The Art of the Short Story

I never set out to make 2013 the Year of the Short Story, but my reading choices have gone that way. In the first two months of the year, I’ve read four story collections and have quite a few more on my To-Read list.

It’s not as if this is a new genre for me. I’ve always appreciated great short stories. I would, in fact, argue that a great short story writer possess all the skills of great novelists and then some. After all they have to pack all the character development, story arc, subtext and emotional subtext of a satisfying story into a much more confined space. In short stories there’s no room to let a character “grow on” a reader or to allow them to “warm up” to a situation.

Some writers do this through shock. Aimee Bender and Karen Russell take their characters and stories outside of normal reality, grabbing our attention with women who can spin silk through their fingertips or teenagers with piano-keys for fingers. Others, like Elizabeth Berg, write about characters so completely familiar they could be our neighbors, sisters, or even ourselves.

For me, the key to a successful short story collection is a sense of completeness. Whether it’s one paragraph (420 Characters) or a novella (A Good Man is Hard to Find), I want a beginning, middle and end. I want to feel invested and satisfied, but still wanting a little bit more.

So far this year, I’ve read some hits and misses in this genre.

Vampires in the Lemon GroveVampires in the Lemon Grove

By Karen Russell

4 stars

Given my absolute love for Aimee Bender, it seems that Karen Russell should be a perfect read-alike. She too throws reality out the window if it gets in the way of her storytelling. She invests her characters with strange powers and physical deformities that defy natural laws. She writes strong women and young people and skewers traditions and politics effortlessly. But, I have to be honest, I came to this collection with a bad taste in my mouth from Swamplandia!, which was decidedly underwhelming for me.

Now I think I might be a convert. This collection started slow for me, with the title story leaving me cold, but it just kept getting better and now I can’t stop thinking about it. I still don’t know how to classify her writing – is this magical realism? modern fantasy? satire? I’m not sure, but I don’t really care. I know that I was entertained and turned inside out and forced to allow my brain to travel down new paths.

These stories span the globe, many different eras and a variety of socio-economic conditions, but at their heart, they all investigate lonely people in search of connections. I think I am now ready to go back and read her first story collection and keep an eye open for whatever she has in store for us next.

 

there once was a wifeThere Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories
By Lyudmila Petrushevskaya
2.5 stars
Dozens of short stories about people (mostly women) whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. There is real honesty here. I had no trouble picturing the world in which these people live. And, in a few places, I was arrested by a moment of brilliance or a character I would have liked to continue reading about. But then the story would end. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling.

I will say that this book was brought more vividly to life by the wonderful discussion it inspired, both on Goodreads and on WordPress, captured perfectly by my book-loving friends Cassie at Books and Bowel Movements and Claire at Word by Word.

this is how you lose herThis is How You Lose Her
By Junot Diaz
4 stars
I’ve already reviewed this book on my blog, so I won’t repeat myself but I will say this collection is held together both my love and by the primary narrator, Yunior, with whom I have a love/hate relationship. I didn’t like him, but I still really liked the writing.

 
The Day I Ate Whatever I WantedThe Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: Stories
By Elizabeth Berg
3.5 stars
Listening to these thirteen stories, read by author Elizabeth Berg, was like having a really clever friend along for car rides. I was often amused, seldom bored and mostly inspired to find someone who gets a certain type of woman so completely. As the subject of the title story suggests, many of these stories are about food and weight issues. Berg wisely intersperses other issues, but when I say she gets a certain type of woman, I mean that she gets those of us for whom food is a daily issue. Judging by her proficiency and popularity, there are a lot of us. I haven’t read all that much Elizabeth Berg, but she certainly seems a pleasant way to pass the time.

Thursday Flashback — World Book Night

Yesterday I received the official notice that I have been chosen to be a World Book Night Giver. With hundreds of thousands of other people, I will be part of an effort to give away a million books to light or non-readers. Once again I will work with my wonderful friends and I have been so heartened to hear from other readers on Goodreads that they too have signed on to be part of the fun this year.

