Heart Stone Feathers

Word Nerd – Feather Finder – Heart Stone Hunter – Synchronicity Searcher Winging It While Lovingly Writing Through Life

Noteworthy (No Matter What Year)

The two books listed below aren’t from my 2016 pile, but they’re ones I read so close to the end of 2015 and I liked them so much, I wanted to at least give them a mention. They’re also current releases compared to most of the books I’ve been reviewing lately, so I’m hoping they might be new (and newsworthy) to you.

Clegg Cover“Did You Ever Have a Family” by Bill Clegg (Longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, National Book Award for Fiction, and Goodreads Choice Award for Fiction, 2015) – I confess that the reason I bought this book wasn’t because of the many good reviews it was receiving, nor because it was climbing up the best seller’s list (which it actually was and might still be doing). I simply purchased it because it appeared to be written in somewhat the same manner as the story I’m currently working on trying to create. I won’t torture you with the specific construction-related details, but it turned out to be a “close-but-not-quite” match. It did, however, provide me with a variety of additional ideas for my own tale. The other thing I should probably confess about this book is that it’s the first time I’ve ever had to keep a list of all the characters just to have it make sense (or to at least be easier for me to follow). My list ended up containing seventeen names, but I think there were a few more characters that had “bit parts” and I just never wrote their information down.

Each chapter is simply titled with the character’s first name. Some characters only have one chapter while the two main characters each have seven. Even a dead character gets her own chapter. First person point of view prevails in this book for all of the characters except the three main ones; their chapters are told in a more detached third person perspective which seems appropriate as they’re definitely “less intimate” people.

Another interesting detail that I didn’t even notice until I had finished reading the book was that there is no dialogue (none – nada) on any of the 293 pages. There are recalled comments, one-sided telephone conversations, and the like but nothing that I would consider “true dialogue.” Perhaps you’ll think differently.

Overall, I liked the book and the way it was constructed, but it wasn’t one that had me so intrigued I just couldn’t put it down. In fact, I wasn’t even surprised by the resolution of the “who-done-it” question as I had a hunch pretty early on in the book. I’m also not certain that all seventeen characters were needed to maintain the story’s integrity.

If you’re interested in reading an excerpt, the first twelve pages can be found on either Amazon or Goodreads (simply click on the “Look Inside” or “Preview” options on those links). You can also read a different fifteen pages here. (4 stars)

McCracken Cover“Thunderstruck & Other Stories” by Elizabeth McCracken (National Book Award for Fiction, Winner of the Story Prize, 2014, and listed on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists) – I seldom pay full price for a book (and yes – I realize how horribly blasphemous that sounds coming from someone who wants to be a writer when she finally decides to grow up). It’s not because I’m cheap, though. I just usually have such a large “To Read” pile that it’s no big deal for me to wait for it to become available at the library or to hope that I’ll get lucky and find it someday at one of the many book sales I go to each year. This collection of short stories, however, had me driving to a bookstore as soon as I finished reading “Something Amazing,” the first story in the book which can be found in its entirety here. I was hooked by the third paragraph that began with, “The soul is liquid and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh.” To me, that’s an amazing sentence; to you, it might sound disgusting and you worry that I’m in need of some kind of a mental evaluation. FYI…people who’ve read my work have already told me that.

Elizabeth McCracken is yet another new writer to me, even though she’s written five books in the last twenty-one years. Once again, I have Sarah Selecky to thank for mentioning her work during one of our Story Intensive telephone conversations. I made note of her name at the time, but I never got around to researching her until just a few days before Christmas. Reading the online version of “Something Amazing” was like unwrapping an early present for myself. “Thunderstruck,” the final story in the book, was also chosen to be in the one-hundredth volume of “The Best American Short Stories.” T.C. Boyle, the editor of the 2015 edition, described the piece as one that “…seems like [a] compressed novel in the richness of [its] characterization and [its] steady, careful development.” I would definitely agree with that summarization.

Seldom do I find myself liking every short story in a collection, but this is one of those rare exceptions. For some readers, McCracken’s stories might not be as reality-based as they prefer, but, lately, I find myself drawn to things that require me to stretch my imagination. There’s also a flow to the way she writes that pleases my reading mind, as well as the way she describes things.

