"Rebecca Lee, one of our most gifted and original short story writers, guides readers into a range of landscapes, both foreign and domestic, crafting stories as rich as novels. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi until she finds 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 wife for the one true soulmate she's ever found."--Amazon.com.
After reading Rebecca Lee's stories, which are certainly MFA-ey (all but one take place on university campuses) but which try with moderate success to adopt an NYC-ey detachment (she is excellent at sketching many diverting types from the outside, but not so much at getting inside or protagonizing them without protagonistically making them into the same person, I suspect someone much like herself), I can conclude that at least one thing MFA and NYC have in common is a deep interest in who's sleeping with whom. But she doesn't make it seem too gossipy, and all the characters are basically decent which is nice, and these were well crafted and if I am starting to forget them like so much "the fruits of one's fellow writing workshop participants," that says less about Lee's good work and more about the fundamental unseriousness with which I live my own life--and who says anyway that we shouldn't meet our authors amid the turmoil of this life just to embrace once and then depart and forget?
One small note of contention: before I read the book I had it marked down as being by a Canadian author but upon receiving it can find no mention of Lee's Canadian identity whatsoever. Why had I thought she was Canadian? Upon reading it I found many of the stories have a Saskatchewan connection. Going to the publisher's site I again could not find anything about Lee's citizenship or heritage. She is presented as American. Well after some digging I finally found an article where she acknowledges her Saskatchewan childhood and is "so proud to be considered part of this great tradition of Canadian writers". That was with the publication of the 2012 Hamish Canadian edition of the book. Why not proud enough to even mention her birthplace in the author bio. on this US edition? Hmmmm....
1. Bobcat (2010) - A dinner party is being held and the hostess who is pregnant ruminates about the guests individually and collectively as well as about her own marriage. Beautiful writing, wonderfully told; I liked the narrator and felt her a genuine person as the thoughts about life and these people went through her mind. The ending was startling and at first I didn't get it. I thought about it and do "get" it but am not sure I understand the point. However, the getting there was enjoyable. (4/5)
2. The Banks of the Vistula (1997) - Engrossing. A new student at a Lutheran college in the late 1980s is taking a Linguistics course and for her first paper, wanting to make an impression on the professor, plagiarizes it. Turns out she copies verbatim an obscure piece of Russian propaganda from the 1940s which horrifies her professor who is an ex-pat. from Poland with a checkered past. Fantastic story with great insight into the two main characters. Only problem is, once again, I did not get the ending. It just seemed to end at the point when something should have happened. So, do I rate this a one for a complete let down of an ending or higher because I was thoroughly engrossed until the end? (3.5/5)
3. Slatland (1992) - Finally, a story that I get! Once again I was totally immersed in the world and characters that Lee lead me into. A man and a woman, in love, living together for two years. It's again the late '80s and the man is a Romanian refugee and he is constantly engaging the woman in conversation about how the Americans do not appreciate the life they have, Americans have no problems - Romanians *they* have problems. He tells her what Communist life in Romania is like then what a fairy tale it is like in America. All the references are to America but funnily enough the story takes place in Saskatchewan, Canada! Without going into further detail, the woman starts to wonder if perhaps the man has a wife back in Romania and thus the story becomes more complicated. As with the first two stories in this book, Lee has a way of abruptly ending her stories before they seem finished, however, this time I was satisfied. We were let in on the character's intentions and understand what the final out come is. I completely loved this one!! One thing I need to mention and discuss is the professor psychologist the woman saw twice in her life, first as a child of 11 then later in the story as an adult. The professor is an odd person and he is given a very creepy description from the first encounter. I came away thinking he might be a child predator. At the second encounter Margit is just as uncomfortable with him and she again describes his strange demeanor, only this time I came away thinking she was misunderstanding him that he probably has Tourettes. A *very* interesting character indeed! My favourite story so far, even though it involved magical realism. (5/5)
4. Min (1995) - Again takes place in the late '80s, this time in Hong Kong. A girl is friends with a boy, Min, from Hong Kong on their Christian College Campus and he asks her to come home with him for the summer. His father will pay for her ticket and give her a job. So she goes, there is no misunderstandings as they have a purely platonic relationship and she knows that his family will be arranging his marriage next year. She does find this arranged marriage bit very hard to comprehend and is flabbergasted when the father asks her to narrow down the entries to around 50, interview them and then leave them with a final list of ten to work with from there by the end of the summer. This is her summer job! Meanwhile she meets the ahma next door, a Filipino girl and eventually thinks that she and Min should meet each other, but the Chinese and the Filipinos have had a dislike for each other for centuries. Another story in which I was completely immersed in. Rebecca Lee has a way of sucking me into these little worlds inhabited by only a few characters who are so likable and real. This story again ends before anything happens but we are given a foreshadow of what the future will hold; and like a happy dream I'm pleased to have awoken from it. (5/5)
