You know how much I love me a good short story collection, and this one — The Dark and Other Love Stories, a collection of 13 short stories by Deborah Willis — is absolutely engrossing and irresistible.
Finally, some sun. Although it’s cooler than I would prefer (I’m wearing a long-sleeved shirt AND a cardigan), I can’t resist the chance to sit outside on the deck after all the cloudy and damp days we’ve had this spring. Like all good things, it’s probably not going to last; I heard it was raining at the Pirates game (PNC Park is within a half hour from here, depending on traffic and construction and whatnot).
It’s really something how the weather can have such an impact on one’s mood. Mine has definitely been affected. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spending much of the past several weeks in doctors’ waiting rooms, probably some of the most depressing places on Earth. I’m convinced the banality of the dreck that passes for morning TV has embedded itself into my brain. Seriously, I have no idea how the hell people watch that crap.
(Things are, physically-speaking, okay. Nobody needs to be alarmed. It’s follow-ups and regularly-scheduled appointments and answer-seeking still in progress.)
Of course, I never go to any of these appointments without my own reading material, so the positive side to all this schlepping and waiting around is that I’ve gotten through a few books, including some DNFs (Best American Poetry 2013 and Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn, which I really wanted to love but didn’t).
The notable ones, though, have been stellar.
A fantastic collection of essays — most by writers who are well-known (Hilton Als, Roger Angell, Justin Cronin, Meghan Daum, Anthony Doerr, David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Cheryl Strayed, and others). These aren’t gratuitous inclusions; this collection is a winner and these essays will stay with you.
Being the huge fangirl that I am, I’ll read anything by Mark Doty. This little book was on display in the library’s poetry room (yes, we are lucky ducks here in Pittsburgh … our library has an extensive poetry section as well as its own room, which is rather grand). The Art of Description: World Into Word is a must for every writer. Doty examines description as part of poetry and the result is akin to being in a writing class with a master.
Yesterday I started Tales of Accidental Genius, a short story collection by Simon Van Booy. I’ve read three of these and so far, so good. I would describe this collection as quietly surprising. (Short stories are, incidentally, great choices for waiting room reading material.)
And finally, I was lucky enough to snag a copy of LaRose by Louise Erdrich from the library, her newest novel. I’m engrossed in this story about two families who are also neighbors; during a hunting accident, one neighbor kills the other’s five year old son. To atone for this, he sends his own five year old son to live with the bereaved parents and to be raised by them.
Listening (Audiobooks) …
It’s been awhile since I’ve listened to an audiobook (this will be only my second this year), but when I saw Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott at the library this week, I realized that would qualify for #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks since I have the print version. This is a nonfiction account of Ada and Minna Everleigh, sisters and proprietors of the Everleigh Club, a famous high-end brothel in Chicago during 1900-1911. The audiobook is great. (I’m fascinated with their keen marketing sense and financial savvy!)
Listening (Podcasts) …
For months now, the Pocket Casts app on my phone has been acting strange. As a result, I haven’t been listening to many podcasts. I think I figured out the issue and was able to catch “The Accidental Gay Parents #3,” and “The Accidental Gay Parents #4,” episodes #80 and #81 from The Longest Shortest Time. LST is one of my favorite podcasts and I love this series and this family.
My go-to source for all-things-podcast is The Timbre, a fantastic site. I suppose that should be past-tense, because the site’s creators announced that they are closing up shop. Their reasons are understandable but I’ll certainly miss seeing their recommendations in my news feed.
PeaceBang’s post about “Outliving a Parent” resonated with me.
For reasons I can’t and won’t get into here, Dani Fleischer’s essay in The Washington Post (“Friends grow apart all the time but we rarely talk about it”) is very much something I’m experiencing right now. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of that statement, thankyouverymuch.)
This week was National EMS Week and my friend John (who writes the popular Pittsburgh blog Ya Jagoff!) explains why this is so important. Because of our experience on Thanksgiving, we know all too well how valuable EMTs are and I’m so grateful they were there when we needed them. And thank you, John, for your service as an EMT to our community.
My Listen to Your Mother castmates have been writing some incredible stuff lately. Those pieces deserve their own post. Look for that later this week.
And now it’s raining. Of course it is.
Back inside I go.
short (short) stories
by Sherrie Flick
Queen’s Ferry Press
Life has gotten in the way of my reading these days. Either I’ve had little to no ability to concentrate or I’ve been so damn exhausted that I’m zonked out within a few pages. Neither has anything to do with my choice of writing material or the author’s talent — it’s all me. As someone who tends to read a book per week, on average, this snail’s pace is a bit maddening. As with all things, though, I know this phase will pass and in the meantime, I turn to shorter works for my preferred literary libations.
