Heart Stone Feathers

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

Category: Reading

Seven Down…Eight More Added To The Pile

Berkshire Books

It’s official. I’m in need of a book-buying intervention. I’ve read seven more books since posting my last review, but, last week, Tim and I went to a sale at the tiny library in Berkshire, New York where I bought the eight books shown above. Tomorrow, there’s another sale being held at the Owego library and they ALWAYS have good stuff. Oh well. Everyone has a vice and books are obviously mine. What I don’t spend on booze, cigarettes, shoes, clothes, etc. I happily put towards filling my bookshelves. And yes…I’m aware that I’m living in denial about them already being full, so perhaps an intervention won’t have much impact on controlling my obsession. Save your strength my dear friends.

In order to both catch up and to practice being succinct with my book reviews, I’ve posted my “star ratings” in the photo below, along with shorter-than-normal blurbs for each. The list contains three novels, two collections of short stories, and two non-fiction books. I hope you find something of interest to you.

Seven Book Star Review

“The Hours” by Michael Cunningham (Pulitzer Prize Winner for Fiction, 1999) – I didn’t find the writing to be anything spectacular, but I enjoyed the unique way the author linked the three main characters, one of them being Virginia Woolf, the famous writer. Unfortunately, that connection never became clear until page 203 (and the book was only 226 pages long!). I wonder how many people quit reading before they ever reached that critical point. Maybe I missed some clues along the way, but I’m not willing to read it again to see if I did. I gave it four stars, but it’s a borderline three-and-a-halfer.

“One Writer’s Beginnings” by Eudora Welty (1984) – An autobiography written by the Pulitzer Prize Winner. As the dust jacket indicated, “she tells us how her family and her surroundings contributed to the shaping not only of her personality but of her writing.” It’s a little light on details, but it’s a nice read nonetheless. Good enough that I quickly snatched up her short story collection, “Thirteen Stories,” when I saw it at last week’s book sale.

“The Girl Who Fell from the Sky” by Heidi Durrow (Carnegie Medal winner, 2011)– Based on a true story that was interwoven with the author’s imagined story about the daughter of a Danish woman and a black American soldier and the challenges she faces growing up in Portland, Oregon during the 1980’s. Chapters are told from the rotating viewpoint of one of the main characters, a technique that I like as both a reader and as a writer. The ending left we wanting MUCH more though. Hopefully Durrow has a sequel in mind.

“Everything That Rises Must Converge: Stories” by Flannery O’Connor (National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, 1966) – I’ve heard so much about this author – both good and not so good. This was my first encounter with her work and it’s probably going to be my last. Maybe it’s just this specific book (which was the one O’Connor was working on at the time of her death), but I quickly grew weary of the repetitive focus on children who had great disdain for their parents (which was usually just the mother as she was the only one left alive) and parents who outrightly disliked their children. The constant pejorative references to “Negroes” also made me very, VERY uncomfortable. I also found it interesting that an artist such as O’Connor also consistently portrayed creative people as lazy and/or crazy. Perhaps her writing is indicative of the era and environment that she lived in, but she’s just not my cup of southern tea.

“A Field Guide to Getting Lost” by Rebecca Solnit (2005) – I enjoyed Solnit’s “The Faraway Nearby” so much that I was willing to wait more than a year to borrow this book through interlibrary loan. (The first time I requested it, it got lost in the mail between the two libraries; the coincidence of that occurrence and the title was NOT lost on me). Unfortunately, it wasn’t worth the wait. It had its good moments, but not enough of them. Every other chapter was entitled “The Blue of Distance,” but that writing technique didn’t add to the flow of the book; in fact, it seemed to make it even more rambling. Granted, there were various themes such as music (punk, country) and location (desert, city) interwoven throughout the book, but the word that best summarizes this book for me is “disjointed.” I’m guessing that’s probably not the version of “lost” Solnit was hoping to convey.

“Nora Webster” by Colm Tóibín (Washington Post Book of the Year for 2014, New York Times Notable Book, and numerous other lists) – Having enjoyed Tóibín’s unique interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and his grieving mother in “The Testament of Mary,” I really wanted to like this book. Unfortunately, I didn’t. Nora, the main character, was accurately described on the rear book cover as “selfish…and blind to the suffering of her young sons (and daughters too, I might add), who have lost their father.” Within that same description, she supposedly also “has moments of stunning insight and empathy,” but I must have missed those. In the end, I simply grew to dislike her more and more as the story continued. That wasn’t the only problem with the book though. There was a level of vagueness surrounding the overall story that left me wanting and wondering. After having waded through 400 pages, I still didn’t feel like I knew much (if anything) about Nora’s mother and father, even though they obviously played a role in how she approached raising her own children. I never understood why she didn’t get along with her sisters, nor why Nora supposedly got along so poorly with her mother. Nora’s deceased husband, Maurice, is such a vague character, that he feels like a ghost in more ways than one. Even the sense of a time frame in the book came across as vague. As a writer, I know we’re supposed to “show, don’t tell” and to not insult the reader by providing too much information. It’s a fine line though and, in this book, it felt like the mark was often missed. (Fair warning for anyone contemplating reading “The Testament of Mary” – as a Goodreads’ reviewer said, “Both the Disciples and Jesus do not come off well in this telling by Jesus’ grieving mother. If that bothers you, don’t read this book.” I would agree with that pronouncement.)

