Stay Close, Little Ghost

Stay Close, Little Ghost by Oliver SerangAuthor: Oliver Serang
Publisher: Tape Tree Press (2013)
Number of Pages: 177
How long it took me to read: 2 weeks
Where I got this book: Uncustomary Book Submission (Serang sent it to me with a box of homemade cookies.)
ISBN: 978-0-615-85516-5

Like a Moth to a Flame

My eyes are drawn to the author’s description of the book as “an earnest meditation on love and human imperfection.” Autumn is here and I’m in the mood for reflection—the book and I are a perfect match.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “Hunger and passion and love: deep down we define them all by their negative, by some original thing within that frightens or hurts us, and if we manage to pry it out, the shape of the remaining set is what gives our love a special color unique only to us.” (p.165)

4. “I was tired of how jagged I’d become in order to match the jagged edges of the world.” (p.56)

3. “She looked so beautiful; it was as if she’s been crying for thousands of years and all of her harsh edges that I’d known before were worn smooth by the passage of the tears as they ran down her body.” (p.67)

2. “Deciding that a person will be irreplaceable to you is the greatest thing you can ever give them. Knowing that you are irreplaceable to someone else is the only way to truly feel loved.” (p.99)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “…to awake in the yellow of our halcyon days where tape hangs from clouds in the color of light, with a story typed out on the ribbony film that tells where you’re going and where you have been.” (p.7)

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:

“When I come home today, a parcel smelling of chocolate is on the kitchen table. I make some tea and settle down with the cookies Serang baked me in his home in Germany. Eating the buttery biscuits as the light fades over Stockholm makes for a delicious setting in which to start a new book.

“I write to thank Serang and we begin emailing each other. He tells me that when he lived in Boston, he baked a lot and would give cookies to strangers. Now he lives in Bremen, Germany. I wonder if baking is a handy tool for a nomadic young scientist like Serang to connect to a new place. My mind chews over this last thought—what connects a young scientist to baking? I begin to weave a tale about Serang…

He has mastered the marvelous alchemy of baking; his cookies have magical powers to turn anyone who eats them into a friend. I imagine his kitchen filling with the aroma of cinnamon, butter, and oats blending together and the smell of melting chocolate floating under the neighbours’ doors, casting a spell over them. Before they know it, they find themselves at Serang’s door with smiles and invitations to parties. Then he takes a batch of cookies to work. Within minutes of eating them, all his scientist colleagues are overwhelmed by the warm feeling of friendship and they take off their lab coats, remove their fogged-up goggles and gather around Serang, rosy-cheeked and giddy with smiles.

“My mind somersaults back to this moment in Stockholm where I am now. I bite into my last cookie and realise that the crumbly mix of oats, almonds, and oranges has cast its spell over me, too. I open to page one.”

“A four-leaf clover is tucked into the inside of the handmade card Serang included in my package. The leaf is yellow and papery. It looks like it was pressed a long time ago. I wonder when was the last time I pressed a flower or a leaf…and a memory floats up and unfurls itself in my mind’s eye.

“On the eve of St. Valentine’s day some years ago, I heard a noise outside my window. But because my college dorm was overshadowed by a medieval castle atop a nearby hill where the wind often swept down the rise, howling and scratching at everything in its path, I didn’t think anything of the noise and went back to sleep. A blast of cold air woke me up the next morning. I lay in bed, waiting for my senses to sharpen. My room was narrow and I had only to stretch out my arm to pull my dressing gown off the chair. I yanked back my hand and tucked the gown beneath the covers, wriggling into it as fast as I could. It was after nine o’clock and that meant we’d already had our ration of heating for the day. Luckily, it was such a small room that it would warm up quickly if I closed the window.

“I slipped my feet into my lambskin slippers and lifted myself into the day. As I approached the window, I saw a red rose taped to the outside of it. Three other girls in the corridor woke up to the same surprise. We marveled at the athletic feats of our secret admirers who had climbed the high wall that ran like a moat around our building, then straddled a gap that was over a metre and a half wide and several metres deep, all the while holding a rose and some tape; enough tape, in fact, to secure the rose against strong winds and lashing rain.

