Heart Stone Feathers

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

Tag: book

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)

A Flight Feather of a Different Kind

Falcon Feather Left On The Moon

It’s really not a very good photo, but seeing it certainly has made my life a little lighter. What is it, you wonder? It’s a Peregrine Falcon feather that was dropped onto the surface of the moon by the astronauts of Apollo 15 back on August 3, 1971.

I was a few weeks shy of my fifth birthday when this feather – unbeknownst to me – became part on a famous experiment that demonstrated how falling objects (in this case – a feather and a hammer) accelerate at the same rate, regardless of their mass. In the forty-one-and-a-half years that have passed since then, I never heard about this well-traveled feather until yesterday when a copy of “Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle” (one of two books I mentioned in last Wednesday’s blog post) arrived on my doorstep.

The second the mailman rang the doorbell to let me know the Amazon box was sitting on my porch, I turned into the proverbial kid in a candy store. I dove into the middle of the book, planning on taking a quick peek at the wonders that I just knew had to be woven between the covers.

I never made it past the first page I opened to…..page 133. The one featuring this lunar lying feather.

Supposedly, the experiment was conducted under such a time crunch, that the astronauts didn’t even have a chance to retrieve the feather before they lifted off in – what else – “Falcon,” the flight module that had brought them safely to the moon’s surface. Just knowing that this feather is (hopefully) still gracing the moon with its presence, captivates me.

Why, you wonder? I’m not certain I can adequately explain it. I think it simply has to do with the fact that I believe every world – whether it’s deemed a planet, a moon, a sun, a star – is better with feathers in it. Even if it’s just one.

To me, feathers are such a strong symbol of living lightly – in our own skin, with others, in unison with whatever astronomical object we’re blessed to carry out our lives on – that I feel more hopeful knowing they’re potentially floating around out in space. That or simply lining other lunar surfaces.

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