“Midair: Stories” by Frank Conroy (1985) – A short story collection, all told from a male perspective. The first two stories (“Midair” and “Celestial Events”) really grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, two of the stories (both that were written in a letter format) left me confused and “Roses” actually managed to leave me feeling somewhat angry. The three remaining stories were “flat” and nothing that moved me. Not an author I’d heard of before and not one that I’ll likely read again.

2016 Reviews: Book #10

Urrea CoverThe Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea (Named one of the Notable Fiction Books of 2015 by The Washington Post and listed on numerous “Best Books of the Year” lists; the author was also a Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his non-fiction book, “The Devil’s Highway”) – I’m so glad to not only have friends that share my passion for reading but that also share their recommendations and reviews. Without them, I’d likely never have crossed paths with this book. Thank you, Robin, for this one.

One thing I’m noticing more with all of the reading I’ve been doing lately is that there are books that simply entertain me (which is really no “simple” task) and books that manage to subtly teach me something, all while being entertained. I’m certain that’s always been the case, but I’ve never given it much thought until now. For me, this book of thirteen short stories definitely falls into the category of educationally entertaining.

I confess (something I’m doing on here a lot lately, but, this time, I’ll simply blame it on being a Catholic during the season of Lent) – I’m pretty clueless about the Mexican culture. Maybe that’s to be expected of someone who grew up in a small northeastern town named Pine City and who hasn’t really ventured very far from that sheltered neighborhood. The fact that I spent a day in Tijuana, Mexico when I was nine years old (and yes…there are photos to document the occasion) obviously means nothing. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but whatever the reason, this book taught me what some people might consider “simple” things – or at the very least, things that a 49-year-old woman should already know. Things like the words “Chicanos” and “Mexicans” do not refer to the same group of people (I told you I was clueless – I thought they were synonyms!). It also had me Googling definitions for words like vato and güey. Don’t get me wrong, though – not all of the stories are rooted in Mexican culture. All of them, however, are well written.

Another thing I’m noticing lately is that there is no direct correlation between story length and greatness. Some of the best stories in this collection are the shortest. “Carnations” required only 321 words (yes…I counted) to not only create an impact but – within those few words – I learned yet another new one. “Brogans” – a word of Gaelic/Irish derivation that refers to a sturdy shoe extending up to the ankle. Who knew? Not me. And I’m Irish. And I own a pair of shoes that would meet the definition. (Obviously, I’m clueless about many cultures.)

I also can’t remember another recent book I’ve read that sent me on such an emotional roller coaster ride. I probably laughed more than I should have at “The Sous Chefs of Iogüa,” but I’m guessing that I cried bucketloads like most other readers probably did at “Bid Farewell to Her Many Horses.” The award-winning story “Amapola” sent bullets through my older-than-I-realized heart with sentences like, “…most of us had no idea who Alice Cooper was. VH1 was for grandmothers…” and then later, “I got stamps and envelopes. I was thinking, what is this, like, 1980 or something?” Just when I thought I’d survive that unforeseen assault, along came the title story of “Welcome to the Water Museum.” Its futuristic twist (which I didn’t even detect until I was more than halfway through it) left me parched and pondering how real it could one day be, as well as how very soon that day could actually arrive.

In the end, it was 255 pages of time well spent in this reader’s estimation. If you’re interested, the first 15 pages of “Mountains Without Number” (the first story in the collection) can be sampled here. If you’re like me, you’ll finish the book in less than 24 hours and immediately go in search of more of Urrea’s work. (5 stars)

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.

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.”

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)

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.

image3 (3)

“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) 

Simple Reviews (and an explanation)

A simple review of “When the Emperor was Divine”…definitely a 5+ on a scale of 1-5. From a reader’s viewpoint, this was a great book to learn about the tragic internment of Japanese Americans during World War II (which seems like an important lesson to keep in mind, what with all of the current negative political rhetoric). From a writer’s viewpoint, this book is a perfect example of making every word defend its right to be left on the page after all of the revision work is done. It’s proof that it really is possible to be both succinct and powerful within the covers of a book. The fact that we get to witness the events from each of the main characters’ point of view just adds to the powerful impact of this story. I’ll be referring to this one often.

