Books & Reviews

WOMEN WHO SLEEP WITH ANIMALS. Published 2011.  Winner of the 2010 Stephen F. Austin University Press Fiction Prize. Order here.

The nine stories in WOMEN WHO SLEEP WITH ANIMALS offer glimpses of ordinary women and animals in their moments of extremity.

In settings that range from suburbs to wildlife reserves, from the eastern to the western U.S., Norris’s characters negotiate sex, marriage, infidelity, racism, cancer, war, aging and loss with the companionship of each other and the critters—both pets and the wild ones.

Biologists, retail salespeople, artists, professors, wives, mothers, and lovers encounter problems that no one looks for (a bear charges the biologists who study her; a recently divorced woman finds herself in the company of her husband’s lover at a sex toy party).   Moments of revelation feature luck and compassion. Many of Norris’s characters find comfort in their mammalian elements.

Fiction writer, essayist and translator Lore Segal, whose stories have been included in The New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, and the O.Henry Prize Stories, and whose novel Shakespeare’s Kitchen was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008, says, “Lisa Norris writes lusty, generous, sophisticated stories about what is harshest in our lives. What’s more–they’re a pleasure to read.”

According to Kim Barnes, whose novel A Country Called Home won the 2009 PEN USA Literary Award for Fiction and was named Best Book of 2008 by the Washington Post, “Lisa Norris writes with an eloquent mix of celebration and lament about the many stories her characters live in and long for.  It is not just the animals that populate the world of this book that speak to us of beauty and danger but the animal of ourselves, possessed of a visceral hunger that is both physical and emotional.  Women Who Sleep with Animals lays bare our most heartfelt desires:  for intimacy, for community, for connection to that person or place that will, finally, prove to us that, in the words of Raymond Carver, we are beloved on the earth.”

Cover artwork by: Will Stauffer-Norris

REVIEWS OF WOMEN WHO SLEEP WITH ANIMALS

Review from Terrain.Org 33 (Summer 2013) by Rosalie Morales Kearns:

“Nature. You don’t romanticize it,” one character says admiringly to another in Lisa Norris’s short story collection Women Who Sleep with Animals. Indeed, several of the nine stories, set mostly in Virginia, feature painters and photographers who are more likely to use roadkill than bucolic landscapes as their subject matter.

There is no simple equivalence, however, between the characters and their author. Norris’s depiction of nature is too complex, subtle, and intriguing to compartmentalize it neatly as either romanticizing or its opposite.

Certainly the characters take solace from the beauty of forests, mountains, and open spaces, often the subject of the book’s most lyrical passages. “The insects are loud sometimes during a Virginia summer,” a character observes, “and the chorus came up as we sat outside in the darkening woods . . . I dissolved into something that vibrated, hummed, and chirped along with the creatures of the forest.” Out West a character watches as “the sky moved like a series of veils tossed into the wind. The fabric to the west was clear, cloudless, the slanting light of dusk turning it purple. To the east, high anvil-shaped clouds gathered, some gray, others pure white . . . in the rearview mirror I could see gray-black fingers connecting the sky to the earth.”

The author’s stance toward humans and animals, however, is more ambivalent. Norris is unflinching in her descriptions of the human body and its flaws. All of her main characters are women, mostly in their late 40s or 50s, and they’re well aware of their “thickening waists” and “sagging skin.” “I was an ordinary fifty-three,” observes a character, “with the swaybacked look of a woman who’s had a child, belly and thighs softening, dark hair with streaks of gray.”

Norris is similarly matter-of-fact in portraying the characters’ sex lives. Sex scenes in fiction are tricky for authors: the more specific you get, the more difficult it is to strike a balance between embarrassingly coy and off-puttingly vulgar. Norris manages to be explicit without being obscene. In fact, the sex in these stories isn’t even erotic—in some cases because the sexual interaction is so fraught with anxiety, and in one case (the opening story, “Dark Matter”) because the wisecracking narrator and her husband of 21 years are so endearingly funny.

