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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Ann Packer is one of our most talented observers of family life, with its hidden crevasses and unforeseeable perils. In these unforgettable, emotionally searing stories, she explores the moral predicaments that define our lives, the frailty of ordinary grace, and the ways in which we are shattered and remade by loss.

Excerpt

Walk for Mankind •

September 1972. It was the first week of eighth grade, and I sat alone near the back of the school bus: a short, scrawny honor-roll boy with small hands and big ears. The route home meandered through Los Altos Hills, with its large houses sitting in the shadows of old oak trees and dense groves of eucalyptus. Finally we came down out of the hills and arrived in Stanford, where the last twenty or so of us lived, in houses built close together on land the University leased to its faculty. A couple of stops before mine, a clump of kids rose and moved up the aisle, and that’s when I saw her, a new girl sitting up near the front.

To my surprise, she shouldered her backpack at my stop. I waited until she was off the bus and then made my way up the aisle, keeping my eyes away from Bruce Cavanaugh and Tony Halpern, who’d been my friends back in elementary school. Down on the bright sidewalk, she was headed in the direction I had to go, and I followed after her, walking slowly so I wouldn’t overtake her. She was small-boned like me, with thick red hair spilling halfway down her back and covering part of her backpack, which was decorated with at least a dozen McGovern buttons, rather than the usual one or two. There was even a Nixon button with a giant red X drawn over his ugly face.

She stopped suddenly and turned, and I got my first glimpse of her face: pale and peppered with freckles. “Who are you?” she said.

“Sorry.” I was afraid she thought I was following her when I was just heading home.

She came forward and offered me her hand. “Hi, Sorry—I’m Sasha. Or maybe I should say ‘I’m New.’ We can call each other Sorry and New, and then when we get to know each other better we can switch to something else. Shy and Weird, maybe.”

I had never met anyone who talked like this, and it took me a moment to respond. “My name’s Richard.”

She rolled her eyes. “I know that. I didn’t mean who are you what’s your name—I meant who are you who are you. Your name is Richard Appleby and you live around the corner from me, in the house with all the ice plant.”

Now I got it: she was part of the family renting the Levines’ house. Teddy Levine was spending the year at the American Academy in Rome, and the Levine kids were going to go to some Italian school and come back fluent and probably strange. The Jacksons had spent a year in London, and afterward Helen Jackson had been such an oddball her parents had taken her out of public school.

The girl’s hand was still out, and though I’d never shaken hands with another kid before, I held mine out for her, and she pumped it up and down. She had blue-gray eyes with very light lashes, and a long, pointy noise.

“Sasha Horowitz,” she said. “Happy to know you. I was waiting for you to come over, but it’s just as well we met like this—if you’d come over I’d’ve probably been a freak. Plus my parents would’ve co-opted the whole thing. Do your parents do that? Co-opt everything? When I was really little my dad would always try to play with me and my friends—he’d give us rides on his back like a horse, and he’d kind of buck sometimes, and one time a friend of mine fell off and broke her wrist. Her parents were really overprotective—she was never allowed to come over again.” Still looking at me, Sasha shrugged off her backpack and ran her fingers through her heavy, carrot-colored hair. She gathered it into a thick ponytail and secured it with a rubber band from her wrist. She said, “There, that’s better. So do you love San Francisco? We had a picnic in Golden Gate Park on Saturday, and we saw a guy on an acid trip—my little brother thought he was in a play. The only thing is, I’m expecting to be miserable about missing winter.”

“Are you from somewhere cold?” I said. “Did you have snow?”

“New Haven. And God, yes—we had mountains of it. It was a huge pain in the ass. Do you want to come over? You should, because my mother’ll ask me to tell her about school otherwise and I really don’t feel like talking to her.”