In a conversation/interview at the end of the book with fellow author Ann Patchett, McCracken makes the comment that “I’ve always been absolutely appalling about the future, but I sort of think that was my childhood religion. We were future deniers. You did your best in the present, which was all around you.” In a way, I think that might best synopsize the driving force of all nine stories. Fair warning, though. Death is the silent character in most of the stories (as it also is in Bill Clegg’s book, “Did You Ever Have a Family”). (5 stars)

More Treasures Unearthed

Steele Memorial Sale

Did I mention that this happened?
When Tim and I needed a break
from assembling and hanging cabinets,
we went digging for treasures last Friday at the
Friends of the Chemung County Library District Book Sale.

I didn’t even know it until the next day
that this pearl was still waiting to be discovered in the pile…

Atwood Signature

…a 1993 U.S. First Edition of The Robber Bride
that was signed by Margaret Atwood
on a Doubleday bookplate.

Mudroom Update #2

Mermaids Song Paint

As I mentioned in the last update, Tim wanted something in the range of “sea glass blue” for the wall color in our updated mudroom. He ended up choosing Valspar’s, “Mermaid’s Song.” To me, it has a slight greenish-blue undertone (and it also reminds me of liquid Imodium, but I mean that in the kindest of ways – I think).

Wall Color It looked even brighter once we had two coats of it on the walls. It was such a change from the dark cabinetry that had been in there, the first morning I came out and turned on the light to let the dogs out the back door, we were nearly blinded! I couldn’t find the light switch fast enough to ease our pain. OK – so I’m exaggerating a wee bit, bit it IS bright. The fact that we had just installed a new LED light in there might have something to do with it too. We went from a single 60-watt incandescent bulb (which is equivalent to only 630 lumens) to 1,400 lumens of output.

The paint had three days to dry before our Flow Wall cabinets – all 674 pounds of them – arrived last Tuesday finally having made the journey all the way from California to New York. I confess that Tim and I were a little nervous opening the first box as we had basically bought them “sight unseen,” other than just online. I can’t recall another time we’ve ever done that, especially for such a large purchase.

We both were very impressed with how well everything was packaged. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture to document it. Suffice it to say that nothing arrived damaged (except one measly bent screw, but they had sent us many, MANY extras) and each component had the appropriate hardware and directions packed with them to streamline the assembly process. Perhaps the best part though was that there wasn’t a lot of extraneous packaging that I usually feel guilty throwing out. Most of it actually went in our recycling bins once we were done.

Before we started hanging the pieces of slat wall and putting the cabinets together, we once again watched the YouTube video that had first convinced us to make our purchase. It’s only nine minutes long, but it did a pretty good job explaining how to assemble and install everything. Unfortunately, one of the few pieces of the puzzle they DID leave out ended up being something that immediately threw us off track. I’ll explain that in more detail a little bit later. For now, just notice in the photo below that we hung the slat wall pieces all the way to the ceiling. We had decided to do it that way as the walls in that room are only seven feet tall and we wanted to have one foot of extra storage space underneath the cabinets.

Slat Wall

Perhaps the most time-consuming part of the process for us was in simply locating the damn wall studs! We think our mudroom was likely added on as an afterthought to attach the house directly to the garage, so it quickly became apparent that things had been piecemealed together during that construction process. That meant the studs weren’t where they were supposed to be. Some were the traditional 16″ apart while others were 14″ or 17″. Even having a stud-finder wasn’t very helpful as we were trying to locate them over layers of exterior siding (that were no longer “exterior” but were now buried in the wall) and interior paneling. We ended up drilling a lot of test holes (it looks like Swiss cheese under that piece of slat wall!), as well as doing a lot of swearing (but not at each other).

Once we conquered locating the studs, it took us approximately ten hours (spread out over several days) to get everything assembled and hung on the walls. We have one more large cabinet still in the box should we ever need it, but for now, having space for our barn gear and the dog’s stuff is more important. Here’s what the room currently looks like (please ignore the fact that we still need to install new flooring)…

Small Cabinets Stuff

Small cabinets & the plastic storage bins they came with (along with our usual boxes of tissues, hand wipes, & winter gear).

Large Cabinets

Large cabinets & hooks for our barn coats & dog gear, with space below for our smelly barn boots.

