Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing
Stories by Lydia Peele
Pick an adjective, any adjective. Something like breathtaking, exquisite, incredible, moving, phenomenal. Every single one of them is apropos to describe Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing, Lydia Peele’s collection of what are eight superbly crafted and engaging short stories
Where in the world has Lydia Peele been my entire reading life? She’s quickly become one of my favorite authors, just on the strength of this collection alone. (This is her first book.) There isn’t a weak story among them; they are all wonderfully crafted.
I was browsing in the library stacks when I spotted this one, having never heard of Lydia Peele. It was only when I took it off the shelf that I realized it was a Harper Perennial book, which instantly made it a must-read for me. (If you’re not following Beth Fish Reads’ feature on the Harper Perennial imprint, you are missing some great book suggestions. So far, all of the HP books I’ve read have been stellar.)
The best way I can convey how lyrical Peele’s writing is within these stories is to let her words speak for themselves (which will make this a long post for a short book, but I think and I hope you’ll find it is well worth it for the incredible writing alone).
The jacket copy describes “Mule Killers” as a story that “evokes the end of an era and of a grandfather’s dreams when he decides to replace animal power on his farm with tractors.” But it is also about what happens between a father and son when certain decisions need to be made.
“My grandfather stares hard at my father’s knee and is quiet a long time.
‘You done her wrong,’ he says. Repeats it. ‘ You got no choice but to take care of it. You done her wrong.’
In those days this was my grandfather’s interpretation of the world: A thing was either right or it was wrong. Or so it seemed to my father, and he was getting tired of it.
‘No, sir,’ he says, lips tight. ‘That’s not what I intend. I’m in love with someone else.’ He takes a breath. ‘I’m gonna marry Eula Parker.’ Even as he speaks her name he is startled by this statement, like it is a giant carp he has yanked from the depths of the river. It lies on the step before both of them, gasping.
My grandfather looks at him with sadness rimming his eyes and says quietly, ‘You should’ve thought of that before.”
“Phantom Pain” is about a taxidermist who is getting used to the idea of a different sort of life, one with a prosthetic leg, one with a wife who has left him, and one where the land he has known for a lifetime is changing, and where reported and imagined sightings of a cougar (a panther? a mountain lion? reports vary) are traumatizing a town. Phantom pain takes many forms, as we realize in this story.
There are several kinds of “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.” In this story, two teenage girls work on a horse farm during a coming-of-age summer where they learn about riding and caring for ponies, but also about the true motives of their boss and the wealthy women who visit him under the pretense of riding their horses.
“I watched your hand grope out from under the blanket, reaching toward his. And I saw him hold it. He held it with both hands. Of course I was jealous, and still am. You must still have that scar to remind you of that summer. I have nothing I can point to, nothing I can touch.”
“The Still Point” is the story I would choose if I had to pick just one favorite of all of these. Peele shines in this story with every single element, but most especially of her descriptions of carnival life, which is the life that a still-grieving-twin brother has known for many years. You truly feel as if you are walking down the midway of a state fair (and in the shoes of the narrator, who sells “antiques” at the fair) by reading Peele’s prose.
“The people come, as they always do. In spite of the heat, the humidity, the exhaust-colored sky, they come dropping coins and car keys, yanking kids along by the wrists, eating funnel cake with their eyes on the Ferris wheel, their dogs locked in hot cars. I sit behind the table and watch them, the same faces making the rounds, hell-bent like they’re searching for something. It’s always the same, everywhere. I watch boys and men clamor in Dub’s tent, T-shirts in their fists, throwing their money at him. I hear the clang of the bell at the Test Your Strength booth, the shouts of the barkers, hollers from the rickety Tempest, screams from the Gravitron every time the floor drops. The bleeps and buzzes and techno bass beats of the games. Eyes pass over my table and move on, looking for something bright and new. A hot air balloon rises on the horizon, hovers red and stark against the steel-gray sky. People stop to point it out to one another, causing traffic jams on the paths. Something about it makes me uneasy. It looks like it has come to judge us.”
No, I changed my mind. The title story “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing” is my favorite. (I found myself saying this with each story in this collection and finally decided to give up trying to choose a favorite. Kind of like choosing a favorite kid.) This one, about a woman in the early stages of accepting that her husband has left her, probably permanently and not without some accompanying dyfunction and emotional abuse, strikes up a friendship with a herpetologist at a local university.
“Most nights, I don’t sleep. Instead I lie in bed and page through my list of dread and regret, starting with my childhood and ending with the polar ice caps. Everything in between I file into something like schoolroom cubbies, marked with labels like DISASTER and DESIRE. When my husband left, he told me he hadn’t been happy in years. Happy? I thought. We’re supposed to be happy? I was under the impression that no one was truly happy, given the raw materials we have to work with in this life.”
And this gorgeous bit of prose, after she helps the herpetologist euthanize a snake: “All night, I lie awake in the light of the bedside lamp, studying my hands. What was it, exactly, that I felt pass out of the snake? The one thing I know for certain: I’ve witnessed a slight parting of the curtain that hangs over the unknown. By morning I feel a bloom of gratitude for this, which I wear, a bright badge, pinned to my chest for days.”
Have I sold you on these short stories yet? Seriously, they are so good. These passages are truly the tip of the richness of Lydia Peele’s writing in these stories. If I haven’t convinced you, read on. If I have, consider these next three an appetizer sampler for your main literary course.
“This is Not a Love Story” was a love story, once upon a time, or so the mother who narrates the story once thought. It’s now a story of being haunted by one’s past, even as it is right in front of you.
“It is a reckless venture, motherhood. I know you can’t hang onto them forever, but it’s downright crazy when you think about it: you take such good care of them – you trim their tiny fingernails so carefully when they are babies, you make sure they drink their milk and eat their vegetables and look both ways before crossing, you minister to every scrape and bruise, and then they turn eighteen – that’s it – you just turn them out into the wilderness.”
And these: “When people talk about the South being haunted, it’s true. But it’s not the places that are haunted, it’s the people. They are trapped by all the stories of the past, wandering a long hallway lined with locked doors, knocking and knocking, with no one ever answering. No one ever will. That’s the thing about the past. The closest you can get to it is stories, and stories don’t even come close.”
“Kidding Season” is about a kid named Charlie from Red Bank, NJ who travels to what he believes is the promised land of opportunity on the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina. En route, he stops at and begins working on a farm, tending goats owned by a woman named Lucy. This story, like so many of these, has elements of Flannery O’Connor in them (which could explain why I love them so much).
And finally, “Shadow on a Weary Land,” which is probably my least favorite of all of them (but hey, one out of 8 isn’t bad!) It’s about what happens to the residents of a town when the land around them is being developed for new homes, and their elusive quest for fortune and fame.
I know many people aren’t as fond of short stories as I am. But if I had one collection to offer as a reason to give this genre a try, Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing would be it. There are many reasons and many advantages to indulging in the work of Lydia Peele. Speaking for myself, I’m hoping I won’t have to wait much longer to feast on more.
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