Alterations by Rita Plush
Synopsis (introduction by the author): Many of these stories hark back more than fifty years, unwritten stories that lived in me the way stories do, as a bit of memory – a certain smell, the turn of a head, or the particular sound of a voice. Or, in the case of “Love, Mona,” in a quilted dime-store night table and a sleeping Mexican painted on a cupboard door. My Brooklyn stories were told through the eyes of a child growing up with the rumble of the El along 86th Street, walking with her mother in her big-shouldered mouton coat, as she did her errands and talked with the shopkeepers. The walkup apartment house where she lived with her family, the damp steamy smell of the lobby where the metal taps on her shoes made a satisfying clicking sound as she ran up and down the marble steps. The seamstress in her apartment building, her friend’s father who seldom spoke, the people her parents knew, the relatives – her ear pressed to the wall, hearing talk that was not for her to hear – the people they spoke of in Yiddish so the child would not understand.
Decades later, they called to me, the memory of them morphing, changing, altering, becoming characters that were and were not them. And I kept writing about the loving and sometimes mysterious bonds of family. I dressed my characters, gave them habits and a particular way to speak, and put them down on the pages, wanting things they could not have, remembering things they wanted to forget. They mended and they sewed, they owned stores and boutiques, they jerry-made contraptions and carved dollhouse furniture. They dug in the dirt and planted tomatoes, they hunted for bear and did a jigsaw puzzle in a far off mountain cabin. Makers and fixers, they had the creative qualities derived from my parents and passed down to me.
Beginning with Frances, the young child grieving for her mother in “Love, Mona,” these stories come full circle to Rusty in “Feminine Products,” pregnant but unmarried, desperate to make a family for her unborn child. Family is a recurrent theme in my stories. I hope they keep you turning pages, interested and entertained as the characters become ‘altered’ by their circumstances and continue to make their way in life.
This collection is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alterations-Rita-Plush/dp/1938758153 and http://www.amazon.com/Alterations-Rita-Plush/dp/1938758153.
This collection consists of eighteen stories, averaging at just under ten pages each with the titles of: Brooklyn Brisket; Soup; Love, Mona; Dance with Me; Halter Tops and Pedal Pushers; Alterations; The Blatts; Queen of Sheba; Keria; Odette; Red Dress and Curls; Mixed Bag; No Raving Beauty; Turnaround; Going by the Book; What He Had; Signs; and Feminine Products. I’m a titles fan so it’s an intriguing mixture.
Quite often with a collection, I’ll read the shortest pieces first or the ones whose titles grab me most, but this time (and easier when reading onscreen), I’ve read them in the order the author intended.
Brooklyn Brisket: I guessed from the title that this would be based in New York, and having had an aunt (by marriage) from there, I ‘listened’ to it in her accent. This is a very short but charming story, written in vivid detail and I was picturing the events as they happened. The rapport between the mother and daughter shines through and sets the scene for the rest of the collection.
Soup: Again we go back to the ten-year-old narrator and more food (I’m typing this as I read and was due to have some of my housemate’s order-in pizza but he decided he wasn’t hungry but I am when reading this story!) and as well as well as the child and her mother, we have her father and grandmother and again, their characteristics fill the page.
Love, Mona: I assume the narrator is the same as here we find out her name, Frances but then the mother is absent (and I realised early on why from the dialogue) and I wasn’t sure who Mona and Paul were to begin with but then we find out they’re neighbours (I would have liked this a little earlier). I found this story a little confusing at times and, though sadder than the previous two stories, it has another “ahh” ending.
Dance with Me: After three first-person point of view stories, this one switches to third-person. Again it’s about a detached family and is told in a touching manner with the focus again being a young girl, this time named Cynthia. Having a father who’s no longer around myself, it touched a nerve with me, and I’m sure anyone reading this story will empathise with Cynthia wanting to reclaim what is lost. My favourite story so far.
Halter Tops and Pedal Pushers: Another quite poignant tale, full of humility, vivid description and likeable (and not so likeable) characters.
Alterations: There’s an innocence to most of these stories and this carries on in this, the collection’s title piece. I love quirky writing (Kate Atkinson excels at this) and in this story I loved the line, ‘What was a man and his phone number doing inside Mrs T’s mouth?’ Superb. Circular poetry works well where a theme at the start is repeated at the end but the meaning has changed because of what has taken place in the middle and the same happens with this story. You’ll have to read it to find out what and why.
