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My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead (thoughts)

February 2, 2009

My Mistress's Sparrow is DeadI’d been eyeing Jeffrey Eugenides’ short story anthology My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead for awhile, mainly because it has a really cool cover and the subtitle, Great Loves Stories from Chekhov to Munro, appealed to me. So the 100 Shots of Short challenge, combined with my new year’s resolution to read more anthologies vs. collections, gave me the perfect excuse to get it from the library. Love stories? Sign me up! But I should have known that the author of The Virgin Suicides (loved) and Middlesex (loved the first half…hated the last third) has a different definition of love story than me.

Don’t get me wrong-some of the stories in here were incredible. But most of them were also dark and sordid. And there were a fair number that I just didn’t enjoy at all.

My plan is to review the stories I loved on their own, so in this post I’m trying to look at the book as a whole. It starts off well-Eugenide’s introduction is entertaining and erudite. He discusses where the title came from, his love of Latin, how he found the stories, and then tosses in a meditation on the love story that begins:

Please keep in mind: my subject here isn’t love. My subject is the love story.

Later on that page is the paragraph that I think will really tell you if this anthology is for you:

When it comes to love, there are a million theories to explain it. But when it comes to love stories, things are simpler. A love story can never be about full possession. The happy marriage, the requited love, the desire that never dims-these are lucky eventualities but they aren’t love stories. Love stories depend on disappointment, on unequal births and feuding families, on matrimonial boredom and at least one cold heart. Love stories, nearly without exception, give love a bad name.

The stories themselves lean heavily towards the contemporary, although Chekhov, Joyce, and Maupassant put in appearances. Geographically speaking, it’s heavy on America, Canada, and Eastern Europe; there is one story set in China. Gender-wise, this is definitely a more masculine collection. Seven of the twenty-seven stories, so about one quarter, are written by women, but even some of those feature male narrators. Finally, as far as orientation goes, there’s one story with a gay man and one story with a lesbian; the rest are heterosexual.

I’m not sure how Eugenides decided on the order for the stories; it’s definitely not chronological, and oftentimes a story I loved would be followed up by one I didn’t care for at all. Anyway, I went ahead and counted it up: there were five that I absolutely loved (you’ll get individual reviews on those!), eleven that I enjoyed, ten that I felt ‘meh’ about, and three that I loathed. So that’s why the book as a whole gets three stars-it’s got a pretty even balance of good and bad.

You know, I’ve never tried to review a short story anthology before, and I’m finding it difficult! So now that you’ve got an idea about the general book, I’m going to go ahead and do blurb reviews of the stories I enjoyed (a la the Out of this World Mini-Challenge). :) Doing so is going to make this review ridiculously long, but you can always skip around or something.   And this way you’ll have a taste of the story variety!

shotsofshort“First Love and Other Sorrows” by Harold Brodkey
This one is set in 1950s St. Louis and narrated by a sixteen-year-old. It’s one of those suburban-drama stories; most of it takes place either in the narrator’s house or at his school. There are two main story threads: the narrator’s coming-of-age experiences and the confrontation between his older sister and mother regarding whether she should use her good looks to marry up. The tension slowly, quietly builds up amid vivid imagery; Brodkey is a very good writer. Favourite passage, because it catches that high school envy:

Among my other problems was that I was reduced nearly to a state of tears over my own looks whenever I looked at a boy named Joel Bush. Joel was so incredibly good-looking that none of the boys could quite bear the fact of his existence; his looks weren’t particuarly masculine or clean-cut, and he wasn’t a fine figure of a boy-he was merely beautiful.

“The Lady With the Little Dog” by Anton Chekhov
Ok, I’ve read this one before, but not in English. It tells of a jaded, middle-aged man who falls in love with a younger woman at the resort town of Yalta. This is very much an internal type of story; Chekhov takes you through the emotional stages of Dmitri’s love, and how it changes him. Chekhov is a master of the simple, profound style, and I love him (although this isn’t my favourite story of his). Favourite passage, because it made me nostalgic for Russia:

At home in Moscow everything was already wintry, the stoves were heated, and in the morning, when the children were getting ready for school and drinking their tea, it was dark, and the nanny would light a lamp for a short time. The frosts had already set in. When the first snow falls, on the first day of riding in sleighs, it is pleasant to see the white ground, the white roofs; one’s breath feels soft and pleasant, and in those moments one remembers one’s youth. The old lindens and birches, white with hoardfrost, have a good-natured look, they are nearer one’s heart than cypresses and palms, and near them one no longer wants to think of mountains and the sea.