I went in search of what I wrote about last year’s event as I look forward to making this year even better (perhaps without my youngest son in tow this time.)

Are any of you givers this year?

Originally published April 24, 2012

So I participated in the first-time-in-America World Book Night last night. As with many things in my life, it didn’t go according to plan.

Way back when (6 months ago), I stumbled across a Facebook post about World Book Night in the UK. When I followed the link, I saw it was coming to the US in 2012. I love books. I love promoting books. I wanted to be a part of something bigger. I signed up for the newsletter.

When it came time to actually register and request books, I faltered. Once again, the idea of this was more appealing than actually committing to the follow-through.

Choosing titles to give away was no problem, but writing about a place I’d go and why I wanted to do this was a little harder. I’m a curl up on the couch and share my book love with like-minded people kind of girl. The thought of seeking out a place where I could find light or reluctant readers scared me. But I did it.

First paperback edition book cover

First paperback edition book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then I was chosen and I had to move beyond my comfort zone. I had a plan. I would go to the train station and just smile and offer my book, The Kite Runner, to strangers. Gulp.

As the date approached, I turned again and again to the virtual world for courage. I followed @wbnamerica on Twitter and “met” thousands of other people giving away books. I promoted World Book Night on Facebook and received loads of encouragement from friends and family. Ultimately, I connected with real-life friends and revised my work-alone plan.

Feeling better about a group of us working together with several titles, I wore my button, passed out stickers and packed my box. Then real life interfered with my best-laid plans. My husband could not get home in time for me to meet up with my friends. Sigh.

I could have used this as a reason to not interact with strangers, but I surprised myself by adapting quickly. I brought my youngest son along for the “fun.” He was none to pleased about being taken away from his backyard soccer game to “sell” books, but he had no choice. I explained how much this worldwide event meant to me and he agreed to help.

In the end, we had a blast walking up to strangers, talking up our titles and seeing people walk away with a new book. After a slow start, and quite a few skeptical looks, one train’s worth of commuters cleared out most of our books. My son was cute and charming and more than willing to run back to the box to refresh our armloads of books. I felt like part of a much broader community as I followed the experiences of givers across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Now that it is over, I can forever claim being one of the first in America. And, so can my youngest son. I like that.

Some of my favorite #wbnamerica tweets:

Stacey Mason ‏ @StaceyLMason

“Sometimes we need books. And sometimes books need us.” Perhaps half a million free books started a new conversation last night @wbnamerica

Martha Kiley ‏ @MarthaKiley

Gave Bel Canto to a bartender, barista, counter girl, pizza guy, new moms, dog walkers and a butcher. Great night! #wbnamerica

The Book Shepherd ‏ @mybookshepherd

Yesterday was World Book Night-continue it and donate books to those who will open them and fall lin for the love of the word.#wbnamerica

Gabe Eggerling @saysgabe: I have always been told it’s a Gift to receive a book, but thanks to @wbnamerica I can say it’s also a Gift to give a book!!

20120424-091233.jpg

My box of WBN books

20120424-091256.jpg

Proud book-nerds ready to talk to commuters.

20120424-091305.jpg

My youngest son with an armful of The Hunger Games. Ready and willing.

W…W…W…Wednesday

After the long weekend, Wednesday has come earlier than usual. But here I am ready to talk books.

www_wednesdays44

I welcome you to play along. Just answer the following questions:

  • What are you reading?
  • What did you just finish?
  • What do you plan to read next?

What are you reading? I am just about finished with Vampires in the Lemon Grove  by Karen Russell. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like these stories. I thought I should, but they didn’t really click for me until about a third of the way through. Then they just kept getting better. I like her odd sense of the world and the strength of her female characters. On audio, I’m listening to The Secret Keeper, my first Kate Morton. I’m a little intimidated by its length, but it’s off to a great start.

