Sunday, October 14

Birthday Stories

Here's a weird one: I first saw and browsed Murakami's Birthday Stories in a bookstore in a strange city on my first trip abroad on my birthday a couple of years ago. That day, I think I only read Murakami's contribution to this feast, "Birthday Girl." It's only now that I read the rest of the stories in the collection. Again, after a weird coincidence: I was cleaning out my shelves in the office and this book dropped on my lap, as though from heaven. I don't remember buying it. But after some asking around, the riddle has been solved. Although I suspect I would have been happier if the book really was mine, a sign of the universe's weird sense of humor.

It's difficult to pick which story is my favorite, because there are several. Russell Banks' "The Moor" has a middle aged man walks inside a bar for a drink with the guys and sees an old lady who looked quite familiar. The woman was celebrating her eightieth. On the way out, one of his chaps joke, "An old girlfriend?" The truth isn't that far.

Old ladies seem to be recurring characters in this collection. There's the woman i n Daniel Lyon's "The Birthday Cake," who didn't want to give out her weekly supply of cake to a young mother who was too busy to buy her little girl a cake. The old mother in Ethan Canin's "Angel of Mercy, Angel of Wrath" called her son in another city to tell him that some birds got in her apartment. She never reminded him, and yet waited for him to remember that it was her birthday. Then there's the three old ladies who attended a little boy's birthday party; one of them told the story of "The Emperor Who Had No Skin."

There were at least two stories which hinted at gayness. In William Trevor's "Timothy's Birthday," a young man sends out the sully youth he now lives with in his place for a birthday lunch with this parents. In Claire Keegan's "Close to the Water's Edge," a nineteen year old Harvard student goes to the fancy Florida digs of her mother's millionaire second husband.

Then there's Raymond Carver's heartwrenching "The Bath" (otherwise known as "A Small, Good Thing" in other editions), where a little boy gets hit by a car and goes on coma on his birthday. And while his parents stand guard over him, a furious baker calls and calls their house for the uncollected birthday cake.

Taken together, the stories almost prove that there's no such thing as a "happy birthday." Although they're not entirely pessimistic either. The world may be a bit bleak, and happiness is fleeting and hard to come by, but it does, and when it does make an appearance, you want to hold on to it as hard as you can.

Got to read Birthday Stories (Book #17) for free: Thanks goes to (1) Kinokuniya Bookstore in Bangkok, and (2) to Booboochichang who apparently left this book in my cluttered shelf some time ago.

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