Exploring the intersection of animal and human

by Melissa Hart

Survival Skills
Jean Ryan
197 pages, paperback: $15.95.
Ashland Creek, 2013.

Early in Jean Ryan's debut collection of stories, a woman in a wetsuit strokes an octopus' head while it caresses her face with the tip of one arm. The scene illustrates one of the author's favorite themes: We're at our best, we humans, when we allow ourselves to interact intimately with the natural world –– even if it's just a matter of hanging out in, say, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Ryan, a Northern California author who describes herself as a "horticultural enthusiast," has long been interested in what she describes as "the vulnerability and interdependency of all living things." The intersection of flora, fauna and humanity informs the stories in Survival Skills; one narrator finds solace in Palm Springs' citrus and eponymous trees, while another meditates on the resiliency of stinking orchids. Ryan's prose particularly shines when she's describing animals – whether beagles, hummingbirds or tattletale parrots – and their relationship to people.

Her first story, "Greyhound," parallels a rescued race dog's recovery with that of the narrator's girlfriend, who is afflicted with an angst that explodes into eczema. The rash disappears as the dog is rehabilitated, but the narrator is wise enough not to take either for granted: "How long this state of grace will last," she says, "is a question we don't need answered."

These are stories about relationships – heterosexual and gay – told by patient narrators, often in their 40s and 50s. They've learned to look past the dramas of divorce and infidelity for the kind of comfort offered in the flash of a moth's wing under moonlight, or in a spider rescued from a sink. In "Migration," a newly divorced woman finds healing in the form of a Toulouse goose that shows up at her Lake Tahoe cabin for a daily walk. The narrator in "Paradise" looks to a parrot for insight into a doomed relationship. Resignation informs many of these tales, but –– just as powerfully –– so does redemption.

"There were countless mysteries," Ryan writes, "observed or missed, unfolding every instant." Survival Skills reminds readers of these mysteries, of how meaningful relationships extend beyond the romantic and the human. We can bond with a charismatic goose, with an enigmatic octopus, even with an irritating bird, and our life will be richer for it.

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