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Tunneling to the center of the earth

September 28, 2011

Because I liked Kevin Wilson’s novel The Family Fang so much, I put his earlier book of short stories, Tunneling to the center of the earth, on my wish list. Then my friend Miriam granted my wish and sent it to me for my birthday. Unfortunately, it came sometime while we were in England in July. Fortunately, in August she asked me if it had come and I dug it out from a pile of books where…um, I could attempt to explain to you how the various piles of books that were taking over our living room happened in August and September of this year, but I’d rather stop right here and say that I have them mostly cleaned up now. And by “cleaned up” I mean double-stacked on bookshelves.

Then the last two weeks happened. One of the things I have not managed lately is to look at the mail or teach the cats that they must not bring live prey in through the cat door. This morning was the final straw; I was sitting at my desk typing away and Tristan dashed in very fast. When it percolated through my brain that there must be an explanation for the speed of his arrival at my feet, I moved the computer bag right beside them, and there was a chipmunk, which promptly took off on a chase through the living room that ended, as they all do, with the chipmunk somewhere under the couch. This is the third or fourth chipmunk/bird/mouse-like thing that the cat has brought in lately, and I was tired of getting up at 2 am with the butterfly net when they finally corner whatever it is in the kitchen. So I lifted the couch. The chipmunk took off again, with some panicked squeaking, and there was another chase until it hid behind the umbrella stand, where I found it ten minutes later and there was yet another chase across the house and back before finally it ran out one of the doors I had propped open. The cats are now inside and doors are closed. Tristan keeps going over to the door and I get to inform him that “the way is shut” using the voice from the LOTR movie, about the paths of the dead. He is dead to me. Until tonight, when he will purr and spoon with me in the bed and I will probably forgive all his trespasses.

Anyway, amid the unscheduled toppling of piles of mail and catalogues and books, I found Tunneling to the center of the earth. Again. It’s oddly appropriate how the book seems to tunnel, isn’t it?

It’s not so odd that I really, really like the story “the museum of whatnot,” about a museum “dedicated solely to the acquisition and preservation of the everyday made unique. Things that are ordinarily junk but not junk because someone, somewhere, made it more than that by their collecting, hoarding, and preserving it.” The story has an immensely satisfying ending at “a point where the things you take on begin to overflow and then, finally, it becomes interesting. You live with it, walk around it, and the randomness of it all becomes part of you. There is I see, something pleasing about allowing something, however trivial, to fill up your life, to stop and look around at the space you inhabit and say, ‘I want this.’”

What is a little odd is how ordinary most of the stories in this collection are. The only one that fascinates me the way The Family Fang did is the first story, “grand stand-in.” But this story is worth the whole volume; it has the same wonderful mix of pathetic and hilarious, shaken up together so you can’t separate the two. The narrator of the story is “an employee of Grand Stand-In, a Nuclear Family Supplemental Provider” because, as she says, so many parents “feel their children are missing out on a crucial part of their life experience, grandparents.” So they hire one.

The narrator is quite pragmatic about how she makes her living, although she admits that the money alone “can’t keep you interested. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from opening your door…and finding a little boy or girl who is so excited to see you, has thought of little else for the past few days. You feel like a movie star, all the attention.”

The story revolves around a new assignment, a family named Beamer with a living grandmother who broke her hip and then had a stroke. “The parents fear what the stress of seeing her grandmother in such a state would do to her. So they want to start fresh, with a grandmother that the child can interact with and form fond memories that will last a lifetime.” Isn’t that something?

As the grandmother-for-hire sums it up, “So, basically…the Beamers are evil.” What she learns about the family, though, takes a twist neither she nor I could have predicted, and what she does as a result is as funny and pathetic as the hug she gets from Mr. Beamer, who says “hey, that’s what families do.”

What my family is doing lately is giving me the highest high points and the lowest low ones I can imagine. Like a house with live vermin, it may be hard to deal with, but it’s certainly never boring.

What’s the best simile you can come up with to describe what life with your family is like right now?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2011 11:51 am

    Hurricane Irene would suffice. Only this time with no water damage!

    • September 28, 2011 8:55 pm

      I like that. The hurricane is driving you to look inland!

  2. freshhell permalink
    September 28, 2011 11:57 am

    Sisyphus on a treadmill.

    • September 28, 2011 8:55 pm

      oh, that sounds less fun than your life sounds when you describe it in smaller pieces.

  3. September 28, 2011 2:52 pm

    Um, a dead rat?

    I don’t know why that popped into my head.

    But — what I wanted to tell you is that this weekend, as I was cleaning up the enormous towering stacks of mail K has decided to store on the dining room table (grr), I found a postcard from you! When you were in England! No I don’t feel quite so bad about having a vague but uncertain feeling that you had been in England this summer — I never got the postcard! And now that I have read the Amazons and swallows books I was overcome with longing when I looked at the picture. Oh!

    • September 28, 2011 8:58 pm

      Your family members may be as quiet as dead rats right now, being so far apart geographically, but since I happen to know that you were recently making applesauce to accordion accompaniment, I refuse to believe that “like a dead rat” is a good simile for life in your family.
      Glad you got the postcard.

  4. September 28, 2011 3:22 pm

    Jeanne, with this post, you have moved into the Enigma category in my mind. You ignore your post? How is that possible? I LOVE POST. I am in anticipatory mourning for the Postal Service eliminating Saturday delivery – another terrible day when no post will arrive! *weeps*

    *blows nose* But glad the chipmunk escaped unharmed. Once one of the daughters left an umbrella on the front porch to dry. She brought it in thru the front door (still open) and our outside cat suddenly and shockingly made this mad LEAP into the umbrella and flew back out the door – with a mouse in her jaws. We loved her 10,000 times more after this heroic act.

    • September 28, 2011 9:00 pm

      I used to love getting mail, but that was back when I got anything besides bills and catalogs.

  5. September 29, 2011 8:54 pm

    I remember when my childhood cat brought in a half-dead mouse and put it behind our refrigerator and my mom moved the fridge all by herself to get it out … but then couldn’t get it back after the adrenaline wore off. I hope you don’t have any more prey moments!!!

    I almost enjoyed the lead-in to the review as much as the review itself.

    • September 29, 2011 9:03 pm

      There was definitely some adrenaline in the couch-lifting moment. Luckily, all I had to do after that was scoot it back out of the middle of the room.
      Glad you enjoyed the long lead…I had fun writing it.

  6. September 29, 2011 10:37 pm

    This post made me 100 percent glad that my cat, Hannah, is inside only. I could not deal with lifting couches and chipmunks — I’m not nearly that patient!

  7. September 30, 2011 9:42 am

    I don’t think patient is the word exactly. What’s the word? Um, frantic?
    I guess there’s a bit of patience in dealing with the possibility of vermin being brought into the house in a cat’s mouth–or we could call it continually disappointed optimism that they won’t do it again.

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