She stood there looking at me, waiting for me to answer, and I thought of my mother, in her shabby apartment across the bay in Oakland, where she had lived alone for the last seven months, an exile of her own making. I looked at my watch. In two and a half hours my father would bike home from his office on campus, and after he’d had a drink we would sit down to a dinner that Gladys, our new housekeeper, had left us in the oven. Telling him about school was my job, just as asking about it was his.

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll come over. For a little while.”



Within two weeks I had eaten dinner at Sasha’s house three times, had gone with her and her father to buy tiki lamps for the backyard, had driven to San Francisco with all four Horowitzes to have Sunday morning dim sum. On election night, the five of us squeezed onto the living room couch and yelled at the television set together. In December I ate my first ever potato latkes at their house, and on New Year’s weekend my father allowed me to skip a visit to my mother in favor of an expedition with the Horowitzes to Big Sur.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. That first day, once I was home again and my father and I were in the kitchen just before dinner, I found out what had brought Sasha’s family to Stanford. According to my father, her father had been denied tenure by the English Department at Yale and had accepted a one-year renewable appointment at Stanford—which, my father said, was “quite interesting.”

“Usually you’d stay on for a year or two, try to publish some work, get your CV in order, then go on the job market for a tenure track position somewhere else.” He paused and drew his lips into his mouth, as he often did in thoughtful moments. He was a straight-backed man with neat gray hair and hazel eyes: handsome enough. But when he did this thing with his mouth his chin took over, and he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

He let his lips go. “Maybe there was some bad blood. There often is in a case like this.”

I said, “Maybe he just wanted to leave.” I had met him—Dan—on my way out, and he’d seemed far too friendly for whatever my father might have in mind. “Richard Appleby!” he’d said. “Excellent to meet you! Tell me, are the natives amicable? May we count on you for guidance? You must tell us what the customs are. The customs of the country. You’ll help us, won’t you? Correct our clothing, teach us the vernacular?” And all the while Sasha stood there rolling her eyes but unable to keep from smiling.

“I could ask Hugh Canfield,” my father said. Hugh Canfield was my father’s closest—really, his only—friend outside the History Department. They’d been at Princeton together. Hugh was chair of the English Department and therefore someone who’d have information about Dan.

“You don’t have to ask,” I said. “I don’t care.”

“No, of course not,” my father said. “Though it’s curious. To have been at Yale, he must be very promising.”

He was far more than promising to me. He was promise fulfilled, one of those people who makes the most ordinary occasion brilliant. Build a blanket fort in the living room, which Peter, Sasha’s little brother, loved to do? With Dan’s help we built Peter a blanket civilization, with a theater and a civic center and a mausoleum for Peter’s stuffed hippopotamus, whom we named Hippocritz, the Czar-King of Egypt-Arabia.

He was tall and skinny, Dan, with Sasha’s frizzy red hair and a great beak of a nose. He played endless games of Risk with us, literally yelling when he lost hold of a continent; and he was fond of showing up at our school at dismissal time with the car packed full of quilts and announcing that he was taking us to the beach to watch the sunset. Joanie, Sasha’s mother, possessed quieter charms, but she had a knack for making things special, too: on Halloween night, a little too old for trick-or-treating ourselves, we shepherded Peter around the neighborhood wearing caps she’d made for us, with badges that said “Official Halloween Escort—Will Say Yes to Candy.” At home, she did quick charcoal sketches of anyone who happened to be nearby, and when she thought they were good she wrote a caption on them and taped them to the kitchen walls. There were a lot of Sasha and Peter, of course, but within a few months there were a couple of me, too, one in which I was holding a deck of cards in my hand, labeled “The Schemer,” and another, in which I was looking off to the side, that said “Richard waiting.” “He looks like a retard in that one,” Sasha said. “Take it down.” But Joanie didn’t, and though I didn’t say so to Sasha, I was glad.

