How to Breathe Underwater: Stories Hardcover – Sep 2 2003
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The stories in How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer's debut collection, swim with tragedies both commonplace and horrific. A fall from a treehouse, an ailing mother, a near-drowning, a premature baby, a gun--each is the source of a young woman's coming-of-age, which we witness through Orringer's lovely, driving prose. The author possesses an uncanny ability to capture scenes and complex emotions in quick strokes. In "Pilgrims," young Ella is taken to a hippie household for Thanksgiving, where her mother joins several other cancer patients in search of natural remedies: "Some of them wore knitted hats like her mother, their skin dull-gray, their eyes purple-shaded underneath. To Ella it seemed they could be relatives of her mother's, shameful cousins recently discovered." Shame is as omnipresent as water in this collection, sadly appropriate for stories about girls becoming women. Orringer possesses an acute understanding of the many rules of girlhood, in particular the uniquely childish importance of "not telling" (for fear of becoming a traitor, and consequently, an outcast). But though her subjects may take us to the murky depths--submerging us in the cruelties girls and siblings commit against each other--Orringer's nimble writing and subtle humor allow us to breathe. --Brangien Davis
From Publishers Weekly
Trapped in awkward, painful situations, the young protagonists of Orringer's debut collection discover surprising reserves of wisdom in themselves. Their trials are familiar if harsh-the illness and death of parents and friends, social ostracism-but Orringer's swift, intricate evocation of individual worlds gives depth and integrity to her nine stories, set everywhere from Florence to New Orleans to Disney World. The collection's title comes from "The Isabel Fish," in which 14-year-old Maddy is learning how to scuba dive after surviving a car accident in which her older brother's girlfriend drowned. Maddy is sure her brother hates her, and when he kills the fish she is raising for a science fair project, she can hardly blame him. It is only when they go diving together that she realizes he feels as guilty as she does. In "Note to Sixth-Grade Self"-written in a telegraphic second person-the narrator details her torments at the hands of a popular girls who speaks with a stutter. The cruelty of children is also dissected in "Stations of the Cross," in which Jewish Lila Solomon attends her friend's first Communion in the Deep South, and finds herself reluctantly playing a part in an enactment of the Crucifixion. In "When She Is Old and I Am Famous," fat Mira must cope with the arrival of her supermodel cousin: "Aida. That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity." By the end of the story, Aida has won over Mira, who finally empathizes with her bids for attention. No matter how wronged they have been, Orringer's characters are open to reconciliation and even willing to save their tormentors. It is this promise of grace-and Orringer's smooth, assured storytelling-that distinguishes the collection.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top Customer Reviews
I'm writing because of the disturbing story titled 'Stars of Motown Shining Bright'. Although the end was not tragic afterall, and although I realize that teenagers handle guns everyday, and although the author might have felt some drive, need, or responsibility to write on the topic, I hate the idea that a young girl or boy could, by reading this story, feel justified in pointing a gun at another young girl or boy, particularly ones she/he knew very well. In my opinion, the story does not emphasize the result as much as it does the girl's fondness of the gun, to possess it, to touch it, to feel it against her skin. Sounds like I'm the biggest fan for gun control, but I'm not. I'm also not a member of the NRA.
Please, Ms. Orringer, think about reader responses to your stories.
On a more positive note: My favorite story was 'The Isabel Fish', about a brother and sister working through the aftermath of a tragedy.
I've followed Orringer since she published "Notes to Sixth Grade Self" in The Paris Review, and I'm glad I did. Orringer reveals childhood bluntly and with force, yet she maintains her craft story after story. The stories are character driven, but that is not to say the story plots lack action. The stories are extremely filled with tension, horror, heartache, relief. This collection is definitely haunting. Even my least favorite story in the collection ("Care") had its merits-- a definite sense of suspense and a complex protagonist. I found myself opening my mouth with surprise during this story, and it happened with more frequency in the rest of the book.
Orringer is bound to be a new voice in fiction; a first edition of this book might be a nice thing to have one day!
To those who do love Lorrie Moore, you would probably love this book. These stories aren't as humorous as Moore's; they are more subtle, which adds to that haunting quality previously mentioned. The stories are risky in the terrain they cover; the technique, however, is flawless. These are polished stories, yes. But they deliver.
Now I have purchased it, and I'm going to purchase extra copies for Christmas gifts. I enjoyed every story - "Pilgrims" and "Stars of Motown Shining Bright" made my heart quicken, and "When She Is Old and I Am Famous" was hilarious. A few people have singled out "Notes to Sixth-Grade Self" as their least favorite, and I'd have to agree, as it is unquestionably more gimmicky and sort of "chick-litty" than the rest, but even that story was okay.
Julie Orringer is currently at work on a novel. I can't wait to read it.
The stories are often sad, but also funny and so deliciously written that the sadness feels healing. The vivid, exact details put a reader right into the middle of the story -- a microscopic eye for the world combined with a feeling for the intricacies of human behavior and feeling and the ability to tell a page-turning story. Each one of these stories seems to clarify and illuminate previously mysterious corners of life.
It's not often that a book, let alone a first book, affords such perfect pleasure in reading. Nothing I can say about the stories could convey what she does. Here are a few beginnings of stories, just to give a sense of the wonderful voices she uses. I'd like to put in the whole stories, because only that way can a reader get a sense of the rightness of the connections, the way that the stories work on all kinds of different levels, from straightforward reading pleasure to the creation of an embodied world to a chance to think about the ways we behave and what that means, to a quietly unobtrusive symbolism that gives the stories great richness. And the stories just keep taking you deeper and deeper. What a beautiful book.
(From "When She Is Old and I Am Famous")
There are grape leaves, like a crown, on her head. Grapes hang in her hair, and in her hands she holds the green vines. She dances with both arms in the air.Read more ›
Most recent customer reviews
The book did not have a chance with me because I did not see it mentioned anywhere that this is not a novel. It is a collection of short, unrelated stories. Read morePublished 2 months ago by kbd
this book is small, simple, quiet, and lush in it's treatment of the youthful emotional state. in that way, it's also vibrantly beautiful on a grand scale much larger than at first... Read morePublished on May 23 2004 by Russell Marshalek
Seldom have I found a collection in which every single story is so memorable. My women's book group here in Germany discussed "Note to Sixth Grade Self" yesterday and absolutely... Read morePublished on Feb. 9 2004 by Marcy Jarvis
Stunningly written. This collection of short stories was so absorbing, I didn't put it down until I was finished with the entire book. Read morePublished on Feb. 7 2004 by Linda M. Price
After listening to Julie Orringer speak at a book reading for young writers at Stanford University, I was attracted to Orringer's love for writing and her zest for life. Read morePublished on Jan. 19 2004 by Jason Richman
I read the first story and - yeeecccchhhh - weird, hopeless, depressing and horrifying pretty much sum it up. Read morePublished on Jan. 14 2004 by Cozy Cat
I read the first story and did not feel like reading any more. Writing is decent, but be forwarned it is (unnecessarily) gory (broken neck and bones sticking out)Published on Jan. 12 2004
Orringer creates amazing worlds and has an incredible eye for detail physical and emotional - the plastic seats at disneyland and the power of a mean childhood friend. Read morePublished on Jan. 3 2004 by Casey
These are all great stories. Julie Orringer's How to Breathe Underwater is a dark, beautiful and haunting collection of short stories. Read morePublished on Jan. 1 2004 by CoffeeGurl