The depictions of animals follow an interesting arc. In the collection’s second story, “Bear B45,” Eva, a research scientist, has to carry out measurements on a hibernating mother bear and her new cubs. “Touching bears is a thrill in itself,” Eva knows. When she crawls into the den to begin the first stage of tranquilizing the animal, she sees “the mother bear’s open eyes, and that’s her reward”; she marvels at the “miracle of biology, the way her metabolism slows almost to nothing as new life emerges from her, beneath the earth.”

It’s easy, at first, to forget this miraculous quality of animals as one moves forward in the collection, as subsequent stories feature animals killed in accidents or for the sake of scientific research. The human characters’ varied reactions to these deaths are skillfully woven into stories involving more familiar human dilemmas like rejection, illness, and disappointment.

In “The Opening,” for example, 53-year-old Diane is unnerved by the callousness of her neighbor, Kay, a painter and photographer. When Kay’s car hits a doe on an icy mountain road, she busies herself taking pictures while Diane has to decide whether to seek help or put a swift end to the deer’s suffering. Gradually we learn that Diane, too, has had lifelong ambitions to paint, and has only begun to eke out time and space for her art: a few hours on Saturday mornings in a corner of her basement.

Since Kay is such an unsympathetic character, the story’s message at first glance seems to be the age-old warning aimed at ambitious women: success comes at a price; you can be successful or happy, but not both. But the story is much more complex than that. Kay, after all, is doing what Diane wants to do: become immersed in her art. And Kay does create truly memorable and beautiful work. The tension isn’t neatly resolved, and the story’s title invites us to contemplate the multiple meanings of the term “opening”—not just the opening night of an artist’s exhibition, but the seizing of an opportunity, the chance to break into something formerly inaccessible, even if it means exploiting an exquisite animal’s harsh fate. (And, a character muses in another story, aren’t we animals, too, “like the ducks with their slippery intestines, their sleek brown livers”?)

As the death toll of fictional animals mounted, I started longing to see them presented as non-abject, either thriving in their own environments or connecting with humans in positive ways. I was rewarded by the title story, the last in the collection. Tammy, the narrator of “Women Who Sleep with Animals,” is a painter, but unlike artists in the other stories, she doesn’t take dead animals as her subject matter. An enormous painting called Spice-scape, for example, features “yellow rectangular spice containers with their red caps opening into a dreamscape of animals: red and blue-checkered elephants with big blue third eyes; a giant tabby cat, curled tail around paws. . . . In a corner of the canvas coiled a rattlesnake of colored threads.”

Though Tammy has been jilted by her husband of 29 years, she derives real joy from her art, from the beauty of the forest surrounding her house, and from the nine cats who live with her. She has achieved what the other protagonists are still striving for. Maybe that’s what allows her to appreciate the mysterious beauty of her animal companions: “The vibrations of their purring,” she says of her cats, “were like the engine that drove the whole world.”

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TOY GUNS (Helicon Nine Press, 1999).  Winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize.

Available from Helicon Nine Press for $12.95 + shipping/handling.

TOY GUNS is a collection of short stories written from multiple perspectives. Norris explores violence in the contemporary American culture using a variety of first- and third-person narrative styles, and through an assortment of colorful characters—most of whom are female. The book’s focus is on the various ways violent experiences can be articulated: violent threats, acts, memories, suggestions, relationships, games, and other situations dominate the tales spun in Toy Guns.

See Reviews and Blurbs for Toy Guns below.