Sasha. She had a little of each parent in her, Dan’s gaiety, Joanie’s warmth, plus something essential and not altogether pleasant that was entirely hers, like a back note of pepper in a rich chocolate dessert. It was a quality that made her—that gave her permission to—insist on what she wanted. We played Truth or Dare a lot, and her dares invariably had me taking risks that just happened to have as their end points some small reward for her: a stolen candy bar, the details of an overheard—an eavesdropped-upon—conversation.

“Someone has a sweetheart,” Gladys said, but it wasn’t that. For one thing, we hardly spoke at school, Sasha having found a niche among some other Stanford kids while I stuck with two guys I’d met during seventh grade, Malcolm and Bob, precisely because they weren’t Stanford kids and hadn’t known me when my mother was around. Occasionally Sasha would track down the three of us at lunchtime and plop down next to me with her brown bag (which contained, unvaryingly, an egg salad sandwich on pumpernickel, a handful of dried apricots, and a small can of pineapple juice). More often, we’d join up once we’d gotten off the school bus, or one of us would appear at the other’s front door at about four o’clock and say, with heavy irony, “Do you want to play?”

“I’ve always had boys as friends,” she said. “What’s the big deal?”

I hadn’t had a girl as a friend since kindergarten, and for me it was strange and exciting. But I wanted to seem as blasé as she was. “Yeah,” I said. “People are so idiotic.”

Gladys may have given me knowing smiles when Sasha came over, but my father hardly noticed I had a new friend. Right after my mother left, he reduced his time at the University, spending Saturdays in his study at home rather than going to campus. He was hard at work on a book about the New Deal, though, and by the time the Horowitzes arrived he was back to his old habits, and he clung to them through that fall and winter, working, working. Sunday was his only day of rest, and we always did something together: went to a concert or played a board game or even tried to navigate our way through some complicated baking project, in service to his ferocious sweet tooth.

He was fifty that year, the age I am now, but he wore fifty in the old way, with lace-up leather dress shoes and starched shirts. Sometimes when I’m out for a run, or just kicking a soccer ball with my kids, I think my father, if he were still alive, would not recognize me. He would see that I was his son, he would see that I was Richard—but he wouldn’t be able to make any kind of sense of me as a middle-aged man.


From the Hardcover edition.
Ann Packer|Author Q&A

About Ann Packer

Ann Packer - Swim Back to Me

Photo © Jonathan Sprague

Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, the latter of which received a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.

Ann Packer is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (www.rhspeakers.com)

Author Q&A

Q: Tell us about the title, SWIM BACK TO ME.            

A: The phrase "Swim Back to Me" appears as a title of a song in one of the stories, "Molten," in which a mother grieves the loss of her teenage son by listening to his music. I wrote this story in the late nineties, during a period in my life when I was rediscovering the world of rock and roll through the mix tapes a writing student of mine was making for me.  It had been a decade or so since I'd paid attention to much music beyond Raffi's songs for children, and when I began listening to the Pixies and Pavement and Superchunk, I was overwhelmed by the power of the songs and the enchantment I felt listening to them.  I wrote the story under the influence of that enchantment, using a mother's loss as the emotional setting to explore the transformative power of an intense aesthetic experience.
 
Fast forward ten or eleven years, and I was finishing the book and needed a title.  I wanted to avoid naming the book after one of the individual pieces, since that would have emphasized a part over the whole, and I wanted something that worked thematically for the entire book.  I was really at a loss, casting about, picking the brains of friends, when the idea of using the phrase Swim Back to Me suddenly popped into my mind.  As with many ideas that later become important, I can remember exactly where I was when I had the thought—on a highway in Auburn, CA, researching the setting of another of the stories, "Dwell Time"—and what made the phrase so powerful was the combination of darkness and light that it contained:  the addressee is gone but is capable of returning. For me, that spoke to the book's themes, and in particular to the idea that new connections and ties can only be made with an eye to what's come before.
 
Q: Let’s talk about some of those themes. Unlike your last two books, bestselling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words, this one isn't unified by a single plot.  What sensibility joins these six shorter works?
 
