Thursday, January 13, 2011

On "Squandering the Blue" by Kate Braverman *****

Braverman's first collection of stories explores the lives of women overcoming drug and alcohol addictions (or giving into them). It explores colors--especially blue. And it explores language, as Braverman's work always does. Of the three books I've read of Braverman's, this one remains my favorite, in part because of the unity of theme, in part because when she hits her stride, the stories sting.

Sure, there are places where Braverman seems almost to get carried away with language, overwrought sections that probably could have been toned back. Her own obsessions are on display in reference to the turn of the millennium, which she mentions in poetic zeal numerous times. And some dialogue is incredibly pretentious, though in ways that make for interesting reading (a woman, in the midst of a nervous breakdown, in "Desert Blues," references theories of poetry and philosophy, and her friend knows exactly what she's talking about--clearly, this is a kind of obsession that afflicts both of these women).

However, the turns of phrase are largely extraordinary. A writer can easily put down lines that simply tell us what someone did or the fact that someone said something, but with Braverman, each line is like an emerald hacked from the center of a poem and then sanded for display, and we're not just talking ten pages of this--we're talking a couple of hundred pages. That's some dense prose, and some beautiful prose. One of my favorite sections of writing comes at the end of a story called "Falling in October," which becomes largely a rant on history that will make one want to sing--or to write something similar.

The best stories in the collection, however, manage to balance the need for story with Braverman's linguistic strengths. There are reasons that "Tall Tales from the Mekong Delta" gets anthologized so often. It has a narrative line, a consistent extended metaphor (that is easy to teach), and a whole lot of energy. The title story of the collection has also long been a favorite of mine, a tale about a girl growing up with an alcoholic mother. But of particular note this time around was a story called "Temporary Light." In it, a woman who has recently overcome an addiction problem suffers from the fallout of her previous life--and it is heartbreaking. She's lost everything, even as she has finally found the strength to start over.

Family also plays a large role in the collection. The affecting "Naming Names" explores the world of a kid growing up in an apartment, where other kids with sick or missing dads live and where residence means embarrassment at a high-class school. "Over the Hill" and "Points of Decision" reflect on a woman's attempts to break away from a abusive and manipulative husband. The families here are not healthy, but the people inside the stories are, by and large, survivors.

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