Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Bigness of the World by Lori Ostlund

"However can you understand the bigness of the world if you do not see the ocean?"-Ilsa Martin Lumpkin

Like a few of the other books I reviewed of late, I discovered Lori Outland’s The Bigness of the World (The University of Georgia Press, 2009) as a result of its being nominated as a Lambda Literary Award finalist. This work also received the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction in 2008, which resulted in its publication by the University of Georgia Press.

Let me say it outright: this book is such a good read that I am a wee bit afraid that I might smother it with praise! For praise it deserves. Ms. Ostlund, who I will dub as a consummate wordsmith, has the ability to instantly draw you into each story with such precision and ease that you might actually think this is your world too. Let me explain. Every story feels like it is being told to you by someone you know, someone you’ve know or thought about, or better still, someone you think you’d like to know.

It is obvious that her experience as a teacher in Spain, Malaysia and New Mexico becomes the canvass on which she paints her simple and oftentimes touching pictures of people and how they transact life, not only with each other, but with the world at large.

The title story opens the book, and we are introduced to Martin and Veronica. He is ten, (a number that reappears often in the stories), and she is eleven, going on twelve. These two delightfully precocious children live in a household with parents who are busily engaged in activities that, to their children, seem “nebulous at best”.

Because the parents are rarely home, the two children are put under the care of Ilsa Maria Lumpkin. The children adore her, and love her amusingly idiosyncratic ways. In one scene, we are told that Ilsa sings Chinese opera to them as. Their parents question this, and Martin and Veronica reveal that she really isn’t singing in Chinese, “she just makes it up.” Much to their dismay, Ilsa is let go for a silly indiscretion, and the children are now left, as they are suddenly old enough, to find more about these stranger called parent, and about Ilsa.

As this tale unfolds, and in the others that follow, we are introduced to many musings on words and how they are used, something that makes the book a continuously delicious read. We also discover the irony inherent in many of our dealings with others, and are given a variety of insights into what people would like their world to be, and how it really is.

How Martin and Veronica view their parents, and, in turn, the world at large sets the stage for an entire cast of characters that inhabit the ten other stories that follow. We get to meet other children, their teachers and parents, as well as just plain folks who happen to cross paths at the same point in time.

Another story, Idyllic Little Bali, finds a group of Americans tourists in Yogyakarta, Indonesia gathered together, drinking, and telling each other about their "oddest brush with fame." A man named Martin joins them after he is stopped on the street, and he lets them know that "Ted Bundy used to be my parents' paperboy?", obviously unsure of their intent. It now becomes Martin's story, and what a story it is. Clearly still waters run deep with him as he slowly sheds his awkwardness with the others. As a result of a rather hastily made decision, and in his absence, Martin becomes their friend, but he never knows it.

I could continue, story by story, but why spoil the fun of discovery? With titles like, Talking Fowl With My Father, Nobody Walks To The Mennonites, and The Children Beneath the Seat, you can only imagine what this talented, witty story teller will reveal next.

Humor abounds in these wonderful stories. I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions. There is also a considerable amount of discomfort to be found here as well, but it is a discomfort that comes from our knowing exactly how someone is feeling, even if that someone happens to be a child. We were all there once in one way or another, and it is this quality, I believe, that makes this particular collection of stories truly memorable.

Is this a Lesbian book? Not in the traditional sense. Clearly there is a lesbian sensibility present, and there are certainly many references to being so, some that are truly hilarious. I’d rather say that these slices of life are about us, whoever we are. What really matters is that this book is a rare find, one that I know you will love, so don’t miss it.

Next time I am going to be reviewing Vestal McIntyre’s Lambda Literary Award winning Lake Overturn.

Remember, books not only entertain us, but they open windows to our lives-so, happy reading.

Visit for previous reviews and other interesting LGBT things to do, and tune into my Gay and Lesbian Book Talk show on This week I will be talking with Amy Dawson Robertson, author of Miles to Go. Don't miss it.

Robert Jaquay,

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