How to Breathe Underwater: Stories Hardcover – Sep 2 2003
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Editor's Note: The following is a portion of the first story in the collection.
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...
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.
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 7 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