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Home Remedies

Home Remedies

by Angela Pneuman

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Tonsillectomies should not be performed at home, cucumbers do not make good stand-ins, and golf clubs are not for hitting your mother.

Angela Pneuman renders these unsettling truths, small and large, with blazing insight in Home Remedies. It is a startling collection of stories peopled by Christian fundamentalists traversing various stages and


Tonsillectomies should not be performed at home, cucumbers do not make good stand-ins, and golf clubs are not for hitting your mother.

Angela Pneuman renders these unsettling truths, small and large, with blazing insight in Home Remedies. It is a startling collection of stories peopled by Christian fundamentalists traversing various stages and crises of belief, grappling with intimacies that feel like an anxious mix of longing and repulsion, relating to one another in an uneasy balance of eagerness and wariness.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this dark debut, Pneuman weaves together a collection of short stand-alone fictional stories that share a roughly similar thread of conservative Christian faith in the background. A 24-year-old woman is paid to collect money for charity outside department stores while sharing a twin bed and her neuroses with her young niece in "The Bell Ringer"; "Borderland" portrays a young girl dealing with the ways people hurt each other. In "The Beachcomber," two overweight girls long for attractiveness and male attention, but self-destructive behavior (and a rather gruesome sexual initiation) is a grim foreshadowing. "Invitation," one of the best pieces, explores the obsessive fear of a young Christian teen about premarital sex and how that fear plays out in a camp meeting where her father is the evangelist. The themes are often gritty: mental illness, cruelty, divorce, sexual exploration and coping with death. Pneuman's fine literary writing is excellent enough to land several of these pieces in publications such as The Best American Short Stories ("All Saints Day") and Ploughshares ("The Long Game"). Although readers may sometimes feel a cold disconnect with her characters, Pneuman's knowledge of the lingo of conservative Christianity lends authenticity to her narratives, and in several, she intimately portrays the interior lives and concerns of young girls. (Jan.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
How the urge to find wholeness in one's life can drive people down unexpected, sometimes destructive paths is the overriding theme of this debut collection. All the stories center around children in Kentucky's Bible Belt, many of them emotionally at risk. For newcomer Pneuman's characters, religious practice is a fact of life taken for granted. Oddly, the title story is the weakest, relying too much on shock value. The narrator's mother, distraught over her ex's upcoming marriage, first neglects her daughter's strep throat, then fails to notice the child's potentially disastrous fascination with a deranged babysitter. The stories that follow are less extreme but more resonant. In the most heartbreaking, "Borderland," another child of divorce competes hopelessly not only for her father's affection but for the affection of the seemingly perfect father of a classmate. In "Holy Land," a bookish young girl visits her non-religious grandparents with her angry mother after her father leaves them because he believes he's become divine. In "All Saints' Day," a spunky minister's daughter, whose mother suffers acute depression, risks punishment to help a little boy whose missionary parents believe he's inhabited by a demon. A new recruit into the Salvation Army struggles against her own psychological demons while visiting her more stable sister in "The Bell Ringer," one of the few stories in which the child is almost peripheral. The 13-year-old minister's daughter in "Invitation," a natural worrier, fears that she's the first pregnant virgin since Mary. Two overweight 15-year-olds in "The Beachcomber" find their friendship unraveling when only one attracts a boy's attention. The final story, "TheLong Game," in which a teenager's father is dying of cancer, intertwines the crises of burgeoning sexuality, a parent's mortality and the inevitable love-hate daughters feel for their mothers. Eight well-crafted, tough-minded stories of fractured lives that occasionally slip into caricature and repetition.
From the Publisher


"Smart, brave and unflinchingly honest, Angela Pneuman is a writer of such flinty brilliance and such dead-on, dead-pan humor it’s often hard to believe you’ve arrived at the end of a story until stunned by the last gesture or word." –ZZ Packer

