Book Review: If I Knew The Way, I Would Take You Home, Stories by Dave Housley

If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You HomeIf I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home
Stories by Dave Housley
Dzanc Books
2015
174 pages

In the 15 stories and essays that comprise If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home, the likes of Gene Simmons and Jerry Garcia are merely opening acts for headliner Dave Housley.

Yeah.  Gene and Jerry, the ones of KISS and The Grateful Dead fame.

Make no mistake: with writing like this, the real rockstar of these short stories is Dave Housley.

“You show up, play your role, leave it all on the stage, get out of there with a check in your pocket. If you have the right kind of attitude, then you don’t think about it too much – maybe don’t think about it at all, until the next time.” (“Be Gene,” pgs. 3-4)

It’s clear that Housley is, indeed, more than thinking about what he’s doing and his reader. The stories in his third book are the perfect cocktail of sadness, humor, suspense and nostalgia. Set mostly in central Pennsylvania in the vicinity of Altoona and State College (this is terrain that Housley knows well) these are stories about people who have – as the title suggests – lost their way.  They knew it once, or at least they thought they did.

“There are one, two, three, four … thirteen different kinds of lettuce. When the hell did this happen? I almost ask the lady next to me, then realize I look out of place enough with my paint-spattered boots, jeans, and T-shirt, with my fingers covered in drips and drops and my smell of turpentine and all-day sweat. So I stand there like a moron, a thirty-year-old man confused by vegetables, How am I supposed to make the decision – “where we’re going” is how she puts it – when I can’t even pick out lettuce at the goddamned supermarket?” (“Where We’re Going”, pg. 69)

Like any collection of songs on an album (remember albums?) I loved some of these stories immediately and others will need a little time to grow on me. Among my favorites are the aforementioned “Be Gene” and “Where We’re Going” as well as

“Death and the Wiggles”
“Goliath”
“Behind the Music: A Christmas Wish”

“Rockabye” has the best opening two lines of all these stories – and, dare I say, one of the most brilliant choice of words strung together that I’ve seen in any short story.

“We see Daddy on Sundays at lunch. Sometimes Wednesdays , too, from eight to nine, if Mommy lets us watch the reruns.” (“Rockabye,” pg 25)

As someone who still has most – if not all – of her ’80s New Wave cassette tapes carefully tucked in several briefcase-like accoutrements, Housley’s essay “How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes” was … well, something I wished I’d written.

“First you’ll need to find the box. Usually this will be a milk crate, sometimes a packing box, a gym bag or a backpack or a few balled up plastic supermarket bags. It will be tucked into the farthest corners available – your basement, your parents’ basement, a car trunk, a storage space, as far away as you can get from your current life and still call something yours. There’s an overly obvious metaphorical thing happening here – literally digging into your past, through layers of stuff you’ve supposedly left behind, blah, blah, blah. Don’t let that stop you. Remember that none of what you’re looking for was particularly subtle in the first place. And if you never wanted to listen to your hair metal tapes again, if you had truly given up on Def Leppard and A/C D/C and moved on to U2 or Coleman Hawkins or Radiohead, you would have thrown the box away….” (“How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes” pg. 153)

“There are many things you have not kept hold of – bank statements, receipts, jobs, friends, relationships. The fact that you still have the tape with Def Leppard’s “On Through the Night” on one side and the first Motley Crue on the other but not your tax returns from 2008 or your college roommate’s email address is evidence of something you don’t want to think too much about.” (pg. 155)

“And it will always have that gauze of nostalgia, the soft edge that comes from growing up with something. Desperate as it was to be dangerous and edgy, with its amplifiers turned up to eleven, freak-show mascara and hairspray and pyrotechnics, your old heavy metal tapes are innocent.

Just like you used to be.”  (pg. 160)

Bam.

Like a good drink, If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home is a short story collection best imbibed in small increments, rather than in one binge. Otherwise, there’s the tendency to lose what you like about the drink in the first place and then things start to look and sound the same and then the writer loses their way.

