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How to Breathe Underwater: Stories [Hardcover]

Julie Orringer
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)

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Product Description

From Amazon

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.

From Booklist

How apt it is that water is Orringer's ruling element and reigning metaphor, because her short stories are exceptionally translucent, deep, and fluid. Her young characters--primarily girls whose mothers are gravely ill with cancer, depressed in the wake of divorce, missing, or dead--are drawn to ponds, pools, and hot tubs where immersion in water is cleansing, even holy, but also deadly. In Orringer's sensuous yet edgy fictional universe, disease, accidents, rivalry, and ostracism are rampant; therefore, smart and determined girls and young women must devise their own covert strategies for survival. In one eerie tale, the young daughters of a cancer sufferer spend Thanksgiving in a similarly stricken household where the parents practice healing meditation while the children turn violent. In the Salingeresque "The Isabel Fish," a sister and brother struggle to reconcile in the aftermath of a drowning. Elsewhere summer's heady eroticism seduces Hasidic teens. Radiant in their explicit sensory descriptions, penetrating in their eviscerating discernment of both the cruelty and the resiliency of children, and exquisitely attuned to the overwhelming tide of emerging sexuality, Orringer's unnerving and fiercely beautiful stories delve to the very core of life's mysteries. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Review

“Intelligent, heartfelt stories that tell a whole new set of truths about growing up American. Julie Orringer writes with virtuosity and depth about the fears, cruelties, and humiliations of childhood, but then does that rarest, and more difficult, thing: writes equally beautifully about the moments of victory and transcendence.” –George Saunders

“Julie Orringer is the real thing, a breathtaking chronicler of the secrets and cruelties underneath the surface of middle-class American life. These are terrific stories–wise, compassionate and haunting.” –Dan Chaon

“In How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer delves into the complex lives of girls and young women, and with uncommon courage and exceptional clarity she shows us what she finds: passionate, often disturbing feelings of longing and jealousy and grief; an intense struggle to make sense of the unfathomable world of adults, and above all a determination to survive. These are tough, beautiful stories, piercing and true, and they mark the debut of an exceptionally gifted writer.” –Ann Packer

From the Back Cover

“Intelligent, heartfelt stories that tell a whole new set of truths about growing up American. Julie Orringer writes with virtuosity and depth about the fears, cruelties, and humiliations of childhood, but then does that rarest, and more difficult, thing: writes equally beautifully about the moments of victory and transcendence.” –George Saunders

“Julie Orringer is the real thing, a breathtaking chronicler of the secrets and cruelties underneath the surface of middle-class American life. These are terrific stories–wise, compassionate and haunting.” –Dan Chaon

“In How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer delves into the complex lives of girls and young women, and with uncommon courage and exceptional clarity she shows us what she finds: passionate, often disturbing feelings of longing and jealousy and grief; an intense struggle to make sense of the unfathomable world of adults, and above all a determination to survive. These are tough, beautiful stories, piercing and true, and they mark the debut of an exceptionally gifted writer.” –Ann Packer

About the Author

Julie Orringer is the Rona Jaffe Fellow at the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers. Her short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, was a New York Times notable book and was named Book of the Year by the LA Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her stories have appeared in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and The Washington Post, and have been widely anthologized; she has received fellowships from Stanford University, The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the writer Ryan Harty.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Editor's Note: The following is a portion of the first story in the collection.

Pilgrims

It was Thanksgiving Day and hot, because this was New Orleans; they were driving uptown to have dinner with strangers. Ella pushed at her loose tooth with the tip of her tongue and fanned her legs with the hem of her velvet dress. On the seat beside her, Benjamin fidgeted with his shirt buttons. He had worn his Pilgrim costume, brown shorts and a white shirt and yellow paper buckles taped to his shoes. In the front seat their father drove without a word, while their mother dozed against the window glass. She wore a blue dress and a strand of jade beads and a knit cotton hat beneath which she was bald.

Three months earlier, Ella’s father had explained what chemotherapy was and how it would make her mother better. He had even taken Ella to the hospital once when her mother had a treatment. She remembered it like a filmstrip from school, a series of connected images she wished she didn’t have to watch: her mother with an IV needle in her arm, the steady drip from the bag of orange liquid, her father speaking softly to himself as he paced the room, her mother shaking so hard she had to be tied down.

At night Ella and her brother tapped a secret code against the wall that separated their rooms: one knock, I’m afraid; two knocks, Don’t worry; three knocks, Are you still awake? four, Come quick. And then there was the Emergency Signal, a stream of knocks that kept on coming, which meant her brother could hear their mother and father crying in their bedroom. If it went on for more than a minute, Ella would give four knocks and her brother would run to her room and crawl under the covers.

There were changes in the house, healing rituals that required Ella’s mother to go outside and embrace trees or lie face-down on the grass. Sometimes she did a kind of Asian dance that looked like karate. She ate bean paste and Japanese vegetables, or sticky brown rice wrapped in seaweed. And now they were going to have dinner with people they had never met, people who ate seaweed and brown rice every day of their lives.

They drove through the Garden District, where Spanish moss hung like beards from the trees. Once during Mardi Gras, Ella had ridden a trolley here with her brother and grandmother, down to the French Quarter, where they’d eaten beignets at Café du Monde. She wished she were sitting in one of those wrought-iron chairs and shaking powdered sugar onto a beignet. How much better than to be surrounded by strangers, eating food that tasted like the bottom of the sea.

They turned onto a side street, and her father studied the directions. “It should be at the end of this block,” he said.

Ella’s mother shifted in her seat. “Where are we?” she asked, her voice dreamy with painkillers.

“Almost there,” said Ella’s father.

