Sunday Short: The Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

Previously On: “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster

Only one story in and I’m already rethinking my strategy for the year…
I decided on shorts from The New Yorker to easily find stories by authors I’d like to read more from (Munro, Wolff, Alexie, Smith…) and authors I’d like to try (Erdich, Meloy, Bolaño…). However—and I knew this going in—stories in The New Yorker can have more style than substance. There’s no guarantee that any of shorts on my list for the year will contain a proper story. Unfortunately, “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” by Danielle McLaughlin is the first to fit this bill.

“The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” begins in the middle of things. The McLaughlin stories I’ve read all have this in common and I love it. This style makes every character feel more real because their words and actions don’t feel contrived for the reader’s benefit. It’s as though I’m opening the book to find them doing whatever they would be doing if I weren’t looking over their shoulders.

After an aside that Kate (the narrator) and Colman (her husband) no longer sleep in the same bed, they discuss how to set up a room for their visiting grandchild:

“He’s six,” she said. “He’s not a baby anymore. I want things to be special. We see so little of him.” It was true, she thought, it was not a lie. And then, because he was staring at her, she said, “And I don’t want Emer asking about…” She paused, spread her arms wide to encompass the room. “About this.” For a moment he looked as if he were going to challenge her. It would be just like him, she thought, to decide to have this conversation today, today of all days, when he wouldn’t have it all year. But he picked up his pajamas and a pair of shoes she had missed beneath the bed and, saying nothing, heading across the landing. Later, she found his pajamas folded neatly on the pillow on his side of the bed, where he always used to keep them.

What is “this conversation?” You can hazard a guess from the opening pages, but details are filled in slowly. In a lot of ways, this story feels more like just a character study. There are few plot points, but they seem largely symbolic—less about the thing that’s happening and more about what it could mean. The general idea is that Kate’s daughter (Emer) visits with her child and new boyfriend. Emer seems impulsive and her kid (Oisín) accidentally leaks that they’re moving to Australia. Boiled down, that’s the whole story.

That said, since it’s about the characters and not about moving to Australia, I wanted Kate’s reaction to be more than one sentence and I wanted to see what sort of conversations she had with her daughter. Her relationship with Colman also contains a lot of question marks. To fill in the blanks, I’d just be making assumptions. I’d feel like I was gossiping about people I don’t actually know, but who all seem to be annoyingly non-communicative.

The only characters who talk are Kate and Pavel, but it’s also the most unnatural scene in the whole story. When “[v]ery softly, he began to stroke her palm with his thumb,” this seems like an outsize reaction. Isn’t this strangely intimate for two people who have just met, regardless of what they’ve discussed?

As for the title, Colman shows Oisín an old poster:

The poster was wrinkled and torn at the edges but otherwise intact. [Kate] looked at the planets, pictured them spinning and turning for all those years beneath the stairs, their moons in quiet orbit.
“This is our man,” Colman said, pointing to the top left-hand corner. “This is the fellow that did for the dinosaurs.”
The boy, on tiptoe, touched a finger to the thing Colman had indicated, a flaming ball of rock trailing dust and comets. “Did it only hit planet Earth?”
“Yes,” his grandfather said. “Wasn’t that enough?”
“So there could still be dinosaurs on other planets?”
“No”

There’s nothing technically wrong with this story. The prose is lovely and even. The characters are interesting, but leave me cold. Any guesses I make about Kate, Colson, Emer, Pavel, or Oisín are largely influenced by other stories in the Dinosaurs on Other Planets collection. Much of the collection details characters struggling to live with mental illness or with their relatives who are (or might be) mentally ill. It’s hard not to slap an armchair diagnosis on Emer, to assume that the rift in the Kate/Colson marriage is somehow connected to their respective responses to their daughter’s illness (assuming she has one). There’s so much left unsaid that while it’s an interesting story, it’s hard for me to feel one way or the other about it.

Want to read it for yourself? “The Dinosaurs on Other Planets” is available on The New Yorker‘s website here.