“A Rose For Emily” by William Faulkner
I read this one awhile ago as well, and while I remembered the ending, that was about it. This story really makes me want to try out more of Faulkner’s shorter fiction (his novels and I aren’t the best of friends), and in a different mood it might have been in the ‘love’ category instead of ‘enjoyment.’ It’s basically about a strong, eccentric Southern woman living in a small town. But it’s one of those stories you should read for yourself! (especially since I’ve so kindly provided a link to a free version) Favourite passage, for its humour (you might need a bit of context; several of Miss Emily’s neighbours have complained to the judge that there’s a bad smell coming from her house):

That night the Board of Aldermen met-three graybeards and one younger man, a member of the rising generation.
“It’s simple enough,” he said. “Send her word to have her place cleaned up. Give her a certain time to do it in, and if she don’t…”
“Dammit, sir,” Judge Stevens said, “will you accuse a lady to her face of smelling bad?”

“Some Other, Better Otto” by Deobrah Eisenberg
This is another strongly internal story, focusing on a middle-aged gay man named Otto. He has a lot going for him in life-a committed partner, a good career, but family brings out the worst in people, especially around the holidays. ;) The best part of the story, for me, was Otto’s sister Sharon. She’s just a really neat character, but you’ll have to read the story to find out why! Favourite passage, for the sheer writing ability on display:

Marvelous to watch William out in the garden, now with the late chrysanthemums. It was a flower Otto had never liked until William instructed him to look again. Well, all right, so it wasn’t a merry flower. But flowers could comfortably embrace a range of qualities, it seemed. And now, how Otto loved the imperial colors, the tensely arched blossoms, the cleansing scent that seemed dipped up from the pure well of winter, nature’s ceremony of end and beginning.

“The Moon in Its Flight” by Gilbert Sorrentino
This is a first-love, 1948 suburbia story, but it’s told with one eye on us twenty-first century jaded readers: the narrator is post-modern that way. It mixes up innocence and coarseness, weaving them together, but somehow it works. Representative passage, because I wanted one that captured the narrator’s tone for you, and this one shows all three key traits:

Against the tabletop her hand, its long and delicate fingers, the perfect moons, Carolina moons of her nails. I’ll give her every marvel: push gently the scent of magnolia and jasmine between her legs and permit her to piss champagne.

“How to Be An Other Woman” by Lorrie Moore
This story, with its self-explanatory title, is told in second person. I always think it’s a fun perspective when the author can pull it off, just because it’s so rarely seen. It’s written as a ‘how-to’ guide, although in the end it’s pretty depressing. Favourite passage, just because:

Cut up an old calendar into week-long strips. Place them around your kitchen floor, a sort of bar graph on the linoleum, representing the number of weeks you have been a mistress: thirteen. Put X’s though all the national holidays.

“The Bad Thing” by David Gates
Although this story is written by a man, it’s narrated by a woman, and the narrative voice is pitch-perfect. The narrator is pregnant, and after she and her husband have a fight, she forgets she’s pregnant and drinks quite a bit. The majority of the story is her attempts to figure out how to keep her husband from finding out the next day, interwoven with character development (obviously). The reason I think the story works is that the narrator isn’t a bad person, she’s just a normal person who made a mistake, so as a reader I was really rooting for her. I couldn’t find one or two sentences to excerpt, though.