The Blatts: This was one of the titles that intrigued me. We return to first-person and another reflective piece and the difference between two households, and given that all these stories are slices of life, highlighting how different each one of those is, although in many slivers of sadness and hope.
Queen of Sheba: Another mother / daughter third-person tale, this tells of another absent father and the effect his absence brings. There is humour amongst the sadness and a learning curve for the characters.
Keria: This piece features another funeral and as the title of the collection suggests, alterations to the characters lives. The ‘keria’ in question is a scarf rather than a person and as with other stories here, we are shared some of the Jewish customs as well as being introduced to Lois and her extended family.
Odette: Odette is the subject of this story, and again a female protagonist. This story has a fantastical element to it and is intriguing before becoming, as many fairy tales are, dark and sinister, and I think one of the cleverest stories in this collection.
Red Dress and Curls: One of the many things I like about this collection is the mixture of dialogue and description. Many writers become engrossed in description, and dialogue is often a token addition, but Ruth balances both, interspersing the small amounts of description with engaging and realistic dialogue, which makes her characters come to life – in this story a man and woman, Thomas and Julia, in a café, and as poignant as I’ve come to expect.
Mixed Bag: A similar story, this time with a couple in an ‘old and antique’ shop but again about relationships that are far from smooth. This piece, however, is one of the ‘ah’ endings, really sweet.
No Raving Beauty: Another family piece, except this time we have a younger mother who has escaped her family for the day and has some pampering (that would be nice :)) which doesn’t go quite to plan.
Turnaround: Just for a change, we have a male protagonist, still involving a family but it’s more about his past catching up with him. It’s a very different story to the rest but intriguing and quick-paced with great characters and an interesting plot.
Going by the Book: My geography of America is fairly poor (not helped by the fact that I’ve never been) so I love reading about it. The collection started with New York and here we have Utah, Idaho and Montana mentioned as the first three words. This piece continues a thread from the previous one where a character mentioned but never visible has become our protagonist. As an aforementioned non-US aficionado, the accents flood through in many of these stories, the mention of ‘Mama’ and the dialogue used, I can imagine this piece being read to me.
Damaged House: A story not listed in the index, this switches back to the DIY-able protagonist, Jack Paul, from ‘Turnaround’ and I like the fact that it does this, especially given the ending of the previous story. I love the ending to this story especially because I love it when inanimate objects become characters in their own right.
What He Had: Jack Paul returns in this story with his hunt for his ex-wife and daughter, mentioned in the earlier stories and the ‘house’ he’d been creating.
Signs: The penultimate story introduces us to two new characters, Rusty (female) and Walter, and then two characters mentioned before but like Hank earlier, revealed to us in this story. I was a little confused how the pairs connected but by the end it’s explained, or better still, shown.
Feminine Products: As per the latter stories, we again read about familiar characters, this time Rusty and Walter again, and another story with history repeating.
Beautifully laid out – with two birds holding a piece of material at the start of each story, with headings in 1920s / 1930s fonts – and very touchingly and skilfully written, this collection weaves through the lives of various families, mostly through the eyes of young female protagonists.
Although the introduction explains that the theme is family, which is evident, I’ve picked on a sub-theme of breasts and brassieres running through this collection, or maybe it’s just my strange mind picking up on them being mentioned on quite a regular basis. It’s not a criticism but like anything that leaps out to a reader, it was a distraction from the writing which was a shame.
Readers should be educated as they read and I feel I was with this interesting collection. Some featured small families and at other times, extended family members (especially during the funeral scenes). I know it’s not the same, but it had a feel of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, one of my favourite movies.
All in all though, a joy (and often sad) to read.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Based in Northamptonshire, England, Morgen Bailey (“Morgen with an E”) is a prolific blogger, podcaster, editor / critiquer, Chair of NWG (which runs the annual H.E. Bates Short Story Competition), Head Judge for the NLG Flash Fiction Competition and creative writing tutor for her local county council. She is also a freelance author of numerous ‘dark and light’ short stories, novels, articles, and very occasional dabbler of poetry. Like her, her blog, http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com, is consumed by all things literary. She is also active on Twitter, Facebook along with many others (listed on her blog’s Contact page). She also recently created five online writing groups and an interview-only blog.
Her debut novel is the chick lit eBook The Serial Dater’s Shopping List ($0.99 / £0.77) and she has six others (mostly crime) in the works. She also has eight collections of short stories available (also $0.99 / £0.77 each) – detailed on http://morgenbailey.wordpress.com/books-mine/short-stories.
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