Monday, September 12, 2016

currently reading

Currently reading A Man Called Ove, which everyone seems to also be reading (to wit: NYT bestseller list). It was my book group's most recent selection. They met and discussed the book last week, but I was unable to attend owing to the family schedule but also because I took on a proofreading project for a friend. Reading my friend's thesis got in the way of book group reading. That's just the way it was last week.

So, I have mostly been enjoying Ove. Before I started the book, I was suspicious of potential sentimentality and a certain predictability (cf. Bill Murray in St. Vincent). And, while both of those suspicions have come to bear, I read on because I suspect, based on the readers/friends who recommended this book to me, that my perceptions will somehow be changed. I am looking forward to that possibility. Plus, Ove is quite a character. And, I like the way the author has formatted the novel, built each character, and incorporated a subtle humor.

While Ove is my main read for the moment, I am also listening to Siracusa by Delia Ephron. Friend Kari M. read it recently and mentioned on Goodreads that it had been a solid vacation read. Coincidentally, the novel is about two couples on vacation together in Italy. The novel is told in four points of view, and the audio is read by four actors/actresses who are actually two husband-wife couples (one of the actors is John Slattery; it's hard to separate him from his Mad Men character). What another wonderful coincidence! The novel has so many uncomfortable situations and characters who are pushed to the edges. The audio really emphasizes the inherent drama. I'm glad I chose this medium.

Charles Foster's Being a Beast came in for me at the library. I don't even know how to begin explaining this book, but suffice to say the author's embedded research is interesting. So far, I haven't had an undistracted moment to "get into" the book, but I hope to soon because I think I'm really going to it, especially the exploration of the natural world.

Finally, this morning I dove back into The Stories of Jane Gardam in the hope of finishing up some odds and ends from earlier in the year. "Soul Mates," an eerie story about two couples who meet on vacation then meet up after vacation eventfully, isn't the only story in the collection that channels Shirley Jackson hard

Sunday, January 03, 2016

the year (2015) in books



Happy New Year!! 2015 was another spectacular reading year for me. On Goodreads I set a challenge to read 75 books. This was a huge stretch from last year’s goal of 47 books, which represented the average number of books that I have read over the past few years Last year I exceed that 47 book goal by reading 60 books. In setting a goal for 2015, I thought, if I could read 60 books easily, surely if I tried even harder I could hit 75. Alas, with one more day in the year, I have read a solid 60 books. 60 may be my number. I had also made a goal of reading at least 10 shelf sitters (1/6th of my goal), and I came close by reading 8. Again. I continued to supplement reading physical books with ebooks and audio and to track my reading on Goodreads.This year, I also made my own challenge by reading only short stories during the month of May, national short story month. It took a lot of discipline to stick to the stories, but I got a lot a variety in my reading and finished a few collections, which contributed to my overall bottomline.  

My reading goals for 2016: 61 books, more short stories, more shelf-sitters 

Herewith is a list of the sixty books I read in 2015. A small list of statistics follows.

1.  Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel): book group read; first and last post-apocalypse/dystopic book of the year. I like what the author did here by finding the faith and humanity in what is typically a gloom-and-doom genre.

2.  Brother of the More Famous Jack (Barbara Trapido): I read this book because Maria Semple said to. So funny and whip-smart and charming. Will appeal to readers of Maria Semple and Stella Gibbons (Cold Comfort Farm). Give me more Barbara Trapido!

3.  Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offill): Punch to the gut kind of writing. Very quick prose style, but provocative. I plan to re-read.

4.  Oishinbo 04: Fish, Sushi, Sashimi (Kariya and Hanasaki): I read almost the entire series in 2014, but volume 4 was out of circulation due to library renovations. I enjoyed being reunited with the characters and the Ultimate/Supreme menu challenge in which two Japanese newspapers were competing. Not my favorite book in the series, but I still craved sushi and travel while I read it.

5.  Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins): I enjoyed the page-turning nature of this book, but was disappointed by the ending, which was predictable and anticlimactic. 