A: I'm drawn to writing about people who find themselves in situations that challenge their assumptions about who they are and how they can and do live their lives. Richard, the narrator of "Walk for Mankind," the novella that opens the book, is living the somewhat isolated life of a young teenager trying to make sense of his family's disintegration and the ways in which it has changed his life. The novella is about what happens when, through a new family, he discovers a different world, more vibrant than any he's known, and he has the opportunity and the task of figuring out if he wants to give it a try. In "Her Firstborn," the impending birth of a baby unfolds against the aftermath of another child's death.  
 
Loss is obviously a big theme for me, and in these stories my characters deal both with loss of the actual—divorce, the deaths of loved ones—and also loss of their dreams, by which I mean the stories they've told themselves about how life will go. And lest this seem grim, I mean the loss both of positive stories—stories of long and happy marriages, for example—and also negative ones, stories in which pessimism has played such a central part that good fortune and possibility can be so surprising as to be initially uncomfortable. Another way to put all of this is that I'm fascinated by deception, both the kind we practice on each other and the kind we feel so compelled to practice on ourselves.
 
Q: The stories in SWIM BACK TO ME are written from very different points of view, some of which you’re already introduced: a young boy on the brink of his teen tears, a grieving mother, a divorced, middle-aged woman who is newly re-married and an expectant father. Is it difficult to create and inhabit so many disparate characters, many with life experiences very different from your own? Or is it all the more fun?

A: It is usually the case that everything occurs to me at once—plot, character, setting, voice—and no aspect is more or less difficult than any other.  For "Her Firstborn," the oldest of these stories, the main character, Dean, began to come together only as I wrote the first paragraph and imagined his awkwardness about taking bed pillows to a childbirth class. "Walk for Mankind" began more unusually for me, in that I had the main character's general experience of meeting a new, exciting family with a very charismatic girl, before I had the main character himself—that is, before I knew to whom the events were happening.  In fact, the narrator, Richard, came to me only after I'd flailed around with a female narrator and then set the whole thing aside when I couldn't make it work.  As soon as I began writing from Richard's point of view and in his voice, the piece gathered momentum . . . or maybe I mean that I did.
 
Q: Many of the stories also have teenagers in common—from a pair of best friends in the Bay Area of the 1970’s in the opening novella, to the phantom but very visceral presence of a deceased son in “Molten,” and the many authentic teenage sons and daughters that make up families throughout the book. What about the moment of adolescence keeps drawing you back?
 
A: Adolescence marks such a turning point in life; after years of depending on and idealizing our parents, or at least conceiving of them as all-powerful, in the teen years we experience a dawning recognition of their limitations and of our own latent power—be it intellectual, physical, or sexual, to name just a few kinds.  And of course it's an important moment in terms of self-definition, which comes in part through an increase of self-awareness:  who am I, and who am I in relation to others?
 
My previous work features a lot of teenagers, from the barely post-adolescent Carrie Bell in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier to the troubled daughter Lauren and her younger brother Joe in Songs Without Words.  In this book I enjoyed creating teenagers from two very different time periods:  the early 70s, when I was a teen, and today, when the teenagers I know best are my children.  
 
Q:  Let's circle back to Richard and Sasha, the teenagers from "Walk for Mankind."  In the final story in the book, "Things Said or Done," we meet Sasha and her family again, thirty-five years later.  Did you always know you'd return to this family at the end of the book?  And what made you choose the novella form for the former and the short story form for the latter?

A:  It was always my intention to open with "Walk for Mankind" and to close with a return to its characters, but for a long time I didn't know how I'd do that.  I knew I'd focus on Sasha and her father—I started with his voice, complaining to her that he thinks he's dying—but I didn't know Richard would be absent entirely, and it took me several drafts to invent the wedding where the story is set.

