Sunday, December 6, 2015

"Mendocino Fire: Stories," by Elizabeth Tallent

Because I had read, liked, and admired some of Elizabeth Tallent’s earlier stories, and because she is a writer held in high esteem by many, I very much wanted to like her new story collection, “Mendocino Fire” (Harper, 2015). The stories being mostly set in Mendocino (a few hours north of where I live) was an added attraction. And I did admire the stories, and liked some of them. But there is something distancing about many of them. I don’t know what it is exactly, but I felt that there is a sort of semi-transparent screen between the reader (OK, this reader) and the stories. The author lives in Mendocino, and obviously knows it well. The characters are distinct, their lives are often a bit rough, and the reader sympathizes with them. The writing is precise and specific. I honestly don’t understand why I felt a bit removed from the stories, and I fully admit that the fault could be mine rather than the author’s. On another note, unrelated to my main point about the stories, but about a paragraph that really hit home for me: The story “The Wilderness” opens with the following. “Her students are the devotees and tenders of machines. Some of the machines are tiny and some of the machines are big. Nobody wrote down the law that students must have a machine with them at all times, yet this law is rarely broken, and when it is, the breaker suffers from deprivation and anxiety.” This is a phenomenon I have increasingly observed with my own students, most notably this semester. My students and I have discussed it, and they admit that they feel extremely uneasy and at a loss if their smartphones are not constantly with them. My colleagues have confirmed that this is the new reality, an issue they have all faced. (Am I showing my age by wishing that students were less dependent on their phones, and more able to focus on other non-electronic events and activities around them?)
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