2016 Reviews: Books #3-#6

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

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 In my mind, good writing is timeless, so if anything appears to be “out-of-date,” it’s most likely my opinion.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)