What did you just finish? Finished The Family Fang for the second time. I could rhapsodize about how much I love this quirky look at modern family and the true meaning of art, but I like to keep this Wednesday post rolling along. (You can check out more of my Fang fandom on Goodreads.) On audio, I finished The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted by Elizabeth Berg. Listening to her was like having a good friend in the car telling me entertaining stories. I wasn’t blown away, but it was a very pleasant way to pass the commute.

What will you read next? I’m not sure, but I would really like to be blown away by a book. It hasn’t happened to me yet in 2013. The top two books on my To-Read list are Mudbound and Me Before You, which have both received stellar reviews and high recommendations from readers I trust.

How about you?

W…W…W…Wednesday

I’ll tell you mine and you tell me yours.

www_wednesdays44

I’d love to know what everyone is reading. Just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading? • What did you recently finish reading? • What do you think you’ll read next?

What are you currently reading? In paperback I am rereading one of my favorite books, The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. It topped my 2011 books and I’m happy to report that it’s just as good the second time around. On audio I’m listening to Elizabeth Berg‘s The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted — a short story collection. It started off really strong, but 5 of 7 discs in, I’m getting a little tired of her voice.

What did you recently finish reading? Finally got around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I didn’t love. Also finished Junot Diaz, This is How You Lose Her, which I liked despite not liking the primary narrator.

What do you think you’ll read next? I have no idea what I’ll read next, which is sort of refreshing. I’ll hit the library later today and see what strikes my fancy. It’s not like I don’t have options with 300+ titles on my Goodreads To-Read shelf.

What are your W…W…W… titles?

Questioning a classic – The Catcher in the Rye

“I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.”

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These are the words of Holden Caulfield, perhaps one of the best known protagonists in American literature. They are also words that pretty well describe how I feel about this novel, which I read for the first time as a 41 year-old woman. My reactions to this book are a little bit confused and hard to explain; and, while the story grew on me in the second half, I never fell in love with The Catcher in the Rye.

So who am I to question the presupposed genius of this classic? Who am I to doubt its place in high school English classes across the country? Who am I to dare criticize an author as wrapped in mystique and reputation as J.D. Salinger?

I am a reader. I am humble enough to acknowledge that I probably don’t have much new information to add to a 60 year-old discourse, but I’m confident enough to declare that I don’t have to like a book just because it’s deemed a “classic.” So here I go.

Holden Caulfield is a deeply depressed, conceited young man on a 24-hour drinking, smoking and spending bender, unsupervised in New York City. His voice is “lousy” with criticisms of the “phonies” who surround him in boarding school and nightclubs, dismissive of anyone whose life doesn’t measure up to the unrealistic ideals he’s created and immature about relationships. These qualities may have been revolutionary in 1951 (and they may indeed still describe most 16 year-olds), but characters like Holden are now found everywhere, and in far more likable guises, in literature.

So, basically, I didn’t like him for most of the novel. I spend most of the book wondering why someone would want to write this particular character. That’s a problem.

But here’s where my confusion comes in. There were moments (too few and far between) that Salinger really touched my heart, when Holden seemed three-dimensional and painfully honest.

“That’s the thing about girls. Every time they do something pretty, even if they’re not much to look at, or even if they’re sort of stupid, you fall half in love with them, and then you never knew where the hell you are. Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can.”

And then, the middle-of-the-night scene in his sister Phoebe’s room is really genius. I found this book so much more engaging when we got out of Holden’s mind and into some dialogue and interaction. With Phoebe, we see Holden’s sensitive side. I finally started to like him, but the book was 75% done. It just took too long to get there.

I find it very difficult to grasp that in a few years my son will likely have to read this novel as the definitive “coming-of-age” novel of modern literature. It doesn’t feel in any way modern. I don’t think my sons will identify with Holden’s life. So if they come back to me with, “this book is so boring,” at least I’ll be able to relate.