6.  The Blackhouse (Peter May): First novel/mystery in a trilogy. Atmospheric setting on the rugged, wind-wracked Isle of Lewis. Great character and backstory development. Satisfying mystery with judicious use of action and suspense.

7.  All-of-a-Kind Family (Sydney Taylor): I read this book when I was 8 or so and viewed the series as a Lower East Side analog to Little House books I adored. Lemon crackers and pickle barrels. Shabbat and candles. As an adult, I admired the mother’s gentle and clever parenting skills, especially hiding buttons for the girls to find when they dusted. Props, mom. SHELF-SITTER

8.  Lewis Man (Peter May): Solid follow-up to The Blackhouse with a new mystery and a continuation of our protagonist’s personal story.

9.  Art of Stillness: Adventure in Going Nowhere (Pico Iyer): based on a TED talk. I listened to this audio in great distraction. I think I liked it. I know I could benefit from another listen. AUDIO

10. When It Happens to You (Molly Ringwald):  I picked this up after hearing her interview with Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter on the Tiny Sense of Accomplishment podcast. Love, loss, betrayal. Ringwald can write. STORIES

11. Daughter’s Keeper (Ayelet Waldman): shelf-sitter since 2004. Waldman’s first stand-alone novel was her meatiest in terms of issues and had some complex characters. Glad I finally got around to reading it. SHELF-SITTER

12. A Year in Japan (Kate Williamson): illustrated travel memoir, great art, Japan!

13. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Anya von Bremzen): started out listening to the audiobook, which was difficult to follow casually so bought the paperback to finish. Although familiar with the privations of the Soviet era, I knew nothing of the rich, bourgeois food traditions of Russia. Proustian memories centered on borscht and koulibiac (roughly, a salmon potpie). Near perfect combination of memoir, history, and food writing.

14. The Chessman (Peter May): the gritty conclusion to the Lewis trilogy. Often more story than mystery. Mostly in it for the depiction of place: rugged, isolated Scottish islands.

15. Falling in Love (Donna Leon): the first Brunetti I have read since catching up to the most current book. The opera singer Flavia Petrelli makes a repeat appearance, this time with an obsessed fan.

16. Love, Nina (Nina Stibbe): This epistolary memoir was another recommendation from Maria Semple. Remember, I read anything she tells me to! Covers Nina’s days as a nanny to a literary London family. Funny and clever.

17. Pretty Good Number One (Matthew Amster-Burton). Picked up this culiary-based travel narrative after listening the podcast Amster-Burton cohosts with Molly Wizenburg. Funny and smart. Sushi, ramen, okonomiyaki. Oh my!

18. Evening Chorus (Helen Humphreys): a literary novel of WW2 told in multiple voices. Sad and beautiful. BOOK GROUP.

19. Le Road Trip (Vivian Swift): another illustrated travel memoir with fantastic, inspiring watercolors. Used this in ongoing research for how to craft my own travel journals.

20. In the Kitchen with Alain Passard (Christopher Blain): graphic novel set in Alain Passard’s vegetable-based kitchen.

21. Get in Trouble (Kelly Link): Read during and after short story month. Quirky, weird stories that were often unsettling but mostly good. SHORT STORIES

22. London Eye Mystery (Siobhan Dowd): enjoyable with a few page-turning moments.

23. Summerlong (Dean Bakopoulos): Steamy and probably too autobiographical to make for comfortable reading. My friend Suz and I went to his reading at Magers & Quinn. Charles Baxter was in the audience! We both used to call on DB when he was a book buyer in Madison.

24. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls (Karen Russell): Read for short story month. The title story was a near to perfection as can be. Clever, funny, creepy in all the right ways. Swamplandia now bumping up the TBR list. SHORT STORIES

25. Urban Watercolor Sketching (Felix Scheinberger): Another gift from Mr. Bibliotonic to encourage my budding watercolor forays. Scheinberger has a loose, boldly color style that I love.

26. A God in Ruins (Kate Atkinson): I loved this companion book to Life After Life almost as much as the first book. Getting ready to revisit early Atkinson and to finally read the Jackson Brodie books.

