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A Permanent Member of the Family
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message 1: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments The February selection is this brand-new short story collection by Bookhouse Boys fave Russell Banks.

I read this one last month when my turn came up in my library's queue, but I'm going to reread it with the group. Readers will find divorced and widowed protagonists abound.
There are a few stories that puzzled me, and I look forward to seeing what you guys make of them. But overall, it's a strong set of tales. Of course it is, it's Russell Banks!


message 2: by Jason, Walking Allergen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
Thanks for starting a thread, Jim. This place is much cozier with you in residence.

I've read...four stories so far, I think? I've enjoyed them, though my socks are still firmly on my feet.


message 3: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
I'll be honest, after the first story I was a little worried.

Not that it wasn't a good concept--just the opposite, in fact. But it should have been a novel, I think. The concept needed much more room to beathe, especially since psychological realism and depth are typically Banks' forte. That first story felt like a novel crowbarred into 10 or 15 pages, and it frankly tasted like ye olde turd in the punch bowl.

Thankfully, all the stories after that so far have been much better, though, as Jason says, nothing approaching remarkable. I feel like I may be holding this collection to the standard of Banks' novels, which are always excellent, memorable, and moving. For the most part, there's nothing BAD about these stories so far...they just aren't Banks good.


message 4: by Matt, I am the Great Went. (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt | 1517 comments Mod
Just started. Finished the 1st story on the train today. Agree with Dave. Brevity is the soul of wit, not tragedy or character study.


message 5: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments Agreed on "Former Marine," which was more startling than it should have been. "I can't make ends meet, and I won't ask my family for help, so I guess I'll have to rob some banks." This might make more sense if we'd had a better chance to learn what kind of men Connie and his sons are.

"A Permanent Member of the Family" and "Christmas Party" focus on men moving on after divorce with differing degrees of success. "Moving on" is a big theme of Banks's in this collection. "Snowbirds," which I'm about to start, has a character who finds it shockingly easy to begin her life again after a major loss.

Group question on "Christmas Party:" What was Harold doing with the baby? His actions were seemingly unconscious, and he was able to chat up the caterer after the incident. I'm not sure I understand what happened to Harold in the nursery, or how it changed him. Ideas?


message 6: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
I thought Harold had a moment where he wanted to steal the baby. He had unacknowledged and unresolved anger and hurt after the affair/divorce and, seeing his ex-wife so happy and living the perfect life with the man who stole her away, I think he wanted to take something from her in that moment that would ruin it all. He didn't think it was right that she could betray him and leave him and then find everything she was looking for, going completely unpunished. I think that had much more to do with it than him wanting the baby for himself. That moment, having to acknowledge to himself that he was prepared to hurt her that deeply, forced him to confront the fact that he needed to find some way to move past it. So he chose the far healthier option of trying to move on himself and find a new woman. That's how I read it, anyway.


message 7: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments I agree with your assessment, Dave, especially considering it was immediately preceded by Harold's fantasy of Bud falling off the ladder. He wanted them to feel his pain.
I guess I just found his change of heart jarring. No internal acknowledgement that Harold had so abruptly released his resentment; what would've happened if the babysitter hadn't been in the nursery to stop him?

"Snowbirds" fascinates me. Isabel the (instantly) merry widow contrasted with Jane, whose misery in marriage becomes more and more stark. That last paragraph destroyed me, especially
(view spoiler)
Killed me. I am dead.


message 8: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments And for bonus content, here's a link to a map of New York's North Country.

I went to college in Potsdam, in the NW corner there. As you can see, Keene, AuSable Forks, etc., are more eastern, near Lake Champlain and the Vermont border, so I'm not familiar with those areas. I can tell you that Banks gives a great idea of the workaday, no-nonsense folks of the North Country, their crusty domestic pickup trucks and the potholed roads they're driven on.


message 9: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
Jim wrote: "what would've happened if the babysitter hadn't been in the nursery to stop him?"

This question intrigued me as well. Would Harold really have gone through with stealing the baby? Or would he not even have thought to steal the kid at all if he hadn't felt that safety net of the babysitter being there to stop him from really going through with it?

I was equally fascinated by "Snowbirds." That slow realization that both Jane and the reader have as the story progresses that she's actually jealous of her recently widowed friend. And then, after the dust settles and Jane realizes that she doesn't have it in her to abandon a thirty-plus year marriage for scary, scary freedom/the unknown, I think we also get a hint that, once Isabel also realizes that Jane will be leaving soon, Isabel isn't nearly so ready for her new life as she thought. I think seeing that desperation on the part of Isabel during the phone call is a lot of what makes Jane realize she'll be returning home, y'know?


message 10: by Richard (last edited Feb 17, 2014 08:54AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Richard French (rrff) | 21 comments This is the first book by Russell Banks that I've read. I'm thankful for the comments from more experienced readers of his work than I am. The truth is I haven't read many contemporary short stories at all.