What problems did we encounter along the way that we might warn others who are interested in such cabinets? As I mentioned earlier, hanging the slat wall all the way to the top of the ceiling was ALMOST a major disaster. Nowhere in the literature, nor in any of the videos, did it warn us to leave at least an inch (or two) of “access” above the top of the slat wall. That seemingly small gap is CRITICAL to be able to lift the cabinet over the slat wall “suspension clips” in order to hang the unit. It’s hard for me to describe it in words, but maybe the photo below helps.

Cabinet Gap

Based on where the brackets have to be hung on the slat wall and where the bar is that the cabinet is suspended on, you have to have room to lift the cabinet (which is NOT light) “up and over.” In the photo – it might not be obvious – but there’s only a finger’s width gap at the top of the cabinet and the ceiling. To say that Tim and I grunted, groaned, twisted, tweaked, and cursed like sailors to get each cabinet over those damn clips would be a HUUUUUGE understatement. BUT…we did it without having to remove and lower the slat wall.

Having learned our lesson on that side of the room, we hung the slat wall for the small cabinets on the other side with what we thought was an appropriate amount of space…N.O.T. We had forgotten to take into account that the “piecemealing” work of prior people had created a “sloped” ceiling on that side of the room which once again led to not being able to lift the cabinets at a sufficient angle to clear the clips. More grunting and a LOT more swearing. That side of the room also seems to have less “smooth” walls underneath which means the cabinets don’t really “flow” along the track very easily. Luckily, we don’t plan on moving them often, if it all! In the end, everything survived, including the two of us (and the 25 years we’ve invested in our marriage).

It’s been less than a week, but what do we think about them so far? Tim admits they’re much nicer than he actually expected them to be. I think they’re well-built and super-sturdy (especially after how much man-handling they’ve already endured from us). For obvious reasons, we both think the ideal place to use them is in a well-built room with nice straight edges and smooth surfaces. Would we buy them again, though? Absolutely.

As for what we still have left to do in renovating the room, there’s the floor replacement that I keep mentioning and we need to paint the two doors, as well as paint and rehang the coat rack that used to be by the garage door which will now only be used for our “good” coats (no longer intermingling them with our stinky barn ones as we so grossly used to do). Tim also keeps talking about doing some trim work along the ceiling, but there’s not much space (or need) for it (or so I keep debating). Time will soon tell who wins that debate. I’ll keep you posted…

Still Missing the Old Girl

Babe 2011

Yesterday would have been Babe’s 31st birthday. She only missed it by 146 days. I still tell Tim that I’m headed out to the barn to feed the “horses” and yet now there’s only Punch. His 34th birthday is in exactly 100 days. He seems healthy, but so did she (she was 26-years-old when the photo above was taken in 2011). I guess only the Universe knows what will happen between now and then, so we’ll just keep enjoying our time together, one blessed day at a time.

Simply Lost (and Book Review #9)

Barbara Newhall Follett

Barbara Newhall Follett – freckles and a feather quill pen.

(A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how many of my book reviews for this year would likely be for older books. When I made that comment, I had no idea just how old some of them would be.)

Try to imagine back to when you were eight years old. Try to imagine that you want to present your mother with a unique gift on what would be your ninth birthday. That’s right…your birthday, not hers. Try to imagine that gift as being a story – hand-typed over the course of three months on a typewriter your father had given you  – with a final word count of approximately 40,000 words. Try to imagine that story (which is really a novel at that length) – the only copy in existence having been edited by you for seven more months because your father thought it was worthy of being preserved in print – going up in flames the night before it was finally scheduled to be printed and bound. Try to imagine one final thing…spending the next three years of your young life trying to recreate the entire story from memory to finally see it released as a book by Knopf Publishing just several weeks before your twelfth birthday.

Raccoon CoverI have a difficult time simply trying to remember my life as an eight-year-old. Rummaging through an old box of papers, it looks like my best work at that age was a report about raccoons that I wrote as a student in Mrs. Pulford’s third-grade class. In it, I made such wise observations as, “Some people think raccoons are stupid…Raccoons footprints look like young childrens handprints (geez – I omitted both apostrophes)…It uses its feet to walk on…They are born with lungs.” Is there any wonder why I earned an “A” for such “brilliant” thoughts (envision a sarcasm emoticon here)? And in case you’re also wondering, my memory ages as I do, but I distinctly remember tracing a photo of a raccoon to create that fine piece of artwork you see; drawing was never in my artistic realm.

