Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Gina Ochsner’s People I Wanted to Be

This is Gina Ochsner’s second collection of stories but she’s new to me. Although she comes with glowing praise from Chang-rae Lee (an author I admire greatly and one who shares East Coast/West Coast history with me), lives in Western Oregon (not so far from my native Seattle), and has been mentioned on Moorish Girl, I learned about her book from my friend in London.

London or Oregon, what does it matter? These stories are amazing! I have been living in this world for a couple weeks now and I am sorry to leave it behind.

It is some consolation to think that, perhaps, I can sway a few people to dip into this haunting, moving world of fog, affection, and longing.

The stories are set in Russia or Prague or Oregon. Wherever, they are, the background is gray, foggy, and a little bleak. The color in the stories comes from the characters whose ordinary lives are full of the intense emotions of ordinary lives: longing for children, longing for love, hoping for a satisfying job, fantasizing about an elsewhere, an alternative, and weighing the real costs of making a change or resigning oneself to one’s lot.

There is realism here. There is magic. There is a lot that I recognize from other contemporary writers but this doesn’t feel tired or familiar or derivative. I’ve been trying to figure out why and I have some thoughts about it: Ochsner really seems to like her characters, so when they see ghosts or become ghosts, she’s more interested in the drama than in showing us the dazzle of her own craft. It’s not “hey, look, I made you believe in a ghost,” but “this ghost is really coming at a bad time in the narrator’s marriage.”

She also writes really well about work. I was reminded of Hopkins’ line, “And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim,” from “Pied Beauty” several times: Ochsner loves describing the equipment of different jobs: the tackle boxes, the pencil cases, the knives and scalpels, the brushes.

Finally, her women are wonderful. I’ve read lots of women writers with great male characters lately (Edie Meidav comes to mind), and Ochsner’s men are great: tender and strong, vulnerable and courageous. But her women are really, really terrific. And she is great on the longing for children or the hilarious, comic fierceness of women trying to keep from getting pregnant or trying to get pregnant. I may have more to say about individual stories down the line. Overall, though, there is not a clunker in the lot. A really, really moving and wonderful collection. I’m thrilled that it came my way.

There’s not a lot of Ochsner in the blogosphere, but you can find a rave from The Stranger and another from I Read A Short Story Today.

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