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The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser book review

The Crane Wife by CJ Hauser book review

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In an oft-told story from Japanese folklore, an enchanted bird marries a man. There are many variations of the story, but the one that CJ Hauser tells in the title essay of her new collection, “The Crane Wife”, involves a creature that picks out the feathers every night to preserve her marriage, to trick her husband into believing she is human. It is a love of self-erasure, one that is painful to think about.

Hauser knows how this feels: In this personal essay, which first appeared in the Paris Review in 2019, she writes about having broken off her engagement to a man who treated her badly – in Hauser’s good at telling, almost comically, that is. Like the bird, Hauser distorted herself and tried to rise above behavior that she eventually could not endure. The essay went viral, creating a bidding war for this book. “The Crane Wife” is now appearing along with 16 additional essays, many of them deeply personal, and largely exploring questions of love.

The mourning essay is, or should perhaps be, a genre in itself. Getting it right seems to involve an alchemy that intertwines personal loss with metaphorical – and often quota-like – parallels, all in beautiful prose. Bonus points for lifting the pain with a little humor. Hauser’s story of breaking up with her unfaithful, gas-lit fiancé, and then finding mercy while studying the binoculars off the Gulf Coast of Texas, struck all those notes. It brought to mind favorites in this genre, such as Leslie Jamison’s “The Empathy Exams” and Kathryn Schulz’s “When Things Go Missing.”

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The one marriage book I wish I had read before my wedding

Hauser is a playful, energetic and always sympathetic author, and asking if the rest of the collection rises to the level of the title essay is possibly the wrong question. Themes include a visit to a robot conference, her love of the musical “The Fantasticks” and various relationships. Although the cumulative effect of reading these essays one after the other ultimately affects, it sometimes feels incoherent along the way. It is difficult to fully appreciate her deconstruction of the TV show “The X Files”, for example, or her analysis of the classic film “The Philadelphia Story” without first going back to the source material.

This is less a critique than an existential question about the nature of the essay collections: Are they meant to be read sequentially, or are they more like a restaurant menu, where one chooses according to appetite, mood and the waiter’s recommendation?

Hauser leans into this issue: “I do not want to bring these threads together for you,” she declares, referring to how the story of following a friend to a fertility clinic relates to one about a man who drove her through the park during the lilac season. , or another about considering breast reduction surgery. ‘I do not want to bring them together for myself. It took so much work for me to separate them. And I do not want to put them back together to be narratively satisfying … “

Life these days is a symphony of sorrow and celebration. Kathryn Schulz puts it into words.

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The point taken. Hauser, who teaches creative writing at Colgate University and is the author of two novels, sets his own rules, both in a personal and narrative sense. In the essay “The Two-Thousand-Pound-Bee”, for example, she weaves various threads that include her grandparents’ idyllic apparent life at Martha’s Vineyard, “Saturday Night Live” Killer Bees sketches with John Belushi and poetic reflections on her biological clock, in disagreement , beautiful and sometimes sad tones. “Will I ever be young and beautiful and pregnant by the sea? I do not want, I do not want, I do not want. “

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A unique essay, “The Fox Farm”, explores the author’s house occupation and the meaning of the home. She interviews a handful of children to ask what their ideal home might look like. One responds: “I want thirty ducks”, another “draws a space station where there is one room full of golden retrievers.” Another child just says, “I’m going to sleep on an apple.”

Hauser combines this lightness with descriptions of a cruel break that left her gutted, sobbing in a subway at midnight. In the best New York City way, she is largely ignored, until a passenger notices the creature on her lap. “Yeah, is that a chinchilla?” he asks, ignoring her tears. “It’s fresh!” (It was a chinchilla.) His humor pulls her out of her joint, and she teases a metaphor of seeing his departure into the next car: “It never occurred to me that a person could open these doors, could move between spaces even while the subway thinned out. ”

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In this collection, Hauser follows that man’s leadership, and embarks on an exploration journey that is very different from the one she had envisioned before she went on the central trip to the Gulf Coast. With its honest explorations of sexuality, grief, and other intimate topics, this book may not be for everyone. (It includes a detailed trigger warning.) Still, I kept thinking about all the people in my life in whose hands I can not wait to add “The Crane Wife.”

Susan Coll’s sixth novel, “Bookish People,” will be published in August.

Double day. 320 pp. $ 27.95

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