I found quite a bit to admire in these stories and a few things that irritated me. I want to read some of them again to see if I find more than I did the first time. After that I'll try a comment or two. I'll start my re-reading with "Snowbirds" that caught Jim & Dave's attention.


message 11: by Jason, Walking Allergen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
As far as Harold and the baby goes, he seemed to be in a fugue state, unaware of his actions on a conscious level. The "safety net" idea is intriguing. If not that, I can imagine him coming to himself later, looking down at the baby with some degree of surprised realization.

I had a nagging sense there was more to that scene than just him wanting to take away the thing that he couldn't give her...but as I read other stories in this collection, it's feeling more likely that the most obvious interpretation is probably the correct one. There's a hamfistedness in some of the writing here that bums me out. A page in "Snowbirds" was especially egregious.


message 12: by Jim (last edited Feb 17, 2014 01:59PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments Richard wrote: "This is the first book by Russell Banks that I've read. I'm thankful for the comments from more experienced readers of his work than I am."
Richard, I'm pretty sure this is the first time any of us have read Banks's short stories; it seems safe to say we all prefer his longer works. Please chime in with your thoughts.

Jason wrote: "As far as Harold and the baby goes, he seemed to be in a fugue state, unaware of his actions on a conscious level."
YES! That's the phrase I was trying to come up with.

Jason wrote: "The "safety net" idea is intriguing. If not that, I can imagine him coming to himself later, looking down at the baby with some degree of surprised realization. "
Both Dave's interpretation of that scene and your own have eased my puzzlement somewhat. Thanks, guys.

Jason wrote: "There's a hamfistedness in some of the writing here that bums me out. A page in "Snowbirds" was especially egregious."
Ouch. I won't ask you to elaborate, because I'm sure I'll hear more when you boys record your discussion.


message 13: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
It had to have been the "I thought you loved Frank! I mean George!" moment, right?

Can't lie, that made me literally wince.


message 14: by Jason, Walking Allergen (last edited Feb 17, 2014 02:47PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
That's the one, Dave. Bookended on the other side by the very nearly as bad, "Well, sure, Janey! A lot like you and Frank. Better keep that in mind, girlfriend."


message 15: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments Dave wrote: "...I think we also get a hint that, once Isabel also realizes that Jane will be leaving soon, Isabel isn't nearly so ready for her new life as she thought. I think seeing that desperation on the part of Isabel during the phone call is a lot of what makes Jane realize she'll be returning home, y'know?"
Wow, I disagree 100% with this interpretation. Isabel wants Jane to have the miraculous new future that she herself has found. But their situations are very different:

Isabel is now very wealthy, Jane is certainly not;
Isabel wanted to retire to Florida all along (first sentence: Isabel and George weighing "her pros and his cons" before going south; not ending up retired at Harmony Hills in Saratoga Springs is a "close call"), Jane had apparently never considered it;
Isabel is a free agent, Jane has a husband and job waiting for her return.

Isabel wants her friend to be happy. She doesn't beg Jane to stay, she says, "Stay as long as you want." I don't see desperation, just love.
Jane's returning home not because she's not attracted by Isabel's new freedom, but because she feels trapped by her situation in a way Isabel is trapped no longer.

I found this a strong story, unfortunate dialogue notwithstanding.


message 16: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
Well, like I said, it's a hint. What you note is absolutely there, but there's also...I dunno, the embrace at the end was where I started to feel it. Maybe it's an unwarranted hunch, but that felt a bit clingy to me, especially when the interaction was capped with:

"For a long while neither woman said anything. Finally Isabel spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. 'I would be happy if you stayed here.'

"'Until?'

"'Until you decide what you want.'"

That's what I mean by a hint. I took from that that Isabel, much as she's been living it up with her bestie on her recently dead husband's money, isn't quite as surefooted as she thought she was. It's one thing when you've got lots of friends and family around, but when that door closes and you're left sitting alone with (apparently) some stranger's ashes to keep you company, how much are you really living it up? There's a part of me that even felt at times like Isabel was manipulating Jane a bit, trying to convince her to join her on this quest for reinvention.

If that seems totally off-base, fair enough. But I would posit the question, would Isabel have been equally happy to see Jane ditch her sour-ass husband and keep on living up north instead of with her in Florida? I wasn't so sure by the end.


message 17: by Jason, Walking Allergen (last edited Feb 17, 2014 09:56PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
Just read my favorite story so far, Blue.

