Things You Should Know: A Collection of Stories


In this stunningly original collection, A. M. Homes writes with terrifying compassion about the things that matter most. Homes's distinctive narrative illuminates our dreams and desires, our memories and losses, and demonstrates how extraordinary the ordinary can be. With uncanny emotional accuracy, wit, and empathy, Homes takes us places we recognize but would rather not go alone.

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In this stunningly original collection, A. M. Homes writes with terrifying compassion about the things that matter most. Homes's distinctive narrative illuminates our dreams and desires, our memories and losses, and demonstrates how extraordinary the ordinary can be. With uncanny emotional accuracy, wit, and empathy, Homes takes us places we recognize but would rather not go alone.

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Editorial Reviews

Michael Cunningham
“A.M. Homes never plays it safe and it begins to look as if she can do almost anything.”
Andrea Barrett
Haunting, disturbing, often radiantly intense, these protean storieschange shape as if they are made of fire.
Robert Stone
“A. M. Homes is certainly among the most important young writers working now”
Publishers Weekly
Homess first collection since 1990s much-praised The Safety of Objects offers 11 sharply original portraits of domestic life: the distance between family members, the minor wars between friends and lovers. Written over the last decade, with several stories previously published in glossies and literary magazines, this volume confirms Homess reputation as an expert stylist and unique chronicler of suburban drama. Conception takes a strange turn in Georgica, as a woman recovering from an accident fixates on the golden boys of the beach and plots to make one of them the father of her child. The narrator of The Chinese Lesson finds his sympathy for his confused, homesick mother-in-law, Mrs. Ha, has alienated him from his wife, who has spent her life trying not to be Chinese. In the title piece, a fourth-grade teachers list of things you already should know but maybe are a little dumb, so you dont becomes an obsession for the narrator, who missed school the day it was supposedly handed out. A shape-shifting woman who visits the insouciant, anorexic girl of Raft in Water, Floating finds her own story in The Weather Outside Is Sunny and Bright. Not much happens in it"she goes to her job (architectural forensics ), visits her mother in a nursing home, takes a bath and casually exercises her powers"but the story feels full anyway, replete with a strange magic. Its precisely this sort of thing that makes Homes so good. (Sept. 6) Forecast: Homess reputation alone should guarantee strong sales. The planned July release of the film version of The Safety of Objects, starring Glenn Close and Dermot Mulroney, would have helped, but the release date has been pushed to spring 2003. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Twelve years after her debut, The Safety of Objects, Homes once again unearths the dark side of domestic life in a handful of disturbing pieces, Here, relationships and emotions are scrutinized within abnormal situations. The stories present a series of uniquely memorable characters: a woman who spies on young couples making love and who tries a bizarre method of impregnation, a shape-shifter who can transmogrify into various animal and human forms, a young boy whose idyllic summer is jolted by an accident, an anxious man who wants desperately but futilely to enjoy life, and a former President of the United States afflicted with Alzheimer's. Homes's storytelling is hypnotic, allowing the reader a peek into the exotic thoughts and worlds of people we do not normally meet in literature. Despite the oddness of the stories, readers are still able to identify with the characters. Engaging and dynamic, Homes's writing is remarkably surreal. Recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/02.] Colleen Lougen, Mt. St. Mary Coll. Lib., Newburgh, NY Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A second collection from Homes (after The Safety of Objects, 1990, coming soon to a theater near you) is focused as usual on suburban angst and extreme behavior. This author's particular gifts are generally better displayed in novels, where her penchant for shock effects is tempered by a covert compassion that's usually only evident in the longer run. We glimpse it here in the more controlled stories: "The Chinese Lesson" is rich in geographic and social detail as it limns a shaky marriage between a couple uneasily transplanted to Larchmont from Manhattan (further frazzled by the presence-and worrying absences-of the wife's "slowly evaporating" mother). The same glimpse can be gotten in "The Former First Lady and the Football Star," a bleak but oddly tender imagining of what Nancy Reagan's life is like now with Alzheimer's-afflicted Ronnie. "Rockets Round the Moon" is initially even better: the 12-year-old narrator, shunted aside by his self-absorbed divorced parents, has taught himself "to be a person whom people like to have around." He clings to the seeming normalcy of his father's next-door neighbors until an out-of-the-blue accident dislocates them too and leads to a gory climax that Homes blows off in her most annoying manner. There are other irritants. Why muffle the impact of the "Do Not Disturb," a harrowing portrait of an enraged cancer victim, with unexplained but insistent links to a weaker story ("Please Remain Calm")? Why does a writer whose strength lies in depicting the weirdness of ordinary lives bother with the bad pseudo-folkloric magic of "Raft in Water, Floating" and "The Weather Outside Is Sunny and Bright"? "Georgica" (a woman masturbates while she watches couplesmake love on the beach, then collects the used condoms to inseminate herself) and "The Whiz Kids" (graphic gay sex, deliberately unpleasant to no apparent purpose) show Homes in her gross-out-the-squares mode. The title piece is intriguing but underdeveloped. Far from perfect but never dull, and the author impresses as always with her willingness to take risks. Author tour
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060520137
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 8/14/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial Series
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

