One of my different guidelines this year from previous years is to remove rules that might limit my reading enjoyment. And the second book I read this year is an example of that. As I mentioned in my post about The Great Gatsby, I find that I really avoid re-reading books, and especially works of fiction. Somehow, reading a book a second time feels like a potential "waste" of my time, since I could be reading something new in that time, instead. But I have heard it recommended SO often by other readers and writers that it is really important to embrace re-reading. So much can be gained from a second reading, just like watching a movie for a second or third or millionth time (as I may have been known to do over the past ten plus years, perhaps embarrassingly, with "You've Got Mail"). You might catch new details, or understand the way the writer weaves their story with new insight, now that you know where they're going in the end. So I embraced re-reading with Gatsby, and now a second time with Book Two of my Reading Challenge.
I first read How to Breathe Underwater, a collection of short stories by the incredible Julie Orringer, at least ten years ago. The collection was hand-picked for me by my friend Katie, also a writer, who was kind enough to share her own passion for reading with me by curating a personal selection of reading suggestions. I had not read many short story collections before this one, save the stories and excerpts assigned for class readings in my college literature courses. I was skeptical about embracing this foreign form, having fallen so hard for the indulgences gained in reading lengthy novels. But I was captivated by Ms. Orringer's writing from the very first story in the collection.
Re-reading this collection of stories did NOT disappoint. And to say it much better (though not more eloquently), these stories absolutely blew my mind. I am so much further along my own writing path now, and I read with so much closer attention now, I think. I relish examples of structure, specificity, details and imagery, collecting them in my head or through the furious underlining work of my pen as I read. What I loved about this collection before only multiplied a hundred-fold in this second reading, through the new writing filters I have developed over the past ten years. Orringer's characters are so vivid and specific, and the worlds she creates for them are at once both extremely complex and disarmingly simple. The stories in this collection are united by themes of youth and her characters' struggle to come to terms both with themselves and with the world around them. She contrasts light and dark so beautifully, as the innocence and youth of her characters are presented against deep, dark shades of their haunting and often disturbing circumstances. And I am crazy over her story titles - I need lots of help with that in my own work! These nine stories are richly diverse and demonstrate a fascinating, captivating range of characters, setting and plot, and even form. Yet her writing feels so very cohesive, so unmistakably her, and this is just about the highest thing I could hope for in my own writing ambitions.
If I have to pick favorites, my most-loved stories in this collection are "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," "Note to Sixth-Grade Self," "The Isabel Fish," and "Stations of the Cross." Here is one of my favorite passages from "The Smoothest Way Is Full of Stones," to give you just a taste of Ms. Orringer's gorgeous prose:
"Real bees weave above me through the grass, their bodies so velvety I want to touch them. For what feels like the first time all summer, I am alone. I rub the pebble with my thumb, imagining it to be a magic stone that will make me smaller and smaller in the tall grass. I shrink to the size of a garter snake, a leaf, a speck of dust, until I am almost invisible. There is a presence gathering around me, an iridescent light I can see through my laced eyelashes. I lie still against the earth, faint with dread, and I feel the planet spinning through space, its dizzying momentum, its unstoppable speed. It is God who makes the shadows dissolve around me. He sharpens the scent of the clover. He pushes the bees past my ears, directs the sun onto my back until my skin burns through the cotton of my Shabbos dress. I want to know what He wants and do what He wants, and I let my mind fall blank, waiting to be told."If you are an aspiring writer, and especially interested in the craft of short stories, I highly recommend that you check out this wonderful collection!! How are you doing in your reading practice for this year? Let me know if you have any great new recommendations for me!
Order your own copy of How to Breathe Underwater here!!
(Eeek - having trouble uploading my photos like usual today! Sorry for the not-as-personal photo... will try to figure that out for the next post...)