On the Jane/Isabel dynamic, I got some vibes that there was some desire from Isabel to be more than friends. I'll have to read it again and see if I pick up on that again.


message 18: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
Jason wrote: "On the Jane/Isabel dynamic, I got some vibes that there was some desire from Isabel to be more than friends. I'll have to read it again and see if I pick..."

I thought that too during the embrace, at least for a moment. Even rereading it, I'm not totally sure that isn't there...I think maybe a large part of me might be in denial about that being there because my brain was screaming the whole time I was reading it the first time, "No, no, NO, you are NOT going to do this, Banks."


Richard French (rrff) | 21 comments I reread "Snowbirds" last evening and have been thinking about the stories in this book without experience of Banks's other writings. I now have a general impression that consists of two contradictory thoughts:

1. Banks is an excellent writer with keen insights into his characters. His stories have a strong impact. But he isn't always a meticulous writer. For example, he doesn't always prepare well for his endings and leaves his readers scratching their heads. The discussion here is a case in point.

2. Banks knows the current scene in North America very well and is aware of the countervailing influences that impact peoples' lives. As a result, he has turned himself into a subtle master of ambiguity and knows how to get his readers to think, as I did about the story "Blue". I didn't like the ending, but I soon discovered that the story was open to about six different interpretations, and maybe that was Banks' intention: to get us to think. "Searching for Veronica" was for me another instance. As I read it, I said to myself, this is a great story, but for me the ending came out of nowhere and seemed borderline incompetent. But if I went back to reread the story, would I find that Banks had put in subtle hints to prepare readers for the narrators' behavior at the end? Again, does he shock his readers to get us to consider the way life takes place in a huge mass society?

Right now, I lean 60-40 to the first interpretation. Banks has written a lot. He might have been a better artist if he'd taken more care.


message 20: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
I loved "Big Dog." Thought it was pitch perfect. I don't even have anything meaningful to say about it, it'd all be gushing and "Here's another thing Banks got exactly right."


message 21: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
Richard, having read (and adored) several of Banks' novels, I think the first option you present is definitely the more apt--at least, for this collection. I've been frustrated by several of these stories because Banks' calling card in the novels is psychological depth, realistic explorations of three-dimensional characters, and endings that not only don't leave you scratching your head but that bear down on you with all the confidence and power of fate. I've always known Banks to be a meticulous writer whose characters and plot developments are handled with utmost assiduity.

So, all I can guess is that the short story is not really the best medium for the types of stories at which Banks excels. Oddly, he doesn't always seem to recognize which paintings need the larger canvass. Halfway through the collection, only the title story and "Big Dog" have felt to me like they didn't need there to be a bit (or, in the case of "Former Marine," a LOT) more to them.


Richard French (rrff) | 21 comments Dave, Thanks for your defense of Banks's novels. I've read that "Cloudsplitter" is a neglected masterpiece. I'm thinking about looking for it.


message 23: by Jason, Walking Allergen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
I look forward to hearing your enthusiastic praise for "Big Dog." I liked it, but didn't love it. Maybe you can open my eyes to some things I missed.


message 24: by Matt, I am the Great Went. (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt | 1517 comments Mod
Jim wrote: "I agree with your assessment, Dave, especially considering it was immediately preceded by Harold's fantasy of Bud falling off the ladder. He wanted them to feel his pain.
I guess I just found his ..."


If there had been internal monologue in the nursery scene, I'd have thrown the book across the train. This is definitely like buying a compilation from a record label: some artists/songs blow you away, some irk you, and some leave you flat.


message 25: by Matt, I am the Great Went. (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt | 1517 comments Mod
Almost threw my book across the train this morning after reading "Snowbirds."
Ask me about my 'theory' when we discuss this collection.


message 26: by Jason, Walking Allergen (last edited Feb 19, 2014 09:52AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
Note to self: if riding in same Max car
with Matt, wear a helmet.

I'm getting very curious to find out what you guys think of "Blue." It's the only story so far I'm unequivocally positive about.


message 27: by Dave Alluisi, Evolution of the Arm (new) - rated it 3 stars

Dave Alluisi | 1047 comments Mod
I liked "Blue" an awful lot as well. The past couple stories have really shown off Banks' ability to inhabit the lives and voices of people, almost to the point where you forget it's fiction.


Devin Bruce (doctorteeth) | 77 comments Catching up folks. I am three stories in, and I think I am reading this very differently than you all. I have only skimmed the later comments because I haven't made it too far, but some thoughts:

"Former Marine" - felt like he had a 10k word limit, wrote until he was at the 9950 mark, and then just stopped describing anything in order to cram the ending in under the wire. To say it ended abruptly is an understatement.

"A Permanent Member Of The Family" - I liked this character's voice much better, and though it too ended abruptly, it was at least satisfying.

"Christmas Party" - My favourite of the three so far, but like some others, I was a little confused about what Harold was doing with the baby.