A. M. Homes

A.M. Homes is the author of the novels The End of Alice, In a Country of Mothers, and Jack, as well as the short-story collection The Safety of Objects and the artist's book Appendix A. Her fiction has been translated into eight languages, and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in magazines such as The New Yorker and Artforum, among others, and she is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Mirabella, Bomb, Blind Spot, and Story. She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and The New School and lives in New York City.


The book Homes is perhaps best known for is her novel The End of Alice -- chiefly because it caused such a stir.

The narrator, a middle-aged sex offender in prison for murdering a little girl, develops a correspondence with a college girl who's obsessed with a 12-year-old boy. The result was a compendium of behavior -- real and imagined -- that was largely so violent, sickening or "show-offy dirty," as the New York Times put it, that its prose and events were excerpt-resistant and left mainly to the brave and curious. The book spurred a flurry of protests and attempted bans.

In 1999, Homes followed up The End of Alice with Music for Torching, a novel of kink and circumstance in the suburbs of New York in which an unhappy couple sets fire to their own house, then moves in with neighbors whose seemingly perfect marriage reveals its own subterranean faults. A high school hostage situation that is part of the book's coda had coincidental parallels to the Columbine tragedy that same year. The New York Times had a typical response: "The fact is, I was at times appalled by the book, annoyed by it, angered by it. Its ending struck me as cynical and manipulative. But even so, I found myself rapt from beginning to end, fascinated by Homes's single-minded talent for provocation."

For many readers, summaries like this are a signal to run, run, run in the other direction. But first, consider that Homes's books are not just big Pandora's boxes -- they can be a funny Pandora's boxes. In the story "Real Doll," for example, collected in 1990's The Safety of Objects, a boy's -- er, relationship -- with a Barbie doll bears some humorous gibes ("I [Barbie] if she wanted something to drink. ‘Diet Coke,' she said. And I wondered why I'd asked.").

Homes's earlier work is also almost sweet by comparison. Her well-received debut novel Jack chronicled the struggles of a 15-year-old to cope with his parents' divorce and the revelation that his dad is gay; In a Country of Mothers deals with a middle-aged counselor's deepening relationship with her 19-year-old female client. Both books contain poignant explorations of identity.

In her second story collection Things You Should Know, Homes continued to develop her singular, eclectic voice. A biracial marriage suffers a rift created by an addled, deteriorating mother-in-law in "Chinese Lessons"; Nancy Reagan's current life is devilishly imagined in "The Former First Lady and the Football Hero"; a woman endeavors to inseminate herself with the leftovers from beach trysts she espies in "Georgica." As with Homes's previous works, the collection is a testament to the author's talents for portraying the depths of human pain and depravity with humor and unabashed honesty.

Good To Know

Homes is an adjunct assistant professor of creative writing at Columbia University.

Perhaps tired of the scrutiny that arose from The End of Alice, Homes often comes across as a difficult interview subject, flatly refusing to indulge (or even validate) the natural curiosity about any personal connection to her work. She dressed down an interviewer in The Barcelona Review in 1997 thusly: "I have no experience with ‘recovery.' Again, you're applying your own notions about abuse, recovery, personal narrative, to the work. These are not areas I work from, they are not relevant. ...You seem to have a recurring question or concern about how I assimilate what goes on in my stories into everyday life. I am a fiction writer, I work from my imagination, in response to things going on in the culture."

The Safety of Objects was adapted for film by director Rose Troche in 2001, with stars including Glenn Close and Dermot Mulroney.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 18, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Washington, D.C.
    1. Education:
      B.A., Sarah Lawrence College, 1985; M.F.A., University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Table of Contents

The Chinese Lesson 1
Raft in Water, Floating 21
Georgica 29
Remedy 58
Rockets Round the Moon 91
Please Remain Calm 123
Things You Should Know 132
The Whiz Kids 135
Do Not Disturb 140
The Weather Outside is Sunny and Bright 167
The Former First Lady and the Football Hero 180
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First Chapter

Things You Should Know
A Collection of Stories

The Chinese Lesson

I am walking, holding a small screen, watching the green dot move like the blip of a plane, the blink of a ship's radar. Searching. I am on the lookout for submarines. I am an air traffic controller trying to keep everything at the right distance. I am lost.