Back to the main story though. What I’ve described above is actually the true story of author Barbara Newhall Follett and her book, “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There,” that was released to rave reviews in 1927 (yes – you read that correctly; eighty-nine years ago). A recent email I received from NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) introduced me to Follett via an article that Lapham’s Quarterly published about her in 2010. Within such an essay, Paul Collins, NPR’s “literary detective,” relayed the sad tale about the child prodigy who published two books before she turned fifteen and who then disappeared in 1939 at the age of twenty-five, never to be heard from again. NPR’s five-minute-long radio segment provides a good synopsis about Follett’s life, if you’d prefer to listen to the quick audio version that can be found here.

The abbreviated written version is that Follett’s short life was filled with hardships she couldn’t have foreseen at such a young age. Her father was Wilson Follett, a well-known editor and writer of “Follett’s Modern American Usage,” a book that’s still published today. Her mother was Helen Thomas Follett, a travel writer who also published two books during her lifetime. In 1928, just weeks before Barbara’s fourteenth birthday and the release of her second book, “The Voyage of the Norman D.,” Wilson Follett left his wife and daughter for another woman. Helen and Barbara were tossed into almost immediate poverty.

The final eleven years of Barbara’s life included running away, being forced to spend the majority of her writing time as a paid typist during the Great Depression, and marrying a man whom she came to believe was cheating on her. On December 7, 1939, after arguing with her husband, she reportedly left their apartment with $30 and her notebook. There is no evidence of her existence beyond that date.

Why am I mentioning her here now, nearly seventy-seven years after her disappearance? Why have I given today’s blog post the title of “Simply Lost?” What’s the point of all these words lined up in neat little rows?

My own story – or at least the version I’ve been telling myself for decades – always included a work-at-home mother that forbid me to touch her typewriter as “it wasn’t for writing silly little tales” and a wanna-be-writer father who read the first diary I ever decided to keep when I was a junior in high school and who confessed his deed to me simply because he wanted me to know that “not every story should see the light of day, nor is every one worth the piece of paper you waste writing it down.” In the happier version of my rewritten life, I’ve always imagined that having a more supportive mother and father would have been all (or at least the majority of “all”) that was needed for me to be a successful writer by this stage of my life. (Interesting that, while writing this post, I received an email that made the following observation, “Success is not being done; not being complete. Success is still dreaming and feeling positive in the unfolding.” Perhaps it’s my definition of success that needs tweaking.)

The older I get, the more unrealistic I realize the stories are that I’ve created for myself. It took reading Barbara Newhall Follett’s short biography though to finally dislodge a major chunk of my own story’s slowly-crumbling foundation. My characters might have been real, but the plot was continually growing weaker and the protagonist wasn’t showing any signs of growth. As the author, even I was growing bored of the storyline.

So yes…you could say that I’ve been “simply lost” in pursuing my own writing for quite some time now. Not like Follett probably felt though. I don’t want to run away, as was the main theme for almost all of her written work. I also don’t plan on disappearing as she did.

I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions, but for the last several years, I’ve chosen a single word to focus on throughout the months. This year, it was going to be either “balance” or “reclaim,” but it appears that those words have quickly morphed into “simple” – especially as it keeps appearing here in my posts.

As much as I admire Follett, “the small typist [that – on her big days] clicked off fresh copy to the extent of from four to five thousand words…,” that will likely never be the reality of my writing world. Knowing that, I’m trying to define “simple” – at least as it applies to my current writing habits (or lack thereof somedays) – as “simply” continuing to show up and to write for as long as I can, as well as I can, and to not get bogged down in the numbers, the distractions, and any other false stories I might want to weave for my shortcomings.

As Wilson Follett commented in his daughter’s book, “One of the great objects of imaginative writing, I take it, is to have joy. Another, wholly separable from the first, is to learn as you go.” I’d like to believe that I’m not opposed to still learning as I go (even if it still involves when and where to use an apostrophe). In the end, maybe it really is about “balance” and “reclaiming” ones space in life. Maybe being “lost” isn’t always such a bad thing. Maybe being lost is how we find our truest self.

