Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind by Chavisa Woods is a short story collection that took me longer to get through than most others. Chavisa Woods has a way of being difficult with her stories, whether she presents an abstract image or begins in one place and ends somewhere totally different. The more I read, though, the more it became clear that this is not a woman who fits into the collections I’m used to (fiction collections are getting too cute/homogeneous).
She’s different. She’s stops you and makes you think when you thought you wanted to be entertained. And I liked that.
A major theme of the collection is getting rid of what hurts (or escaping it). What hurts might be an actual person, but manifests itself in other ways: a vine taking over a fence, homelessness, a dog, memories, a ladle. What actually hurts is not always obvious, which is where the abstract/philosophical part of this collection comes in. Woods almost demands you pull out a pen and annotate like crazy, taking notes to find themes, develop connections, and start discussions.
In “The Bell Tower” you begin with a tower, an “I,” a book, a child, and a bell (in a tower). Somewhere in the middle the “I” falls in love with a buffalo. But this isn’t a cutesy “let’s see what happens when a person falls in love with a buffalo” story. What you get is a means of escape from threats, a family to replace those threats, the rejection of an uncivilized civilization, the eventual freak “I” becomes when she’s found by society, and, finally, its treatment of her.
Some stories are so counter to what I felt was appropriate behavior (a young girl spoons her mother while the mother has intercourse), but Woods has a way of making the moment seem tender (nothing will ever come between mother/daughter)…and the feelings mixed around like week-old chili in my stomach.
The book isn’t full-out difficult. When Woods writes about children, their innocence can permeate a dark story, like the time a little girl is with her grandmother in church:
“She didn’t think I was listening that day, because I had a new journal I kept writing in all through the sermon. But I was listening. I was taking notes. I even drew a picture of the tower of Babel rising up all the way to heaven from in between two little hills. I showed it to everyone after the service. All the old ladies liked it so much they turned bright red and squealed when I showed them. Grandma said I wasn’t allowed to draw in church after that.”
More often than not, I was puzzling out the messages Woods sent my way, and so time, energy, and a bit of attitude are needed for this highly recommended collection.