5. World Party (2013) - After I read this I started thumbing back to read snippets but, you know, I don't want to have to think and try to figure out what a story means. I have to accept that Rebecca Lee ends her stories before they are finished and chances are I won't get the point. But I love her little worlds! Once again we are on a Christian College Campus, this time from a professor's point of view. It is early 1980s and campus protests run around trees, pollution, apartheid and sexism. The narrator belongs to a committee that votes on faculty members that "may be behaving badly" and they have such a meeting tonight. She ponders about two of her friends, a female who is more outgoing than her and a male she is very close with and foreshadowing tells us he dies shortly after the time of this tale. We are also told of her son's little Quaker school, her divorce and her son's "problem", probably Asperger's. Rambling on here has helped me to see "the point" of the story which ends with her vote. Wonderfully written, I just wish I felt satisfied with the ending. (4/5)
6. Fialta (2000) - This is probably the longest story in the book and once again concerns academia but in quite a different way. A young man is chosen as one of a select few to study at a master architect's as an intern. There are five of them I believe, two of them new this year the others second years. The professor is an eccentric and one of his rules in no "fraternizing", so of course the young man falls head over heels in love with the young woman who is the architect's special chosen one. The author narrates this story as a male and doesn't pull it off in my opinion. I thought the narrator was a lesbian until it got around to identifying him as a male. The author wasn't able to capture his masculinity, especially since the narrator's voice was the same as in all the previous stories in this collection which were female. This is also probably the most simplest story included here with the ending being easy to understand. It ends, as usual, before anything dramatic happens but the narrator foreshadows what will happen next leaving the story with a final ending for once. I finally get the ending I've been wailing for and this turns out to be my least favourite story in the collection! (3/5)
7. Settlers (2013) - This is the shortest story in the collection. A 35 year-old single woman mulling over thoughts of her life which include her friends at a dinner party. Specifically she's thinking about marriage and children. One friend has it all, another is settling into a strange partnership and the man our narrator likes she doesn't officially date though they go out together. Then 8 years later, same people, same place, another dinner party. The woman contemplates the same things: the perfect husband has repeatedly cheated on his wife, the strange couple are married and settled but not passionate, her ex-not boyfriend is more attentive than he ever was and she is married to a nice man and going through a protracted miscarriage, but that is ok because sometimes it is better to just pass through this world. Depressing little story but the belief in God makes it more poignant than pointless. Since this one is so short it is hard to fall into the little created world but still the characters are vivid. (4/5)
Narrating in the first person works well for these little tales that are each picture-perfect in their own way. I was reminded of a delving into a rich buffet of stories, wishing for another ‘chapter’ in many cases, but always very involved and ultimately impressed.
There are several themes that appear in these short tales. Most have a connection to a college campus and it’s obvious that Lee loves these settings as she describes buildings, professors, and the intellectual atmosphere of the places. She writes about the interrelationships between people, identity and choice, and both what’s on the surface and underneath the appearances of our lives. Several characters have interesting tics, some have warm, strong personalities or families, some have political or global connections, and many are going through transition.
Rebecca Lee says that she is a very slow writer, but I think that works well for her. In an interview online, she mentioned something that John Gardner said about revision: that the first draft is building the home and the subsequent drafts are living in it. That’s an excellent description of the level of her writing - ‘living inside the work’. I know that I will revisit these stories and will find them just as fascinating a second and third time. This is highly recommended for readers who love excellent short story collections.
There'll be a full review at RB later this week but, really, why bother. Skip this book.
A number of the stories feature characters bumping of against the fringes of events whose historical sweep they can’t possibly understand. In “The Banks of the Vistula,” an unprepared freshman plagiarizes an essay for her Introductory Linguistics course. This kicks of a series of consequences that lead her ever farther out of her depth, and into the teeth of an intensely personal debate about Soviet collaborators in occupied Poland at the close of World War II.
In “Min,” an American college student from Montana spends the summer in Hong Kong during the Vietnamese refugee crisis of 1981. She’s staying with the family of the Chinese man charged with managing the crisis. From her position as a guest in a small enclave of wealth and power, she tries to see clearly the social and historical forces that are swirling outside, while at the same time playing her appointed part in her host’s household drama. The whole of the interplay between personal and social dramas in these stories is much greater than the sum of their parts.