No danger of that here. For those of us who grew up in the ’80s and may have stumbled a bit in the years thereafter, Dave Housley more than knows the way to a great story and takes his nostalgia-happy reader along for a most enjoyable ride.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
2013
208 pages 

This, right here, is one of my newest favorite books.

How can it not be, with its nod to my beloved Philadelphia and Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors?

Well, not Flannery exactly. In this novel,  the character of Frances Reardon is considered to have been inspired by the Southern writer; the Bernard in the title is poet Robert Lowell. Both real-life authors met in 1957 at Yaddo, a writers colony, and started corresponding shortly thereafter. Hence, Frances and Bernard is based on that correspondence and the relationship – what was and what could have been – between the two intriguing artists.

To quote the summary on Goodreads, this is a novel about

the kind of fast, deep friendship that can take over—and change the course of—our lives …. It explores the limits of faith, passion, sanity, what it means to be a true friend, and the nature of acceptable sacrifice. In the grandness of the fall, can we love another person so completely that we lose ourselves? How much should we give up for those we love? How do we honor the gifts our loved ones bring and still keep true to our dreams?

I can’t say it any better than that. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience such a fast, deep friendship. If it was a long time ago, Frances and Bernard will transport you right back to those heady, talk-about-anything-while-baring-one’s-soul days.

These are fascinating people. I was already a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s, but I admit I hadn’t read nor known much about this period of her life nor her connection with Robert Lowell, so Frances and Bernard was a treat.

Frances and Bernard is the rare sort of book that allows the reader to transcend reading. You forget you’re reading and instead you delve right into the prose and you become immersed in the beauty of the words because Carlene Bauer’s writing – as Frances and Bernard – is so damn good. Every single line.

Like these:

“Irish girls from North Philadelphia can’t afford to think that they will be fine without the benevolence of the New Yorker, even as they give the New Yorker a Bronx cheer.” (pg. 76)

“Am I from Pittsburgh and just don’t know it? Someone else misidentified my city of birth as Pittsburgh.” (pg. 113)

“She [Frances] does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it impossible. (I actually don’t either – all the women writers I know are libertines.) But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.” (pg. 135)

Here’s what I know about Carlene Bauer; she is definitely in control of the people in this, her debut novel.

5 stars out of 5.  Highly recommended.

 

When the Bully is the Teacher

1000Speak - Voices Are Strong

Let me start what I anticipate to be a controversial post by saying this, loud and clear:

I’ve had some wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

My kids have had some wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

Several of our friends and family members are wonderful, amazing, inspiring teachers.

This post is not about you. Or them.

This post is about Ms. K.


Ms. K. teaches chorus to seventh and eighth graders.

Middle schoolers.

You remember middle school, don’t you?

You’re 13. You’re incredibly self-conscious. You’re trying to fit in. You’re trying to figure out who the hell you are and who you’re going to be. You’re overwhelmed.

They’ll never admit it, but this is a time in a kid’s life when grown ups have so much power and influence. Those of us who are parents know that It doesn’t seem that way, at least in my house. Far from it. But these kids of ours, deep down inside they’re looking to us, the grown-ups who supposedly have our shit together, for lessons on how to make our way in this crazy world.

As if we have a clue.


My daughter used to love Chorus.

In her middle school, students are able to take Chorus as a class and earn a grade. As someone who enjoys singing and has acted in several plays, my daughter embraced the concerts, the hard work that paid off in a triumphant performance.

There’s little joy anymore in what my girl used to love.

At first, back in September, Ms. K.’s antics seemed somewhat amusing. At the dinner table, my daughter would tell us all about Ms. K’s daily dramatics.

The change was gradual, slight.

“She yelled at us today and said we were pathetic,” my daughter said one day.

People say stuff, we said dismissively.

“She told us that there wasn’t a single brain cell in the entire class!  I mean, who says that?”

We’ve all had crazy teachers, The Husband and I said, regaling both kids with stories of the middle school and high school teachers who were the banes of our existence. Someday you and your friends will laugh about Ms. K., just like we reminisce about our crazy teachers with our friends.

