Cowboys Are My Weakness

Full Title: Cowboys Are My Weakness: StoriesCowboys Are My Weakness: Stories by Pam Houston
Author: Pam Houston
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (1992)
Number of Pages: 171
How long it took me to read: 5 days
Where I bought this book: I purchased it during the author’s book reading. When she read excerpts from her forthcoming novel, I found myself at times laughing, and at other times, feeling the emotional dilemma of her character. It was also quite fascinating to hear her talk about her approach to writing, which made me more interested in reading her stories.
ISBN: 0-393-32635-7

Like a Moth to a Flame

I’d first read her short story “The Girlfriend You Never Had” in graduate school and then she did a reading at my college.   I purchased her two short story collections that night during her book reading, this being one of them.  I chose to read this book first, because it was written early in her career, and published the year she completed her masters degree.  As a recent graduate myself, I wanted to understand what it was about her writing that appealed so much to publishers that they would be willing to take a risk on a new writer. And who could resist that title?  Then I read the first page of the first story.  It was humorous, thoughtful and written in the 2nd person point of view.  I like stories that take risks in writing. I was hooked.

Favorite Five

My favorite 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “But the hunter’s house is so much warmer than yours, and he’ll give you a key, and just like a woman, you’ll think it means something….With his hands, with his tongue, he’ll express what will seem to you like the most of eternal loves.  Like the house key, this is just another kind of lie…From under an ocean of passion and hide and hair you’ll hear a woman’s muffled voice between beeps.” (p.14)

4. “ ‘He’s not sanitary,’ she said. ‘Those tattoos…and those great big dogs. You know I don’t even go into Jacuzzis anymore.  And I haven’t used a public rest room in years.’ Somewhere inside my mother’s body is a reservoir nearly full of sweat, hair and other restrained secretions.” (p.61)

3. “The moose steaks were lean and tender and it was easy to eat them until he started telling me about their history, about the bull that had come to the clearing for water, and seen Zeke there, had seen the gun even, and trusted him not to fire.  I couldn’t look right at him then, and he waited awhile and he said, ‘Do you have any idea what they do to cows?’ ” (p.74)

2. “The eight rams above us watched for a minute and then started climbing, slowly but steadily, up to the top of the ridge.  The sun had set behind that ridge hours ago, but the Alaskan twilight lingered and lit the backdrop as the rams, one by one, topped out and filled the skyline, each one a perfect silhouette against a bloody sky.” (p.97)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “And even though I knew in my head there’s nothing a man can do that a woman can’t, I also knew in my heart we can’t help doing it for different reasons.  And just like a man will never understand exactly how a woman feels when she has a baby, or an orgasm, or the reasons why she’ll fight so hard to be loved, a woman can’t know in what way a man satisfies himself, what questions he answers for himself, when he looks right at death.” (p.35)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: fetlock (noun)

Definition (Source: 1) the projection of the leg of a horse behind the joint between the cannon bone and great pastern bone, bearing a tuft of hair; 2) the tuft of hair itself; 3) also called fetlock joint . the joint at this point
Synonyms: horse’s foot, appendage, outgrowth
Origins: 1275-1325; Middle English ‘fitlok’; akin to Middle High German ‘viz (ze) loch’; ultimately derivative of Germanic ‘*fet-‘,  a gradational variant of ‘*fot’- foot
As in: “Once we were in the lead, Shock really turned it on and I could feel her strength and the give of her muscles and the solidity of the healed fetlock every time it hit the ground.” (p. 77)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“The central characters are strong, intelligent and self-possessed women, but they’re putty around the men they love.  The men are emotionally inaccessible, commitment phobic, borderline abusive and extremely passionate. Their passion for these women is only exceeded by their passion for nature and the outdoors.  That’s the problem.  For the women, nothing exceeds their love for these men. They’ll endure just about anything to be with their men.  And who can blame them? We’re talking about the “man’s man” – the hunter, the whitewater rafter, the cowboy.”

“The common thread, in the stories I’ve read so far, is that men are different, alien to women, like rugged and fierce fictional representations of “Men are from Mars and Women Are from Venus”. So far, “Selway” is the most exciting of the collection, namely because the characters spend the entire time fighting a raging river.  I can’t quite tell if these women follow their men into the wilderness and into physically challenging situations, simply because they’re codependent or if they actually like plunging into rushing, ice-cold water and climbing steep snow-covered mountains.  Nature seems its own character, competing for these women’s affections and putting them through their paces, just like the men their lives.”

“Houston makes watching a train about to wreck pretty entertaining. Even though I know exactly where these women and their relationships are heading, I can’t stop reading. What is it about these emotionally inaccessible, commitment phobic men that makes tough, smart and capable women blind to the obvious? But before we judge, we’ve all been there at one time or another, knowing full well, just like these characters, that we’re walking right into a sucker punch.  And no matter what our friends, our mother and our head tells us, we continue to “fight so hard to be loved” by these men.”

“Dall” was a challenge to read, only because of the subject matter, but I believe the discomfort the story evokes is intentional, because it mirrors what the narrator is feeling. The wit Houston injects in her prose provides a welcome relief during intense situations.  In this story, the narrator accompanies her boyfriend in the Alaska wilderness to hunt those magnificent rams with white curved horns. Although the narrative doesn’t get too gory, Houston’s self-reflective prose evokes a fascinated horror.  I kept thinking, what she is doing there, when it’s obvious she finds the idea of killing one of nature’s magnificent animals repugnant. I suppose that is the point, that codependency can lead a woman to compromise her values.”

“The stories are filled with high stakes tension, both physically and emotionally.  By the end of the book, they feel more like personal essays.  At her reading, Pam Houston confirmed what she said in an interview back in 2000, “Everything I write is 82% true,” so this makes complete sense to me now.  It’s interesting that the narrators are never named.  I can’t tell if Houston intended for the narrators to be separate and distinct characters, or if it’s the same person narrating these stories.  If I view the stories as being told by one person, it puts a different spin on the book. As the stories progress from beginning to end, I can see the character arc of the narrator on a larger scale.”

Lisa Abellera

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