Stylistically, Lee sometimes assembles lucid stories out of fragments and digressions she’s unafraid to leave behind. If there’s a gun on the mantle in the first scene, there’s little reason to expect it to appear again. For example, “Min” begins with a faculty committee hearing for a professor accused of inappropriate behavior toward his female students. There’s wonderful tension and intrigue, and a great sketch of the professor’s character. But it turns out this scene, which would itself be fodder for a first-rate story, is the occasion on which the story’s two main characters met, and is never revisited in any important way.
The title story is an entire bouquet of fragments and digressions-- bits of backstory, memories of the narrator-- that work together in a way that gives the story tons of depth. From the bird’s-eye perspective, the story is a long account of a painful dinner party. But the glimpses Lee gives us leave me feeling as if I understand these characters better than I understand some of my own friends.
Lee writes in a distinctive voice that is uniform throughout the stories. It’s deliberate and sensitive, with sharp observations, surprising phrasings, and subtle humor, sometimes all at once, as when a character says of her colleague in the history department: “She used history in the most chilling way possible, as a metaphor for events in her own life.” In another favorite passage, Lee perfectly describes the exact moment dinner parties go sour. Everything is going great, “but then there is the subtle shift downward. Somebody is a little too drunk. The bird, which was a bronze talismanic centerpiece, golden and thriving, is revealed as a collection of crazy bones.” Lee’s voice works well in every story, whether narrated by a middle-aged professor, a college freshman, or an apprentice architect. But the consistent voice does blunt the impact of the book if you binge-read it. (Why do all these different characters sound alike?)
Lee also has a few go-to tricks that can be distracting if you don’t let the stories settle for a while. In several stories, the narrator offers an earnest evaluation of the recent publications of her/his friends and colleagues. Many characters deploy quotations in conversation-- from Ovid more than once. More than one character has a facial tic. These are always effective an appropriate techniques in the stories in which they appear, but when you see them three or four times in one day, it starts to feel like we’re catching a glimpse of the puppet strings.
So: if you have any kind of soft spot for American short fiction, definitely read Bobcat. Every single story is great. Just maybe take it at a pace of one story a week, no matter how much you want to keep reading, so as to get the full impact of each.
Each story in Rebecca Lee's book Bobcat and Other Stories is cleverly crafted, and each of her sentences is a delicious treat. The author is able to create interesting characters that are vividly brought to life, and her scenarios are so inventive and bizarre that you feel that somehow they must be halfway true. Of course, her stories are so literate that they may only appeal to a certain segment of the population, but I see nothing wrong with that.
How fortunate for future writers that the author is also a teacher of creative writing. If she can convey her genius to her students, they are incredibly blessed.
After reading this book I immediately obtained her novel "The City is a Rising Tide," and I look forward to more pleasurable reading.
Lee's characters are so fundamentally real. It's odd. When I sit back and think about them outside of the act of reading them, they seem so...perhaps too...self-aware and self-reflective. I have the thought, "Surely, not everyone on the planet is this introspective." Yet, when I step back into the next story, its narrator again seems someone I can reach out and touch, someone I know, someone real.
Most of the stories end on an inhale, a moment when the situation is understood or the problem is defined, but the future is only vaguely indicated. I usually do not care for this but it worked very well here, causing me to think about, "What might this go? What will be the path taken from the present we see to final ending that Lee prefigures?"
I wouldn't say that these stories deliver any great insights or life-changing moments, but they are alive and heartbreaking and eminently readable.
In fact, university students may enjoy a few of the stories because they do take place on a campus (all but the first and last). The collection itself can be studied. For example, compare "Bobcat" and "Settlers" because both involve dinner parties. Or "The Banks of the Vistula" and "Fialta" to compare the professor/student relationship.
My favourite story is "Min" partly because its story has the breadth and depth and plot of a novel, but it moves along swiftly and succinctly in short story form.
I admit that I don't understand "Bobcat." Its ending was too abrupt for me and left me with too many questions. The reference at the end, "she formed the perfect answer to the question that was County Clanagh" is too vague for me. I know County Clanagh refers to the narrator's honeymoon when she came across her husband inexplicably crying, but does that mean he was crying then already about the "she" in the quotation? The theme of adultery is clear in the story, and the narrator thinks someone should tell the wife whose husband is cheating that she is being cuckolded, so the irony is clear, but the leap is just a little to big for me in the swift ending of the story. Perhaps that is meant to mimic the feeling that one has in such a situation. Life seems to crash in those moments when knowledge which had been bubbling under the surface suddenly bursts out in front of you. Or perhaps there is another explanation.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book and thank LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program for awarding me this copy.
I'm jealous. I wish I could write like this.