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Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages
Edited by Jacob Weisman
Cover Artist: Ellen Klages (photo)
Review by Cathy Green
Tachyon Publications Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781892391452
Date: 01 April 2007 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK

Links: Publisher's Page / Show Official Info /

The stories in this collection of Ellen Klages' short fiction are hard to categorize - some seem to fit within the umbrella of the new weird, others are dark fantasy, some are more traditional science fiction or fantasy tales, and still others are the sort of fiction one would expect to find in "mainstream" publications such as the New Yorker. However, at the end of the day, who cares what category the stories in Portable Childhoods fall in? All the reader needs to know is that the 16 stories in the collection are all really, really, good and he or she should run out and buy a copy of the book. I've already re-read the collection twice and come up with a list of people to whom I want to loan my copy.

"Basement Magic," which leads off the collection, is probably already familiar to some readers, as it won the 2005 Nebula for Best Novelette. It's a re-imagining of traditional fairy tale themes, with a wicked stepmother and a fairy godmother of sorts, although the happily ever after Mary Louise Whittaker achieves for herself after use of "basement magic" definitely isn't the standard Disney ending. "Time Gypsy," also of novelette length, is at least in part a traditional science fiction time travel adventure, complete with protagonist agonizing over preserving the timeline. It's also a tale of romance, academic intrigue and gay civil rights, as history of science post-doc Dr. Sarah Clarke travels back in time to meet the subject of her dissertation and realizes just how much she's taken for granted in the present. In the end, true love triumphs, and just desserts are meted out through manipulation of the passage of time and Dr. Clarke's knowledge of events to be. "Triangle" also involves time travel after a fashion, or perhaps the collision or parallel or alternate timelines, but it doesn't have a happy ending, being a tragic horror story.

Several of the works collected in Portable Childhoods do not follow the standard short story format (assuming such a thing exists anymore). The most obvious departure is "The Feed Bag," which is a memory poem. "Clip Art" is a parody of the biography clip shows that A&E and the History Channel show all the time, depicting the life of Frances Tipton Hunter, the world's foremost collector of paperclips. And "Mobius Stripped of a Muse" is a recursive story of writer's block that wraps back on itself like a Moebius strip.

The stories in the collection also vary in length. Amongst the shortest stories in the collection are "Intelligent Design," "Ringing Up Baby," "Travel Agency," and "Be Prepared." "Intelligent Design" imagines God as a little boy creating the Universe and all living things with the help of his Nanadeus. "Ringing Up Baby" is also a creation story, as Nanny uses the computer to dial up a baby sister for her charge. Unfortunately, Nanny gets distracted and her charge decides what baby really needs is bioluminescence (on sale that week) so she can double as a nightlite. In "Travel Agency," a thoughtful aunt prepares a special attic bedroom stocked with children's classics for her niece and in "Be Prepared" a chef cannot help but criticize the techniques of the alien space pirates by whom he's been captured, even as they prepare him for slaughter. To serve man indeed.

In "Flying Over the Water," a girl unhappy with the changes puberty is imposing on her body and in how people expect her to behave chooses the freedom of being a tropical fish. Metaphor or actual transformation? Pick the version you prefer. "Green Glass Sea" imagines a girl's birthday outing taking place at Ground Zero at Los Alamos, the title coming from the large area of blast-fused sand. It's one of the more traditional non-SFnal, non-fantastic stories in the collection.

"Guys Day Out" is another story that doesn't fit in any of the usual SF categories; rather, it is the story of a man raising his son Tommy, who has Down's Syndrome. The story is made all the more poignant by Ms. Klages' Afterword in which she mentions that her sister has Down's. Judging by the dates given in the Afterword, her sister would be about the same age as Tommy at the end of the story. "Portable Childhoods," the title story of the collection is a meditation on childhood and childrearing. Anyone who has kids is going to smile in recognition at many of the moments described in the 10 segments of the story, and those of us without children, being former children ourselves, will be fondly reminded of incidents from our own childhoods. In my case, "#3 Shuffling" stood out in particular (if my mother had just been more specific about needing to let go with the bottom fingers when shuffling using the bridge method, we wouldn't have had to move the sofa). The explanation of "Indignant Peoples Day" had me giggling out loud on the subway. "A Taste of Summer" describes the adventures of Mattie Rodgers one summer day when to escape an impending storm she gets to hide out with a flavor chemist in the cellar workshop of an ice cream shop. It's a story of everyday magic made fantastic in the evocative descriptions of how Mattie experiences the various flavor samples. The collection wraps up with the delightful fairytale "In the House of the Seven Librarians" in which a baby is left on the steps of a library as payment for a very overdue book (the book is in the basket as well) and is raised by the librarians and the library itself. Klages has fun taking Dinsy through the various sections of the library as they match her development.

Highly Recomended. I enjoyed each and every story in the collection. Ellen Klages has joined my list of "authors whose name in the table of contents will cause me to buy stuff."

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