As for form, in both cases—in all cases, in fact, including my novels—the material itself dictates the form.  I didn't set out to write a novella with "Walk for Mankind," but I knew pretty quickly, once I'd begun, that I was working on something longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.  I haven't made a study of it, but "novella" may be more a term of convenience than a form with certain properties:  it's a work of fiction of around a hundred pages.  
 
Q: You have been credited with a “wonderfully optimistic yet realistic view of humanity” (Chicago Tribune). SWIM BACK TO ME certainly tackles the gritty realities of living—grief, self-doubt, loss—but also weddings and births and self-discovery, all without obviously “good” or “bad” endings. Is there any message you want your readers to take away? And do think this quote is an accurate description of your outlook?
 
A: I hope it's an accurate description.  I think I'm realistic—certainly it is important to me to portray the messiness and challenges of life, along with the joys—and I think I'm optimistic as well.  What I mean is that I think redemption is possible (though by no means guaranteed), and after putting my characters through some difficult experiences I am open to, if not looking for, ways to leave them positively altered, if only by an increase in awareness.  

It's funny—looking back at this answer, I can see how it mirrors the Chicago Tribune description in that with nearly every phrase I introduce a qualification or counterpoint. I'll have to think about what that might mean.
 
Q: The book is dedicated to your brother, George Packer, the journalist and New Yorker staff writer.  How did you both end up being writers?  Was literature important in your family?

A.  We grew up in an academic family—both of our parents were professors at Stanford—and both literature and politics (one of George's particular areas of interest) were very, very important.  Certain writers had the stature in our family that famous athletes might have in families full of sports fans, and we debated the relative merits of Faulkner and Hemingway in much the same way that people might argue over who was greater, Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb.  I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful library twenty steps from my bedroom, and I have no doubt that my early immersion in imaginary worlds was an important factor in my becoming a writer.
 
Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm in the very early stages of a new novel.  At this point, it's so fragile I can't really talk about it, though I can say that it's set here in my native Bay Area, which more and more is the setting for my work—Songs Without Words took place here, and of the six pieces in Swim Back to Me, four take place within 50 miles of where I sit and type. Looking back on my career, I can see that I've tended to write about places I've recently lived—when I wrote The Dive from Clausen's Pier I'd just moved away from Madison, WI, and before that had lived in Manhattan—and because I've been back in the San Francisco area, where I was born, for 15 years, it's the place I lived recently and the place I live now.


From the Hardcover edition.

Praise

Praise

“Stunning. . . . Packer can break your heart—and she can mend it, too. ” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“A tour de force. . . . With this collection, Ann Packer takes her place among today’s best authors of literary fiction.” —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“[Packer’s] patient investigations reveal human longing in such clear, stripped-down familiarity—never shirking from the difficult—that readers experience a singular sense of comfort.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“Exhilarating. . . . Searing. . . . [Packer’s] stories brim with piercing vitality and clear-eyed believability.” —The Washington Post
 
Packer paints these lives with full and compassionate brush strokes.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“As audacious, imaginative and poignant as any of [Packer’s] previous work. . . . Packer can compress a lifetime of hope and sorrow in a short story, and in a brief paragraph can suggest the unspoken language of marriage and family.” —The Miami Herald
 
“Wonderful. . . . [A] lovely, masterful collection.” —The Boston Globe

“Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me reminded me of why I fell in love with literature in the first place. Upon closing the book, I thought, ‘I’ll read this again’. . . . Packer’s stories stick with you.” —Susan Baleé, The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Packer . . . is a master at getting to the heart of characters struggling on in the face of loss. . . . Swim Back to Me is best enjoyed for Packer’s sharply focused snapshots of people at pivotal points in their lives, a focus so intense that we can feel as if we’re spying on them. ” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
“[Beginning] Packer’s stories feels as nonchalant as stepping into a puddle but results in a sudden plunge into deep water. . . . Potent and deftly written.”  —Dallas Morning News
 