Besides, Ms. K. was providing a good life lesson. In life, you’re going to encounter some impossibly ridiculous people in the world, I espoused. And if they’re not your teacher, they’re going to be your boss or your co-worker or the company president or someone you need to get along with. So, buck up; better learn now how to accept the real-life reality that some people are simply difficult to deal with and unhappy with their lives. That their miserable-ness has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.


The comments got meaner. Nastier. More personal.

Ms. K. has told her 13-year-old students that they are “going to die before their parents” because of the amount of “processed junk food” that they eat. She supervises lunch and has come up to my daughter’s lunch table to scrutinize her classmates’ meals.

Ms. K. has announced their test grades out loud. To the entire class. By name.

And on Wednesday of this week, when a student asked whether they can refer to their binders during a performance, Ms. K. replied,

“If you don’t have the songs memorized, I’m killing you all. There will be bloodshed.”

Bloodshed.

Really? Bloodshed? Really?

I asked my daughter several times if Ms. K. really used that exact word. In the classroom. In a post-Columbine, post-Newtown, post-Everytown classroom. How, exactly? What was the tone?

“She was sort of joking, but … well, Mom, a teacher shouldn’t say something like that, should they?  I was horrified. I mean, I don’t think she would really do anything ….”

Her voice trailed off.


I wasn’t going to say anything to anyone at the school about this. Maybe I was making too big of a deal about it. After all, people say stuff ….

I don’t consider myself a reactionary, knee-jerk parent. I’m not the type who has the principal’s number on speed dial or fires off emails to the superintendent when my child is slighted. I know when something is said in jest and I am usually willing to give teachers more than the benefit of the doubt.

But.

But.

To me, after what has been six months of insults and demeaning remarks to 13-year-old kids, bloodshed is where I draw the line.

Because although I am not a knee-jerk, reactionary parent, I watch the news and I happen to know what kind of knee-jerk, reactionary society we live in and I know that if my child made a remark in the classroom such as “I’ll kill you all. There will be bloodshed,” my child would be looking at expulsion and I’d be needing a lawyer and there would be a horde of media at our doorstep.

Still, I slept on this. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions. I realized that I was hearing things second-hand.

But I also know my kid and what my kid – who I have no reason not to believe – has been telling me about what has been going on in this classroom every damn day since August.

I know what I’ve experienced as an adult from email exchanges with this teacher.

I know what I’ve heard from complete strangers in the community about their encounters with this teacher.  For whatever reason, a double-standard is allowed to apply here.  I’m wondering who the hell she’s related to or who she knows or what she has on someone because I cannot believe I am the first parent to call this behavior out for what it is.

Bullying.

I don’t think that’s too harsh of a term to use in this situation, because I’ve seen the effects firsthand. I’ve seen the dread in my child, seen the joy that has been taken from her with something she used to enjoy, seen her extreme, out of control anxiety and obsessiveness over HER GRADE IN CHORUS, for Christ’s sake.

That is bullying.

When you tell a kid they are going to die before their parents, THAT IS BULLYING.

When you repeatedly call someone pathetic, THAT IS BULLYING.

When you humiliate a kid who has gotten a D on a test by announcing that score aloud to the class, along with her name, THAT IS BULLYING.

And when a child has to think twice to understand that you don’t really mean that you will kill them and their classmates and that there will be bloodshed, you’re goddamn right THAT IS BULLYING. 


As parents, we teach our kids to report bullying behavior. To stand up for what’s right.

So last night I had to ask myself: what’s the message I’m sending to my daughter when I say that bullying is wrong and then I don’t do anything about someone like this? When I don’t empower my girl to stand up to a bully? What does that teach her and how does that set her up for other relationships in her life when someone might make her feel unsafe? What does this say about me as her advocate?

And what does it say about the lessons we’ve learned and what we’re teaching each other?

1000-Voices1-300x300

“When the Bully is the Teacher” by Melissa Firman is part of 1000 Voices for Compassion, where bloggers write about kindness, compassion, support, and caring for others.  This month’s theme is Building from Bullying. Read more posts here and visit 1000 Voices for Compassion on Facebook.  Join us in flooding the blogosphere with good. 

sunday salon: ides of march edition

The Sunday Salon

Time and Place:
Sunday evening / the couch in the living room. As per usual.

