“Maggie Brown & Others: Stories” by Peter Orner

Maggie Brown

Genre:  Literary Domestic Fiction
Publisher:  Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date:  July 2, 2019

A writer friend of mine, Diane Ledet, author of Bookwinked recommended this book to me.  I am grateful for her suggestion since she introduced me to an author who captures the human condition so well in just a few short sentences.  This is the sort of book I love to read. Regarding his 2001 book, “Esther Stories,” the NYT Book Review said that  “Orner doesn’t simply bring his characters to life, he gives them souls.”   The same could be said about his latest book, which includes a novella and 44 short stories.  And by short, I mean short.  Many of the stories are around two pages long.   Still, they get under your skin.  All of the stories tend to be melancholy with an emphasis on what it means to be alive.

The opening story, “The Deer,” is one of my favorites in the collection.  A girl watches a deer become stuck in the mud after a mountain lion chases it into a lagoon.  Feeling pinned, she sits down on a log and watches the tide rise, knowing it will eventually be over the deer’s head.   When the water is up the deer’s chest, she finally gets back on her bike and leaves.  She just couldn’t stand to watch anymore. As the reader, I wanted to jump into the pages and rescue the poor creature.  The story’s power comes from the girl’s helplessness in not being able to save the deer.  Most of us have been in that terrible position of watching someone we love suffer and/or die knowing that there is nothing we can do to give them aid. It’s that agony that Orner manages to nail with limited words—very impressive.

The bittersweetness of “Ineffectual Tribute to Len” drew me in immediately. A grad student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop drives all night in a snowstorm to meet one last time with his former boss, Len, who is now dying of AIDS.  The grad student hopes to write a book about Len because he was “one of the first people to notice something, anything, in me.”  I feel confident that all writers will relate to the student who can’t manage to move his manila folder full of notes into a novel.  Still, Orner brings hope into the story.  The student does manage to write a different novel than the one that he intended to write.  He honors Len’s spirit with no mention of the source of the book’s inspiration.   Without spelling it out, Orner demonstrates to his readers how something awful can transform into something positive, even if it is simply a novel of thankfulness.  

Interestingly the story that is my least favorite is the book’s title story, “Maggie Brown.’’  The short revolves around the narrator’s college girlfriend.  “A few years ago I saw her at a Minneapolis airport…She looked right at me, didn’t know me from Adam.”  That line alone perfectly describes the sadness one can feel when they have been forgotten.   My issue is that I didn’t get as obsessed with the characters as I did in the other stories.  Still, it is a very good short.  Maybe, I was simply expecting too much since it is the title story.

My only true criticism with the shorts is that most of them left me so connected to the protagonist that I wished each story was longer.  My wish was granted in the novella of interlinked short stories revolving around the forty-year marriage of Walter and Sarah Kaplan.  The Kaplans are a constantly squabbling Jewish American couple who own a furniture business in Massachusetts. Suddenly I am reading humor and by this time I needed to laugh. The novella can have a melancholy feel, but there are many moments of comic relief that take the edge off.  Orner’s dialogue is similar to the Jewish humor of Philip Roth.   He summarizes life’s annoying and painful moments while mixing it up with zingers.  Walter says, “I dreamed you buried me in the old cemetery out on Fish Road.” Sarah asks, “Fish Road where all the ancient Jews are?”  Walter replies, “You think we’re immune from becoming ancient Jews?”  I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys literary fiction and is willing to think about their own life because Orner will force you to reflect.  I for one will be seeking out his previous work.

 Purchase this novel on Amazon

Find all my book reviews at:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list…
https://books6259.wordpress.com/
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/review…
https://www.facebook.com/martie.neesr…
https://www.instagram.com/martie6947/
https://www.pinterest.com/martienreco…\
https://www.amazon.com/
https://twitter.com/NeesRecord

 

 

 

Advertisements

“Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout

Genre:  Literary FictionOlive
Publisher:  Random House
Publication Date:  October 15, 2019

I read Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” when it was published in 2008.   I have been reading the author’s work ever since.   Needless to say, I was delighted when I received an Advance Review Copy (ARC) of “Olive, Again.”  As in the original novel, the sequel’s chapters read as interlinked short stories with recurring local characters in the same small town of Maine.  Once again, in some way or another, Olive’s presence is always felt, even if she is not in the scene.   In this follow up-book, Strout proves that she still is a powerful storyteller, especially when concentrating on the subtle complexities of human relationships.  In “Again,” Olive is still an ornery and yet a loveable character.  Now we follow her as she grows old, navigating the changes in her life.

The novel begins with “Arrested,” which takes place right after the first novel ends.  The 74-year-old widower, Jack, is courting 73-year-old Olive.  Strout captures the surprise and depression one feels when they realize that they are now part of the invisible population of the elderly—alone and unseen.  Strout captures the embarrassing details of the aging body as well. She writes this so well, you might find yourself looking down at the size of your own stomach.  You will feel the delight of when a widow and widower find each other and, realize that they are no longer alone.  You will also laugh out loud when reading how the couple comes to wonder that if maybe loneliness has its advantages.

“Motherless Child” is a story about Olive and her son, Christopher, who was getting married in one of the stories in Kitteridge.”  Here he is married and has children and stepchildren of his own.   We follow his family when they come to visit.    Olive is excited to see her son and grandchildren.  She is proud of herself when she thinks to make the kids peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  The problem is that now Christopher and his family live in NYC and are accustomed to NYC living.  They have become more sophisticated, or as Olive feels downright uppity.  They are appalled with the measly sandwiches.   Christopher and his wife whisper to each other, not aware that Olive can hear them, why didn’t she think of finer foods for their visit.  Why did she just knit a scarf and not buy the grandkids proper gifts?   Olive feels like a failure.  The visit goes from bad to worse when she informs her son that his father, Henry, has been gone for years now and that she plans to get married again to Jack.  The author shows us how class and stubbornness can change family dynamics, leaving the reader feeling very sad for the protagonist.

“Labor” is wickedly funny.  Olive goes to a baby shower.  Never known for her patience, she keeps wondering how long she’ll have to sit there.  The reader can feel what she must be thinking:  In her day, no one had such events.   When having a baby, you received your family and friends’ hand-me-downs.  Period.   She is bored out of her mind. (Admit it, if you have ever been to a baby shower it can get tedious fast).   In her typical quirky, direct manner she says all the wrong things.  But when another guest, who is pregnant herself, goes into labor, it is Olive who delivers the baby.  She is no longer bored.  It may not be the most believable tale. Still, it is one of my favorites in the book.  Stout ensures that her readers remember that bad can go to good in a heartbeat.

All of the chapters/tales in the novel are written with humor and compassion.  The author has a gift for zooming in on ordinary moments in the lives of ordinary people, which make you think about your own ordinary life.  But, like Olive, your life is not ordinary simply because it is your own.  Stout has never failed to make me reflect on how my own years—good and bad—have played out.  Nor, has she ever failed to entertain me.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

Preorder “Olive, Again”

Find all my book reviews at:

https://www.goodreads.com/review/list…
https://books6259.wordpress.com/
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/review…
https://www.facebook.com/martie.neesr…
https://www.instagram.com/martie6947/
https://www.pinterest.com/martienreco…\
https://www.amazon.com/
https://twitter.com/NeesRecord