27. The Martian (Andy Weir): At some point this year, I felt like I was the only person who hadn’t read The Martian. I really enjoyed it for being a quick read but also for being close to the hard science fiction of spaceships that I loved as a teen but haven’t read for a really long time. Only downside was seeing the movie cast in the widescreen of my mind’s eye.

28. Stone Mattress (Margaret Atwood): More short fiction for short story month. Atwood is at the top of her game here. SHORT STORIES

29. My Favorite Things (Maira Kalman): A celebration of objects! Maira Kalman never disappoints. I love the idea of doing a watercolor “list” of my favorite things from around the house or from the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

30. The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty (Vendela Vida): One of my favorite novels this year, as well as my first Vendela Vida. I loved the premise of stolen identity and how the protagonist made the most of taking leave of herself. Slightly exotic Marrakesh was great too.

31. The Red Notebook (Antoine Laurain): Not as good as Laurain’s The President’s Hat, I still found this charming and quick. And Paris.

32. Europe of 5 Wrong Turns a Day (Doug Mack):  "The most important travel app is the off button. And, the most important travel guides are some basic common sense and open mindedness and willingness to go with the flow and trust the Goddess Serendipity." I wish I had followed Mack’s advice on my own European adventure. Even though I enjoy planning the heck out of a trip, perhaps some spontaneity would have helped. SHELF-SITTER 

33. Revenge Wears Prada (Lauren Weisberger): easy summer reading, this novel picks up Andy Sachs’ story as she’s started her own magazine and is about the get married. The novel hinges on a misunderstanding. Painful but filled the time on a long drive to Ely to pick up Simon from his adventure camp. AUDIO

34. Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee): So conflicted about this one. For all my reading life, I have wanted to read one more novel by Harper Lee. Clearly one of the most controversial books in publishing in a while I am glad I read it, but I am also glad that I had To Kill a Mockingbird, which I hold sacred, under my belt.

35. The Rumor (Elin Hilderbrand): It has become a somewhat annual tradition to read the newest Hilderbrand novel on a transatlantic flight. I read The Rumor on the way home from Portugal. Lacking complicated plot or deeply developed characters, it was an ideal airplane book. Do I remember anything about it now? No.

36. The Moon, Come to Earth (Philip Graham): The author’s dispatches from Lisbon during the year he lived there with his family. With regard to culture and language, some were interesting and some were informative.

37. Primates of Park Avenue (Wednesday Martin): This was pretty trashy, quick, delicious reading. Perfect summer fare. Hard to believe it wasn’t fiction.

38. Cod (Mark Kurlansky): I have intended to read Cod for a long time. Started it while on vacation in Portugal since salted cod is the national dish. I preferred Kurlansky’s Big Oyster.

39. Kitchens of the Great Midwest (J. Ryan Stradal): Liked but didn’t love this foodie novel.

40. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant (Roz Chast): Couldn’t put it down. Loved it so much. Initially I thought that I wasn’t the audience for this book because my parents are of sound mind and in great shape, but the audience for this book is anyone who has parents and who has a heart. An honest, funny, compassionate graphic memoir. A favorite!

41. A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me (David Gates). Gates can write, of that there is no question, but his characters are yucky. It was difficult to find a connection to them, and the situations were uncomfortable. I also found that Gates had a dependence on the same devices, which lost any potency quickly. BOOK GROUP

42. A Cottage in Portugal (Richard Hewitt): A shelf-sitter since 1998!! Read to prolong my summer vacation. A Cottage in Portugal  was written/published in the era of buy-a-home-in-Europe-and-fix-it-up (e.g., A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun), but it wasn’t nearly as interesting as its predecessors. I would have liked less drama, more landscape. SHELF-SITTER

43. Novel Habits of Happiness (Alexander McCall Smith): I look forward to every new Isabel Dalhousie novel AMSmith writes. Isabel was on her game in this installment, which had hints of the paranormal.

44. Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (William Finnegan): It took me forever to read this nearly 500-page memoir about surfing, but I always enjoyed diving into the prose. Barbarian Days is one of the best books I read this year, easily. Elegant and brawny all at once. The descriptions of surfing never got repetitive or boring. The culture and science of waves delighted.

45. Girl Waits with Gun (Amy Stewart): I wish I had liked this more. It was charming, and the protagonist was spunky. Maybe it was a case of wrong time-wrong place. The cover art wins best of year.

46. Lumberjanes, vol. 1 (Noelle Stevenson, et al): Read at the recommendation of my young friend Charon and was not disappointed. Looking forward to volume 2. Friendship to the max! 

47. Near and Far (Heidi Swanson): I loved the format of this cookbook and the travel essays. It gave me a lot of inspiration for putting together my writing and photography. Looking forward to cooking from it in the new year.

48. Honor Girl (Maggie Thrash): Graphic novel set at summer camp!

49. Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party (A.M. Smith): an audio short story I listened to in order to boost my reading stats. Didn’t love. AUDIO

50. Euphoria (Lily King): This novel based on the anthropologist Margaret Mead was one of my favorite books this year. Read for book group, we had a great discussion. It was sensual and exotic with a strong note of mysterious running throughout. Several “what the hell just happened” moments were very satisfying. BOOK GROUP

51. The Grownup (Gillian Flynn): Ack! Maybe one of the worst books I have read this year. It’s basically a very long story (not even a novella) that I was glad to have been able to check out from the library. This story features Flynn’s trademark ugly characters, but also extra visceral and gross. (Shortest book read at 64 pages).

52. Yes, Please (Amy Poehler): When I found a hardcover in the neighborhood little book library, I was ecstatic. However, I had a hard time getting into it and eventually sought an audio version because what I really wanted was to hear Poehler’s voice. I found it really disappointing. More a manual for how to be like Amy Poehler than a memoir. Brightest note was that her voice made a good companion on dog walks. AUDIO

53. On the Banks of Plum Creek (Laura Ingalls Wilder): A trip to DeSmet, SD, with my friend Spinelli prompted me to pick up the Little House series again. Enjoyable. SHELF-SITTER

54. H Is for Hawk (Helen Macdonald): Jury is still out on this. Loved the natural history writing, especially a half-page description of a spider’s web covering a field, caught in the particular light of a setting sun. But, the falcony portions weren’t even that interesting. And, the T.H.White bits…snooze. A NYT Best 10 Books of the Year. SHELF-SITTER

55. Dead Ladies Project (Jessa Crispin): Mr. Bibliotonic gave me a copy of this book for my birthday, which a complete surprise to me as it hadn’t even been on my radar. Most of the time, I wanted to shake Crispin but I loved her observations of place and literary analysis. Solid blend of literary, travel, and personal writing.

56. Syllabus (Lynda Barry): Inspiring graphic memoir/instructional about Barry’s creative writing-cartooning class at Madison. Took away lots of good ideas.

57. Old Filth (Jane Gardam): I loved Queen of the Tambourine when SMP published it in the 1990s and have always meant to pick up Gardam again. Old Filth was on a recommended reading list that Lily King included in Euphoria. It is the first volume of a trilogy that I can’t wait to finish. Gardam is a genius at weaving time and characters, and I can’t wait to see how she treats Betty and Veneering.

58. My Kitchen Year (Ruth Reichl): As much memoir as cookbook, Reichl writes unflinchingly of the pain of losing Gourmet magazine, which, in my opinion, was a blow to the culinary world and to the magazine world. I doubt I will cook from this book, but I really enjoyed reading about how she picked herself up

59. The Pacific (Simon Winchester): The author reads the audio version of this book, which I picked up based on a strong NYT review. His plummy voice adds to the narrative and almost makes you feel like you’re sitting in the room with him. The book is a little more episodic thus less cohesive almost as if it was a collection of magazine pieces. Still enjoyable as a dog-walking listen. AUDIO (Longest book read at 512 pages; good thing it was a listen)

60. The Property (Rutu Modan): The last book I read in 2015 was purchased on impulse at Labyrinth Books in Princeton, NJ. This graphic novel follows an Israeli woman who accompanies her grandmother to Poland to reclaim property stolen from the family in WW2. Modan is a master of the form, and I look forward to reading her backlist.