A man steps out of the darkness onto the sidewalk. "Plane gone down?" he asks.

It is nearly night; the sky is still blue at the top, but it is dark down here.

"I was just walking the dog," he says.

I nod. The dog is nowhere to be seen.

"You're not from around here are you?"

"Not originally," I say. "But we're over on Maple now."

"Tierney," the man says. "John Tierney."

"Harris," I say. "Geordie Harris."

"Welcome to the neighborhood. Welcome to town."

He points to my screen; the dot seems to have stopped traveling.

"I was hoping to hell that was a toy -- a remote control," he says. "I was hoping to have some fun. Are you driving a car or floating a boat somewhere around here?"

"It's a chip," I say, cutting him off. "A global positioning screen. I'm looking for my mother-in-law."

There is a scratching sound from inside a nearby privet, and the unmistakable scent of dog shit rises like smoke.

"Good boy," Tierney says. "He doesn't like to do his business in public. Can't blame him -- if they had me shitting outside, I'd hide in the bushes too."

Tierney -- I hear it like tyranny. Tyrant, teaser, taunting me about my tracking system, my lost mother-in-law.

"It's not a game," I say, looking down at the blinking green dot.

A yellow Lab pushes out of the bushes and Tierney clips the leash back onto his collar. "Let's go, boy," Tierney says, slapping the side of his leg. "Good luck," he calls, pulling the dog down the road.

The cell phone clipped to my belt rings. "Who was that?" Susan asks. "Was that someone you know?"

"It was a stranger, a total stranger, looking for a playmate." I glance down at the screen. "She doesn't seem to be moving now."

"Is your antenna up?" Susan asks.

There is a pause. I hear her talking to Kate. "See Daddy. See Daddy across the street, wave to Daddy. Kate's waving," she tells me. I stare across the road at the black Volvo idling by the curb. With my free hand I wave back.

"That's Daddy," Susan says, handing Kate the phone.

"What are you doing, Daddy?" Kate asks. Her intonation, her annoyance, oddly accusatory for a three-year-old.

"I'm looking for Grandma."

"Me too," Kate giggles.

"Give the phone to Mommy."

"I don't think so," Kate says.

"Bye, Kate."

"What's new?" Kate says -- it's her latest phrase.

"Bye-bye," I say, hanging up on her.

I step off the sidewalk and dart between the houses, through the grass alley that separates one man's yard from another's. A sneak, a thief, a prowling trespasser, I pull my flashlight out of my jacket and flick it on. The narrow Ever Ready beam catches patios and planters and picnic tables by surprise. I am afraid to call out, to attract attention. Ahead of me there is a basketball court, a slide, a sandbox, and there she is, sailing through my beam like an apparition. Her black hair blowing, her hands smoothly clutching the chain-link ropes of the swing as though they were reins. I catch her in mid-flight. Legs swinging in and out. I hold the light on her there and gone.

"I'm flying," she says, sailing through the night.

I step in close so that she has to stop swinging. "Did you have a pleasant flight, Mrs. Ha?"

"It was nice."

"Was there a movie?"

She eases herself off the swing and looks at me like I'm crazy. She looks down at the tracking device. "It's no game," Mrs. Ha says, putting her arm through mine. I lead her back through the woods. "What's for dinner, Georgie?" she says. And I hear the invisible echo of Susan's voice correcting -- it's not Georgie, it's Geordie.

"What would you like, Mrs. Ha?"

In the distance, a fat man presses against a sliding glass door, looking out at us, his breath fogging the pane.

Susan is at the computer, drawing. She is making a map, a grid of the neighborhood. She is giving us something to go on in the future -- coordinates.

She is an architect, everything is line, everything is order. Our house is G4. The blue light of the screen pours over her, pressing the flat planes of her face flatter still -- illuminating. She hovers in an eerie blue glow.

"I called Ken," I say.

Ken is the one who had the chip put in. He is Susan's brother. When Mrs. Ha was sedated for a colonoscopy, Ken had the chip implanted at the bottom of her neck, above her shoulder blades. The chip company specialist came and stood by while a plastic surgeon inserted it just under the skin. Before they let her go home, they tested it by wheeling her gurney all over the hospital while Ken sat in the waiting room tracking her on the small screen.


"I called him about her memory. I was wondering if we should increase her medication."

Ken is a psychopharmacologist, a specialist in the containment of feeling. He used to be a stoner and now he is a shrink. He has no affect, no emotions.

"And?" she says.

"He asked if she seemed agitated."

"She seems perfectly happy," Susan says.

"I know," I say, not telling Susan what I told Ken -- Susan is the one who's agitated.

"Does she know where she is?" Ken had asked. There had been a pause, a moment where I wondered if he was asking about Susan or his mother. "I'm not always sure," I'd said, failing to differentiate.

