Between now and New Years Day I’m offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway. In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.
NOW YOU SEE IT . . . STORIES FROM COKESVILLE, PA., by Bathsheba Monk, Picador, 2006.
In “Congratulations, Goldie Katowitz,” one of the 17 linked stories in Bathsheba Monk‘s first book, a young woman who has always imagined herself a writer begins to wonder if she can really pull it off. “It was true. Every time I tried to imagine the lives of people I knew, it was like creating fanciful, useless additions to structures that couldn’t support them. The whole thing crumbled.”
This is not a problem for Bathsheba Monk:
My parents had bought a detached home with three bedrooms on the north side of town three years ago: Frankie because he wanted more children; Connie to leave gritty downtown Cokesville behind. “You may have to work in ther mill,” Connie had told him, “but we don’t have to live in it.” The house was in a block of homes originally built for managers in the mill, but they had deserted them for the new development homes being built in the suburbs. The house needed some work, mostly cosmetic. Any repairs that had to be done, she had promised Frankie, she would learn how to do herself.
It pleased my mother no end that our neighbor in the house next door was a doctor, albeit one who had lost his admitting privileges to St. Luke’s, the local hospital, and who, I realize now, was an alcoholic. But still, a doctor! We were living with rich people. Behind our back fence was an old strip mine. Occasionally, it was still detonated to dislodge coal; and when that happened, the crab apples fell out of our trees and the holy statues on the dressers jumped. But Connie thought it was a natural setting, almost bucolic. “At least we don’t have to look at the smoke from the blast furnaces,” she said. Connie began drinking her morning coffee on the back porch, looking at the strip mine but seeing only the white birch trees and huckleberry bushes that grew through the slag. She was happy, I think. At least she smiled. She stopped smiling when the steelworkers’ union went on strike. She was not going to lose her beautiful home. She would go to work to save it herself.
“Well, I’m gonna try it, no matter what. Babba will have to help around here during the day,” Connie said to Frankie.
“Yeah, sure. Babba.”
They said some other things loudly, and soon, from my perch on the windowsill on the second floor, I heard the porch door slam and saw my father walk over to the bench in the backyard and put his beer down. He took his wooden clarinet out of its blue fur-lined case, screwed it together, wet his reed, and began to play. My father played with a local group, Jolly Joe Timmer’s Polka Band, for weddings and dances at the church, but when he was by himself in the garden, he played a different kind of music, and the songs he made up — wistful voyages up and down the scales — had no names.
That evening he sent seductive notes into the twilight to do his bidding, like Pan in the primeval forest. And soon my mother came out and sat beside him on the bench. I stood up on the windowsill and stretched, holding on to a limb of the big maple tree whose giant branches embraced my room.
I turned around to see Babba in my doorway. She sat down on my bed.
“Come in. Let’s read a story.”
I remember a drawing class in which the teacher spoke of using the light and shadings around an object to define that object, rather than simply drawing an outline and filling in the details. Now You See It . . . brings that teachers advice to mind. Bathsheba Monk tells us about Annie Kusiak by shading in her coal-grimed hometown, her busy cast of relatives and friends, and the ways people find to escape their fates or, more often, sabotage themselves in the attempt. I had to will myself not to read all these short, salty stories in one sitting, but parcel them out and savor them a few at a time. The author has a novel coming out soon, and I look forward to reading that one, too.