I’m glad I read it, because I do think this book has influenced so many writers. I am willing to concede that I may just not get the point. Are the very things that bothered me the reasons it has stood the test of time? Maybe, but, in the words of my husband, “meh.”

Paperback Pick

Just going to show that books are just as good in paperback, here are a few of my picks for your weekend reading.

A Land More Kind than Home

A Land More Kind Than HomeWiley Cash

One of the best books I read in 2012 is now in paperback! Rural, religious zeal, coming of age, mystery — this book has it all.

From my 5 star review

Wiley Cash did not so much ease me into the disturbing world of his novel, as grip me by the throat and pull me along…The Appalachian mountains come alive through his descriptions. The characters’ voices practically sing off the page.

Cover image from Goodreads

Cover image from Goodreads

Girlchild

Tupelo Hassman

Another 5 star review of another harrowing book.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

I am currently reading two books in paperback edition

Finally getting around to reading The Catcher in the Rye, which I’m liking not loving…

and one of absolute favorite books, which I am rereading (and enjoying even more the second time around), The Family Fang, by the uber-talented Kevin Wilson. This was another 5-star review.

The Catcher in the Rye

Book cover from Goodreads

Book cover from Goodreads

What are your weekend picks?

Happy reading.

This is How You Lose Her – a new review

I have had difficulty approaching a review of this book. I’m not even sure how to classify it – short stories or a novel? The bottom line is that I liked listening to it. this is how you lose her(The audio is version is narrated by the author.) The language and immediacy of Yunior’s emotions really moved me. I felt I was reading a viewpoint of the world that I don’t get to hear often, so in that way it felt very fresh.

But, I don’t like Yunior. He’s a cheat – the lowest of the low. He’s also the center of all but one of these stories – intelligent, but dishonest; lonely, but cold; searching, but blind.

In fact, I wanted to despise him, but Diaz writes him well enough that I stopped short of hatred. In fact, I felt a little heartbroken for him even as I cringed at his language and behavior. Yunior says about himself:

““In another universe I probably came out OK, ended up with mad novias and jobs and a sea of love in which to swim, but in this world I had a brother who was dying of cancer and a long dark patch of life like a mile of black ice waiting for me up ahead.”

and

“I’m so alone that every day is like eating my own heart.”

Compelling, right? Then, in the next moment, he’s describing Alma this way, “An ass that could pull the moon out of orbit.” I just never knew how to feel about him and the broken world he inhabits.

And, I have to admit, the foul language and vulgarity were hard to listen too. I think when I read the printed word I must skim profanity to some degree because I often found myself cringing at the crudeness of the men in these stories. Even when Diaz throws in Spanish words and phrases (which he does quite often without any translation other than context) I had the feeling he was swearing.

So I’d start to dislike the book a little bit and then Diaz would reel me back in with such beauty that I felt my breath catch. I especially liked the one story told from a woman’s perspective and the honest beauty of Miss Laura.

“There were a lot of middle-aged types living alone, shipwrecked by all kinds of catastrophes.”

Miss Laura is a sort of continuation of the earlier story of how Yunior deals (or doesn’t) with his brother Rafa’s death. It deals with Yunior’s inability to face the real world and his love affair with a much older neighbor woman. To me, this is the strongest story in the collection.

I haven’t read Diaz’s book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and, honestly, I’m not in a hurry to pick it up after finishing this book. But I do admire his in-your-face style and bits of beauty.

“The half-life of love is forever. Sometimes a start is all we get.”

Four stars for The Light Between Oceans

 

Sometimes a book will just take me in its arms and carry me away. That’s how I feel about The Light Between Oceans. I really felt carried away by this story of love and heartbreak on an island of Australia’s coast.Split Point Lighthouse, Aireys Inlet, Victoria...

“There are times when the ocean is not the ocean – not blue, not even water, but some violent explosion of energy and danger: ferocity on a scale only gods can summon…And the sound is the roaring of a beast whose anger knows no limits. Those are the nights the light is needs most.”

