Thursday, January 21, 2010

Paley Perfection

You know when you're reading a story and it feels as it there were audio embedded in the book? When it's as if you can hear the voices - the dialogue as much yours as theirs? For me, Grace Paley is the epitome of voice and character development - short, simple lines shaping and illuminating people you feel you've known forever. It's not fancy; Paley privileges plain over "pretty," but her prose isn't just plausible, it's palpable. The people are family, even if they aren't, and when you're reading the stories, you're family too.

It's hard to choose one collection, but for the sake of this post, I'm recommending The Little Disturbances of Man. It's slim, just shy of two hundred pages, but so full and so good, that it's the perfect collection to carry in your bag for stolen moments. The stories are short, sometimes very short, but the economy of their length should not be confused with the weight of what's really happening within the lines. Paley's short stories are like a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast - they don't seem like much, but they stick with you; they fill you up.

I had the privilege of meeting Paley a few years ago at a conference. She was feisty and funny, thoughtful and encouraging. She sat in the front row during our panel and I cannot describe the encouragement and nervousness that I experienced while watching her nod her head as we spoke. I have her handwriting in my commonplace book from that time, and I look at it now and again to read what she wrote, yes, but also to remind myself that she was alive, that we were together, that she changed lives, one of which was my own. Politically, socially, she was invaluable as an activist, as a teacher, as a woman, and for all my babbling here, as a writer. I'll end this mini-review with a few lines that stay with me, frequent my pauses, because she's not just in my mind, she's in my ear, and I can still hear her.

"I am ambitious, but it's a long-range thing with me."

"The sun absorbed July and she said it again."

"I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library. Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified. He said, What? What life? No life of mine. I said, O.K. I don't argue when there's real disagreement. I got up and went into the library to see how much I owed them. The librarian said $32 and you've owed it for eighteen years. I didn't deny anything. Because I don't understand how time passes. I have had these books. I have often thought of them. The library is only two blocks away."

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