Weekend Happenings?
Not much. The Girl went to a SibShop yesterday. It’s a support group for kids who have a sibling with special needs. It took me awhile to find such a group and they’ve increased the number of sessions to three weekends per month. A bit of driving around on the weekends, but as much as I might complain about trekking around Pittsburgh, it’s worth it because The Girl loves going and the facilitators are wonderful with her. Afterwards we enjoyed lunch at Panera and I came home and took a long nap.

Today’s been a lazy day. Grocery shopping was the extent of my activity. I should have done more, but I’ve had a bad headache all weekend and wasn’t up to it.

Reading:
The last week or so has been a mixed bag on the bookish front, with everything from a book that will likely be on my Best Books I’ve Read in 2015 list to two DNFs.

The Paying GuestsLet’s start with what I loved. The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is …well, I was unable to put this down. Set in 1922, Frances Wray and her mother live together in their large South London mansion following the deaths of Frances’ brothers in the War and then her father’s illness. Her father’s mismanagement of the family’s finances makes it necessary for Frances and her mother to rent out some of their rooms. Newlyweds Lilian and Leonard Barber join the household as “paying guests” and change the dynamic of the Wray house – not to mention each one of their lives.

The Paying Guests also is on the just-announced longlist for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize for Fiction) along with 19 other contenders. I’ve read only one other nominee (Station Eleven) and if I had to choose between the two, I would definitely choose The Paying Guests.  Anyway, I’m hoping to have a full review up soon.

My DNFs were Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan – about a group of restaurant workers during their last night at a Red Lobster which is slated for closing – and Inside Madeleine, by Paula Bomer. The latter, a collection of stories, has been hyped for being evocative and daring; however, I read the first two (“Eye Socket Girls” and “Breasts”) and found both to be eh rather than edgy. It didn’t do much for me, so back to the library it goes.

Watching:

House_of_Cards_title_card
Still completely addicted to and immersed in House of Cards. I’ve just started Season 2 and will hopefully have a chance to watch episode 2 and maybe 3 tonight.

Listening:
ZZ: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was on my TBR Goodreads list, but reading West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan made me more interested in picking this up.  Z is my audiobook this week.

Blogging:
Remember the #1000Speak post I did as part of 1000 Voices for Compassion? (Listening to Our Better Angels) Well, now this project has become a monthly thing and on Friday March 20 we’ll be writing on the theme of “Building from Bullying.”  Join us on the 1000 Voices for Compassion group on Facebook. 

Promoting:

 

Bloggiesta - Spring 2015Bloggiesta comes back this spring and it is better than ever! You guys, it is a week this time. A week! I have a to-do list a mile long for this blog, so I definitely could use that amount of time. Not sure what Bloggiesta is or what it involves? Click on the button to be taken to the Bloggiesta page or go here.

Loving:

Daffodils - 3-8-2014

Look closely … my daffodils are coming up after a very long winter! You see them? Full disclosure: this is a photo from last March, taken on 3/8/2014, but they look the same right now.

Hating:
This headache that I’ve had most of the weekend. I think it’s weather-related (yesterday was rainy and miserable) and I’m being very cautious about not taking much of anything like Advil or my Maxalt because I’m scheduled for a root canal tomorrow.

I actually hate the headache more than the root canal. This is long overdue – my dentist wanted to do this back in 2012, according to my chart (I conveniently forgot about that) and now this tooth is starting to bother me. So, as much as one can look forward to a root canal, I am.

Wanting:
Don’t laugh, but I really want to do some spring cleaning around the house. (I know … those of you who know me are probably thinking my blog’s been hacked.)  Every room in this house is a disaster and could use some freshening up. Nothing major – we don’t have the budget for anything crazy. I’m talking about some significant decluttering and deep cleaning (I might hire someone for that), framing some photos for the walls … simple things.

Hope your weekend has been a good one!

