Bolinas author Judith Shaw’s recently published short story compilation, “Catching a Memory,” is told with condensed clarity and insight. Its 20 stories reveal a graceful way of detailing characters, many of whom are experiencing difficult moments in their lives, that call us to imagine ourselves in similar situations. Shaw’s professional career as a psychologist provides the perfect lens though which to view her characters, and her years of counseling couples lend authenticity. As she told a KWMR host last year, “I can almost guarantee that readers will find a character who reflects someone they know, or, who knows, even themselves.”
Some of the experiences detailed in the stories will be familiar to all of us: a sister’s perspective on a marriage, a daughter’s concern for her aging father, a house passed down through a family and the trials engendered by its renovation.
In the preface, Shaw describes the collection as “discreet moments, private moments, some happening now: moments of reweaving, softness after anger, musings before death, exigencies examined, love regained, love lost, some middles without resolution. There is no thread, gossamer or taut, the stories do not link. Each is an isolated event, each person loving their optimum best—the distinguished, and difficult sometimes, art of life.”
The writing is precise, and Shaw trusts her readers to employ empathy. She avoids editorializing, over-explaining or assigning preference. We’re left wanting more. Several stories are very brief, almost haiku-like in their ability to present us with the invisible emotions behind the words.
At times Shaw’s writing reminds me of freshly ironed linen: She takes what could be seen as a lumpy piece of fabric—those age-old tropes of the common challenges of life and the manner in which we all stumble through them—and smoothes them out into a fresh garment, crisp and fine.
Humor plays a part, even in scenes of crisis. In one story, a man who is in mid-life but facing his final days claims he wants a banner mounted outside his room that declares “The massacre happens to the young behind their backs.” He says he has no wish to be “hanging around auditioning for death.”
Asked what drew her to fiction after publishing two works of non-fiction, one concerning the necessity for healthy diets for children and adults, and the other, “Trans Fats,” an early revelation of the food industry’s transgressions in hiding the physical damage caused by that product, Shaw stated, “I was totally finished with fact checking!”
She spent the pandemic’s early stay-at-home order to look back at stories she’d written over the years, many inspired during her time in the late poet Joanne Kyger’s writing workshops and others from a writers’ group that met as mutual support. Though each of the stories in “Catching a Memory” can stand alone, there’s a subtle relationship of personalities or events that echoes through the whole.
An insight into the soul of the compilation comes at the opening of the book: “Caveat: In life one hears friends, relatives, colleagues, lovers, speak or write words that lurk forever more in one lobe or another of the cerebral cortex. But we have forgotten who said what. Perhaps a phrase, a thought, or even just a word in this collection has come forth from where it naps.”
“Catching a Memory” is available at Point Reyes Books, the Depot in Mill Valley, Book Passage in Corte Madera, Pegasus Books in Berkeley, on Amazon, and in West Marin libraries.
Bolinas resident Jane Mickelson is a cultural mythologist and author. She met Judith in a writers’ group a decade or more ago.