Monday, October 28, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories, Rebecca Lee

Bobcat and Other StoriesFrom "Bobcat": It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beauty of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swirl, like something seen through the eyes of the dying.

"At turns witty, heartbreaking, and fiercely intelligent, Bobcat and Other Stories establishes Rebecca Lee as one of our most gifted and original short story writers. Using a range of landscapes and countries, Lee creates full worlds, so that each story reads like a short novel. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi, finding herself complicit in the resurrection of one professor s shadowy past. A dinner party becomes the occasion for the dissolution of more than one marriage. A woman is hired to find a marriage match for the one true soulmate she s ever found. In all, Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and finally, optimism. She creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it's impossible not to feel for them when their fragile beliefs of romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fail to provide them with the sort of force field they d hoped for."

Bobcat was an interesting collection of short stories, with some beautiful language and interesting images. It was certainly different than what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed it. As I was reading, I marked so many passages that were of interest to me that I started having to improvise bookmarks (admittedly, I wasn't at home). But still, there were so many great and surprising descriptions, especially in the second story in the collection, "The Banks of the Vistula" Here are some of them from that story, which is the one about a student plagiarizing her paper. When the main character walks into the woods, she writes, "I heard about a thousand birds cry, and I craned my neck to see them lighting out from the tips of the elms. They looked like ideas would if suddenly released from the page and given bodies - shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world." I liked the pun there too (craned). I also liked a description of a certain type of  light as "like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy." Rebecca Lee has a thing with light; later in the story a professor gives a lecture as "long autumn rays of sun, embroidered by leaves, covered his face and body." In the next story, "Slatland", one of the characters has a name similar to "well-lit" in Romanian, rila. There are lots of other references to light woven throughout many of the stories.

Talking about parties, Rebecca Lee describes a certain type as "deeply cozy, their wildness and noise an affirmation against the formless white midwestern winter surrounding us."

Really, the magic of these stories is how grounded they are, and how sharply aware the author seems to be of every single line, every single word choice. She writes assuredly, creating piercing portrayals of deeply flawed and human characters and landscapes and settings. I was gripped by each story, a world within a world, and each was interesting in its own way, with different things to ponder, and a different mood and tone to it. 

These stories are so rich, and if not as rich as novels as the jacket claims, almost. I got lost in the world of the characters, in their problems and their weird ways of coping with them (like in "Slatland"). Each story was unique but in a kind of undefinable way seemed to tie back to the preceding stories, as if the characters were all related in some way or other. 

"Min", the story about a woman hired to find a wife for her "one true soulmate", wasn't my favorite story, but as soon as the situation became clear, it got much better. The absurdity and the sadness of the set-up was very affecting. There were also details that were funnily irrelevant; for example, every day the narrator has one cucumber sandwich, a bag of squid chips, and a pomelo for lunch. There are more references to light in this story too; she describes a woman named Rapti who she meets as "living in an apricot light". There are gleams and rays and shines, and lots of words that are related to light smattered throughout these stories in a clever way, and I thought that was rather interesting, and a good way of loosely tying them all together. 

The design of the book was beautiful too, with paperback flaps, a nice cover image, and a good texture. Somehow the paper quality makes a difference, you know? It's another element of a book which I can enjoy, and the way the book was structured seemed to really fit it somehow.

I really enjoyed this collection of stories; as in any book of short stories, some were better than others, but they were all pretty good once I got into them. 

209 pages. 

Rating: ****

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