Noteworthy (No Matter What Year)

by Donna McLaughlin Schwender

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)