REVIEWS OF TOY GUNS

TOY GUNS: Stories

-Blurbs
-Awards/Nominations
-Reviews
-Denver Post
-Library Journal
-Kansas City Star

Blurbs for Toy Guns

“All ten stories in this disturbing collection revolve around Americans’ passionate devotion to guns, gun-toting, sexually-tinged violence, and the womanly pursuit of power and dignity. From the trailer parks and working-class suburbs of Big Sky Country to vast Alaska and the jungles of the Philippines, these characters – and characters they are, most of them women, some of them girls – walk tightropes. They move through shadows and the dimly lit edges of love, family , marriage and other at-risk relationships. With a sharp eye for irony and the bizarre, the author of these troubling stories lays out a clear, compelling vision of how we live right here and now.” –Al Young, judge

“In Toy Guns, Lisa Norris’s striking debut collection, real dangers occupy the perimeters of all the characters’ lives, and violence – both emotional and physical – is only a heartbeat away. In each wrenching story, we see an America out of control, in love with war; we recognize ordinary people unsure of what to do with tenderness, with their own needs and desires. Finally, we witness, through Norris’s sure and subtle narrative control, the shrinking of perimeters until the dangers lie inside the characters themselves. Toy Guns is smart, fresh, frightening, and ultimately exhilarating.” – Tracy Daugherty

“There are boundaries, and there are those who dare cross them. Lisa Norris is a true literary fence-cutter. Toy Guns is a lively, intrepid book, as wise and harrowing as the American it chronicles.” – Alyson Hagy

“In Lisa Norris’s stories, the world most of us know is rendered with loving precision; people much like those we know have their engagingly realized lives. And yet, as familiar as the territory seems, moments of extreme tension, often violent, rise form the everyday surroundings to test the characters severely. It sometimes turns out that one or another of these characters have been even more severely tested before; noticing this, I see that most of us have been. This is a terrific book.” – Henry Taylor

Nominations/Awards
Toy Guns was…
- winner of the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction prize
- nominated by Joyce Carol Oates for a Pushcart Prize.
- included as one of the Kansas City Star’s Books of the Year (3 Dec 2000).
- chosen as a Sept-Oct “pick” by the Small Press Review, 2000.

and was reviewed in . . .
Ms. April/May 2001
Connections. Fall 2000: 34.
Roanoke Times & World News. 21 January 2001: Horizon 6.
Time Out New York. 30 Nov.- 7 Dec. 2000: 25.
Publishers Weekly. 16 Oct. 2000.
Kirkus. Fall 2000.
Library Journal. November 2000.
Kansas City Star. 29 Oct. 2000.
American: Magazine of American University: 30.
Ruminator Review. Winter 2000-2001: 25.

Reviews of Toy Guns

Denver Post review link: http://extras.denverpost.com/books/toy0121.htm

Violence calls the shots in short stories
By Freddy Bosco_Special to The Denver Post
Toy Guns_By Lisa Norris _Helicon Nine, 142 pages, $12.95

Jan. 21, 2001 – Our culture, equipped as it is with every manner of weapon, was constructed with the possibility of a large measure of violence. Lisa Norris, therefore, has both eyes trained on us. A writer capable of commercial-quality fiction, Norris took 12 years to assemble her collection of short stories, “Toy Guns,” and in it she looks at the impact of violence on women in our culture.

In “Toy Guns,” which won the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize, Norris’ protagonists blend softness with large measures of horror and harsh outcomes. Many of the paperback heroines respond with incredulity to handguns, shotguns and other implements of destruction. As often as mute passivity characterizes the responses of these women, sometimes we find an outspoken indictment on the part of the author.

Norris sees her characters thrust into hopeless situations with a virtual placing of innocent fingers on triggers. She manipulates her subjects deftly, barreling them through impossible circumstances to explosive outcomes, which frequently leave a character reeling from the shock of their violent capabilities, whether they were victims or perpetrators.

Norris presents her thesis in a rich variety of situations, ranging from Virginia to Alaska and the Philippines. Every story, from the scientist who kills ducks to the women who find themselves stranded on a snowy road, comes from a unique perspective. No two stories resemble each other.