Total: 60
Fiction: 37
Nonfiction:  23
Women: 39
Men: 21
Donna Leon: 1 (all caught up now)
Alexander McCall Smith: 2
Peter May: 3
Mysteries: 6
Science Fiction: 1
Elin Hilderbrand: 1
Audio: 5
Post-apocalyptic: 1
Travel: 7
Food: 5
Graphic novels: 10
Stories: 5
E-books: 8
Shelf-sitters: 8
Memoirs/bio: 9
Book group: 4
Kid’s: 5
Portugal: 2
Japan: 3
France: 3
England during WW2: 3
Total pages read: 16,520 


Friday, May 29, 2015

Short story roundup: week four

no photo this week and only the briefest of comments to wrap up the inaugural observation of Short Story Month.

"Freeze Dried Groom" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Returning to Margaret Atwood's collection in order to finish it. This story had a Steven King horror quality to it as well as an ambiguous ending the kind of which leads the reader to imagine only the darkest possible solution. Spoiler ahead: A salvage collector who distresses junk and passes it off as antiques buys several storage lockers of abandoned goods. Cleaning them out, he discovers a wedding dress, cake, etc. And, in the corner of the locker, he finds the groom. Freeze-dried.

"I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Sequel to Robber Bride. The characters wonder if their friend, Zenia, has returned to haunt them.

"This Is Not a Love Song" by Brendan Mathews in Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2013
I bought this issue with a travel theme and stories about the Faroe Islands and beekeeping several summers ago, but had never looked at it. It has been in a stack sitter on my coffee table. This story was chosen at random. The title is also a title to a song by PIL.

"The Dead Hand Loves You," by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress

"Ava Wrestles the Alligator" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
More Karen Russell. Happily!

"ZZ's Sleep-Away Camp for Disordered Dreamers," by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

"Haunting Olivia" by Karen Russell in St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves





Friday, May 22, 2015

Short story roundup: week three





"Redeployment" by Phil Klay in Redeployment
This National Book Award, New York Times bestselling collection examines he modern soldier's experience. These stories, which I read at friend Merrill's recommendation, were gutwrenching and heartbreaking. The subtext seemed to follow that they can never really go home again. I purchased this book even though I had vowed not to buy any books for this challenge, but I'm glad I did because I know I'll want to finish reading it.


"Love and Honor and Pity and Pride" by Nam Le in The Boat
I bought The Boat a long time ago--maybe six years ago--and was happy to get to this shelf sitter. When this debut collection was initially published, it was to great acclaim. Most stories center around the immigrant experience, particularly that of Southeast Asians. The first story, "Love and Honor and Pity and Pride," which is a reference to Faulkner, is gorgeous. It features a Vietnamese-born graduate student at the Iowa Writer's Workshop who, facing writer's block, co-opts his father's story for his semester final. What follows is a meditation on father-son relationships and guilt and responsibility.

"The Pilot" by Joshua Ferris in 20 Under 40
I returned to 20 Under 40 to read Joshua Ferris' "The Pilot." I had read and loved And Then We Came to the End, which I read coincidentally right after my 2008 layoff. It was dark and funny. I also read his sophomore effort, The Unnamed, which I did not love. It was a short novel about a man with a disorder in which he couldn't stop walking. It was sad but mostly confusing. Since I feel Ferris has a lot of potential, and since I loved the first novel more than I disliked the second, I turned to a piece of short fiction. "The Pilot" follows an alcoholic screenwriter as he tries to finish writing his TV pilot. His networking escapades and attempts to stay sober are farcical but not always funny. The story left me feeling a little meh.

