‘Up Up Up’ and ‘Something About the Animal’

Book Reviews

Reviewed by Michelle Berry

On the black and white cover of Something About the Animal, Cathy Stonehouse’s first short story collection, there is a woman looking at herself in a mirror in the bathroom. The woman is wearing a nightgown, a necklace. This wouldn’t be a catchy cover except for the fact that the woman’s head has been replaced by a horse’s head. A big-eyed, open-mouthed, terrified-looking horse head. Ears perked, tongue hanging out. It’s freaky and a little sad. The horse is looking slightly off to its left, as if someone is coming up behind it.  Conversely, Julie Booker’s cover for her first collection of stories, Up Up Up is just that – Up. Those three big words in green, red and yellow on a cream background. Up. Bouncing, happy letters. A cover that catches your eyes and immediately makes you feel good.

Of course I pick up Cathy Stonehouse’s book first. The back cover blurb tells me these are stories of “imminent crisis, which tread the hysterical edge of madness.”  These are “real life horror” stories. Who wouldn’t want to read this? Julie Booker’s back cover says that her collection “soars,” that it is “hilarious and incisive,” that it “bubbles with life, humour, and surprise.” So, reasonably, I think I’ll start with the depressing book and then end with something light. Come out of this review-job with a positive attitude, perhaps?

The weird thing is, these collections are more similar than dissimilar. Even though their covers are contradictory, these books both deal with the same sorts of themes, their writing styles are eerily matched and, funnily enough, both of these collections are depressing AND light. In fact, after reading these two books, I’m very pleased I took notes because all the stories have mixed together in my mind.

I think this similarity has more to do with the writing styles of these authors than the content; both Stonehouse and Booker make heavier use of factual lists and details in their stories than they do deep characterization, both books contain mostly postmodern stories with little or no plot, both collections  consist of many little stories (twenty in Booker’s collection, sixteen in Stonehouse’s), instead of a few long ones.

An example of the factual lists and details in Cathy Stonehouse’s collection is in her story “Floaters.” This is a story about a dental hygienist whose ex-husband wears dresses, whose son is an idiot, who has floaters in her eyes and who is being stalked by a strange guy and his girlfriend. “Floaters” is so full of information it boggles my mind:

Once upon a time, many years ago, Allan made a pass at her during Aikido (she was Sufi then but having balance problems), his smile revealing even, yellowish teeth. It took her several minutes to disentangle. Perhaps if she hadn’t she would now be the mother of Shiva. Instead she has Blake, who at fourteen rarely speaks except to say “bozo.” Aline’s current life path is dental assistance, suctioning spit out of people’s mouths while making reassuring shapes with her eyebrows: it’s all about communication, really: knowing what Susan wants before she speaks. Dr. Susan Solari, lesbian paintball enthusiast, who prides herself on the speed of her extractions.

It’s difficult to give an example of lack of plot without sharing an entire story, but the jumbled, run-on sentence Julie Booker ends her story “Speculators” with might give you a hint. This is a story where nothing happens. It is sort of about a rumoured rape. Teenagers who hang out in the Pit, high school students who go to the Pit when the boys are there and a narrator who dates a guy. There are no real connections – or, well, there are connections (high school girls, dating, rape?), but no build-up or pay off. This is how the story ends:

And later, after you let me choose which Johnny Cash tape to listen to on the way to the Sportsmen’s Show, after you tell me Stuart McLean anecdotes and touch my arm to punctuate certain points, after you say shit and fuck like any cool guy would and neat when I catch the one tagged metal disc in the casting pond and receive my glow-in-the-dark Crappie Killer jig (“you will improve your hook-up ratio”), after you lend me your jacket so I can stand really close to the dock at the Big Air Dog Jump and you lift your hand to show me your baby finger stitches where your beagle almost chewed right through, and after you say you hadn’t been sure you’d make the date but were determined, and I stick out my fingernail half gone from my new puppy and it’s the very same pinkie, after….

It goes on for another half a page. This is fine writing, witty and quick. It’s an end to something – but to what? I don’t know.

These comments sound more negative than I intend. In fact, both of these authors have quite a few wonderful stories mixed into some mildly less-wonderful stories. But that’s what always happens with a collection of stories, doesn’t it? Some stories will appeal, others won’t.  It’s just that the lists go on and on in both of these books. It’s just my own personal need for plot. Sometimes I want more depth, sometimes I crave a beginning, middle and end. I feel old and old-fashioned – like my parents feel when they watch my teenage daughter’s favourite television shows. My mother says, “they speak so quickly, I can’t understand them.” I feel the same way here. Stonehouse and Booker have talent, they do write well, but I wish they would tell me a good story – show me characters I can see, show me situations, settings that I can live in, walk around, be in. Not just give me lists of funny, quirky, weird, scary, sad stuff and expect me to connect with the characters and situations. I need a reason for reading these stories. I’m impressed with what these authors know about the world, I’m humbled by their writing talent, but I want to walk away from their books having taken something from them.

Julie Booker’s stories are about breakups and get-togethers, about speed-dating and love, about touring through Tibet and being a clown. There is a character in “Texas” who is forty-three and spends her vacation with her parents in their trailer park waiting to be picked up by men. There is an artist whose new husband falls in love with another artists’ painting and then the artist herself. There is a tour bus trip through Egypt, and a camping trip involving women, men and spears.

Cathy Stonehouse’s book has stories about Irish bomb scares, constructing miniature villages, sisters and brothers, postpartum depression and a dog-psychic-masseuse sister-duo. There is a father who works at a salt mine, there is seduction and mad cow disease and a woman pregnant with twins honeymooning in England. There is a mother at a peace camp protest who has abused her own children and a girl who tortures her dog by locking him in the basement.

My favourite stories in Up Up Up are: “To Thine Own Self,” “Violetta,” and “Texas.” My favourite stories in Something About the Animal are: “Beryl Takes a Knife,” “Keeping Mum,” “Where I Live Now,” “Ravenous Hours,” and “A Little Winter.”

These collections are chock-full of information – but do people read stories for information? I’m not sure. I don’t. I read for feeling, for emotion, for an experience of a life, a setting, a dilemma.

These stories seem not quite finished. However if they were finished they wouldn’t be postmodern.

Something About the Animal | Biblioasis |  240 pages | paper | $19.95 | ISBN #978-1897231982

Up Up Up | Anansi |  236 pages | paper | $22.95 | ISBN #978-0887843006

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Michelle Berry

Michelle Berry’s latest novel is Interference (ECW Press, 2014).