Whiskey, Etc., Sherrie Flick’s new collection of “short (short) stories,” has proven to be an effective tonic for my current literary malaise. Divided into eight sections (Songs; Pets; Coffee, Tea; Dessert; Art; Cars and Canoes — the strongest section, in my opinion — Soap; and Whiskey), most of these stories are no longer than a few pages; some are only a paragraph, if that. (I’ll admit to having a preference for the longer works in this collection.)
Flick’s sentences are succinct, tight, telling the reader all that’s needed to know (His divorce settlement reads like an episode of Dallas), using food as simile (Snow covered the ground like a thick milkshake) and hooking the reader with more memorable opening lines than a frat boy.
I called the front desk to request a coffeemaker and some of those E-Z packets you can just plop right in, no mess. I was trying to remain on task and organized. “Mr. Smith? We don’t do that kind of shit here,” a woman’s voice purred at me. (from “Learning to Drink Coffee in Idaho”)
I’m the squash soup. Chopped up and muddled, glowing orange here on the sofa. The soup itself bubbles for real on the stove. But I’m angry, so its simmering seems like a gaping mouth. The soup froths. Me, on the stove. (from “Family Dinner”)
With flash fiction, there’s the assumption that it’s easy to write. Dash off a few sentences, a handful of paragraphs, and a story miraculously appears. But the brevity actually can be deceptive. As Flick accomplishes so successfully with many of the stories in this collection, the reader needs enough details in a brief fragment of time to make a story feel complete while still eliciting the reader’s curiosity about what happens next, or about the backstory that led up to the situation.
Was it Indiana? Iowa? This was before Rob was gay. Before Christina’s mom couldn’t remember her name. Before I stopped eating. Before James’s last postcard. (from “Road Trip”)
Lisa leans in to give him a slow, silent, twenty-years-absent hug. He grabs her shoulder and says, “I’m sorry, Lisa. Read about it in the paper. Figured you be here.” …. Back in high school Joe could put together car engines, and later on, in one of those car’s backseats, he could fix a girl so she felt brand new. (from “After”)
In Whiskey, Etc., most of those details and similes involve food and drink, especially coffee. Knowing of Flick’s background as a food writer and essayist, this is almost expected. (A Pittsburgh writer, she teaches in Chatham University’s MFA and Food Studies programs.) More than just a prop, in most cases the coffee or the tofu dinner or the pecan roll is as essential to the story as a main character.
It’s tempting to binge one’s way through these stories, but don’t.
Savor them, like a fine meal.
An occasional feature on melissafirman.com celebrating all things literary as it relates to Pittsburgh and the Western Pennsylvania region. Here, I talk ‘Burgh-focused books (and review them), literary events, upcoming readings, author interviews and profiles, new releases …n’at.
Things are getting back to normal after our family’s scare on Thanksgiving. We’ve had some time to reflect on everything and how close it seemed to having our lives changed forever. I’d like to think I already was appreciative, grateful, thankful, etc. without a medical emergency as a wake-up call and that I wasn’t taking anything or anyone for granted, but this has magnified that. Needless to say, It has been an emotional week (on quite a few fronts, actually).
We decided to put the Christmas tree up yesterday because, as one of my favorite holiday songs goes, we definitely needed a little Christmas in the aftermath of the past week. Every single ornament has some personal, sentimental significance. There isn’t one ordinary ornament on the tree. If I had to choose a favorite, it’s the reading elf that’s pictured above. I’ve had it forever; it was given to me when I was a young child. We don’t do outdoor lights or much decorating besides the tree.
You all know how much I love Colum McCann. I love everything he has written and I think he’s a brilliant author. I’m reading Thirteen Ways of Looking for a review and I am just completely in awe of this man. The title novella is probably one of the best pieces of shorter fiction I’ve ever read.
Speaking of short fiction, my current audiobook is The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, which I thought was on my list for The Classics Club, but it isn’t. The only Hemingway I’ve ever read is The Old Man and the Sea, which was back in high school or something and left me unimpressed (like many people). I was in the mood for short stories on audio when I picked this up at the library. Some are better than others. Of those I’ve read so far, the ones I thought were particularly well-done are “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “Capitol of the World,” and “Up in Michigan.”
Sheila from Book Journey is planning to host her third annual First Book of the Year event on January 1. Like Sheila, I always give a lot of thought to the first book I read in any given year. I like it to be something that, in whatever way, sets the tone for the months to come — whether that happens to be related to a goal, something to provide inspiration, or whatever.