"Another" by Dave Eggers in How We Are Hungry
My friend Caryl and I saw Dave Eggers read from What Is the What at the Pen Pals series sponsored by the Hennepin County Libraries. I thought this novel about the Lost Boys of the Sudan was pretty genius. Eggers is a little bit of a hottie and wickedly talented and sort of knocked my socks off that day at Pen Pals. I bought a copy of his story collection, How We Are Hungry, because I wanted to read more. Most of the stories in this collection are short in length, and so I dived in with the first, "Another." This is the story of a divorcee who visits Egypt and takes a horseback tour of the Pyramids. His discomfort in the saddle becomes more physically punishing as the tour progresses and the pyramids reveal empty chambers, yet he requires another and another. Could masochism be a theme? Or perhaps the tour is an allegory for a search for self.

"The Lesson" by Kelly Link in Get in Trouble
Back to Kelly Link in the hope of finishing this collection. I enjoyed "The Lesson," the story of a gay couple that is expecting their first child (by surrogate). They take one last fling a trip to private island wedding of friends. Their trip is cut short by the early arrival of the baby, a preemie whose survival is questionable. Freaky folklore and a groom with a mysterious reputation create gorgeous tension throughout.

"The Nimrod Flipout" by Etgar Keret in Nimrod Flipout
I bought The Nimrod Flipout on impulse at Micawber's Books when shopping for the boys' Christmas book stacks--you know: one for them, one for me. It has one of the best jackets ever. The book jacket touted Keret, an Israeli writer, as a genius, and finally I had a chance to see for myself. The title story, "The Nimrod Flipout," is about three buddies whose friend, Nimrod, commits suicide after a psychological break. Almost as a curse, the three buddies have periodic, alternating flip outs. It was strange, and I had a hard time making a connection to the writing.

"Lusus Naturae" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
Lusus naturae means "a freak of nature," and so it is that the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's same-titled story has a genetic condition that renders her frightening to others. The girl's family stages her funeral and confines the girl to their home so they won't have to deal with prying neighbors. But the girl grows bored at home and often sneaks out until she's spotted by townfolk. This story was wily and had a lovely whiff of folklore. Atwood wrote it at Michael Chabon's invitation for his anthology, McSweeney's Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories.


Friday, May 15, 2015

Short story roundup: week two



This week, this stack is short, but three stories were found in the Atwood and another was on my ipad, which is at the bottom of the pile. I found Neil Gaiman's latest book at the library as a "lucky day book" and so only had it for a week.


"Origin Story" by Kelly Link in Get in Trouble
I have long been curious about Kelly Link. And although her reputation preceded her, I can't say I join the choir. Her style can best be described as surreal--melting clocks, floating/hovering characters, and so on--which I thought I'd really like. And, I did like some of collection's stories, prior to this challenge, such as "The Summer People" and "Valley of the Girls," which were fantastical and weird but enjoyable. Mostly, I didn't get "Origin Story," but fortunately Scarlett Thomas in the New York Times Book Review admitted she struggled with this story, too. I recall the main character, Bunnatine, and her superhero boyfriend, as well as references to mutants and the Wizard of Oz. But that is all.

"The Lady with the Dog" by Anton Chekhov in the public domain
When I mentioned to my reading circle that I was doing a short story challenge, my friend Susan suggested reading Chekhov. It occurred to me that I had never knowingly read Chekhov. A quick internet search lead to tons of stories, many of which had links to public domain versions. Snap! "The Lady with the Dog" was a top-searched story, and so it was my entry to Chekhov. It is the story of a adulterous affair conducted by a businessman and a housewife, each of whom were vacationing in Yalta. The story starts with the couple's first encounter and culminates in an ambiguous ending. It was very satisfying in its brevity (most of the contemporary stories I am reading clock in at 30-50 pages = not short). And, I also felt that this was the sort of classic story from which I can see current writers borrowing themes. I will read more Chekhov and entertain recommendations.

"All Aunt Hagar's Children" by Edward P. Jones in All Aunt Hagar's Children
Edward P. Jones is another author who has long been on my radar, and I was not disappointed. The collection focuses on African Americans in Washington D.C. (where Jones was raised and lives) and feature journey as a theme--journeys planned and unplanned, taken and failed. I read the title story, in which the protagonist is asked by his aunt to solve the murder of her son. The story has a decidedly noir tone and is, even though considered one of the weaker stories in the collection, complex and interesting with an unpredictable ending. I will absolutely read more Edward P. Jones.