 

Living in a House of Cards

House_of_Cards_Season_1_Poster

Perhaps you’ve heard about a little show on Netflix called “House of Cards”?

Chances are, if you’re not already immersed and completely addicted to this, then you have a Facebook friend or two who mysteriously vanished over the past weekend.  More than one of mine disappeared with a simple “#HouseOfCards! See you Monday!”

Sunday night, I finally hit play on my laptop.

And holy shit.

I didn’t need much convincing. “House of Cards” was on my list to watch because based on what I knew about it (admittedly, very little) this was my kind of show.

And what a show it is. I knew this was a political drama “with some serious sex,” as a few friends categorized it when I asked about the appropriateness of watching this with newly-minted 13-year-olds in the general vicinity of the television. (“Hell to the no!” was the most popular response and indeed, y’all were right about that and I thank you kindly.)

I’m six episodes into Season One and I. AM. HOOKED. Truth be told, I was sold from the first scene. This also means that I have watched about six hours of television this week, which is practically unheard of for me.

I just can’t get enough.

Not to mention that I am loving every single one of the Philly references in the first six episodes of the first season.

LOVE.

Speaking of love, it is nice to be in love with a show again, especially one that The Husband and I can both agree on and obsess over together. We’ve had a few over the years, most notably  “The Sopranos,” “Six Feet Under,” “Big Love,” “Rescue Me,” “Mad Men,” and most recently, the all-too-short-lived and cancelled-too-damn-soon “Dallas.”

So yes, I am living in a house of cards this week.

Home sweet home.

sunday salon: on giving authors second chances

The Sunday Salon

I’m not always a forgiving reader.

By this I mean that if I don’t like the first book I read by a certain author – or even if I think it’s just okay – the chances are very slim that I’ll read anything else by that same person. I don’t always consciously not choose to read their other work – it’s just that, when given a choice of an author who has given me a lukewarm reading experience versus trying someone new, I’ll usually go for the new.

I realize that this is a somewhat judgmental, unfair and rather high standard, not to mention coming across as being kind of hypocritical. I mean, I think my short story “Extractions” is pretty decent and I happen also to think that I’ve written better stuff and hopefully, I’ll continue to do so.

I’m thinking about all this because both the book I’m reading and my audiobook are by two authors whose previous books I read and wasn’t all that enthusiastic about.

And I’m really enjoying these two.

The Paying GuestsUnder Magnolia

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters is for a getting out of the house and doing something fun book club discussion/get-together with local writerly-type friends this Wednesday. That is, assuming I finish this in time, which is looking quite doubtful because I’m only on page 70 and my understanding is that one really should have this finished in order to talk about it.

Regardless, I probably wouldn’t have picked this up at all because I was in the minority of book bloggers for not liking The Little Stranger (you can read my review here) but at 70 pages into The Paying Guests,  I cannot put this down. What bugged me about The Little Stranger (I really didn’t like the characters) is quite the opposite here, not to mention the writing itself. The innuendo, the subtleties in the sentences, the foreboding, the symbolism … it’s absolutely fantastic. I am riveted. Love this one and I have a whole new appreciation for Sarah Waters now.

As emotionally-intense as The Paying Guests is, I needed something a little lighter and on the nonfiction side as an audiobook. I’m not sure if Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir fits the “light” qualification, but I’m enjoying this much more than Under the Tuscan Sun, which, as you can tell from my review, I found pretentious and patronizing in places.

There are some choppy and sometimes hard-to-follow sections of Under Magnolia, but I’m appreciating Frances Mayes’ reflections about memory, family and place. For whatever reason, I can relate to this one a little more than Under the Tuscan Sun.

Or, maybe it’s just the fact that a book set in the South is making me feel warmer – although I know that some Southern states have been getting some snow and colder than usual temperatures, too.  We are in the midst of yet ANOTHER snowstorm here in Pittsburgh – expecting a total of 4″-7″ by tomorrow morning, oh joy – so there will be some reading time this afternoon.

What are YOUR thoughts on giving an author a second chance?
If you find a book to be just meh, how likely are you to try another book by that author?
And tell me some examples!