“Red Rose, White Rose” by Eileen Chang
This is the story set mainly in China, and it was an interesting narrative of one Chinese businessman’s love life. The very first sentences tell us that the man has a wife and a mistress; the rest of the story is how he got into that situation. It felt very true and real to me, and I enjoyed the glimpses into Chinese life. Favourite passage (I actually had several; the rest will be at the very bottom of this post), for its contrast between pretty words and depressing meaning-a great story opening:

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress. …Maybe every man has had two such women-at least two. Marry a red rose and eventually she’ll be a mosquito-blood streak smeared on the wall, while the white one is “moonlight in front of my bed.”  Marry a white rose, and before long she’ll be a grain of sticky rice that’s gotten stuck on your clothes; the red one, by then, is a scarlet beauty mark just over your heart.

“We Didn’t” by Stuart Dybek
This is a story pretty much about frustrated first love, and I just adored the first paragraph (which tells you exactly what the rest of the story is about):

We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in darkness. We didn’t in the fresh-cut summer grass or in the mounds of autumn leaves or on this snow where moonlight threw down our shadows. We didn’t in your room on the canopy bed you slept in, the bed you’d slept in as a child, or in the backseat of my father’s rusted Rambled, which smelled of the smoked chubs and kielbasa he delivered on weekends from my uncle Vincent’s meat market. We didn’t in your mother’s Buick Eight, where a rosary twined the rear view mirror like a beaded, black snake with silver, cruciform fangs.

“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” by Raymond Carver
I totally that I’d already read this story and disliked it. But when I started reading it, I realised I definitely hadn’t read it before, and that I definitely liked it. Whoops! Anyway, the whole story is a conversation between two thirty-something married couples about love, which takes place while they’re passing around the bottles of gin and tonic water. ;) As you might imagine, it gets pretty interesting! But I couldn’t find a good excerpt-it’s a cohesive whole.

“The Bear came Over the Mountain” by Alice Munro
This story was rather like Munro’s version of The Notebook. I know, I know-it’s a really irreverent comparison.  And actually, the only thing the two have in common is an older husband dealing with his wife’s illness that makes her not know who he is.  But still…I couldn’t help thinking that! I’m not sure why I enjoyed this one-Munro is just a really good writer, so even though I didn’t particularly like the husband, she made me care about him. Favourite passage, because I like really big dogs:

These were the Russian wolfhounds she had adopted some years ago as a favor to a friend, then devoted herself to for the rest of their lives. …The dogs’ long legs and silky hair, their narrow, gentle, intransigent faces made a fine match for her when she took them out for walks.

Other Notable Passages
Any Chinese he met while abroad was “an old friend found in a far-away land.” When he returned home and saw those “old friends” again, the first time they met they were bosom friends, the second time mere acquaintances, and by the third time they were strangers to each other. -“Red Rose, White Rose” by Eileen Chang

“Him?” said Jiaorui, following behind. “Very pretty. Too, too pretty.”
“You don’t like pretty men?” said Zhenbao, leaning against the railing.
“Men should not be pretty. Men get spoiled even more easily than women do.” -“Red Rose, White Rose” by Eileen Chang

23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2009 12:46 pm

    Eva, thank you so much for this post! I bought this book a year ago and have only read two or three stories. Recently I’ve tried to start reading it again. Now I have more insight into the book and its stories.

  2. February 2, 2009 12:48 pm

    “A Rose for Emily” is a weird little story, but I liked it a lot when I read it in high school. This sounds like a cool collection, I haven’t read short stories in quite awhile.

  3. February 2, 2009 12:53 pm

    I think I’d really like this one. It sounds like the kind of stuff that I would enjoy. And that cover is just amazing! I’ve been wanting this book every since I saw your library loot post with it.

  4. February 2, 2009 12:54 pm

    Your comment about the order of the story intrigues me because I never read them in order. I am to guess that you do?

  5. February 2, 2009 1:21 pm

    This does sound like something I might like. (Dark? Sordid? Sign me up!). And you’ve got such a way with choosing just the right passages to highlight that totally grab my interest. Onto the wish list with it! :)

  6. adevotedreader permalink
    February 2, 2009 3:52 pm

    I’ve been considering reading this anthology for some time, so thanks for your review Eva.

    Carver and chang are in my TBR pile, so I’m glad to hear they’re good.

    I’m a huge fan of Alice Munro. The Bear Came Over The Mountain was made into an excellent Candian movie, Away from her, which I’d reccomend if you haven’t seen it yet.