"Orange" by Neil Gaiman in Trigger Warning
Trigger Warning--images or ideas that could be upsetting--was another recommendation from Susan on the reading circle. Gaiman offers a collection of short fictions and "disturbances," some of which were commissioned by anthologists and others of which were never published and thus were given an opportunity to be reworked. I dipped into many enticing stories where Gaiman takes liberties with characters and form. In the introduction, Gaiman also offers a backstory for each story to help you decide to read it. There is a story that was meant to accompany a David  Bowie/Iman photo shoot, called "The Return of the Thin White Duke," another is a Dr. Who story, a Sherlock Holmes story, one that was written for This American Life...a real hodgepodge. "Orange" is told from the point of view of a girl whose sister disappears. The story's form takes shape through an questionnaire where the reader does not see the questions, but has no difficulty filling in the blank.

"Alphinland", "Revenant", and "Dark Lady" by Margaret Atwood in Stone Mattress
These three stories form the Dark Lady cycle in Atwood's fall 2014 collection, Stone Mattress. Each is linked by characters--a group of artists who are married to or have been married to Gavin, a poet. They explore themes of youth, art, fame/success, and aging. And, they are brilliant. So is the author.


Friday, May 08, 2015

Short story roundup: week one



For the first week of Short Story Month, all of the books I picked up came from my shelves, except for The Other Language, which I had just checked out from the library. In fact, all of these books came from one room of my house. It's hard to know where to start, especially since I'm not obligated to read from cover to cover. So do I always want to read the first story? No, I do not. For some, I chose the title story, for others I picked a story at random, and for a few I chose the first story, just to keep things interesting and random-ish. Some stories I loved. Some stories left me lukewarm. All the stories made me want to read more from the collection, especially if the collection was by one author. I wanted to see more of what that author could do with the form.

"Scandamerican Domestic" by Christopher Merkner (Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic)
I bought Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic at the American Swedish Institute gift shop earlier this year, and it has been patiently waiting on top of an urgent book pile near my reading chair. What made the volume "pickupable" was the comparison to a Midwestern Shirley Jackson, but I found Merkner's style to be more surreal, like Kelly Link. The title story is positioned #5 in the book. It was an odd, impressionistic, dreamlike story about a father who takes his children, whom he often refers to as friends, to Europe. Not much happens, and I felt like I was reading a story that was out of context, even though the stories are not linked. I may need to read the stories that led up to "Scandamerican Domestic," as well as one or two beyond and possibly the last story to get a better sense of what the collection and Merkner are all about.

"The Other Language," by Francesca Marciano in The Other Language
Awhile ago I read a blurb or review for The Other Language and requested a copy at the library. Its availability was fortunate so I included the title story in my short story challenge. Quotes from Jhumpa Lahiri, Julia Glass, and Gary Shteyngart suggest that Marciano's stories are character driven and set in wonderful places that transport the reader, which sounded like my kind of storytelling. This coming of age featured an Italian girl whose family visits a Greek island to recover from the accidental death of their mother. Emma observes the comings/goings of the Milanese, Greek, and British vacationers who also congregate here, thus establishing a budding interior life. Emma's family returns to the island the following summer, and Emma experiences first love. Throughout, the island is vivid, touching on all the senses until the reader feels as if they are on the beach or in the cafe.

"Someday All This Will Be Yours," by John Jodzio in Twin Cities Noir
Mr. Bibliotonic picked up Twin Cities Noir at a bookstore recently. It is one of over fifty titles in Akashic Books' Noir series, which, travelers take note, covers the globe. In full disclosure, I have a number of personal connections to this book and the story I chose. The editors, Julie and Steve, are friends and members of my book group, which has read John Jodzio's story collection, If You Lived Here You'd Be Home Already, and Jodzio came to our book group meeting so we could talk flatteringly about it with him. Mostly, I was drawn to the local nature of these stories, which the table of contents identifies by neighborhood. Jodzio's story, a true short story at eight pages, was set in Minneapolis' warehouse district and featured a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde who set out to scam a local bar's speed dating participants. This very place-oriented story had an economy of language that was sharp and satisfying, and it offered an unexpected ending. I will read more Jodzio as well as more titles from this collection.

