Thursday, August 4, 2011

Up Up Up

I don't know why I don't read more short story collections. I always enjoy them, but I think I'm sometimes wary of starting a book that may be choppy; I'm not always willing to put in the work to start and stop as I go through a book – I'd rather just have a smooth read. But, that's ridiculous really, because I always enjoy short stories once I start them and often move through a collection quite quickly, marveling at all the interesting and distinct characters and situations I get to experience. When those experiences are somewhat linked, thematically, all the better, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed Julie Booker's Up Up Up so much.

The stories in Up Up Up take you all over the place – from kayaking in Alaska to jeeps touring in Tibet – and with very few words Booker's settings come alive without you even realizing it. That's perhaps one of the most incredible things about this collection, actually, that she is able to write vividly without telling spending pages on description. The result is stories that instantly take you from one place to another, across continents and down rivers, without leaving you muddled about where you and the characters are. Even read back to back, her stories are crisp and distinct.

All of the main characters, as far as I can discern, are women. Some are in middle age, others just out of university, but the majority are without a man. That isn't to say they're alone (one of the most interesting and subtle through-lines is friendship and connections between women), but rather that these are not romance stories. That being said, there are post-breakup stories and speed-dating stories, which transcend their typically pathetic edges to say something wry and interesting. One of my favourite details from Breakup Fresh is the bizarre way you can learn something about a person by asking them what kind of hangars they use: wood, plastic, or wire.

My favourite stories, though (besides the opening one about two friends going kayaking in Alaska) are the Tibet-related ones. There are several of these sprinkled throughout the collection, some are set in the region and others refer to a characters' recent visit. Of these, my favourite is Thixatropic, about a girl who has recently returned from touring Tibet only to discover that the peaces she felt there may not have come home with her. Now, she's in an art class learning how to make a cement garden statue and she can't get it together. In just a few pages, Booker's description of early 20s angst and the suggestion of its source are so precise it made me catch my breath. 

I think one of the things I love so much about short stories (which mirrors my wariness of diving in) is how focused they are. In some ways they are more complete and dynamic than novels because in their shortness they let you get right down into a moment and the closure they offer (or refuse to offer) feels appropriate to the piece. In Up Up Up, Booker's stories are more like paintings than snapshots, because as much as they are of a moment, they are broader and could easily hang alone on the wall of a room. As a collection, Up Up Up flows through emotions and characters and themes with just enough continuity to make the transitions between stories simultaneously smooth and distinct. And, for all my wariness, Booker's collections have left me wanting more, and wondering where I will get my short story fix next.

Up Up Up
by Julie Booker
First published in 2011 (cover image shown from House of Anansi Press edition)

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