Elizabeth Gonzalez’s short stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, New Stories from the Midwest, SolLit Selects and numerous literary journals. The Universal Physics of Escape is her debut collection and winner of the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. Stories featured in this collection received the 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize from Hunger Mountain and the 2012 Tusculum Review Prize. Elizabeth works as a freelance writer and editor in Lancaster, PA, where she lives with her husband and two daughters. Learn more on her website and Twitter.
My nightstand is an old sewing chest just big enough to hold my lamp, my clock and a glass of water. You can balance a book on what’s left, but it will likely end up on the floor. The chest has a compartment that is basically a time capsule because you can’t open it without taking off everything but the lamp. This exercise prompted me to open the lid, where I found a Scientific American, The Pickwick Papers, and A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe. They were in the queue in 2013, judging from the magazine.
Books perched on the ledge right now include Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata, which jumped the line because my daughter picked it up at the library. That’s a shame because it’s a keeper and the read would have been better if I could have underlined (it’s a book with plenty to underline, for you underlining and annotating types).
Snow Country follows Shimamura, an “idler” who has a family in the city, through several visits to a hot spring in the snow country of western Japan, where he takes up with a young geisha, Komako. The narration is vivid and close, yet also detached and a bit displaced, as Kawabata leaves out many critical details that dog the reader and the characters alike.
Shimamura is often puzzling over scenes he’s not quite privy to, and misreading them. In the opening scene, he tries to read the relationship between two people on the train, a matter that will never be resolved for him or for the reader. Later, on a train home, he watches another couple, the woman leaning in “to catch every word the man said” and “answering him happily.” Shimamura concludes they are a “pair off on a long journey together.” Moments later, the man exits, and Shimamura realizes they were strangers.
Snow Country is full of these little moments, layers and mirrors both literal and narrative. For Shimamura the idler, understanding is the ultimate of many “wasted efforts.” “You’re talking in riddles,” he complains. “I’ll tell you everything. Clearly,” Komako says, but by then the reader knows better. The book seems to argue that the effort to tell is as doomed as the effort to understand.
Through this confusion of interrogations and sidesteps, we’re left with scenes, and they’re haunting. When Shimamura leaves Komako at the station, Kawabata writes: “Komako stood inside the closed window of the waiting-room. From the train window it was as though one strange piece of fruit had been left behind in the grimy case of a shabby mountain grocery.”
Maybe it’s fitting, then, that the hinge moment came unexpectedly for me, when Shimamura is watching insects “in their death agonies.” “Stiff-winged insects fell on their backs and were unable to get to their feet again. A bee walked a little and collapsed, walked a little and collapsed.” A moth stuck to the screen “fell to the earth like a dead leaf.” It’s oddly affecting, all these insects falling quietly at once, Shimamura walking around gently removing them from his room. I thought it might just be me, but my daughter was struck by the same scene.
Snow Country is subversive and beautiful and well worth many underlines and rereads.
I’m also curling up with Salamandrine: 8 Gothics by Joyelle McSweeney. I’m only about a third of the way in, but I’m already wowed by the force of the writing. It is punch-gut. And funny. “I was certainly acting very uncool at that reading party,” the narrator recalls, “you were amazing, magnetic, your bangs made a kind of shelving and I remembered how you had gone to a residency in the Canadian mountains somewhere, its name was onomatopoetic, I asked you, but I couldn’t remember the right onomatopoeia, how was Wham, I asked, or Oof, is it, and you said gorgeous, gorgeous . . .” I already have underlines (fortunately this book’s mine), stars, exclamation points and notes in the back. I’d follow McSweeney anywhere.
As far as those books that would have a permanent place by my bedside if it had a shelf instead of a time capsule, those before-and-after books of my life, they are, to date and in order, Moby Dick, Shipping News, Unweaving the Rainbow, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Ulysses, Grendel, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove. And 25 years of SciAm.
What’s in your reading time capsule?