“An author who speaks with her full voice. . . . The people in Packer’s stories are so possible and so familiar, reading about them is like flipping through a photo album with someone you’ve always known.” —San Francisco magazine
 
“Anyone intrigued by the ways we both fail and save one another will find ample food for thought here.” —People
 
“Deeply engrossing. . . . Illuminates the instant, in the darkest hour of grief, when the heart opens wider than ever before—and shows us a new way of being.” —More
 
“Gripping. . . . A stunning look into how we learn and sometimes fail to live with each other.” —The Daily Beast
 
“Touching, tender and true.” —The Austin American Statesman
 
“Utterly readable. . . . Ann Packer has a talent for creating authentic, absorbing characters.” —Ladies Home Journal
 
 “A keen observer of family dynamics. . . . Packer the novelist is equally adept at the short form.” —The Oakland Tribune
 
“Packer’s descriptions of what crisis looks like from the inside out are almost always word-perfect.” —Toledo Blade
 
“Subtle, deeply personal. . . . [An] excellent collection.” —Bookreporter.com
 
“Powerful . . . satisfying. . . . Packer’s characters are fully developed with emotions that feel authentic.” —BookPage

Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and suggestions for further reading that follow are intended to enrich your discussion of Ann Packer’s Swim Back to Me.  In her masterfully crafted and absorbing new book, Ann Packer portrays a group of characters struggling to come to terms with the conflicts and crises of late youth and adulthood, the ties that bind families together, and what happens when those bonds are tested.

About the Guide

Ann Packer’s follow-up to her best-selling novels The Dive from Clausen’s Pier and Songs Without Words is a burnished, emotionally searing collection of short stories, framed by two linked narratives that express the transformation of a single family over the course of a lifetime.
 
A wife struggles to make sense of her husband’s sudden disappearance. A mother mourns her teenage son through the music collection he left behind. A woman shepherds her estranged parents through her brother’s wedding and reflects on the year her family collapsed. A young man comes to grips with the joy and vulnerability of fatherhood. And in the opening novella, two teenagers from very different families forge a sustaining friendship, only to discover the disruptive power of sex.
 
Ann Packer is one of our most talented archivists of family life, with its hidden crevasses and unmistakable perils, and in these stories she explores the moral predicaments that define our social and emotio

About the Author

Ann Packer is the author of two best-selling novels, Songs Without Words and The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, which received a Great Lakes Book Award, an American Library Association Award, and the Kate Chopin Literary Award.  Her short fiction and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Vogue, and Real Simple. Also the author of Mendocino and Other Stories, she lives in northern California with her family.

Discussion Guides

1. The stories “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done” are interlocking narratives that capture the lives of two families over the course of several decades. “Walk for Mankind” paints a vivid portrait of Sasha and Richard as young teenagers, and also provides a concise but clear portrait of Richard at the age of fifty. In the second story, “Things Said or Done,” we see what has become of Sasha as a grown woman. How do these revelations about who Sasha and Richard become as adults defy or fulfill our expectations based on who they were as adolescents? Were you surprised by the trajectories of their lives? Why or why not?

2. When Sasha asks her father for a ride to the fund-raiser called Walk for Mankind, her father replies, “Ah, the Walk. Noblest of causes.” Later, Richard’s mother takes him to the Oakland ghetto, where they pass a prostitute, causing his mother to remark, “She’s mankind, too.” Discuss Richard’s mother’s views about class and social justice.

3. On page 16, Richard reflects on his mother’s reasons for leaving their family and remembered that she used her desire to help the underprivileged as a rationalization. He thinks wryly that “there were underprivileged and undereducated women on our side of the bay, too.” How did you feel reading the scenes with Richard’s mother? Is she a sympathetic character? Why or why not?