Next Up: “All Ahead of Them” by Tobias Wolff

Reading Ireland Month 2017: Sign Up

reading-ireland-month_2017Hooray! It’s time for the Reading Ireland Month 2017 challenge hosted by 746 Books and Raging Fluff. I really enjoy this challenge since it pushes me to read new authors and it’s wonderfully laid back without frantic check-ins or that horrible sense of “falling behind.” Blogging is supposed to be fun, right? 😛 If you’d like to join in, take a look at Cathy’s announcement on 746 Books for more information and an enticing list of Irish authors.

Since 2017 is the year of Planning Ahead, I started early with my reading and lined up a bunch of posts for the month. Last year I was a little slow on the reading/reviewing, so this list includes some from last year that I finally read.

March 3: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

gullivers travels_cover

Shipwrecked and cast adrift, Lemuel Gulliver wakes to find himself on Lilliput, an island inhabited by little people, whose height makes their quarrels over fashion and fame seem ridiculous. His subsequent encounters – with the crude giants of Brobdingnag, the philosophical Houyhnhnms and the brutish Yahoos – give Gulliver new, bitter insights into human behaviour. Swift’s savage satire view mankind in a distorted hall of mirrors as a diminished, magnified and finally bestial species, presenting us with an uncompromising reflection of ourselves. (Goodreads)

All books read for homework back in the day are so much better now. Sure, I assign myself reviews (read: Book Reports), but they’re far more relaxed than term papers and the feedback is friendlier.

 

March 6: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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Combining elements of the Gothic horror novel and decadent French fiction, the book centers on a striking premise: As Dorian Gray sinks into a life of crime and gross sensuality, his body retains perfect youth and vigor while his recently painted portrait grows day by day into a hideous record of evil, which he must keep hidden from the world. For over a century, this mesmerizing tale of horror and suspense has enjoyed wide popularity. It ranks as one of Wilde’s most important creations and among the classic achievements of its kind. (Amazon)

From last year’s list to this year’s. The only reason I have for my procrastination is that I forgot how good this book is. I read a kid’s version a long, long time ago, but the “grown-up” unabridged version is far better. (No surprise there, but I did miss the illustrations.)

 

March 9: The Gathering by Anne Enright

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The nine surviving children of the Hegarty clan are gathering in Dublin for the wake of their wayward brother, Liam, drowned in the sea. His sister, Veronica, collects the body and keeps the dead man company, guarding the secret she shares with him—something that happened in their grandmother’s house in the winter of 1968. As Enright traces the line of betrayal and redemption through three generations, she shows how memories warp and secrets fester. As in all Enright’s work, her distinctive intelligence twists the world a fraction, and gives it back to us in a new and unforgettable light. (back cover)

At some point, I’m going to set up a page for the Man Booker Prize and commit to reading them all. It hasn’t been around nearly so long as the Pulitzer so it’s one of those “attainable” reading goals. In the meantime, the first half of this book is beautifully written in spite of how painful the writing is in a few places. Some passages sound as though she worked so hard to be different/profound that she came up with bizarre or unintentionally silly phrasing. I’m still trying to work “genital grief” into conversations and it’s going as well as you’d imagine. Plus, there is a line about sex that beats the strange armpit-biting thing from The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

 

March 12: The Green Road by Anne Enright

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In The Green Road, internationally acclaimed author Anne Enright presents her most unforgettable novel to date. Spanning thirty years, The Green Road tells the stories of the Madigans, a family on the cusp of either coming together or falling irreparably apart, and their indomitable matriarch, Rosaleen. In masterful prose, Enright weaves together a spell-binding story of family and fracture, selfishness and compassion. (back cover)

Before encountering Anne Tyler (Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant), I would not have picked up a book with this type of descriptions, but she sold me on books about families. Once I put this book on my list, I started seeing Anne Enright’s name everywhere. I prefer her writing style in this to The Gathering, so if you’re still trying to decide between Enright books—I’d recommend this one.