The author comes from a life experience of many hats, each worn, we presume, in dead earnestness, that she could now show us a mirror in which we see the small but horrifying ways in which we both express and tolerate violence.

Something in our national character, from the subtle violence of Ellis Island to the blowout of Hiroshima, dances with death in a way that expresses our valuation of life. We have come not only to absorb the horror, but also come to expect it in our daily lives. The pope tours Mile High Stadium in a bullet-proof capsule and we think nothing of it. Our politicians and celebrities live in dread of assassination.

We take small steps toward limiting the proliferation of weapons even as we supply the world with arms. It takes someone as brave as Norris to put on a spectacular display of our relationship to the violence we live with in the smallest of ways. Her characters take on large meaning in the context of the author’s thesis.

One person can only do so much, but Norris has done the work of many.

Freddy Bosco is a Denver-based freelance writer.

Copyright 2001 The Denver Post. All rights reserved._This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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Library Journal
Life is dangerous in Norris’s first collection, which won the 1999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize. There’s no safety even for the innocent, like Joe in “Prisoner of War,” who ends up in the middle of some war games while hiking near his home, or Anna and Beth in “Black Ice,” who take a ride in the mountains and get caught in an ice storm. In the title story, a toy gun leads to a confrontation; in “Stray Dogs,” a young girl lies and steals after being followed by a stray dog; and in “Interior Country,” a woman fleeing her abusive husband ends up witnessing a murder. In the ironic “Trailer People,” a researcher receives consolation from the people being studied, and in “Swimming,” an extra marital affair leads to disaster. Reminiscent of Raymond Carver, these ten stories have a powerful impact that keeps reverberating long after you finish reading them. Highly recommended.–Joshua Cohen, Mid-Hudson Lib. Syst., Poughkeepsie, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.

November 20, 2000, Review from the Kansas City Star by John Mark Eberhart

The trouble with didactic fiction is that the message sometimes overshadows the art. Once in awhile, though, the writer gets the balance exactly right, and the result can be as engaging as it is instructive.

Lisa Norris gets it right with Toy Guns, her debut collection of short stories and the winner of Helicon Nine Editions’ l999 Willa Cather Fiction Prize. Norris is fearless in her exploration of a disquieting subject: The almost casually brutal propensity for violence in contemporary American life. But she does it without sacrificing striking narratives and intriguing characters.

‘Interior Country,’ the opening tale, is a sort of ‘Thelma & Louise’ story without the romanticizing. Two women, both victims of a world of loutish, savage men, meet up in Alaska – and confront, in themselves, the very thing they profess to fear and hate. ‘I’ve been knocked around all my life,’ says Roxanne, armed with a firearm but perhaps no longer armed with her sanity. ‘I don’t mean to be knocked around no more,’ she tells Cory, a younger woman whose timidity Roxanne seeks to shatter by forcing her to face some terrible realities.

‘American Primitive’ uses events and images far less explicit than a gun-toting woman on the loose in Alaska, but it’s still a devastating story. Betsy, a young American girl, trembles in fear of ‘headhunters’ while traveling through the Philippines with her family. But the real enemy is within, personified by her drunken, insensitive father and a mother perhaps too submissive to step in and stop her daughter’s suffering.

One of the finest stories of the collection, though, is ‘Prisoners of War,’ in which a disabled, retired bookstore owner meets up with a group of thuggish young men playing paintball war games in the Idaho mountains. Is this really an ROTC training session, or is there a more malign force at work here, perhaps a hate montering militia group? Norris builds dramatic tension out of the ambiguity while simutaneously commenting on the difficulty these days in discerning good in any kind of violence, government-sanctioned or not.

‘Black Ice,’ the 10th and final story in the book, turns a simple road mishap in wintry conditions into a metaphor for survival and kinship.

Norris, who lives in Virginia, has written not only a great first book, but also a great book, period. Once again, the Kansas City-based Helicon Nine has discovered a fine new literary voice.

Cover artwork by: Linda Tross