I just finished reading three books of “fiction” by three women writers:
Martha Gellhorn’s PRETTY TALES FOR TIRED PEOPLE
Eileen Drew’s THE IVORY CROCODILE
And Maureen Powers’ THE HEART IS ALSO A FURNACE.
Gellhorn’s book is a collection of three long stories (or short novellas) published in 1965 by Simon and Schuster.
Drew’s is a novel, set almost entirely in Africa, published in 1996 by Coffee House Press.
Powers’ is a relatively short (43 pages) chapbook collection of short prose pieces that sometimes read as prose poems, sometimes as short short stories, sometimes as mini-essays or mini-memoirs. It was published by Future Tense Books in 2005.
All three are terrifically well written, in three distinctly different styles, and satisfied me in three equally distinct ways.
Though born and raised in the U.S., Gellhorn spent most of her life outside the U. S., covering wars as a journalist, and writing novels and short stories about the kinds of people, and their lives, she encountered in all her travels and expatriate homes.
The three stories in PRETTY TALES FOR TIRED PEOPLE take place mostly in Europe, and all are about loss, in some cases tragic loss—of love, of reputation, of family, of life.
They are told in a careful and clear way, that maybe wouldn’t make you feel like you had an emotional stake in the characters, or their stories, but at least they have an old fashioned satisfying closure to them and don’t drop off into an abyss of irony or lack of any expectations, as in so much of contemporary short fiction.
The pleasure for me is not just in the appreciation of a well told story and the satisfaction of getting to see the arc of someone else’s life and choices resolved, one way or the other, but in the intelligence of the writing and the sophistication and understanding of the author’s intellect—not judging, not pleading, not looking for any knee jerk reaction, just telling a good story about how humans can fuck up their lives, or the lives of others.
Hey, like I’ve said elsewhere, I feel like I’ve been in a relationship with the long deceased Gellhorn ever since I accidentally stumbled on a long out of print, first edition hardcover copy (with miraculously the dust jacket intact) of a WWII novel of hers in a pile of junk waiting for the garbage collectors outside a neighbor’s house years ago.
Ever since then, since most of her books are long out of print, whenever I pass a used bookstore I check it for any Gellhorn treasures. PRETTY TALES FOR TIRED PEOPLE I picked up on that recent weekend in the Berkshires, after my reading with Terence Winch, when we stopped in a used bookstore on the main drag of Great Barrington. It’s another hardback first edition with dust jacket intact, and I bought it for twelve dollars.
Isn’t it odd that I could buy this treasure, at least to me, for less than it would cost me to buy a paperback reprint, if and when her books ever do begin to be reprinted?
Eileen Drew’s THE IVORY CROCODILE was given to me by the author not long after it was published and we were both in Minneapolis-St. Paul to read from our latest books, mine also published by Coffee House Press around then (a collection of poems called CANT BE WRONG—everyone always wants to stick an apostrophe in there, but I meant “Cant”).
Somehow it got lost in one of the many piles of books I’m always carting around through the many moves I seem to make (probably nine at least since then) to be rediscovered after my latest move to the apartment I’m in now.
It’s a novel told from the point of view of a young “white” woman who spent her early childhood in Africa with her family and mythologized the experience to the point that after returning to the U.S. (or being returned, her family kicked out by a fictional African dictator that could be one of several real ones) all she wanted was to get back.
She does, when she’s old enough, as a volunteer for an educational group, assigned to teach English to high school age students in a remote village in a fictional African country, run by a typical dictator of the time (c. 1970s) taking advantage of Cold War politics to maintain his rule while oppressing his people, et-unfortunately-cetera.
The end of the story brings it somewhat up to date (c. 1990s) but the bulk of it is set in this fictional African country of Tambala, in this remote village.
The clash of values and standards and experience and traditions—let alone of the future and the past, women and men, whites and blacks, the educated and the ignorant—makes it a compelling story not only of these fictional characters but of the reality of “culture clash.”
It’s well told. Once I got into the story and let myself be taken to that time and place, I was rewarded with a good read as well as a lot of thought-provoking ideas about my own experiences caught in various cultural clashes and how they were or were not resolved.
When I finished it, I didn’t feel cheated, as I too often do in contemporary fiction, even, or especially, the most touted examples of it. There seems to be a general misconception in a lot of contemporary “literary” fiction, that any kind of resolution besides an ironic one is not true to life, as if the kinds of miraculous coincidences, or satisfying or tragic outcomes, we all have experienced aren’t real!
At any rate, THE IVORY CROCODILE doesn’t do that. It resolves the story in a clear and precise way. Tragic maybe, but not ambiguous or ironic, except in the ways it stimulates thought about the contradictions between the images we have of living a romantic existence helping others to resolve their problems while escaping our own, and the reality of no escaping them.
Magdalen Powers is a friend. She created, set up, designed, and maintains my web site (I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to do that). We met decades ago in Portland, Oregon where my late friend, the poet Jim Haining was living at the time.
He got me some poetry readings up there, and when Maggie, being a friend of Jim’s, showed up for the first time at one of them, we became instant friends.
I liked her writing right from the beginning. Which was a relief. It’s always awkward to read the work of friends, or potential friends, fearing you might not like it, and then what?
But in Maggie’s case, I dug it. And it has only gotten better. This collection, THE HEART IS ALSO A FURNACE, has the ring of not only her unique personality and perspective, but of a great and unique voice in the literary world.
Quirky, yep, unexpected, definitely, honest, to a surprising degree, manipulative, never, sincere, without a doubt, fast and yet as though suspended in time, oddly yes, baroque, if I understand the meaning of that word correctly yes, aloofly ironic as so much of today’s fiction, no sir, original, more than I ever expected, satisfying, completely.
Check out any or all of these books and authors, see what you think, and let me know.