 

 

 

glitter remains / for kelly corrigan

Bird's nest

When you lose your father, you don’t do certain things.

For starters, you don’t read memoirs about father-daughter relationships, because regardless of what your relationship with your dad was like, it is still too sad – yes, even 30 years later – to Go There.

Until you pick up The Middle Place by Kelly Corrigan, who shares in her gorgeous, heartfelt memoir the story of her relationship with her gregarious, larger-than-life dad as both of them experience cancer at the same time.  There, in the first few pages, Kelly Corrigan writes about her father, who is called Greenie by everyone he’s ever said hello to in his life.

“He does that for me too. He makes me feel smart, funny, and beautiful, which has become the job of the few men who have loved me since. He told me once that I was a great talker. And so I was. I was a conversationalist, along with creative, a notion he put in my head when I was in grade school and used to make huge, intricate collages from his old magazines. He defined me first, as parents do. Those early characteristics can become the shimmering self-image we embrace or the limited, stifling perception we rail against for a lifetime. In my case, he sees me as I would like to be seen. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s true about me, since I have always chosen to believe his version.” (pg. 3-4)

Four pages in and you are right back to where you once belonged, remembering what it was like, once upon a time. And perhaps, what could have been.

*
The first Facebook post I saw this morning was from Kelly Corrigan.

Somehow, the best person I ever knew slipped away from me tonight. I tried like hell to keep him, my Greenie, but it turned out he was just human after all. Such love. Such love love love. Lucky me.

*

Several years ago when I finished reading The Middle Place, the first thing I did was – this is sort of embarrassing and crazy-sounding, but what the hell – was to embark on a Google search to see how Greenie was doing in his own fight against cancer.

I fully realize this makes me sound a little off-kilter. Exceptional books do that to you; the words become something more as they make you feel as though you are inside the pages themselves.

Maybe part of that can be attributed to the “reader’s response” theory that Kelly recalls from one of her literature class (“more often than not, it’s the readers – not the writers – who determine what a book means. The idea is that readers don’t come blank to books. Consciously and not, we bring all the biases that comes with our nationality, gender, race, class, age. Then you layer onto that the status of our health,  employment, and relationship and our particular relationship to each book – who gave it to us, where we’ve read it, what books we’ve already read – and that massive array of added spices has as much to do with the flavor of the soup as whatever the cook intended.” Glitter and Glue)

Kelly Corrigan’s writing style is absolutely superb, completely engaging and heartfelt. I’m not surprised at how much I love her books (The Middle Place, Lift and Glitter and Glue) because, like me, Kelly is a Philly girl. Much of her books takes place on Philadelphia’s Main Line, a part of the area that I’m very familiar with and very fond thereof. I’m partial to well-written books that take place in my city.

Whether it’s the reader’s response theory or damn good writing, Kelly Corrigan has a way of making her reader feel like you are an honorary member of the Corrigan family for the duration.

And although I never met the man, what I read about him makes me believe that her dad Greenie wouldn’t have it any other way.

*
Published last year and newly released in paperback, Glitter and Glue takes its title from Kelly’s mother, who is as much the focus of this memoir as Greenie was in The Middle Place.

“Your father’s the glitter but I’m the glue,” Mary Corrigan had said, meaning that it takes both the sparkling effervescence of a Greenie and the practical, keeping-everything-together nature of a Mary to have a successful marriage and family. It’s the yin and yang of how parents relate to their children and to each other.   

It is that substance – the symbolic glitter and glue – that is the tangible and intangible stuff that makes us the people we are.

Glitter also never quite disappears. If you’ve ever used glitter in a craft project with kids or gotten a greeting card adorned with the stuff, you know it is here forever; always with you. It is the ultimate permanent record. It is the shiny specks of that  “shimmering self-image” that those we love give to us and that we carry, always, made all the better for their gift and ready to pass the love on.

Yes, faith, hope and love remain.

And glitter.

May it be so with Greenie. Your dad’s spirit was larger-than-life, Kelly, with more than enough for everyone and then some. Thank you for sharing him with your readers.