Otsuka Book

Yesterday I read Rebecca Brown’s collection of short stories entitled “What Keeps Me Here.” It truly was unlike anything I’ve read before. I never would have guessed that the subject of “Bread” could be written about for 25 pages in a manner that would leave the reader spellbound. Amazing…simply amazing. I’m not sure how to describe the stories in general, but I think several prior reviews summarize them well when they use terms like “Gothic lullabies…[where] the prose moves between stark realism and the shimmering surrealism of fairy tales or dreams.”

Brown Book

I started reading Book #3 of 2016 this morning…Joan Didion’s, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” I had no idea what it was about when I picked it up at one of the many book sales I attend every year, but I’m on page 34 and I think it’s a keeper. I’ll let you know when I’m done.

Didion Book

PS – If you’re wondering about the “origins” of my current ramblings, I’m merely trying to keep things simple this year. I’m making no big demands of myself to write life-altering blog posts on a daily basis. I just want to keep showing up and sharing whatever I feel moved to on any given day. Whether it’s book reviews, food reviews, photo insights of my day or some other potentially trivial tidbit, it’s all fair game to appear here. I apologize if it comes across as boring or insignificant. And yes – it might feel like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Goodreads type “stuff,” but this is also the year where I’m trying to minimize my time spent scrolling through social media while trying to maximize my time spent writing – in whatever manner that might occur. Thank you if you decide to stick around, but I also understand if you unsubscribe and focus your attention elsewhere. Life is a rare and precious commodity…enjoy how you spend it (and might I also suggest that you keep it simple?).

Keeping It Simple In 2016

First book from my 2016 reading pile (I literally – yes, literally! – gasped out loud on page 11):img_7762.jpeg

Best writing advice I found today (the article can be found here):img_7759.jpeg

View from my writing desk today (Faith, in her favorite sleeping position):img_7763.jpeg

Shifting Focus

Poppy's Afghan

Two days before Christmas, I’m sitting here at my desk – wrapped up in one of my father’s handmade afghans – trying to decide if I should feel horrible that my last blog post was more than ten months ago. Perhaps even worse is the fact that such a post was the ONLY one I made this year. Although I did declare that “focus” was my word for 2014, I wonder if I focused too much on certain things (like reading) and not enough on others (like writing)?

I confess that part of me is actually elated with the way my writing has evolved in 2014, even if it wasn’t something I chose to focus on by sharing the details here in my blog. If I had to summarize those details into a few sentences for this post, I’d simply say that – by submerging myself in the words of others – I found my own voice this year. My style of writing. And I like it.

So much so that I’ve been busy since October writing the words that I dream might be my first book. (Even as a wannabe author, I’m currently lacking the ability to sufficiently describe how surreal it feels to have written that last sentence.) Surprisingly, my biggest challenge to focusing on such a large project occurred only a couple of weeks ago when a SECOND book idea forced its way to the front of my mind. I’m blaming my limbo-land vacation since then on being wrapped up in the impending holidays.

As I sit here allowing myself to get lost in the task of braiding the fringe ends of the afghan that’s blanketing me, my father, dead now more than thirteen years, is managing to impart his own holiday spirit into this post.

I can’t remember if I’ve ever mentioned it before, but my father was also a wannabe author. Unfortunately, he didn’t have a support system like the one I’ve been blessed with. At one of the many breaking points in his life, he packed away his typewriter and traded in his pencil stubs for a collection of crochet hooks. Instead of weaving words, he refocused his efforts on entwining colors and textures.

As his health began to deteriorate, so too did the size of his hand-woven projects. Mobile lawn chairs morphed into stationery floor rugs which eventually became enveloping afghans. I imagine that each of his creations had a story woven into their fibers, ones that perhaps only he could decipher.

I don’t know what the story is that’s embedded in the brightly colored shawl that’s now draped over my shoulders and that cascades all the way to the floor. I do know that my father wasn’t shy about the color choices he made and this afghan is unarguably the “flashiest” of his creations. I could be wrong, but I believe it was the last one he made before he passed away. I like to imagine that it was his subtle way of saying, “Life is short – be bold in your choices and be proud of them.” In other words, “Be all in!”

It’s that thread of revelation that has led me to my word of the year for 2015…COMMIT. Be all in. No more half-assing it and no more downplaying that which I truly desire.

Maybe “commit” isn’t a very big leap from “focus,” but it feels like the next logical step of my journey. Where will it lead me? I hope it brings me back to this blog a little more often. Time will soon tell.

Until then…may 2015 weave a year of beautiful stories for each of you and may you commit to what feels right for your own soul.

 

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