For this installment of our book club series, we chose the theme of “water.” If you’re looking for stories that capture the fluidity of life and the beauty of nature, read on!
“Tenth of December” by George Saunders
Having just finished Lincoln in the Bardo, I’d been wanting to read more stories by George Saunders. So, once we settled on the theme of “Water,” I grabbed the office copy of Tenth of December, opened to the titular short story, saw the mention of a pond, and away we went.
Saunders’ prose style imitates the flow of thought in novel ways, revealing emotion and humor through wordplay, syntax variations, and point of view. In brief, “Tenth of December” is set in a park during winter and tells the story of a young boy and a middle-aged man who manage to help each other through their respective crises. While a few of us thought parts of the story were almost too sad, the group all felt the power of this emotional read. It’s still unclear to us just how his writing had us suddenly full of tears right after belly laughing—and then back again.
We found the style dazzling, the tone fascinating, and the way Saunders writes feeling as distinctly human. All in all, this piece—or another of his (yes, please read Fox 8)—is definitely worth reading.
“A Guide to Sirens” by Lee Conell
In response to this prompt, my first urge was to find a mermaid story. When that search brought up nothing but children’s stories, I tried “underwater.” Then “rain.” Then “beach.” I was dismayed and frustrated to find that my broad, atmospheric search terms were bringing up short stories focusing on failed marriages and/or divorced couples. Which is why, in my frustration, I was glad to find “A Guide to Sirens.”
Though the story is (inevitably) about a divorced man, it seems to poke fun at the tired trope of failed love by introducing a semi-supernatural element to the mix. We enjoyed theorizing about the story: Is our protagonist led to his death by a siren? Is it an exploration of a depressed man’s imagination? Or, digging a little deeper, is “A Guide to Sirens” the story of this man’s suicide?
As much as we enjoyed discussing our theories and predictions, we didn’t love Conell’s writing. Many of us felt her stiff, wordy language tries too hard and says more than needed; one of us described her language choice as “fake deep.” The dialogue is clunky, the characters surface-level, and overall, we felt Conell’s story lacks direction. “A Guide to Sirens” is a quick read, but don’t expect to be blown away by the prose.
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” by J. D. Salinger
“A Perfect Day for Bananafish” is the first story in J. D. Salinger’s Nine Stories collection and is easily his most famous short story. I assigned this after reading Kate’s pick since both stories’ setting and mood had interesting parallels for us to explore.
In “Bananafish,” we meet Muriel Glass as she’s on the phone with her mother, hiding from the Florida sun in her hotel room. While they discuss Muriel’s husband, Seymour, you get a sense of looming drama and foreboding regarding his disturbing actions, past and present, and mental state. We then find ourselves lounging with Seymour in a robe on the beach. He goes for a dip in the ocean with Sybil, a young girl, where the title of the piece is revealed on their hunt for Bananafish. After Sybil says she spots one, Seymour kisses her feet and abruptly leaves for his hotel room, where he shoots himself in the head with a pistol.
This was the first read through for the group, and I was so excited to share it with them. A member praised this story as a “masterclass in showing not telling” due to the tight, believable dialogue—especially the opening scene with Muriel and her mother. “Bananafish” is one of those stories that gives and gives the more and more you look, with a variety of at-times paradoxical opinions and takeaways from the story. With so many discussion possibilities, takes, and interpretations, I can’t recommend this story more for your classroom or next book club.
A Quartet of American Nature Writers
As we discussed the topic of water, I became interested in the ways water has been depicted in prose. For my selection, I found myself drawn to works that combine linguistic exuberance with exposition.
The first piece I chose was the opening of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. She brings to her writing on marine topics a keen attention to the conclusions of science elevated by a grand, almost biblical tone: “Beginning are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of that great mother life, the sea.” Her fascination with origins lends the piece an awe-inspiring scope.
Next, I selected chapter 58 of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Although fictional, Moby-Dick so often verges into expository tangents on marine matters that I deemed its inclusion warranted—even necessary, given its influence on American letters. As the Pequot glides through the Indian Ocean, Ishmael evokes the oft-forgotten horrors of the sea: “Baby man may brag of his science and skill… yet forever and ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him.”
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden offers a more placid view of water, particularly in the chapter “The Ponds.” In clear, sensuous prose, Thoreau tells of the joys of Walden Pond, such as “fishing from a boat by moonlight, serenaded by foxes and owls.” Thoreau describes the night sky’s reflection the dark water, which makes his fishing line appear to glide upward, in the direction of his thoughts, “to vast and cosmogony themes in other spheres.”
Finally, I chose a passage from Ann Zwinger’s Run, River, Run. Zwinger, like Thoreau, foregoes generality in favor of specificity. Her book centers on the Green River, which flows through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. Zwinger describes the river in prose that ranges from sharp observation to breathless awe to wry humor—the last of which can be seen in her description of the river’s confluence with the Colorado River: “There by Congressional proclamation, having fallen over 9,000 feet in 730 miles, the Green River ends.”
“The Daughter Cells” by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
I’ve been a huge fan of Ortberg’s writing since his days at The Toast and was thrilled with the opportunity to subject the bookclub to him. An immediately appealing aspect of “The Daughter Cells” is its unique approach to “water”—Ortberg’s underwater society is practical and utilitarian, and the literal liquidity of its borders is used to contextualize ideas of personal property rather than to describe the mystery and romance usually associated with mermaids. But, then, the heroine isn’t really a mermaid.
“The Daughter Cells” is similar to Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” but it easily stands alone. It reads like a straightforward story told by an impatient older sibling; the depth of its world-building and the complexity of its themes seemed to sneak up on us. But once group discussion began, it felt like we could talk about this story for hours. Through the culture of his underwater society, Ortberg explores definitions of individuality, the confusion of necessary and unnecessary suffering, and the varying roles offered through different relationships. We enjoyed the multiple angles from which these topics were approached and the narrator’s colloquial—though somewhat condescending—relationship with the reader. And while there are places where the narrative voice is perhaps a bit much, there’s still the plain fun of Ortberg’s approach. For example, his heroine’s interaction with her unconscious prince on the beach seems hardly the stuff of fairy tales:
She had never seen anyone who lived above water so placid before. It seemed eminently sensible, and so she decided to love him for it. She was delighted that she had been away from home less than a day and already she had found something useful to do.
It’s just delightful. Our entire group found a lot to engage with, and everyone enjoyed the read, so we can recommend this one wholeheartedly.
“Brawler” by Lauren Groff
After hearing stories of oceans, lakes, and ponds, Lauren Groff’s “Brawler” took our book club to a different setting of water—a pool. I can only describe the short story from The New Yorker as a coming-of-age snapshot. Though the story lacks a plot, it effectively evokes feeling. It’s one of those reads that may be best to just let it wash over you and take from it what you will.
We are introduced to Sara as she’s arriving late to a diving meet, knuckles bloodied from a fight she had with a boy in her class. Through a series of actions and flashbacks, we learn Sara doesn’t have many friends, often gets into trouble, and has assumed the role of a caretaker at home. The theme and imagery of water is flows throughout this entire story. Water is the place where Sara finds solace. It’s associated with the memory of her father, it’s where she excels as a diver, and it’s the only place where she can feel weightless.
Our discussion sparked concerns for what will become of Sara. Some of us felt that she’ll figure it out, because of her strong will and independence. Others felt concern about the lack of guidance and support she receives at home, thus making her gravitate toward men who give her attention. Ultimately, we decided that Sara recognizes that she’s transitioning into womanhood, perhaps both physically and emotionally. Regardless of what that transition will bring, we feel confident she’ll survive anything because she is a “brawler.”