March 15: Dubliners by James Joyce

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Joyce’s aim was to tell the truth– to create a work of art that would reflect life in Ireland at the turn of the last century and by rejecting euphemism, to reveal to the Irish their unromantic reality, which would lead to the spiritual liberation of the country. Each of the fifteen stories offers glimpses into the lives of ordinary Dubliners– a death, an encounter, an opportunity not taken, a memory rekindled – and collectively they paint a portrait of a nation. (Amazon)

I’ve read a few of these stories, but never the whole collection. I’ve heard such wonderful things about “The Dead” that I worry it won’t live up to expectations. I’m trying hard to stuff those down before I pick it up. So far, so excellent, however.

 

March 18: Dinosaurs On Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

dinosaurs-on-other-planets_cover

In a raw seacoast cabin, a young woman watches her boyfriend go out with his brother, late one night, on a mysterious job she realizes she isn’t supposed to know about. A man gets a call at work from his sister-in-law, saying that his wife and his daughter never made it to nursery school that day. A mother learns that her teenage daughter has told a teacher about problems in her parents’ marriage that were meant to be private—problems the mother herself tries to ignore. McLaughlin conveys these characters so vividly that readers will feel they are experiencing real life. Often the stories turn on a single, fantastic moment of clarity—after which nothing can be the same. (Amazon)

I will admit it: I wanted to read this the instant I saw the title/cover. Shallow? Maybe. But it looks (and sounds) amazing. I’m not expecting literal dinosaurs, but I do hope…

 

March 21: The Master by Colm Tóibín

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Like Michael Cunningham in The Hours, Colm Tóibín captures the extraordinary mind and heart of a great writer. Beautiful and profoundly moving, The Master tells the story of a man born into one of America’s first intellectual families who leaves his country in the late nineteenth century to live in Paris, Rome, Venice, and London among privileged artists and writers.
In stunningly resonant prose, Tóibín captures the loneliness and the hope of a master of psychological subtlety whose forays into intimacy inevitably failed those he tried to love. The emotional intensity of this portrait is riveting. (back cover)

I read Brooklyn late last year and enjoyed Tóibín’s writing style. I was torn between The Master and Nora Webster then noticed this edition had an excerpt of Nora Webster so I get one and a teaser for the other. Also, I was in a used bookshop and the copies of Nora Webster were covered in notes. I can barely tolerate my own notes in books, let alone someone else’s. Notes rarely age well and crooked highlighting makes me nutty.

 

March 24: In the Woods by Tana French

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As dusk approaches a small Dublin suburb in the summer of 1984, mothers begin to call their children home. But on this warm evening, three children do not return from the dark and silent woods. When the police arrive, they find only one of the children gripping a tree trunk in terror, wearing blood-filled sneakers, and unable to recall a single detail of the previous hours.
Twenty years later, the found boy, Rob Ryan, is a detective on the Dublin Murder Squad and keeps his past a secret. But when a twelve-year-old girl is found murdered in the same woods, he and Detective Cassie Maddox—his partner and closest friend—find themselves investigating a case chillingly similar to the previous unsolved mystery. Now, with only snippets of long-buried memories to guide him, Ryan has the chance to uncover both the mystery of the case before him and that of his own shadowy past. (Amazon)

I read this book a long time ago, about when it first came out, and didn’t like it. Then I started blogging more regularly and seeing Tana French’s name everywhere when she had a new book out. Seems like a good time to give this one a second chance (and possibly read all her others).

March 27: Without My Cloak by Kate O’Brien

without-my-cloak_cover

When Anthony Considine creeps into Mellick town with a stolen horse in 1789, it sets the destiny of his family for decades to come. By the 1850s, through thrift and hard work, his son Honest John has made the Considines a leading Mellick family. With his father’s money, John’s son Anthony builds a grand country house for his wife and children – but especially for his youngest son Denis, who he adores, little knowing that one day Denis will threaten the toil of generations with his love for a peasant girl . . . (Amazon)

I don’t read as many classics as I should so I Googled “Irish classics” or somesuch to round out my list and ran across Without My Cloak. I flipped through it and the writing was so beautiful that I picked it up despite many reviews calling it a slow read. (But I did schedule it for the end of the month, just in case.)

March 30: Monthly Round-up: March 2017

 

So what do you think? Have you read any of these?