Eepersip CoverYou can download “The House Without Windows and Eepersip’s Life There” in four different formats (i.e., PDF, ePub, Modi, and Word Document) by going here. Described as “an imaginative child’s name for the world of untouched nature – because that world is itself nothing but one clear window upon beauty, which is a child’s reality…,” you might want to begin by reading the section near the end entitled “Historical Note” that was written by Follett’s father. I think it helps set the stage for the fantastical land that his daughter has created. And if you’re curious about my “official” rating of the book…in comparing it to what I would expect a twelve-year-old to write, it would be off the charts, but I gave it “4 Stars” on Goodreads. Yes…it contains some potentially repetitious descriptions and not-so-realistic happenings (remember, it’s a child’s fantasy), but it’s also laced with lovely passages like this, “That night a bird of modest wood-colour, with speckled breast, sang of moonlight; and, rippling faintly, softly, came echoes from his silver-tongued mate. They sang, and they answered, and the moon-frost-tipped pines were quiet, and clouds floated near, snowy palaces of silence. Spellbound, Eepersip was borne away to fairy kingdoms where she danced – and where birds sang the only melody in the world.”

There is always a way…

Wings Climb

(Winged-climber created by Antoine Josse, a French Surrealist painter and sculptor whose favorite material to work with is plaster.)

So, So Very Simple…

image1 (7)

If you’re not standing or sitting in your kitchen right now, go there as FAST as you safely can and MAKE THESE! Do not doubt me…do not ask questions…just go. I’m pretty clueless about what “Paleo” is (something about non-processed foods, I think), but it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference where this recipe is concerned. I simply made these because they have chocolate and coconut in them and because a dear friend recommended them (Dear Anni – bless you; I owe you a HUGE one!). It will likely take you longer to pull the few ingredients out of your cupboards than it will for you to actually mix them together. Of course, waiting for it to harden in the refrigerator for an hour or so will seem like torture, but it WILL be worth the wait. I promise. And just in case you’re curious – I used Nutiva Organic Virgin coconut oil, Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa powder, local maple syrup (the recipe lists maple syrup in the ingredients, but then it refers to honey in the actual directions; you can use either), and organic coconut extract in place of the vanilla. No salt for us, but go for it if you like it. If Tim doesn’t hurry home from running errands, he might not get any. Seriously…they’re THAT good!

image2 (4)

 

2016 Reviews: Books #7-#8

Atwood Orxy

“Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood (Shortlisted for the 2003 Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Literacy Award, and the 2004 Orange Prize) – I admit it. I’ve known about Margaret Atwood for years (probably decades!) and I’d never read anything of hers until last year (even though I’ve had one of her multi-award-winning books, “The Blind Assassin,” sitting on my bookshelf for at least two years). Instead of starting with “The Blind Assassin” though, sometime last year I finally dove into “Wilderness Tips,” her 1991 collection of short stories that had also been gathering dust on my bookshelf. By the end of the second story, “Hairball” – a wonderfully odd tale about a woman who lovingly keeps the red-haired, bone-encrusted, benign tumor that was removed from her in a jar of formaldehyde on her fireplace mantle, I realized what an idiot I’d been for waiting so long to discover for myself why Atwood had garnered such rave reviews over her lengthy writing career. To witness the range of her writing abilities, I recently picked up a copy of “Oryx and Crake.” Regardless if you call it science fiction, speculative fiction, a dystopia, or whatever other term you like, the events that transpire in this story are not difficult for me to imagine. In fact, with the way the world is going these days (e.g., all the talk about building “walls” to separate populations, genetically modifying organisms), it seems frighteningly realistic. Snowman (aka Jimmy), the main character, is a gloriously flawed individual (who knows it). A self-professed “word person” (just like me) in a world that appears to place greater value on “number people,” I loved passages like this: “The more obsolete a book was, the more eagerly Jimmy would add it to his inner collection. He complied lists of old words too – words of a precision and suggestiveness that no longer had a meaningful application in today’s world…wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant. He’d developed a strangely tender feeling towards such words, as if they were children abandoned in the woods and it was his duty to rescue them.” If your interest has been piqued, you can read an excerpt of the first section of “Oryx and Crake” here (simply click on the “Read An Excerpt” button that’s displayed below the book cover). Granted, the subject matter is in a genre that I don’t often read, but as it’s Book 1 of 3 in the MaddAddam Trilogy Series (and I’m wondering what happens next), I imagine that I’ll be reading the other two someday soon. Who knows, I might even finally get around to reading “The Blind Assassin.” (4½ stars)