I like having my first book of the year be one that I already own, because that gives me a personal sense of accomplishment that at least ONE book from my shelves will be read in any given year. And as luck would have it, there’s a “reading effort” that will help me with this. Andi from Estella’s Revenge is hosting #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks, billed as a “you do you,” choose-your-own-adventure. No rules or requirements except reading your own damn books. So, I’m in … although I don’t know what my personal guidelines will be yet. I may just make it up as I go, with the objective being to read as many from my stash as possible.
If you’re participating in The Classics Club, it’s time to spin! This involves listing “your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post. Tomorrow the organizers will post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by February 1, 2016. More details are here.
Since I never finished (or even started) my designated book for the last spin I joined, I’m highly tempted to reuse my same list for this go-around. But it’s worth a revision, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings!
“Peace for Paris” by Jean Jullien
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, my instinct has been to hunker-down and reduce my social media and news consumption this weekend. It all feels too much, too overwhelming, heartbreaking, and scary. Like most of us, I simply can’t understand such hatred that compels people to commit such horrific acts against innocent people. It is unfathomable and it makes me want to never leave the house again.
I borrowed several short story collections on audio from the library (Hemingway, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Pilgrims, Margaret Atwood’s Moral Disorders and Other Stories). While doing errands on Saturday — a much-needed oil change for my car, the weekly grocery shopping — I happened to turn on “The Bad News” from Moral Disorder, which was certainly ironic. It’s about a middle-aged couple and their somewhat dismissive and nonchalant attitude about the bad news in their morning newspaper.
“I think of bad news as a huge bird, with the wings of a crow and the face of my Grade Four school teacher, sparse bun, rancid teeth, wrinkly frown, pursed mouth and all, sailing around the world under cover of darkness pleased to be the bearer of ill tidings, carrying a basket of rotten eggs, and knowing- as the sun comes up- exactly where to drop them. On me, for one.”
Still working my way through The Witches. I’m on page 54 and it’s due back to the library on Tuesday, so I’ll probably need to return this unfinished and wait until it’s available again. This seems to be the story of my life lately.
Not Reading …
Decided to give up on Fates and Furies. I lasted for just over 100 pages and just couldn’t take anymore of these characters. I just couldn’t. I hated almost every single one of them, especially Lotto. Several instances in the plot just irked me, too. I know that the second half of the book is supposed to be much better, but the promise of a reading payoff in another hundred or so pages was too elusive for me.
This is a novel that I really wanted to love, which makes this especially disappointing. I am a big fan of Lauren Groff’s writing and I’ve really enjoyed all of her other books. (See my reviews for Delicate Edible Birds and Arcadia; I read — and loved — The Monsters of Templeton but didn’t review it.)
Starting to think about Thanksgiving dinner. It will only be five of us this year — my mother-in-law will be visiting for five days. I’m starting to buy a few things here and there at the store and mapping out a plan for cooking as much as possible ahead of time.
If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, I would love to have you join me and my fellow Pittsburgh bloggers for Best of the Burghosphere on either Friday, November 20 at 7 p.m. for the 21+ party or on Sunday, November 22 at 1 p.m. for a family-friendly event. Both events will be held at the fabulous Most Wanted Fine Art; more details are here.
October in the ‘Burgh seems to bring a burst of literary events to our town. I think that is because of the growing visibility, strength and supportive nature of Pittsburgh’s literary community which is fueled by the various writing programs at our local universities and the creative mojo that powers this region.
I’ve written previously about how Pittsburgh’s vibrant literary scene has been one of my surprises about living here. I don’t think many cities have what we have. It’s very special.
On Thursday evening, Rainbow Rowell appeared at the library for a talk and book signing. I haven’t read any of her books yet, but The Girl is a big fan. When she heard that Ms. Rowell was going to be in town, she pleaded with me for several weeks to get tickets. Despite this being a school night, I acquiesced. Seeing her unrestrained excitement made me glad I did.
Yesterday, the great folks from Barrelhouse brought their fantastic Conversations and Connections writing conference back to Chatham University. This was my second year attending and once again, this conference was outstanding. It lives up to its name: you get the chance to have wonderful conversations with authors and make connections with small press publishers and editors of journals. As a writer, it gives you validation with a kick in the ass.
I’m planning separate posts recapping each of these happenings, but today I’m flat-out exhausted. I slept for 12 hours last night and needed every minute. Managing life on the homefront is taking a tremendous amount of mental energy lately and by the end of the week, I am depleted. (This week, I felt like I’d reached that point by lunchtime on Monday.)
