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How to Breathe Underwater Paperback – April 12, 2005

4.3 out of 5 stars 79 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The stories in How to Breathe Underwater, Julie Orringer's debut collection, swim with tragedies both commonplace and horrific. A fall from a treehouse, an ailing mother, a near-drowning, a premature baby, a gun--each is the source of a young woman's coming-of-age, which we witness through Orringer's lovely, driving prose. The author possesses an uncanny ability to capture scenes and complex emotions in quick strokes. In "Pilgrims," young Ella is taken to a hippie household for Thanksgiving, where her mother joins several other cancer patients in search of natural remedies: "Some of them wore knitted hats like her mother, their skin dull-gray, their eyes purple-shaded underneath. To Ella it seemed they could be relatives of her mother's, shameful cousins recently discovered." Shame is as omnipresent as water in this collection, sadly appropriate for stories about girls becoming women. Orringer possesses an acute understanding of the many rules of girlhood, in particular the uniquely childish importance of "not telling" (for fear of becoming a traitor, and consequently, an outcast). But though her subjects may take us to the murky depths--submerging us in the cruelties girls and siblings commit against each other--Orringer's nimble writing and subtle humor allow us to breathe. --Brangien Davis --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Trapped in awkward, painful situations, the young protagonists of Orringer's debut collection discover surprising reserves of wisdom in themselves. Their trials are familiar if harsh-the illness and death of parents and friends, social ostracism-but Orringer's swift, intricate evocation of individual worlds gives depth and integrity to her nine stories, set everywhere from Florence to New Orleans to Disney World. The collection's title comes from "The Isabel Fish," in which 14-year-old Maddy is learning how to scuba dive after surviving a car accident in which her older brother's girlfriend drowned. Maddy is sure her brother hates her, and when he kills the fish she is raising for a science fair project, she can hardly blame him. It is only when they go diving together that she realizes he feels as guilty as she does. In "Note to Sixth-Grade Self"-written in a telegraphic second person-the narrator details her torments at the hands of a popular girls who speaks with a stutter. The cruelty of children is also dissected in "Stations of the Cross," in which Jewish Lila Solomon attends her friend's first Communion in the Deep South, and finds herself reluctantly playing a part in an enactment of the Crucifixion. In "When She Is Old and I Am Famous," fat Mira must cope with the arrival of her supermodel cousin: "Aida. That is her terrible name. Ai-ee-duh: two cries of pain and one of stupidity." By the end of the story, Aida has won over Mira, who finally empathizes with her bids for attention. No matter how wronged they have been, Orringer's characters are open to reconciliation and even willing to save their tormentors. It is this promise of grace-and Orringer's smooth, assured storytelling-that distinguishes the collection.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 226 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (April 12, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400034361
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400034369
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (79 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #326,610 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
I discovered this marvelous collection of stories because of Amy Sumerton's interview with Julie Orringer in the fiction magazine, "Orchid: A Literary Review." Reading Orringer's collection reminded me of why I love short fiction. The first story, "Pilgrims" is one of the best stories I've ever read about dealing with illness and the title story is an outstanding depiction of a sibling relationship and much, much more. The two stories mentioned are my favorites but all of the stories are stellar. I thank Amy Sumerton of Orchid for introducing me to this fine author.
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Format: Paperback
Simply incredible writing, full of wisdom and rare insights into the complexities of what it means to be human. Beautifully organized - a collection you will want to read from beginning to end, without jumping around, so you don't spill a single precious drop of the experience. If you have friends who only read novels, buy this book to convert them. Julie Orringer raises the bar for fiction, prodding at the limits of what can be achieved in words.
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By A Customer on September 24, 2003
Format: Hardcover
This is the best book I've read all year. In sharp, gorgeous language, Julie Orringer has written nine knockout stories that moved me deeply. I read one of the stories, "When She is Old and I am Famous," in the Paris Review two years ago, and I loved it so much that I kept Julie's name on a post-it note by my desk. I came across a few of the other stories in various places afterward, and loved them just as much as the first. The collection does not disappoint. Every story is beatifully crafted and compelling. Some are funny, some are sad, but they are all filled with great characters and dialogue, and they all work beautifully. I have recommended the book to all of my friends, and I anxiously await whatever else Ms. Orringer writes in the future.
