224 p, 2004.
I was aware of ZZ Packer, and the acclaim that she has garnered, even before I opened this book. I was still reading Aphrodite’s Hat, and enjoying its understated, mature stillness, and from the little that I knew of Packer, I didn’t want her youth and exuberance intruding onto my reading. I’m glad that I waited because keeping the two books separate enhanced them both, I think.
Z Z Packer was born in Chicago in 1973, attended Yale University and the Writers Workshop at John Hopkins University, and has been the recipient of several writing fellowships. The short stories in this collection have appeared in various journals, and this volume received glowing praise. She sure can write.
The stories are about 30 odd pages in length- just right, as far as I am concerned- short enough to be read at one sitting and long enough to develop character and a span of time. They are taut, confident, and she really doesn’t put a foot wrong. Many of the characters are African-American (as is Packer herself), mainly they are women, and several of the stories are set in, or refer to Baltimore. The Pentecostal Church is a potent and often ambivalent influence in her characters’ lives, and her characters are just clinging to the margins- sometimes physically, sometimes socially.
There is real complexity in this book. There is no clear delineation between goodies and baddies, and life is uncomfortable and painful on the edges. The stories took me to a place and an existence that is completely foreign to me as a white Australian, older woman and she depicted it sharply enough that I ached, fretted and cared about characters encountered in thirty short pages. Her endings were ambiguous but not unsatisfying.
You can read the short story ‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’ that gives its name to this collection in the New Yorker, where it was originally published here.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: CAE bookgroups
Read because: It was the February book for the Ladies Who Say Oooh (i.e. bookgroup)