"Without a doubt, Angela Pneuman is one of the most astonishingly talented young writers working today. Her dark humor evokes Lorrie Moore, the richness and depth of her narratives call to mind Alice Munro, but these stories are all her own."—Julie Orringer

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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Home Remedies
  WHEN LENA GETS SICK, June, her mother, doesn’t notice for two days. It’s a Kentucky January, bleak and rainy with an occasional paltry snow, and Lena’s father, Patrick, from whom June has been divorced one year, has just announced his plans
to remarry in March. Lena hears her mother talking to friends on the phone, her voice cheery and capable. “Oh, well, you know, it was bound to happen. We’re both moving on. Now, six months ago? I would have been shaken to the core.” But off the phone, June shifts around the house, teary-eyed at irrelevant things she brings to Lena’s attention: a greeting-card commercial on television, the few dead leaves still stuck to the branches of the sycamore outside the kitchen window, a lumpy ceramic turtle Lena made for Patrick in kindergarten, four years ago. To cheer up, June gives herself a home perm, and her hair turns frazzly, separating into kinky hunks with straight, brittle ends. “What do you think?” June says, holding up the back of her hair with her hand, lowering her head for Lena to see.
 Lena squeezes a fistful, says it feels like the pink roof
insulation in the attic. This sends June to her bedroom for an hour.
 At school Lena sits at her desk, listless and warm. The glands at the back of her throat swell to the size of peas, and when her teacher takes the class to the bathrooms, Lena pushes past the other girls to the mirrors over the sink, where under the fluorescent light she tries to see. She opens her mouth so wide that the corners crack into tiny grains of dry skin, but her throat lies in shadow. All day she probes the lumps with the back of her tongue, just to make sure they’re still sore. She likes how her voice has gone husky.
 At home June circles the wedding date, March twelfth, with a red pen on the calendar by the refrigerator. Since the announcement she’s been talking to the pastor each week again, as she did just after the divorce, and has taken to repeating for Lena phrases he gives her: “You must learn to love yourself,” and “All things work together for good.”
 “I want you to fully grasp that,” she tells Lena. It’s easy, she’s said on the phone, to talk to Lena as though the girl is much older. It could have something to do with how Lena’s eyes shrink behind thick glasses, how in sickness her skin has taken on a yellowish tint.
 “Do you love yourself, Lena?” June asks, bringing her face so close that Lena can see every hair, every pore. This close, faces look like something else entirely, the nubbly surface of the planets Lena’s seen on science shows.
 “I guess,” says Lena. She’s never thought about feeling anything at all for herself, as though she were another person, but June seems to think it’s important, which means it might be or it might not be. The problem with June, Lena once heard Patrick say, is that everything turns into a big production. A weepy federal case.
 “What’s that you’re doing with your mouth?” June says.
 Lena has been feeling her glands, and she bites her tongue to keep it still. On her hot forehead, June’s palm is clammy.
 “You’re burning up, Lena. You’re hot as can be. Have you been feeling bad?”
 “I can feel my throat,” Lena says.
 “You’re sick,” June says. “Lena, you’re sick. I didn’t notice and you didn’t say. Why didn’t you say? You have to say, Lena.” June’s fingers disappear into her stiff hair. She closes her eyes and says, “I feel like a horrible mother.”
IT TURNS OUT TO BE strep throat. June takes off from work, the doctor gives Lena some medicine, and after four days and a weekend Lena returns to school. But three weeks later, she’s sick again. This happens sometimes, the doctor says. If the antibiotic doesn’t kill all the bacteria, they come back with renewed force. Lena pictures it like tug-of-war in gym. All the bacteria on one team, lunging hard to make their comeback.
