Reviewed by Vickie Fang
Composed of 35 gleefully dark short stories by and about women, this anthology is a welcome antidote to the conventional world of women’s fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I adore Alice Monro and agree that the minutely observed world of everyday life is just as viable a form of literature as the more adventurous fiction dominated by men, but, still, there’s something so refreshing about girls who kill, or chase ghosts, or bide their time in strange worlds of the future. If there’s a mother daughter story in here, it’s likely to involve a little serial kidnapping as well. If dad was a sexual predator, then his little girl is going to be one too. Super heroes, with costumes, terrifying weapons, and all too human foibles abound. And the strange passage of time as a wife and mother? Tina May Hall describes it beautifully: “You remember the first six weeks of your firstborn’s life were the longest you’d ever known. Time slowed down into a milky trickle, stretched out, thinned. Then the rubber band snapped, and everything accelerated. An entire lacrosse season took place over the course of one rainy afternoon. Your knees sagged, wrinkled, tightened up again, grew bulbous as wormy apples in the time it took to walk to the ATM.” But this is the memory of a vampire crawling from her mausoleum in search or blood, not some elderly lady whiling away her last days in a nursing home. I don’t know how anyone can read this book and not feel energized.
I also don’t know how anyone can read it and not feel transported. These stories all have a very powerful sense of place, in some cases rural, in some cases grimly disconnected from nature. Ellen Birkett Morris ends her story about working in an apple orchard with “I ate the apples as I drove down the highway. They had a bruised, bitter taste. I threw the cores out the window and watched in my rear view mirror as they splintered on the pavement.” In Mesha Maren’s story, a valley has been flooded in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The heroine has heard stories of one old lady who refused to leave her farm. The girl paddles a canoe across the water. “Under me, the water spreads deep, a valley full. Below the dark surface, deeper past the mermaid green, I see her house, shingle roof, white walls, long porch, the pig pen out back and the little chicken house. Through the window I see the kitchen table with apple peels and flour on the cutting board . . . I don’t care to adapt. I stand strong, feet planted on my front porch as the white plume of water thunders down into the valley.”
Diana Cook, on the other hand, uses to great effect the repeated image of a lonely bed as she writes about a mandatory placement home for widows. “In bed I imagine my husband lying beside me, warming the rubber coated mattress, beneath the thin sheet so many women have slept under before me.” The austerity of her story and its meager comforts builds to masterful understatement. “When she returned from the infirmary with tidy stitches to minimize the scarring, she crawled into that same bed where her blood still stained the sheets. If she had been on our floor, I would have changed the sheets for her. And I know the others would have too. That’s what I mean about feeling lucky.”
For all their unifying features, female, dark, and always somewhat twisted, there’s much variety in the thirty-five stories that make up this book. Some will be much more to your taste than others, and that’s part of the fun. Choose Wisely is a great introduction to the very wide range of ways we can look at the feminine experience. It’s the book that made me promise myself I’d read more anthologies in the future.