The Monday Book: BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES by Rebecca Lee

World Book Night books tend to be a mixed bag. For those unfamiliar, WBN is an annual celebration of Shakespeare’s birthday, in April, when people sign up to give away a box of twenty books. About 30 different titles are among the giveaways, a mix of new releases, recent bestsellers, and classics.

Also some older, past-best sellers. Last year, we had one giver bring his box back and say, “Forget it. I can’t pay people to take this book.” Ouch, man….

So this year, I was wary of the selection. But as often happens, a few people didn’t pick up their boxes, so we opened them and set them out on a WBN shelf inside our shop door, with a note, “Please take!”

And when Jack and I fled to our cabin for a little R&R over Memorial Day weekend, we grabbed a copy of each. One of these was BOBCAT AND OTHER STORIES, a slim volume that came out in 2013, by Rebecca Lee.

What a pleasant surprise! Literate, feminist-oriented, mostly academic-setting stories that circle the human condition in amazing ways. Lee’s writing is insightful, packing information into tight little sentences. She never insults her readers with too much symbolism or other written equivalents of “see, here’s what you should think about this character, dear little readers.” In fact, her stories are a lot like looking at a puzzle with one piece missing, and her story is the hole defining that piece. Less is more with this writer.

The title story is about a Manhattan dinner party involving authors, a shared editor, spouses and lawyers. It’s pure dead brilliant in capturing the way life hits you from behind while you’re focusing on something else. I also got a big kick out of the subtle author jokes. Yeah, at the drop of a hat we will expound our themes ad infinitum. We know; go ahead; make fun of us….

“The Banks of the Vistula” was one of the funniest (as in oddest) stories about plagiarism ever. “Slatland” turned the wronged wife theme on its head. But my favorite was probably “Min,” exploring the new way in which men, women, arranged marriage, East and West are not so much colliding as just sliding around each other these days. The American protagonist in “Min” is best friends with the Hong Kong-American title character, and winds up choosing his arranged-marriage bride, a Philippine nanny who thinks he’s a creep. The juxtaposition of power relations, history, and basic human feelings in this story provokes the kind of laughter that you later analyze: uhh, should that be funny, or more sad?

Lee’s stories prove that it’s a mad, crazy, mixed-up world where almost every traditionally-defined relationship between people, ethnicities, and nationalities is now up for grabs. Which makes the stories something between scattershot, slapstick and searing.