Reviews

How to Breathe Underwater: Stories by Julie Orringer

Sarah Tan

Though we swear we have seen it all before, Orringer does deliver something new in her novel. It's a sense of female solidarity that she weaves between plots of mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins and friends.


How to Breathe Underwater

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Length: 226
Subtitle: Stories
Price: $ 21.00 (US) $30.00 (Can.)
Author: Julie Orringer
US publication date: 2003-09
Amazon

Fame seems to magnify all that is wrong in our society and tends to make the sins of celebrities the exceptional cases they're not. Besides that endangered group of individuals who will have an easier time getting through the Pearly Gates, if the rest of us could read of our sins and struggles in broadsheet or tabloid, we'd see the decline of a lot more media empires. Though the media tries its best to deliver the freshest story or the juiciest gossip, it does get tiring to read of things that will never happen to us, or about things that happen to us all the time. Familiarity breeds contempt, unless it's interesting -- which is precisely what Julie Orringer's novel is.

How to Breathe Underwater is a collection of nine short stories that explore how members of the female sex retain their sanity in life's overwhelming situations. However, keeping one's composure doesn't necessarily result in impassive behaviour. In the story "Stars of Motown Shining Bright," it takes a combination of sex, religion and some pistol swivelling to get two teenage girls back to their suburban normalcy. The characters are edgy and modern, and remind me of the girls I see on the bus who wear heavy eyeliner and small t-shirts that read "I'm a wreck" in silver glitter. And yet, whatever ordeal Orringer's characters endure, they keep a streak of innocence that secures your empathy.

One of the best stories in the collection is "Note to Sixth Grade Self," which contains the kind of self-berating monologue with which women the world-over are unfortunately familiar:

Stop this. They are not coming. Go inside... Don't waste time thinking about drowning yourself. Don't bother imagining your funeral, with your classmates in black clothes or a treeless stretch of lawn. If you die you will not be there to see it, and your classmates probably won't be either.

This version of reality is comforting in a time where the media is awash with formidable female role models. There are a fair number of women who are terribly good at what they do, be it business or politics. If we have any more Condoleeza Rices, Shirin Ebadis and Carly Fiorinas for that matter, we'll be setting the stake high for ourselves. Most of the time, all it takes are toxic words like "no" or "it's over" to render us emotional heaps. But through her book, Orringer makes feelings of jealousy, loneliness, frustration and nostalgia (especially when it comes to men) okay. It happens, she seems to say. It's all right. You'll survive.

We've had our spate of coming-of-age novels and movies exploring the sweet agony of being a woman. Every A-list female actress has recently played a role in a movie to show for it. Ayn Rand once said, "If you find you have nothing new to say about your subject, do not write," and though we swear we have seen it all before, Orringer does deliver something new in her novel. It's a sense of female solidarity that she weaves between plots of mothers, daughters, aunts, cousins and friends. It is made possible through the writer's ability to tap into the psyche of women and deliver those gender-specific idiosyncrasies to an audience without feting the cliché. Without this skill, the storylines could have easily been found, poorly written, in a Danielle Steel novel.

Orringer writes in a voice that is distinctly American. It is a voice that one finds in such writers as ZZ Packer and John Murray, both fellow graduates of the acclaimed Iowa Writers' Workshop. The language is simple and appropriate for the reality Orringer creates for her readers. The prose is straightforward and particular. At best, How to Breathe Underwater is much like reading a scene-by-scene diary of a 16-year-old --poignant and funny with bits and pieces of gems that shine with originality. However, the reader gets the impression that Orringer wrote this book for herself and has not fully come to grasp with the significance of the emotions and personalities that feature in her book. The meal Orringer cooks up is good, but it could use some salt to make it great.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less
9
TV

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less
9

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less
7

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image