“One by one, the other girls discovered who their beaux were. The whole day passed and I still hadn’t figured out who mine was. I began to wonder if it was a joke or if my rose was meant for someone else—taped to my window by mistake. Around 11pm, I said goodnight to my neighbours and went to my room. A few minutes later, J knocked on my door. We chatted a while and then I said goodnight again but he lingered, pulling at his hair and shifting his weight from side to side. He didn’t look at me. His gaze fell onto his feet and mine followed. We both looked at his toes curling and stretching through his black socks. After a few awkward seconds, he asked if I’d guessed who’d given me the rose. I listed every guy in our year but he kept shaking his head. Eventually, his name was the only one left.

“Over the months we spent together, his shyness shifted and he began sharing his secrets with me. It was a quiet, kind relationship. I kept his rose pressed into the heaviest book I had—my Spanish/English dictionary. Then, the day came when I knew I had to let him go. We agreed to close the book on our romance and reopen our friendship. Some time passed until I took the rose—by now the colour of dark blood—to my favourite bridge in the forest and released our love back into the water. I sent it with a wish—come back soon.”

“I find myself thinking of passages from Catcher in the Rye. I read the book a very long time ago but there’s an image that has remained with me ever since. The main character, Holden Caulfield, is a troubled teenaged boy who’s been expelled from school just before Christmas. He takes the train to Manhattan and then hops into a cab. As the driver takes him through Central Park, Holden asks him where the ducks go when the pond freezes over. I realise that he’s asking the question because he’s anxious to know what happens to the ducks when they become homeless. And then, my thoughts take me on a journey of uncertainly: the future seems full of harsh realities, the worst one being the loss of home, of familiarity, of security, of the place where we can be ourselves, where we are true to our nature. Serang’s main character gets trapped in a vortex of deep loneliness—the kind you see in people’s eyes every day. I once heard someone talk about the numbness we cultivate in ourselves as a survival mechanism to get through each day, how this eventually becomes our normal state of being. Serang describes it as the graying of the soul. The light in our lives begins to grow dim or perhaps it’s that the layers of disillusionment and disappointment stack up and obscure the brightness we have within us, deep down. His protagonist tries to rediscover the magic in himself by holing up in a remote lakeside cabin and indeed, all kinds of mysteries eventually flock towards him like birds to breadcrumbs. Perhaps they are fuel to fire up the engine of brilliance he seeks for his mathematical conundrum. Or perhaps it’s just life, showing him a path back to love.”

“Serang’s four-leaf clover sits on my desk. As I progress on my journey with this book, the clover leaf becomes a motif that keeps rising to the surface of the story—it’s both the lifevest that yanks the hero back from his murky depths and the hand that plunges him back into the mud.

“In one of his emails, Serang tells me that he plays with the borders of reality and fantasy so that it’s not completely clear to the reader if his character experiences the bizarre encounters in the story or if he’s unravelling, mentally as well as emotionally. The clover is like an anchor and ultimately, it brings him back to the heart of what he’s writing about—the extremes of love: the gluttony of it and the purity of it.

“It’s up to us to decide how to use our capacity to love. Love can either be a brilliant diamond that makes us vibrant with life or a burnt bit of toast that gets stuck in our throats. There’s a research centre in Stockholm devoted to creating opportunities out of calamities. We know that we’re causing massive changes to the oceans, to our water supply, to our soil, to ourselves. But what are we going to do about it? Inevitably, the first step is to understand the nature of our folly, to immerse ourselves in the gore and climb our way out of it. Serang swims to the depths of his darkness and just as his lungs are about to burst, he turns back to the light. He sees beyond the fleeting sparks that we think are the essence of our lives.

“In the last few breaths of his book, Serang’s voice arrests me. Until now, I’ve been aware of his adeptness at playing with the artifice of fantasy and fairy tale. He employs the imagery that these storytelling forms invite him to use but it’s when he allows this structure to fall away that his voice transforms into the voice inside my head. He speaks to me directly and for the time it takes to read those last pages, I forget that I am holding a book in my hands.”

Viveca Mellegard

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  1. JoycePowellD.O.sdoitbetter says:

    To me, it is a short love angst story about a highly capable man, who despite his prestige, seems to block himself from being in a supportive healthy relationship.

    I did not want to like this story, but I absolutely do. Simply, the writing is amazing.

    The narrative style is conversational and highly personal. I feel like the author is trying to share the feeling of yearning for balance, a natural creative beauty (feminine) to exist against the harsh cut-throat backdrop in which he thrives (masculine). Also, the portrayal of the female is perhaps deliberately shallow in order to highlight the lack character depth of the protagonist as we are seeing the story through his eyes.

  2. G Kelly says:

    Lovely. But what is it about? Would I like to read it? I don’t know.

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