They pulled to the curb in front of a white house with sagging porches and a trampled lawn. Vines covered the walls and moss grew thick and green between the roof slates. Under the porte-cochere stood a beat-up Honda and a Volkswagen with mismatched side panels. A faded bigwheel lay on its side on the walk.

“Come on,” their father said, and gave them a tired smile. “Time for fun.” He got out of the car and opened the doors for Ella and Ben and their mother, sweeping his arm chauffeurlike as they climbed out.

Beside the front door was a tarnished doorbell in the shape of a lion’s head. “Push it,” her father said. Ella pushed. A sound like church bells echoed inside the house.

Then the door swung open and there was Mister Kaplan, a tall man with wiry orange hair and big dry-looking teeth. He shook hands with Ella’s parents, so long and vigorously it seemed to Ella he might as well say Congratulations.

“And you must be Ben and Ella,” he said, bending down.

Ella gave a mute nod. Her brother kicked at the doorjamb.

“Well, come on in,” he said. “I have a tree castle out back.”

Benjamin’s face came up, twisted with skepticism. “A what?”

“The kids are back there. They’ll show you.”

“What an interesting foyer,” their mother said. She bent down to look at the brass animals on the floor, a turtle and a jackal and a llama. Next to the animals stood a blue vase full of rusty metal flowers. A crystal chandelier dangled from the ceiling, its arms hung with dozens of God’s-eyes and tiny plastic babies from Mardi Gras king cakes. On a low wooden shelf against the wall, pair after pair of canvas sandals and sneakers and Birkenstocks were piled in a heap. A crayoned sign above it said shoes off now!

Ella looked down at her feet. She was wearing her new patent-leather Mary Janes.

“Your socks are nice too,” her father said, and touched her shoulder. He stepped out of his own brown loafers and set them on top of the pile. Then he knelt before Ella’s mother and removed her pumps. “Shoes off,” he said to Ella and Ben.

“Even me?” Ben said. He looked down at his paper buckles.

Their father took off Ben’s shoes and removed the paper buckles, tape intact. Then he pressed one buckle onto each of Ben’s socks. “There,” he said.

Ben looked as if he might cry.

“Everyone’s in the kitchen,” Mister Kaplan said. “We’re all cooking.”

“Marvelous,” said Ella’s mother. “We love to cook.”

They followed him down a cavern of a hall, its walls decorated with sepia-toned photographs of children and parents, all of them staring stone-faced from their gilt frames. They passed a sweep of stairs and a room with nothing in it but straw mats and pictures of blue Indian goddesses sitting on beds of cloud.

“What’s that room?” Benjamin asked.

“Meditation room,” Mister Kaplan said, as if it were as commonplace as a den.

The kitchen smelled of roasting squash and baked apples and spices. There was an old brick oven and a stove with so many burners it looked as if it had been stolen from a restaurant. At the kitchen table, men and women with long hair and loose clothes sliced vegetables or stirred things into bowls. 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.

A tall woman with a green scarf around her waist came over and embraced Ella’s mother, then bent down to hug Ella and Benjamin. She smelled of smoky perfume. Her wide eyes skewed in different directions, as if she were watching two movies projected into opposite corners of the room. Ella did not know how to look at her.

“We’re so happy you decided to come,” the woman said. “I’m Delilah, Eddy’s sister.”

“Who’s Eddy?” said Ben.

“Mister Kaplan,” their father said.

“We use our real names here,” Delilah said. “No one is a mister.”

She led their parents over to the long table and put utensils into their hands. Their mother was to mix oats into a pastry crust, and their father to chop carrots, something Ella had never seen him do. He looked around in panic, then hunched over and began cutting a carrot into clumsy pieces. He kept glancing at the man to his left, a bearded man with a shaved head, as if to make sure he was doing it right.

Delilah gave Ella and Benjamin hard cookies that tasted like burnt rice. It seemed Ella would have to chew forever. Her loose tooth waggled in its socket.

“The kids are all out back,” Delilah said. “There’s plenty of time to play before dinner.”

“What kids?” Benjamin asked.

“You’ll see,” said Delilah. She tilted her head at Ella, one of her eyes moving over Ella’s velvet dress. “Here’s a little trick I learned when I was a girl,” she said. In one swift movement she took the back hem of the dress, brought it up between Ella’s knees, and tucked it into the sash. “Now you’re wearing shorts,” she said.

Ella didn’t feel like she was wearing shorts. As soon as Delilah turned away, she pulled her skirt out of her sash and let it fall around her legs.

The wooden deck outside was cluttered with Tinkertoys and clay flowerpots and Little Golden Books. Ella heard children screaming and laughing nearby. As she and Benjamin moved to the edge of the deck, there was a rustle in the bushes and a skinny boy leaped out and pointed a suction-cup arrow at them. He stood there breathing hard, his hair full of leaves, his chest bare. “You’re on duty,” he said.

“Me?” Benjamin said.

“Yes, you. Both of you.” The boy motioned them off the porch with his arrow and took them around the side of the house. There, built into the side of a sprawling oak, was the biggest, most sophisticated tree house Ella had ever seen. There were tiny rooms of sagging plywood, and rope ladders hanging down from doors, and a telescope and a fireman’s pole and a red net full of leaves. From one wide platform—almost as high as the top of the house—it seemed you could jump down onto a huge trampoline. Even higher was a kind of crow’s nest, a little circular platform built around the trunk. A red-painted sign on the railing read dagner! Ella could hear the other children screaming but she couldn’t see them. A collie dog barked crazily, staring up at the tree.

“Take off your socks! That’s an order,” the skinny boy said.

Benjamin glanced at Ella. Ella shrugged. It seemed ridiculous to walk around outside in socks. S...
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