Adventures in Reading

Short Story: “Wish I Was Here” by Jackie Kay
August 31, 2008, 11:44 am
Filed under: book reviews, short stories | Tags: , , ,

I have been putting off reading A Curious Singularity’s selection of “Wish I Was Here” by Jackie Kay for weeks now and I believe this has a lot to do with that I forgot to print out a copy of the story and instead had to read it on my laptop. Call me crazy, but if I can’t write in the margins or stick Post-Its all over it, I feel like I’m losing something in the reading experience.

“Wish I Was Here” is the story of Paula and Claudette. Two middle-aged women, single for years, who vacation together until Claudette meets her “New Lover” Jan. Paula now finds herself as the third wheel and realizes that not only can she not afford the new vacation destination, but that she’s not even particularly wanted there. This situation is further exacerbated as Paula apparently has some romantic attachments to Claudette. To surprise the couple, Paula shows up early and sneaks into Claudette and Jan’s hotel.

There are a lot of references to Brontë’s Villette, which I haven’t read, but which possibly adds layers of complexity I’m missing out on. Initially I was not particularly enjoying the story though by the end of it I had cracked a smile or two. Mostly though, Paula becomes increasingly drunk as she careens into the embarrassing climax of the story.

I found Kay’s story reminiscent of Elizabeth Berg’s recent short story collection The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted, making Kay’s (as well as Berg’s stories) “Wish I Was Here” a prototype affiliated with a form of female mid-life crisis, which is often represented as a sexual, romantic, and food related inner conflict. With “Wish I Was Here,” Kay leads the reader to the point of crisis where Paula begins her mantra of “‘You are not going to ruin Claudette’s holiday,’” which is exactly what is going to happen.

More often than not, I have no need or real interest in identifying with a character. I can enjoy a story just as much, if not more, even if I feel detached from the character. But I must say Paula is a particular character I feel little towards and have less interest in. If I want a female mid-life crisis, I’ll stick with Woody Allen’s Another Woman. However, I did find the internal dialog to be thoughtful and well-written and would be interested in reading more by Jackie Kay.

Conclusion: Added Jackie Kay to my Bookmooch Wishlist.


“Mama Loved Patsy Cline” by Laura Bork

“I’m crazy for tryin’ and crazy for cryin’ and I’m crazy for loving you.” – Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”

I am a little behind in posting, but July’s short story for A Curious Singularity [1] was Laura Bork’s short work “Mama Loved Patsy Cline.” While slowly digging through some rather demanding tomes I decided to take a pleasant afternoon break and peruse Bork’s story.

Set in Texas, Margaret travels to her mother’s home along with her ex-girlfriend Rhoda. The reader learns that Margaret’s father has past and the two women are taking this trip to obtain his cello that Margaret has inherited.

Bork is slow to reveal her story. It’s roughly the second page before the narrator’s name is revealed, it’s nearly the middle of the story when we learn why the trip has been made or of the artistic talents of the father, and it’s the last page of the novel before the title’s importance solidifies. While this slow to reveal method helps obscure aspects of the story from immediate notice, I admit I was quick to decide that the story was transparent and single faceted.

In thirteen pages, Bork creates five interestingly complex characters through this pattern of revelation. Margaret, the first character to speak, returns home but what feels like for the final time. She is still in love with Rhoda and the reader can never be entirely positive why Rhoda has participated in this journey: out of guilt or because, as she says, she sincerely wants to remain friends? Both women are living in Dallas working on a radio talk show that at least discusses classical music.

Margaret’s mother appears as perhaps the most transparent character. The reader meets her smoking and stinking of “whiskey sour breakfast.” DebbieSue, Margaret’s younger sister, hovers on the edge of the story like a Kleenex filling in holes. Both immediately appear as backward bumpkins, without a car, and living in a decrepit home full of cats. But the discussion of Debussy and DebbieSue’s passion, if not talent, for the cello begin to unveil a more complicated situation.

The final character, the father, is an absent character and the reader develops awareness of him through the verbal and unsaid statements of the other characters. A photographer and passionate musician, it’s clear that he and his wife were at odds. Patsy Cline’s appearance in the novel is a result of the mother’s adoration of country music versus her husband’s affection for classical. She would play Patsy Cline to drive him crazy and he’d say “it made his cello sound like it was crying.” At the end of the story when the mother gives the Patsy Cline records to Rhoda in a moment that begs questions of the future but provides no answers.

Bork’s story is good though I wish there had been further development in some of the plot areas.

I found the story to be reminiscent of Dorothy Allison’s Cavedweller.

[1] A Curious Singularity is a group blog that invites its participants and readers to explore and discuss a new short story every month.

Comments Off on “Mama Loved Patsy Cline” by Laura Bork

Roald Dahl & A Curious Singularity

I was quite pleased when I stumbled onto the group blog A Curious Singularity, which explores one short story a month. As of April 15th, discussion is focused on Roald Dahl’s “The Way up to Heaven” and I have weighed in. And for a clickless examination:

When I came to the final lines of “The Way up to Heaven” by Roald Dahl I admit I gave a great yelp that startled my boyfriend on the other end of the house. To say the least, I had not seen the conclusion coming. “The Way up to Heaven” looks at the relationship of a somewhat neurotic older woman and her frightful husband. She is terrified of being late and he seems to rather plague her condition, and the morning of her flight to Paris offers a perfect moment for observation.

As someone who often frets about running late, I identified with Mrs. Foster from the start but it is complete credit to Dahl who builds the anxiety and stress in the story. As Mrs. Foster paces the hall and pesters the butler Walker for the time I felt the impatience rising and figuratively stamped my foot and wondered: “Where the hell are you Mr. Foster?” When Mr. Foster arrives, the contrast between him and his wife contributes further to the story: Mrs. Foster is very much a small and fretful sparrow bobbing around and Mr. Foster is perfectly described as “like a squirrel standing there – a quick clever old squirrel from the Park.”

Mr. Foster antagonizes the situation as he seemingly goes out of his way to upset his wife. Though Mrs. Foster doesn’t allow herself to believe that the man “consciously torment[s] her,” she finally the second day she is meant to catch the plane after a delayed flight. After repetitive haranguing Mrs. Foster acts in a supposed passive aggressive nature as she urges the chauffeur to leave for the airport without her husband.

Perhaps though as with the often used caricature of the absent minded and oblivious husband, Mr. Foster is earnestly unaware of his wife’s “pathological fear.” While abundant textual evidence exists to disagree, Dahl does ensure the tantalizing suggestion that perhaps Mr. Foster is innocent. Mr. Foster is described as having “a right to be irritated by this foolishness” or that “it is by no means certain that this is what he did” and even a parenthetical reference of “(though one cannot be sure).” While all other evidence leads to a contrary belief, Dahl does ensure some seeds of doubt leading up to Mrs. Foster’s action.

Regardless of Mr. Foster’s nature, the end of the story clearly marks Mrs. Foster’s intent. While what early on appears as a passive aggressive abandoning of her husband evolves into a rather calculated and monstrous conclusion. I didn’t gain the full effect until my second reading but after this act her voice becomes authoritative and her mouth hardens. During her stay in Paris she feels “remarkably strong” and “wonderful.” While Mrs. Foster cannot be positive of the outcome until her return the reoccurring remark of “‘Now be sure to take your meals regularly, dear, although this is something I’m afraid you may not be doing when I’m not with you’” that concludes her letters reeks of dark humor.

Comments Off on Roald Dahl & A Curious Singularity