Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World
Graywolf Press: 164 pp., $14 paper
KATHLEEN JAMIE goes looking for darkness, the good kind. At home, in Fife, Scotland, she derides the light outside her kitchen window: “a weakling light, stealing into the world like a thief through a window someone forgot to close.” She takes the ferry from Aberdeen to the Orkneys and searches for darkness at Maes Howe, a Neolithic chambered tomb. (“The natural, courteous dark [is] too much maligned, and, frankly, I blame Christians.”) She watches salmon spawn on the Braan and visits the Hebridean isle of Coll (pop. c. 160) to listen to the call of the corncrake (“King of the Quail”), a rasping that reminds her of fairy music. Jamie’s language is oxygenating -- machairs, peat hags, linns and other geological, mouthy words force you to imagine formations that look just as they sound. When her husband falls ill, Jamie feels guilty because she cannot pray, only notice “the cobwebs, and the shoaling light, and the way the doctor listened, and the flecked tweed of her skirt.... Isn’t that a kind of prayer? The care and maintenance of the web of our noticing, the paying heed?”
Out Stealing Horses
Per Petterson, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born
Graywolf Press: 258 pp., $22
“OUT Stealing Horses” was first published in 2003, in Norway, where it won -- among other accolades -- the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. It is a novel with a distinctly Scandinavian tone: Trond, a 67-year-old widower, has moved into a remote house on a lake. He wants nothing more than to be left alone to look back on his life -- particularly the summer of 1948, when he was 15 and living with his father in a cabin by a river. His friend Jon awoke him one night to go steal horses from their neighbor. It was the last time Trond would see his friend, whose life was ruined when he caused the death of his little brother, Odd. There is scant talk and much mystery, giving the 67-year-old narrator a lot to ponder. How strange it is to sit here in Los Angeles and read about the widower’s deafening solitude, the darkness of the forest surrounding his cabin, his pure desire to leave the world of human beings, with all its suffering!
Random House: 254 pp., $13.95 paper
AFTER Per Petterson, you may feel relieved to be with Enid Shomer’s chattering, sociable characters. Many of the stories in “Tourist Season” are set in Florida, nation-state of whimsy, home of insistent sunlight, in whose harsh glare only the brightest of colors survive. In “Chosen,” Iris Hornstein is a speech therapist married to an aging hippie. Two emissaries from the Dalai Lama appear at her door to tell her she is the reincarnation of the “Great Adept, his holiness.” Soon she’s on the Dalai Lama’s jet to Tibet, where she studies great books (looking at the pictures) and works out on her treadmill.
Shomer brings a studied wackiness to all her stories, which are full of vulnerability: fear of growing old, fear of one’s own power, fear of taking responsibility for the lives of those we love. They have a comforting effect on the reader. The world may rush past us, our hearts may wobble off their axes, but we are only human, doing the best we can and almost always falling short.