in the inner city projects where he lives). His mother pushes him to return to school and gives him words to learn to build his vocabulary (and in key ways - not how his mother intends - he's still learning to define what's important to him and what the different parts of his life mean). School is in some respects a deeply hostile environment for him. There's a sense throughout that he's separate from everyone around him, but they take and take from him, and he gives willingly too, but how will he keep from being pulled down into the morass of other people's demands and hostility? Who can help him when he's drowning?

I also appreciate how the author can write this story without coming across like she's trying to just shock the reader or fill her story with issues that she merely considers fashionable. It's a thoughtful, raw story that explores the dimensions of the main character's life, its love and its predations.

Title: Racine and the Tablecloth
Author: A.S. Byatt (Antonia Susan Duffy)
Where I Read It: Sugar and Other Stories

In Racine's world, all the inmates were gripped wholly by incompatible passions which swelled uncontrollably to fill their whole universe, brimming over and drowning its horizons… This art described a world of monstrous disorder and excess and at the same time ordered it with iron control and constrictions, the closed world of the classical stage and the prescribed dialogue, the flexible, shining, inescapable steel mesh of that regular, regulated singing verse.
I got absorbed in this thorny, knotty, beautiful and wrenching story, in which quiet battles unfold between two people: an intellectual and socially isolated schoolgirl, and a bland religious headmistress, so proper and superficially pure.

Questions and confidence get mown down, quietly cropped. The headmistress is full of a malevolent goodness, her conduct unimpeachable to those who don't look closely or try to understand what's going on. How can a girl fight against the oppressive weight of this woman, who beyond her latent personal malice also brings to bear the weight of the school and its values? She seems an expert in fracturing the spirit, though not in obvious ways, and it doesn't help that the girl's intellect has already put her at odds with her classmates. Byatt weaves these conflicts into the study of literature and the questions it can raise about intellect, passion and one's purpose in life; literature here heightens the tension between the girl's hungry intellectual strivings and the more limited expectations others seek to impose on her.