Tom is a veteran of World War I, described by others (never by himself) as a hero, who signs on to be a lighthouse keeper. He craves the solitude, the exactitude, the rules inherent in months on Janus with a single task to occupy him. Of course, while on leave, he falls in love, and despite his better judgment, marries Isabelle, a mainlander, and attempts to open his heart to happiness and family on Janus.

I have to admit, this is not the sort of premise that would normally engage my interest, so I’m grateful to the friends and Goodreads community members who raved about this novel. M.L. Stedman transforms what could have been a typical romance into a story of moral complexity and inner turmoil. In Tom we meet a man who is torn apart struggling between his honest nature and his desire to do right by Isabelle. We know he has witnessed untold horror in the war and considers himself unworthy of happiness and yet his basic goodness makes him an ideal hero.

“You could kill a bloke with rules, Tom knew that. And yet sometimes they were what stood between man and monsters….At night, Tom began to dream he was drowning, flinging his arms and legs desperately to find ground somewhere, but there was nothing to stand on, nothing to hold him afloat except a mermaid…”

What surprised me was how interesting Stedman makes the island and the lighthouse. The lighthouse becomes an extended metaphor for the underlying hope in this book. Her descriptions of life on Janus, the care of the light and the larger ideas of what that beacon represents for others are what elevate this book from good story to great novel.

Plus, to my eternal gratitude, she doesn’t make it easy or neat. It’s the kind of book you want to read in a cozy spot, wrapped in a blanket, with a box of tissues handy.

“He turned his attention to the rotation of the beam, and gave a bitter laugh at the thought that the dip of the light means that the island itself was always left in darkness. A lighthouse is for others; powerless to illuminate the space closest to it.”

While writing this review, I kept hearing Jon Troast‘s song, With a Smile Like That. I couldn’t find video, but here are the lyrics and, if you don’t know his music, I encourage you to give him a listen.

January books — 2013 off to a strong start

Not only is my 2013 off to a very quick start (I’ll never be able to keep up the 10 book/month pace), it’s off to a good one. Of the 10 books I completed in January, most were well above average. A couple surprised me. A couple disappointed me. And all made me glad I love to read.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

4 stars

fun homeA very quick, if mildly disturbing, read. This is my first experience with a graphic-book and I found the illustrations sometimes really added to the limited text,but in some cases stole from the sharp, crisp writing. Bechdel does not shy away from the discomfort inherent in not only her own coming out story, but the complicated back-story of her father’s closeted homosexuality. The complex father-daughter relationship was fascinating to me and I would have liked that to be fleshed out even more (in terms of text). Overall, I was impressed by this memoir.

He used his skillful artifice not to make things, but to make things appear to be what they were not.”

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

4 stars

Previously reviewed

The air would smell like taffy and drying seaweed, and they would wear white, and there would be still more happiness. So much happiness. It was almost as exhausting as this relentless February.”

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

3.5 stars

Previously reviewed

Is it possible to have nostalgia for a time in which you never lived? I’m sure there is a word for this phenomenon in German — beautiful, absurd, and twenty letters long.”

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

3 stars

the chaperoneI really liked so much of this book (including Elizabeth McGovern’s excellent narration), but it just went on so long. I felt like it had several false endings, places where I was finished but then it kept going. Maybe the problem is just that I didn’t expect an epic when I began. The story covers almost 50 years of Cora’s life in a great deal of detail. And while I find the 20th century interesting background, I was frustrated at Moriarty’s need to touch on so many different “issues” — Prohibition, adoption, gay rights, reproductive rights, suffrage. Add to that, Cora happens to witness or read about dozens of historical events. I began to feel manipulated after a while. What a I loved was the relationship between Cora and Louise Brooks. I would have been much more satisfied had she ended the book after their summer together.