Gordimer Beethoven

“Beethoven Was One-Sixteenth Black” by Nadine Gordimer (Winner of The Nobel Prize in Literature, 1991) – This was another one of the short story books I recently found when I helped set up a book sale at our local library. Gordimer, like Atwood, was a prolific writer during her lifetime (she died in 2014), yet once again I have to confess that this is the first book of hers I’ve read. The range of topics covered in this book is immense. From the lowly tapeworm in “Tape Measure” (which was actually one of my favorites, perhaps because it was told in the first-person point of view of the tapeworm) to “Allesverloren” (a Dutch word that means “all is lost” and that relates to a grief-stricken widow who is trying to make sense of a piece of her husband’s past), many of the stories hit the mark for me as a reader, but some fell short or went a little too far over my head. As a writer, I was quite intrigued with “Alternative Endings” (“The First Sense,” “The Second Sense,” and “The Third Sense”). Gordimer, in an attempt to show how “the forms of storytelling are arbitrary,” presents the reader with three different story resolutions that are based on the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition that, “The senses usually reckoned as five – sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.” While the three stories themselves didn’t really “grab” me, the technique she used to write and to present them did. If you’d like to sample the book, another one of the short stories, “A Beneficiary,” is available online. (3½ stars)

A Simple Decision (or not)…

Mudroom Cabinets

After many hours spent discussing, measuring, more discussing, remeasuring, and remeasuring yet again, Tim and I finally ordered the new cabinets yesterday for our mudroom renovation. More than a year ago, we’d started making a Pinterest folder with ideas of what design features we wanted in the room. When we recently sat down together and looked at all of the various photos we’d saved, what it boiled down to was clean lines and as much hidden storage space as possible to keep the “eye clutter” to a minimum.

In one of my early morning web-surfing sessions to get some ideas about what types of cabinets were available, I stumbled upon the FlowWall system. Marketed mostly as cabinetry to organize your garage (but also used in laundry rooms, craft rooms, home offices, etc.), I immediately liked the look of them. As I sat there groggy-eyed watching numerous YouTube videos about how to install them, I was surprised to learn that each cabinet lacks a “backside” to it, which allows them to slide along a slatwall track system so that, if and when you decide you want/need to change the layout of your room, you can do so quite easily. That kind of design flexibility made me like them even more. Tim was pretty much sold on them right away too.

The problem we encountered was in having too many options for how to customize the cabinets that would fit into our space (I know – that doesn’t really meet the definition of a “problem”). Regardless, we tweaked, we re-tweaked, we re-re-tweaked and drove ourselves (and each other!) crazy with possibilities. When the FlowWall company emailed us a 20% discount code on Friday that had to be used by today, we took it as a sign to stop dawdling and to start deciding. Bless you FlowWall as Tim and I might have still been discussing cabinets in 2017!

In the end, instead of piecemealing together various individual cabinets, we chose the two “kits” shown in the above photo that we can take apart and arrange to our own liking. We also ordered several extra shelves and hooks, just to be on the safe side. And yes…we went with the maple color, even though we both also liked the white. Knowing how much traffic that room gets though, we didn’t think white was going to be a good option in the long run.

Tim did a great job of insulating, dry-walling, and spackling the ceiling so while we wait for the cabinets to arrive, we’ll (he’ll?) be priming the ceiling and walls and picking out the final paint color. I’ve happily delegated that decision to Tim and he’s leaning towards some version of a “sea-glass blue.” That’s a decision I can live with…

Mudroom Ceiling

2016 Reviews: Books #3-#6

Fair warning…having just completed Sarah Selecky’s four-month-long writing class, The Story Intensive (which focuses on short fiction stories – both writing and reading them), many of the book reviews I’ll be posting this year will likely be for short story collections. No matter what the genre of book though, my comments will be written from the perspective of a wanna-be-writer, as well as that of a general reader. When I can, I’ll provide a link to excerpts, chapters, etc. that can be read online so you can decide for yourself whether it looks like a book you’d enjoy. As someone who’s blessed to live in an area where there are numerous book sales held throughout the year at local libraries, I also tend to read a lot of older books that were reviewed long ago. In my mind, good writing is timeless, so if anything appears to be “out-of-date,” it’s most likely my opinion.

