Portable Childhoods by Ellen Klages

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"Basement Magic"
Image"Intelligent Design"
"The Green Glass Sea"
"Clip Art"
"The Feed Bag"
"Flying Over Water"
"Möbius, Stripped of a Muse"
"Time Gypsy"
"Be Prepared"
"Travel Agency"
"A Taste of Summer"
"Ringing Up Baby"
"Guys Day Out"
"Portable Childhoods"
"In the House of the Seven Librarians"
I’d never heard of Ellen Klages before reviewing this book, but the laudatory preface by none other than the rock star of fantasy authors, Neil Gaiman, piqued my curiosity. I read Portable Childhoods, and the stories crept into my brain where, haunting and crystalline, they yet remain.

The winner of the 2005 Nebula Award for Best Novelette, "Basement Magic" begins Klages’s collection with gusto, pitting the shy young Mary Louise and her savvy housekeeper, Miz Ruby, against a child-hating stepmother. "Basement Magic" sensitively balances sympathy for all major female characters. The delicate execution of fairy-tale tropes [the wronged child, the evil stepmother and, toward the end, bestial transformation] envigorates the familiar characters and plot.

In the witty "Intelligent Design," Klages imagines God as a supernatural five-year-old boy who disobeys his grandma [fittingly named Nanadeus!] to play with bugs. The puns and genuine excitement of this story make it very satisfying.

The plot of "The Green Glass Sea" is really very simple. A father involved with the Manhattan Project takes his family, including two young daughters, to see the aftermath of a test nuclear blast in the desert. While Klages transmits the children’s amazement of the magical changes that the blast has wrought on the landscape, the simply rendered viewpoint [in which Geiger counters are just "boxes" that click like cicadas] makes the blast results all the more portentous. This is easily the most disturbing story in the bunch.

At first read, I was tempted to laugh off "Clip Art," a documentary script about a paper clip connoisseur and collector. Then I realized that this story is a small gem: Klages’s brilliant transposition of the collector’s mania and personality onto a subject that we wouldn’t really think of as collection-worthy.

"Triangle," in which a modern-day professor has a strange encounter with a friend and an antique piece of pink felt, deals with the Nazi persecution of gay men during WWII. All elements, including a time-travel dream, are promising, but they never combine to achieve anything novel or special. It’s the weakest story in the collection.

I don’t think I should be mentioning "The Feed Bag" [even though it’s a nifty poetic evocation of a little child’s trespass into a forbidden adult zone of a restaurant basement], so I’ll move on to "Flying Over Water." In this tale, which reminds me of "Basement Magic," an awkward girl finds freedom from her overbearing mother with the help of a scuba mask and some magic. Klages’s ability to get inside the head of her protagonist, the self-conscious but rambunctious Kritter, gives this wish fullfillment story a poignant edge.

"Möbius, Stripped of a Muse," a humorous experiment, explores the intersections of writer’s block, stories inspired by real life, and characters who [seem to] come alive.

"Time Gypsy" tracks present day lesbian astrophysicist Carol as she gets a chance to travel back 50 years to meet her idol, a time-travel scientist who went missing at a young age. Of course, they fall in love. It makes me happy because it’s one of the very few stories in which the time traveler enjoys the fruits of the changes she has made in the past.

"Be Prepared" is a quick, tasty parody of celebrity cooking shows, flavored with a dash of cannibalism.

Both "Travel Agency" and "A Taste of Summer" feature young girls on fantastic vacations. In the first, our heroine discovers a magic book; in the second, much more mundanely, our heroine meets a flavor chemist. If you don’t think that’s fantastic, you haven’t read the subtle and unsentimental ways in which Klages captures childhood wonder.

"Ringing Up Baby," a one-joke short about designer kids, bubbles with the same affectionate humor that makes "Intelligent Design" so enjoyable.

"Guys Day Out" contains no magical elements, merely a realistic-fiction evocation of a father caring for his adult son, who has Down’s Syndrome. Both this story and the next, "Portable Childhoods," brim with the minutiae of childhood, nothing exceptional. It is the keen observations by the parental protagonists, rendered in Klages’s low-key, almost transparent prose, that drive these stories home. There’s such an aching wistful tenderness in both stories, a realization that childhood is lovely but evanescent, that these two works remind me of certain summer days. Bright and beautiful, they yet sadden me because they are so short.

The theme of parents letting go reappears on a lighter note with the final story, "In the House of the Seven Librarians," in which seven genteel old lady librarians raise an orphan girl left in the book bin of their library. It’s a classic fairy tale, with many humorous touches guaranteed to make bibliophiles and/or library nerds chuckle.

So right there are 16 reasons why you should inspect Portable Childhoods. Buy it. Read it. Set it down. Then pick it up and read it again!
Publisher: Tachyon Publications (April 2007)
Price: $11.66
Paperback: 248 pages
ISBN: 1892391457