Overall these stories are competent to good, but I have a problem with how Russell Banks just stops describing action and excises inner monologues during pivotal moments. It happened at the end of "Former Marine" and it happened during the part of "Christmas Party," and I have no real idea why he's doing it. Maybe it's to heighten the tension: if things are ambiguous you can get a little nervous or confused. It just seems to happen out of the blue, and feels like an author's trick more than an organic part of the storytelling.

Maybe I'm not making sense. I'm just excited that I'm (practically) reading along with the group for the first time in months!


message 29: by Jason, Walking Allergen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
I'm excited too! It's more fun for us when we have company.

Let us know if this trend continues as you make your way through the other stories. I finished them several days ago, and thinking back, I'm just not sure.


Devin Bruce (doctorteeth) | 77 comments Oh folks. "Snowbirds" was a doozy. I think the end, where Isabel whispered "Until you decide what you want," was another example of Banks' trying to use ambiguity to provoke thought in his readers, but I thought this was more effective than the other examples I cited. Maybe because I'd seen him doing it before, so I was expecting it? Maybe because it didn't feel like all the description had been sucked out of the story? Not sure. I am also not sure where I came on the "are they in love?" / "are they scared?" / "is there something else going on?" ambiguity, but I feel that there definitely could be more to their relationship than either of them consciously realize.

The ending of "Big Dog" came out of nowhere for me. I think I understand why Raphael decided to attack Erik - because in the past Erik had likely belittled him at other gatherings and because he was a little drunk and, from my perspective, because Raphael seems like a bit of a prig - but Ellen's decision wasn't foreshadowed anywhere that I could see.

And I didn't like "Blue" as much as some others, but I will say it was my favourite of the whole collection so far. Is it because it was the longest story and he had more space to tell it? Based on what others are saying about Russell Banks' excellent novels and so-so short stories, I am inclined to think so.

Okay. Let's finish this.


Devin Bruce (doctorteeth) | 77 comments I know this is quick to do two posts in a row, but these were quick reads. Not entirely sure what the point of "The Invisible Parrot" or "The Outer Banks" were; they were well written but felt like chapters from much longer books that didn't have much of a reason for being on their own. (I fear that "What is the POINT?!?" may be my catchphrase in Bookhouse Boys circles.)

However, I really did like "Lost and Found." With two stories to go, it's my favourite of the collection. I felt there was more of an inner life to Stanley than some of the other characters in the other stories, which may have helped. And a short story seems the perfect way to encapsulate an (almost) one night stand or a lost weekend: what happened before and after aren't strictly relevant, just the characters and their motivations and their story together. Like i said: best of the book so far.


message 32: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments Devin wrote: "Not entirely sure what the point of "The Invisible Parrot" or "The Outer Banks" were..."
A thousand times this.

The stories I liked best felt the most "true" to me -- the title tale, "Lost and Found," and "Searching for Veronica," until that inexplicable ending, as Richard has mentioned. It was my second time reading it, but I was still dumbfounded. Where is the narrator drawing his conclusions from? His guess about Helene made some sense, but what did he see in Dorothy that shook him so? Were there holes or hints in her story that caused him to so disbelieve her that he would directly challenge her and then stalk off?

I found a lot to enjoy in most of these stories, and overall I stand by my initial positive impression, but I had forgotten how many baffling endings this collection contains.


message 33: by Jason, Walking Allergen (last edited Mar 02, 2014 03:14PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
The show. We had a special guest. We didn't talk about "Searching For Veronica," but perhaps we can get a little more discussion going about it here.

OUTRO: "Rabbit Hole" by The Lower 48 (http://www.thelower48.com/)

http://bookhouseboyspodcast.podomatic...


message 34: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments I haven't listened yet but I fear this episode will make me sad.


message 35: by Jim (new) - rated it 4 stars

Jim | 498 comments So.... yeah.


message 36: by Jason, Walking Allergen (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jason | 1166 comments Mod
Jim wrote: "So.... yeah."

Sad, huh?

Your posts about the book don't give me the impression you loved it, but overall you feel pretty positively about the stories, yes? We may have liked them less than you, but I think a similar thing happened with the podcast. After all, we all rated it a "3" not a 2 or a 1...despite sounding pretty negative on the show. We all came from a place of expecting to love it, and the main thing on our minds were the ways in which we did not love it...

For me, with an exception or two, it was a perfectly decent set of stories that I don't regret taking the time to read. Given Banks' reputation and talent, "decent" is underwhelming.


message 37: by Matt, I am the Great Went. (new) - rated it 3 stars

Matt | 1517 comments Mod
Jim wrote: "I haven't listened yet but I fear this episode will make me sad."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKn6JF...


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