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By A Customer on September 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I am afraid I do not even have the words to describe this work, only that I am sure it will become one of those books that women sneak around in their bags as some sort of guilty pleasure, to read over and over again, at every moment possible. After reading it a third time, I still have trouble picking out my favorite piece. I love the fact that the author writes about womanhood from a darker, less trite perspective than most fiction. It is nothing you would ever expect, and more than you could ever dream of. In "Note to Sixth Grade Self," Orringer is able to perfectly capture and reproduce a complex inner monologue of a small, self-concious little girl. Orringer also carefully manipulates the language in "Care" to give it a dizzying affect, thus forcing the reader to fall deeper into the shoes of the narrator. If you appreciate well-developed, original characterization and meticulously painted settings, you cannot afford to pass this one up.
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Format: Hardcover
I really liked "Pilgrims." There is true grit and substance in that story. But "Notes to Sixth Grade Self" is far too derivative of Lorrie Moore, and too shallow for my taste. (Junot Diaz' riff off Lorrie Moore in "How to Date a Blackgirl" is far more original, and takes up far more dangerous questions of race, class, etc.) I can't remember the other stories distinctly enough, and this underscores the biggest problem with the book: its repetitiveness. Not enough range, not enough originality, not enough distinction, either in subject or style. Everything is polished, smart, tasteful . . . but safe.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Julie Orringer’s first book, the collection of stories, How to Breathe Underwater, exhibits the same unsettling beauty and emotional intensity that define her splendid novel, The Invisible Bridge. The nine powerful stories that comprise this volume all focus on female main characters, ranging in ages from their preteens to early adulthood. Each faces adverse, coming-of-age situations that will startle the reader and oftentimes become a life-changing experience for the character. Orringer’s creativity has no boundaries as she assuredly develops one vivid, breathtaking scene after another. Her prose has a clean, flawless polish, allowing the language seemingly to glow from the page. Most distinctive in her work is the compassion and self-awareness she generates in each story. Orrringer’s talents are indicative of a great writer in total control of her subject matter, which dutifully attempts to confront the very real struggles of everyday young women. Having now read both of Orringer’s outstanding books to date, I am a huge fan of her work.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I absolutely loved this short story collection. This collection was full of coming of age and young adult stories. Sometimes it is hard to feel attached or connected to the characters in short stories, but that is not the case in How to Breathe Underwater. I felt an emotional response to each story. This collection shows the dark side of humankind in beautiful, moving ways. I think that this is a perfect summer read as most of the stories have a summer feel/setting. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone even those that aren't fond of short story collections.
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Format: Hardcover
It is getting difficult to find modern fiction that deals with life from a woman's or girl's point of view without resorting to cliche. The newest onslaught of Prada-obsessed shopping women who are clumsy and care only about getting a man to match their lattes are so annoying in the bestsellers list. Do publishing companies honestly think that chick lit=vapid, dumb privilaged women? When I heard that this was supposed to be a stunning collection of stories from a female's perspective, I was nervous but have turned out to be a big fan of Julie Orringer's work. I would say next to ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffe Elsewhere and Kelly Link's Stranger Things Happen, this is one of the best short story collections that deserves the critical acclaim it has received.

The quality of writing goes smoothly like a vanilla milkshake, but with the complexity of a vintage wine. The girls in these stories know more than their parents and peers would have you believe they do. To other reviewers who were grossed out by some of the events, I can assure that most girl's lives are not dancing to pop idols and aspiring to be Barbie; these girls lead lives that make them deal with their mother's dying of cancer, with persistant stoned teenage males, with religious adults who constrict young girl's lives and independence, and unfortunately the competition with other girls. Far from romanticising the very real "catfights" or complex drama girls interact with one another, often competing with one another for boys and attention or with the fact they are a not model and they do have to wear glasses. Orringer gives her female protoganists an urgent agency that most fiction (and media) has taken away from them, showing that girls are indeed human beings and not sexualized wanna-be women a la Lolita.
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