The young can cut you with their unrounded edges…but they can also push you right up to the window of the future and push you through.”

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

3.5 stars

Deceptively simple story about a Bengali woman, Amina, who meets her American husband on-line, moves to Rochester and struggles to bring her parents to America. Immigrations, marriage, family, desire, truth are the themes all tangled under the surface story.  I liked Amina a lot and thought the author brought up many interesting questions, but the other characters didn’t seem as truthful to me. I couldn’t understand their motivations or transitions,which is what prevents a higher rating. I would read more of this writer.

You thought you were a permanent part of your own experience, the net that held it all together — until you discovered that there were many selves, dissolving into one another so quickly over time that the buildings and trees and even the pavement turned out to have more substance than you did.”

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

4 stars

Reviewed previously

You must accept the reality of other people. You think that reality is up for negotiation, that we think it’s whatever you say it is. You must accept that we are as real as you are; you must accept that you are not God.”

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (audio)

4 stars

Another great installment of Harry Potter. I can see that the tone of these novels has really darkened considerably. There were moments when my youngest was truly afraid. It’s quite an accomplishment that, even knowing that Harry will survive, I feel the danger and fear he faces. The suspense and environment are so rich, that “spoilers” don’t even interfere with the drama. Can’t wait to start the next one.

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison

2.5 stars

I really, really wanted to like this book but I couldn’t. In fact, I cared so little about it when it was over that I didn’t write any sort of review or notes and now I can only remember a disabled teenager, a grieving loser-ish thirty-something and a trip in a van where they pick up all sorts of oddballs. It sounds like a premise I’d love (kind of Little Miss Sunshine), but it never came together.

I know I’ve lost my mind. But I’m not concerned, because it’s the first thing I’ve lost in a long time that actually feels good.”

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories byLudmila Petrushevskaya, Anna Summers (translation)

Dozens of short stories, most about people whose lives are not going to work out no matter what they do or hope for. I’m sure they are a reflection of the author’s Soviet reality, but, not only were they depressing, I never found any one or any moment to hold on to. Reading this was like skipping stones over a very flat, dark, lake. Ultimately unfulfilling. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Penguin Books in exchange for my honest review.

A Red Herring Without Mustard (A Flavia de Luce Mystery #3) by Alan Bradley

4 stars

A Red Herring without MustardWhile other books were failing me, Flavia was there to bring a smile to my face. As usual, this precocious 11 year-old amateur chemist/detective found herself embroiled in murder and mayhem. While there is a certain formula to all these books, Bradley wisely goes deeper into each character with the succession of novels. We learn more about Flavia each time and get to know more about her long-lost mother Harriet, who posthumously plays a huge role in the emotional undercurrent of this book. The “Buckshaw Chronicles” are a smart, entertaining, emotionally fulfilling series of mysteries. I’m so grateful their interesting titles drew my eye a couple of years ago.

Whenever I’m with other people, part of me shrinks a little.  Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.”

Teaser Tuesday: The Light Between Oceans

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. I actually discovered the idea on one of my favorite blogs, Up All Night Reading. I haven’t posted a Teaser in a good long while, so I thought it might be fun.

Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read. Open to a random page. Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page. BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!) Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

the light between oceansThis week’s teaser is from M.L. Stedman’s latest, The Light Between Oceans. Even though I’ve only begun reading, I am swept away by the sparseness of the setting, the mystery lying between Tom and Isabelle and Stedman’s extended use of “lighthouse” and “island” as metaphors.

Captivating, romantic and engaging. (And, I can rarely settle on just two sentences, so here we go.)

Tom rarely thought of the house in terms of rooms either. It was just “home.” And something in him saddened at the dissection of the island, the splitting off into the good and the bad, the safe and the dangerous. He preferred to think of it as whole. Even more, he was uneasy about parts bearing his name. Janus sis not belong to him; he belonged to it, like the natives thought of the land. His job was just to take care of it.

And what are you reading?

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