4. What is Harry Henry’s house? What does it represent to Richard and Sasha?

5. During the Walk for Mankind, a stranger called Karl shows Richard a series of pictures documenting the evolution of a frog. Years later, Richard asks, “How do people do it, pry themselves from their pasts. . . I wish I could say my life in the natural world began with a transformative experience. . . The course of true progress is boring…it’s incremental. Think of that frog, the one in Karl’s picture. There wasn’t a single moment when he passed into maturity….” How do the ideas about growth and change that Richard is grappling with here relate to Packer’s themes in this story and throughout Swim Back to Me?

6. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ideas about knowledge and personal growth seem to hover over both “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done.” At one point Richard’s father discusses the idea of the quest in relation to one of Emerson’s poems. Discuss the following passage about transformation from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in relation to Packer’s two linked stories: “If any of us knew what we were doing, or where we are going, then when we think we best know! We do not know today whether we are busy or idle. In times when we thought ourselves indolent, we have afterwards discovered that much was accomplished, and much was begun in us.  All our days are so unprofitable while they pass, that 'tis wonderful where or when we ever got anything of this which we call wisdom, poetry, virtue. We never got it on any dated calendar day.”

7. “Walk for Mankind” ends with these words: “It would be years before it occurred to me that with that one gesture I managed to kill two birds with one stone. And I do mean kill. And I do mean birds, though perhaps I should say it with an English accent, buds. It isn’t easy, admitting your murders.” What do the birds in this paragraph symbolize? Compare and contrast with the exchange on page 30, in which Sasha and Richard make an emergency stop at a stranger’s house during the walk, and the tall man asks Sasha, “Did you get both birds?” How does the meaning and symbolism shift as the story continues? What does Richard feel he has murdered at the end of the story?

8. In “Things Said or Done,” Sasha says, “Such is the lot of the narcissist’s child, to inherit her parent’s umbrage over the world’s indifference.” What is Sasha’s lot?

9. At the wedding, Sasha and her father discuss a Yeats poem, which posits a dichotomy between conscience and vanity. Sasha says that she struggles with her conscience, and her father with his vanity. Which is worse, guilt or humiliation? Which is the animating fear for the characters in both “Walk for Mankind” and “Things Said or Done”?

10. At the conclusion of “Things Said or Done,” it becomes clear that Sasha has no memory of Richard, although Richard was a critical character at a formative moment of her youth. What does this suggest about our childhood experiences? What do you think the author is trying to convey about memory and experience, the nature of the past, and its relation to our future?

11. Discuss this paradoxical predicament from the end of “Jump”: “Wanting to be gone was one thing, but going was another.”

12. On page 158 the heroine of “Dwell Time” catalogs all the physical, empirical things she knows about Matt--“he counted out vitamins”; “he liked her to put her hand on his bare chest”--and then asks: “Was that someone who would run away?” How much do we know about the people we love? How much is it possible to know?

13. What is “dwell time”?

14. In the analogy presented on page 172--“How long would the next one be, the next period at home before he went off to war again”--where is war, and where is Matt’s true home?

15. At the end of “Her Firstborn,” Packer writes: “Dean’s had it all wrong: it isn’t that Lise had a baby who died, but rather that she had a baby, who died.” How is the meaning of this sentence profoundly changed by Packer’s movement of the comma? What are we meant to infer from this shift in emphasis? How does this alter our understanding of Lise’s experience?

16. In “Jump,” both Carolee and Alejandro are invested in projecting images of themselves that aren’t quite true to their life histories. Both are also uncomfortable with issues of affluence and privilege. Why? What are they trying to conceal, and who are they pretending to be?

17. Why is this collection called Swim Back to Me? From which story does the collection take its title, and how is it relevant to the collection as a whole?

18. Do the fathers in Packer’s collection have anything in common? The families? What do you think Packer views as the perils and consolations of family life?

Suggested Readings

Ann Packer, The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, Songs Without Words, Mendocino and Other Stories; Amy Bloom, Where the God of Love Hangs Out; Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad; Maile Meloy, Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It; Alice Munro, Friend of My Youth.

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