A review of Curiosity Killed the Sphinx, and Other Stories by Katherine L. Holmes

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Curiosity Killed the Sphinx, and Other Stories
by Katherine L. Holmes
Hollywood Books International (Press Americana) 
2012, ISBN 978-0-9829558-3-3

Curiosity Killed the Sphinx, and Other Stories is Katherine L. Holmes’ debut collection of short stories. The unifying element is the Minnesota setting, but the stories are not linked like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Five were published in literary magazines. Holmes has a Master of Arts in Writing from the University of Minnesota and has won the Loft Children’s Literature Prize and the Prize Americana.

Holmes likes to use language vividly and originally. Cars “crept to the curb on tire tiptoe”; a woman walks in a “toothache of time”. Holmes also uses patterns of imagery to convey her themes. In one of my favourite stories, “Nuts and Bolts”, a childfree couple choose not to spend a holiday with friends – the “same old bunch” with a third baby among them, but to stay in the city together. The wife, however (the character from whose point of view the story is conveyed) is assailed with images of children throughout the day. On their way to a city swimming pool they pass a basement window “at the height where a toddler can be a peeping Tom”. They see a “baby weight cat”. The pool is full of children. A boy taunts them with a condom. The wife remembers playing dolls with Grandma, not because she liked dolls, but because Grandma did. She also recalls how she and other neighbourhood children burned her dustmop doll – her baby – as a witch.

Both husband and wife grew up in families of “chaos, crises and grievance”, and together they have created an adulthood that “has the independence and happiness of an ideal childhood. They accomplished a genuine dignity at home. After that, they became carefree, even spoiled.”

Getting to the nuts and bolts of something means getting to the basics, figuring out how things work. At the beginning of the story, the husband is making the snack treat “nuts and bolts”, as capably as his wife does, showing that their marriage is one of equality with no strict division of labour based on gender. Later, at the zoo, they see a man throwing actual metal nuts and bolts onto a polar bear to torment it. After reporting him to security, the couple returns home to prepare for an elderly neighbour coming to dinner – details that show their social responsibility and kindness.

The day’s experiences validate their choice to be childfree, yet at the end, the wife anticipates a boring evening with the elderly guest, and later, a stake-out for the bicycle thief in the light of the ‘bright, barren, good for nothing moon.'” Perhaps these final negative images of their life are there to balance the many negative images of children earlier on, to show all sides of being childfree. OR are they to show the wife’s ambivalence about their choice?

Sometimes when an author constructs a James Joyce-style epiphany story, the moment of truth at the end is not justified by the events leading up to it. The couple’s entire day affirmed their decision to remain childless, so why the negative epiphany? Joyce’s famous story “Araby,” in Dubliners, has been criticized for a similar reason – the boy’s reaction at the end is too drastic for what he has experienced.

The incongruity between a story’s events and the insight/revelation/epiphany at the end happens again in “The Strange and the Deja Vu”, though to a lesser extent. In “The Strange and the Deja Vu”, a divorced, middle-aged journalist, Hildy, visits her parents, siblings and their offspring at the family home on Memorial Day weekend. Photos of her siblings’ children, and samplers (an inlaw’s craft) have replaced the wall decorations from her childhood. One of her sisters has undergone a sea change in her politics. Hildy’s social worker brother asks her if she is still on a work search, as if she were a case. When her father complains about her infrequent visits home, and disparages her recent articles, Hildy refrains from exposing an affair he had that she knows about.

To escape them, and try to find something of her own past, Hildy goes for a walk along her old paper route and is greeted by an older woman acquaintance coming out of her house. The elderly woman praises Hildy’s recent articles in a city paper, and invites her in for coffee. Coming up the walk, Hildy hurts her ankle. There is the possibility that Hildy will be uplifted and affirmed by this parent-substitute’s praise, but uppermost in her mind is her dismay that she will be sitting as the “stationary person in her parents’ household” for a day or more. Yet, however “stationary” Hildy may be because of her foot injury, and however stalled her family makes her feel, she is not “stationary” with regard to her life and career, and I wish, in the final sentence, that she would recognize this reality.

“Still Life” shows an interesting image pattern and word play involving fruit and vegetables, mainly plums. Clayton, a retired teacher brooding over some health concerns, watches his daughter-in-law put plums and other fruit and vegetables on a platter and worries that her marriage to his son is crumbling. The previous night, under a plum-coloured sky, his son was argumentative. “Plum” is used a couple of times as an adjective to mean “completely”. Clayton muses that a teacher’s kid is always regarded as “store-bought fruit put out with its rotten parts hidden.” Will Mark lose Maya to Van, an art teacher? Clayton categorizes people as “smug plums” and speaks of “grafted marriages.” His desire to see inside things is shown when he slices the squash in the still life arrangement. In the end, he decides to “trust his young.”

Unfortunately, at the beginning of “Still Life’, it is hard for the reader to sort out the characters. We wonder if “he” and “she” are husband and wife, since they are together in a home. Then Mark is mentioned, a separate person from “he.” Later we realize that “she” is Mara and that “he”, the point of view character, is Mark’s father, but we do not learn his name, Clayton, until late on.

In the May 2012 Writer’s Digest, in “A Case of False Suspense”, Peter Selgin says that readers are too often “treated to the…dubious thrill of wondering, for instance, in what part of the world a scene is taking place,… who are the characters…and how are they related to each other.” Selgin says that “capricious withholding” of information shows an author’s lack of confidence “in a story’s ability to generate authentic suspense.”

Two of the stories, “That Number Again” and “The Larger Concern” seemed too long for the point being made. The central character in “The Larger Concern”, a smoker who procrastinates about quitting, has an insight at the end which he could have had sooner. In “That Number Again”, the point-of-view character, Rosetta, spends an evening with an old lover who tells her about a strange day in which the number 31 kept coming up. He considered 21 his unlucky number because his thirty-first year was the worst of his life. Now 36, he is starting a new job. Rosetta is an authority on Inca quipu knots, which are based on a calendar of the stars, but he never asks about her work. Her personal mental calendar has several memorable dates – her age when they first met, her age when he said he no longer loved her, and her age when he married someone else. Now divorced, he finishes his story and tells her it’s good to see her again. She responds by saying that the milk from his fridge is sour. The reader doesn’t have to read to the end to get this man’s number; that is, to get thoroughly soured on him and his self-centredness.

If a story demonstrates a mastery of the essentials of storytelling, its “goodness” is pretty much a matter of a reader’s personal taste. All a writer can do is master the basics and tell the story the way it wants to be told. Recently a short story contest judge in my home town, Ottawa, Canada, stated at an awards ceremony that he didn’t like surprise endings. So much for O. Henry and other clever authors. Recently I was considering sending a story to a literary magazine until I read the guidelines forbidding any rural stories set in the past. Does that mean that all rural stories of bygone years are bad? Only in the mind of one editor.

One of the good things about a short story collection is that if the reader doesn’t like one story, s/he can try another. A novel is another level of commitment.

I read somewhere lately that short stories are “in”, again. As a short story writer, I wish Katherine L. Holmes success with Curiosity Killed the Sphinx.

In 2011, Ruth Latta won the “Northern Lit” Award from Ontario (Canada) Library Services North for her short story collection, Winter Moon, (Ottawa, Baico, 2010, baico@bellnet.ca)

For information about reviewer Ruth Latta’s writing, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com.