  7. February 2, 2009 4:22 pm

    I love “A Rose for Emily”, I agree, it is definitely a weird little story. The cover of this book is beautiful!

  8. February 2, 2009 4:25 pm

    Definitely gotta read this one to see where I fall in the love/meh continuum. My students loved “A Rose for Emily,” and I think we have “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” in our anthology. Will have to check that one out asap. Thanks for a great review, Eva! Looking forward to hearing about the stories you loved.

  9. February 2, 2009 5:33 pm

    I like the cover, too.

    Looking at the list of authors, they’re all so “critically acclaimed.” Certainly not of the cheap paperback with ripped bodice cover variety. Not really a complaint, but I think some of the schlock writers should be represented– out of a sense of balance in the study of romantic lit.

  10. February 2, 2009 8:46 pm

    Great review, and I really like the cover of the book. You’re right – the passage you quoted really does let one know whether one will like the book. My idea of love stories definitely doesn’t coincide with the author’s. Still, there are some stories in the collection that definitely look interesting.

  11. February 3, 2009 3:54 am

    Vasilly, no problem!

    Kim, I liked it a lot too. :D

    Chris, yep; of course, I didn’t talk about all of the stories I could have done without. ;) lol

    Care, usually I read stories in order. I conquered by inner least freak towards the end of this anthology and read the last few ones out of order. It felt liberating but kind of like cheating. :)

    Megan, thanks! I like typing out my favourite passages, because then I always have them. :D

    A Devoted Reader, no problem! I’ll definitely be reading more Munro, and I’ll watch out for that movie. :)

    Lu, I’m so in love with the cover. The red border has the squiggly lines of a heart beat monitor!

    Andi, I’m curious what you think too. :)

    John, I think that was a major problem with the anthology-it was all very literary.

    Belle, thanks! I don’t agree with Eugenides’ idea of love stories either. At least he doesn’t think that’s real-life love! :)

  12. February 3, 2009 5:11 am

    I have been waitig for this to come out in paperback for ages and it finally just did. Thanks so much for the reminder that I need to get a copy. I love your hardback cover and I am glad you enjoyed the majority of the stories.

  13. February 3, 2009 5:53 am

    Oh crap…I’m just going to have to get this one, too. The little book seductress is hard at work. I am curious to know which three you loathed though…I’ll have to remember to ask you after I’ve read it.

  14. February 3, 2009 6:42 am

    Hmm sordid…that got my attention! Sounds interesting, but not really my thing. Great review though, thanks!

  15. February 3, 2009 12:37 pm

    I think you did a great job reviewing this anthology of short stories. I’ve looked at this one for a while and couldn’t decide if I’d like it or not. You’ve given me a better idea of what to expect. Thanks!

  16. February 3, 2009 2:03 pm

    Great review – I’ll have to see if my library has this book. Thanks for the link to William Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.

  17. February 4, 2009 11:58 am

    This is a great post Eva. I first put this book on my wish list because of the cover & title – how can you not want to read that?! :)

    But I really hadn’t heard much about it before so your reviews on the stories helped a lot. Isn’t The Bear Came Over the Mountain great? I read that one somewhere else. I’m adding this one to my library wish list :)

  18. February 6, 2009 3:23 am

    Rhinoa, I know the ‘why won’t it come out in p/b’ feeling!

    Debi, I bet you’ll be able to guess which ones I loathed when you read them. ;)

    Mariel, yeah, it definitely wasn’t my normal thing. But it’s good to push horizons every once in awhile!

    Lisa, thanks!

    April, thanks! And no problem w/ the link. :)

    Iliana, I know-the title is the best ever!

  19. March 16, 2009 3:50 am

    I am still intrigued here. So you feel like it’s cheating to read a short story collection out of order? I had NEVER given any thought to it! And now, I’m feeling like maybe I have discredited the intention of how the stories should be read. What have I missed by reading them here there and everywhere? I consider them a box of chocolates and just open a page and start with whatever story is open (I do go to the start of it) and USUALLY, I read the shortest story first. Maybe I’m a rebel?


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