On the reading front, not too much to report. I finally finished listening to The John Cheever Audio Collection. I’ll likely read more of his short stories at some point, but this collection served my purpose of getting acquainted with his work. Among these 12 stories, my favorites were “The Enormous Radio,” “The Five Forty-Eight,” “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor,” and “The Brigadier and the Golf Widow.” There are a few others that I listened to while somewhat distracted (always a good state of mind for driving) and that I need to revisit in print.
My current read is Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m not necessarily an Elizabeth Gilbert fan — I have no inclination to read Eat Pray Love and The Signature of All Things was a DNF for me — but I am liking this book a lot. Most creativity books I’ve read tend to give overused and simplistic suggestions for discovering your creativity and making time to pursue your passion. That’s all fine and well and good. For me, Big Magic is a little different: it’s about addressing the fear that holds us back, the spirituality that’s such a big part of the ideas we have, and the work of capturing them and nurturing them into life.
Hope you are having a great weekend!
What is the Sunday Salon? Imagine some university library’s vast reading room. It’s filled with people–students and faculty and strangers who’ve wandered in. They’re seated at great oaken desks, books piled all around them, and they’re all feverishly reading and jotting notes in their leather-bound journals as they go. Later they’ll mill around the open dictionaries and compare their thoughts on the afternoon’s literary intake….
That’s what happens at the Sunday Salon, except it’s all virtual. Every Sunday the bloggers participating in that week’s Salon get together–at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones–and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Think of it as an informal, weekly, mini read-a-thon, an excuse to put aside one’s earthly responsibilities and fall into a good book.
No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life
An Na, M.T. Anderson, K.L. Going, Beth Kephart, Chris Lynch, and Jacqueline Woodson
Imagine you are invited to a small, intimate dinner party being given by an author friend of yours. You eagerly accept because you’ve been to previous dinner parties at this friend’s home, which is how you know your friend is a fabulous cook.
Tonight’s get-together is a potluck. Five other writers will be joining you and your friend. You’ve heard of a few of these folks, but three of them are brand new to you. You go to the dinner knowing that you’re going to find something wonderful on the menu (your friend’s offering) and because they are peers of your friend, something new to surprise you. Chances are, you’ll make at least one new friend as well.
That’s what my experience was like upon seeing the short story collection No Such Thing as the Real World: Stories About Growing Up and Getting a Life in the teen section of the library. I knew beforehand that author Beth Kephart had a story included within, and I was highly anticipating reading “The Longest Distance” as I’m a big fan of her work. (Beth Kephart could pretty much write the same sentence repeatedly – like grade school kids once had to do as a punishment – and I’d probably still stand up and applaud its brilliance. I also, in the interest of full disclosure, consider Beth a friend.)
With that, it’s probably no surprise that, among the six stories in No Such Thing as the Real World, Beth Kephart’s “The Longest Distance” stands out to me as the strongest (and is my favorite). For Kephart fans, this story about the shock and aftermath of grieving one’s best friend has glimmers of all that we loved about Nothing But Ghosts.
That’s certainly not to dismiss the other authors and their stories – quite the opposite, actually. Like the fictional dinner party example earlier, I came away from No Such Thing as the Real World especially wanting more after sampling the offerings of Chris Lynch’s “Arrangements” and An Na’s darkly written “Complication.” Along with Kephart’s story, these two were particularly memorable. I loved the first line of “Arrangements,” which immediately sets the tone of the story by stating:
“The thing to remember about a funeral is that it’s not about you. At least you hope not.” (pg. 175)
and continues with
“Dad insisted – insisted – on appearing at his own wake with a big smile across his face. Whatever the process is in the funeral business for freezing a toothy smile on a guy – probably involving toothpicks, since the undertaker was a local – they must have undertaken it, because Dad lit up the proceedings with this electro grin like the expression on a very fat skeleton head. Some people found the effect unsettling.” (pg. 176)
I also liked K.L. Going’s “Survival” and Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Company.” M.T. Anderson’s “The Projection: A Two-Part Invention” was innovative in its structure, but came across as a little disjointed to me. (No worries, M.T.: I’m still planning to read your The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing series, so we’re all good.)
In all of these stories, issues of loss and disappointment figure poignantly. All of the characters – contemporaries of the target audience that publisher HarperTeen strives to reach with this collection – are wrestling with grown-up issues such as parental abandonment, the aftermath of incest, the sudden death of a best friend, unrequited love, and inheriting a business (and a reputation) after the death of a parent. Hence, the the title of this collection, which more than lives up to its name by showing that because young adults are dealing with very real issues, the real world is very much right here and now.