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“Stay Awake” by Dan Chaon (National Book Award Finalist; Winner of The Story Prize 2012) – I’d never heard of Dan Chaon (rhymes with “Shawn”) until one of my fellow classmates in the writing course I just completed mentioned him in our online discussions. I’m SOOO very glad she did! After having read his 2001 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction entitled, “Among the Missing” (5 stars for that one, especially the stories “Safety Man” (which you can read online here), “Prodigal,” and “Falling Backwards”) and then his 2003 book “Fitting Ends” (too many great stories to mention in that  stars book, but “Thirteen Windows” exponentially expanded my view – no pun intended – of how a story can be written), I couldn’t wait to dive into Chaon’s most recent work. Once again, I wasn’t disappointed. If you’re a writer looking for great examples of how to write in that elusive “you” second person point-of-view, track down a copy of Chaon’s story “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow.” I finished reading it before I even noticed he’d done it! One tends to get swept up in the motion, as well as the emotion, when a story begins with, “A baby dies and there is a little funeral. Okay, try to insert yourself into that moment…Everyone probably thinks it is for the best…now suddenly everything can go back to the way it was.” One side-note – I was able to read this book via the Overdrive system that allows readers with a library card to “borrow” eBooks, audiobooks, etc. through your local library. They provide service to more than 30,000 libraries in 40+ countries. If you’ve never heard of them, I’d highly recommend you check out their website. (4½ stars)

image1 (5)“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (A Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year for 2002 by an author who has also been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Award) – When I helped set up our local library’s recent book sale, I felt like I hit the jackpot when I opened a large, donated box FILLED with short story books! This book was one of them. I’d heard of Rick Bass, but had never read any of his work. I was surprised to learn that his background was as a geologist with an emphasis on wildlife management (I myself was a long-ago Wildlife Biologist for the United Stated Fish and Wildlife Service). This book is described as “a remarkable story collection, [in which] Bass explores the mysterious and near-mythical connections between man and nature.” If I EVER manage to write a story like Bass’ “Swans” or “The Fireman,” I’ll feel like an accomplished writer, regardless if I win an award or not. This. Guy. Is. Good! From a reader’s perspective, as well as a writer’s. And perhaps one of the most unusual traits about him as a short story writer…his stories actually seem to have endings (which so few short stories often do and which usually is the main reason so few people like to read them). I can’t wait to unearth more treasures by this author. You can go here to read the title story online. (4½ stars)

image1 (4)“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction, 2000) –  This was yet another author I had never heard of until recently. Her 2008 book entitled “Unaccustomed Earth” (a multi-award winner for that year) was my first encounter with her work. I’m ashamed to admit that it was also my first real glimpse into the Indian (primarily Bengali) culture. In both books, I was mesmerized by Lahiri’s ability to convey so many rich details within sentences that flowed so smoothly. Reading each story felt effortless, but I would imagine that writing them was a little more difficult. The first story in this book – “A Temporary Matter” – can be read online. (4½ stars)

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“The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion (National Book Award Winner for Nonfiction, 2005) – In The New York Review of Books, John Leonard stated that he “can’t think of a book we need more than [Didion’s]…can’t imagine dying without this book.” While I agree that it did provide a personal look into the way author Joan Didion processed her grief surrounding the sudden loss of her husband (author, John Dunne) and the fear of almost losing her daughter on two occasions during the same time frame, it just didn’t “do” much of anything else for me. There was simply too much name-dropping and too little substance. Maybe I missed something, but – based on a number of other reviews I’ve read – the readers who seemed to like his book the most were those who were “actively” grieving a recent loss they too had experienced. The first two chapters are available online. I’m not sure who the other contenders were that year for the National Book Award for Non-Fiction, but I’m guessing it might have been a “slim” year when it came to having a lot of choices. (3 stars) 

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