 June is in a pinch. She processes payments at the electric company and has run out of days she can take off. The woman who used to sit for Lena during the day now has two toddlers of her own, and won’t expose them to strep. All the mothers of Lena’s friends work, the teenaged girls are in school, and Patrick lives half a day away, over the border into Tennessee. So the pastor makes an announcement at church about a member needing a sitter, and the following Monday morning Mrs. Shefferd arrives. She is
a small, bony woman, with short hair gone completely white, and she wears a faux leopard-print coat from Sears, some thirty years old. Because it doesn’t button all the way, Mrs. Shefferd wears a jacket underneath, and several sweaters underneath the jacket.
 “Lena, back to bed,” June says. She clips earrings onto her earlobes and buttons her own coat. “Mrs. Shefferd, I’ve left directions on the counter.”
 “Go on, now,” says Mrs. Shefferd, her voice throaty and sure. “You don’t worry about a thing.”
 Each morning when Lena wakes up, Mrs. Shefferd greets her with a glass of water. The directions say for Lena to drink a glass of water each hour, even though after the fourth glass, fourth hour, she can hear her stomach sloshing and has to pee every ten minutes. The directions also say when the antibiotic is to be taken and what Lena is
to have for lunch each day. The notes make it clear Lena should stay in bed, but Mrs. Shefferd allows her to lie on the couch in the front room and watch television. Mrs. Shefferd rocks purposefully in June’s antique rocking chair, the one Lena’s supposed to be careful of. During commercials she asks Lena questions. Not the questions Lena has come to expect from old ladies—nothing about school,
or church, or her parents. Instead, Mrs. Shefferd offers choices. “Where would you rather live,” she asks, “the beach or the mountains?” Lena says “beach” and Mrs. Shefferd reminds her of hurricanes and tidal waves. Lena says “mountains” and Mrs. Shefferd reminds her, cheerfully, that some mountains are volcanoes.
 “If you could only eat foods that begin with ‘r’ or ‘c,’ Mrs. Shefferd says, “which would you pick?”
 “R,” Lena says.
 “No celery? No Cream of Wheat?”
 “I like roast beef,” Lena says.
 “Oh, yes, and rhubarb and rutabaga,” says Mrs. Shefferd. “Good thinking.” When Lena feels like being up and around, she drags projects out from the back of her closet—crocheting that her grandmother tried to teach her on the last visit, a half-finished floral paint-by-number, the oils gone slick and runny inside their tiny plastic vials. Mrs. Shefferd comments politely on the painting and fingers the crocheting—just a granny square in tricolor pink yarn that Lena can’teven remember how she made. “I don’t know how to crochet,” Mrs. Shefferd says. She holds the square to the lamp, then rubs it against her
face, eyes closed. “My mother was a different breed.” Lena, kneeling at her feet, can smell cinnamon on Mrs. Shefferd’s breath. On the television people exclaim and jump around, having won a prize for guessing something, but Lena has turned down the sound.
 Lena brings out her shoebox of teeth from her father’s office of orthodontics. They aren’t real, are really just the molds he makes of patients’ teeth, to display on before-and-after shelves in the waiting room and to take to conferences. These are the leftovers, and Lena lines them up on the living room floor for Mrs. Shefferd to admire, which she does; so many sets of jaws, incisors twisted in their sockets, or pushed into unnatural rows, and plaster gums that just end, the irregular shapes of upper mouths. There are also strips of wax in little boxes, miniature rubber bands of all colors that Lena and Mrs. Shefferd string on yarn for necklaces, and a black mouthpiece Lena’s father uses to wedge open his patients’ mouths, and to pin down their tongues. It’s a durable plastic, so that if the hand of his assistant slips, or even his own—though this has never happened—and nicks a tongue or gouges the inside of a cheek with a wire, the plastic piece keeps the patient’s jaw from clamping shut on anyone’s fingers.
Copyright © 2007 by Angela Pneuman
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Meet the Author

ANGELA PNEUMAN, raised in Kentucky, is a former Stegner Fellow and teaches fiction writing at Stanford University. Her work has been included in The Best American Short Stories, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. Her widely praised story collection, Home Remedies, was hailed as “call[ing] to mind Alice Munro” by the San Francisco Chronicle. She lives in Chicago and in the Bay Area of California.

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