Things You Should Know
A Collection of Stories
. Copyright © by A Homes . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide


Lauded as one of the most daring writers working today Things You Should Know fearlessly explores the uncomfortable crevices of adolescence, marriage, reality, and beyond. Homes's distinctive narratives illuminate our dreams and desires, our memories and losses, and our profound need for connection, and demonstrate how extraordinary the ordinary can be. An expert literary witness, A. M. Homes takes us places we would not go alone and brings us back -- always with uncanny emotional accuracy, wit, and empathy. She is one of the master practitioners of American fiction, and Things You Should Know is a landmark collection.

Discussion Questions

  1. Geordie in "The Chinese Lesson," the desperate daughter in "Remedy," the death-obsessed husband in "Please Remain Calm," the narrator in "Things You Should Know," the husband in "Do Not Disturb" -- these stories feature characters who feel disconnected and have a profound sense that "something is missing," but they don't quite know just what. Discuss what you think is missing in their lives. Can these characters do anything about their situation? Or are they stuck because they don't have the emotional "tools" to change? The woman in "Georgica" has decided that what she's missing is a child. Do you agree? Will a child fix her life?

  2. "Raft in Water, Floating": In a gated community, an anorectic, neglected girl floats in the pool, barely noticed by her self-absorbed family members. She passively accepts when a boy comes along and slips one hand beneath her swimsuit and the other into his pants. When he is finished, she asks, "Do you like me for who I am?" "Do you want something toeat?" he replies. Later, she watches her parents through the sliding glass door, waiting for them to notice she is there and let her in. When she finally goes inside, her father says, "It's a wonder you don't just shrivel up and disappear." Given her interactions with the boyfriend and her family, has she already disappeared? Is her anorexia a physical way of disappearing? That night, a shape shifting woman appears while she is floating in the pool again. What is the purpose of this character? Does she present any possibilities of change to the girl?

  3. In "Georgica," a woman recovering from a traumatic car accident at the hands of her ex-fiancé supplies a group of summer lifeguards with condoms, stalks them with night vision glasses as they have sex on the beach, collects the discarded sperm-filled condoms, and injects herself with the semen. Do you think this woman is unbalanced, or is she practical? Before she dies, her grandmother tells the woman, "I never would have married if I could have gotten out of it." Do you think the woman takes this as permission to not get married? Or is she pursuing this unconventional method of pregnancy because she only finds "pot bellies, bad manners, stupidity" when she looks for a man? Do you think this kind of disillusionment is typical of dating when in the thirties and forties? Is it wrong for a woman not to tell a man he has fathered a child? What are the ramifications of withholding this information? Discuss the pros and cons of single motherhood. Will this woman be a good mother? What role does or will the policeman play in the woman's life?

  4. "Rockets Round the Moon": A twelve-year-old boy, shunted aside by his self-absorbed divorced parents, has taught himself "to be a person whom people like to have around." What do you see in future for this boy? Does his belief that he is unlovable if he is not useful cripple or prepare him for the future? Do his "people-pleasing" qualities remind you of traditional female social conditioning? The boy clings to the seeming normalcy of his father's next-door neighbors, idealizing his precocious friend Henry and his family, until Henry's father's accidental killing of a young boy dislocates them too. Henry begins to dress like the dead boy, his father's guilt drives him to self-immolation -- the family is irrevocably changed. Is the boy or Henry better suited to deal with this tragedy, and tragedy in general? Who is most likely to recover and return to "normal?" The boy is comfortable and comforted by Henry's turmoil: "From the floor I could smell the noxiousness of its mixture [Henry's vomit], hot and rich, like some hearty soup a grandmother would serve on a winter night." When they debark from the rocket ride at the end, the ticket man says to them, "Go back where you belong. Go home." Has the tragedy in the Heffelfinger family made it possible for the boy to finally have a true "home," to belong somewhere? If so, where is that and why?

About the Author

A.M. Homes' fiction has been translated into eight languages, and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in magazines such as The New Yorker and Artforum, among others, and she is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Mirabella, Bomb, Blind Spot, and Story. She teaches in the writing programs at Columbia University and The New School and lives in New York City.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2003

    Some stories are VERY GOOD....

    And yet, The Safety of Objects is a far more complex picture of human emotion and raw thought. Having read every single book, novel and short story book she's written to date, I feel that The Safety of Objects is a far better collection for those who have may have never read Ms. Homes' books and want to get a jump start on it--beware, some writing is very explicit. And yet, I must say, REMEDY is one of my favorite stories in this book. I recommend this book--but some stories left me wandering or wanting more out of the story. Overall, very good and recommended for fans of AM Homes.

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