"The Young Painters," by Nicole Krauss in 20 Under 40: Stories from the New Yorker
All of the authors in this collection are appealing to me--Rivka Galchen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nell Freudenberger, Joshua Ferris, ZZ Packer, and more--and so it was difficult to chose just one. "The Young Painters" was chosen somewhat at random, by letting the book's pages fall open. I'd read two of Krauss's novels and happily set about reading her short fiction about a young novelist who wrote a book about a painting owned by an acquaintance that she met at a dinner party. The story is smart and full of allusions, and uses an interesting point of view that will keep the reader wondering. I was pleased to see these stories archived online and kept accessible for the time being.

"Winter Dreams," by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The St. Paul Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Patricia Hampl guest edited this collection, which was published during my time at the MN Historical Society Press/Borealis Books, although I never did crack the spine then. "Winter Dreams" was chosen at random, but promised rich descriptions of St. Paul's Summit Avenue. This story is considered part of the "Gatsby-cluster" stories because it focused on some of the themes--upward mobility, class relations, and ambitions--that Fitzgerald would expand upon in The Great Gatsby. In this story, Dexter Green, a caddy at the Black Bear Country Club courted Judy Jones, a spunky and unpredictable young lady who was bored with the trappings of upper class life in St. Paul. I was pleasantly surprised by Fitzgerald's sense of humor, which I didn't remember from reading The Gatsby. I will read more from this collection, which includes "Berenice Bobs Her Hair."

"Betty Garcia," by John Reimringer in Fiction on a Stick
Another anthology of Minnesota writers that I picked up on an impulse a few years ago. I was familiar with fewer of these authors so it was easy to pick a story at random. "Betty Garcia" offers the promise of a Fitzgerald story of upward mobility, but other side of the tracks--blue collar to middle class. Set in the 1980s in my neck of St. Paul, with scenes set on Summit Avenue and the monument at River Road and Summit, this story is a straightforward character sketch of the protagonist Jack and his girlfriend Betty Garcia.

"St. Lucy's Home for Girls," by Karen Russell in St Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves
I have been looking forward to reading Karen Russell for awhile--for at least 7 years because that is how long it has been since I purchased this book. And, I loved, loved, loved "St. Lucy's." It was clever, funny, dark--everything I want my fiction to be. Claudette and her pack-sisters have arrived at St. Lucy's Home for Girls to begin their five-stage transformation from wolves to humans. Werewolves + Catholicism and a liberal dose of allegory. I loved Russell's imagination and her textured style. She met all the expectations set by the mountains of critical acclaim. I cannot wait to read the rest of this collection.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Short Story Month

May is, apparently, Short Story Month. According to the sponsor, StoryADay.org, we are in the second golden age of the short story. This is exciting news to me because I love short stories! From an impressionable reading age, I dug short stories. "Tale of the Magi" caught my attention when I was 14, and "The Veldt" knocked my socks off in Honors American Studies my junior year of high school.

Unfortunately, I don't take many opportunities to read stories, mostly because I have this weird hangup about reading a book from cover-to-cover rather than just dipping in when the mood or need arises. On a complete whim, I have decided to read a story a day in May. I don't have a plan. My only hope is to read widely within the genre--shelf-sitters, recommendations from friends and reviews, single author volumes, anthologies, emerging writers, classic authors, new-to-me authors, favorite authors, and re-reads.

In addition to my shelves, the following websites have links to stories, free and not:

Akashic Books (free 750-word stories)
Library of America's "Story of the Week"
NPR's celebration of National Short Story Month (with list of suggested authors and collections)
Vintage has a story in ebook format for each day of the month (for purchase)
Graywolf Press authors talk about short stories (with links to purchasing stories)

And, there is always fiction in The New Yorker.