Category Archives: Short Stories

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.

 

 

 

 

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The Sunday Salon: Reflecting on a Year of Reading

The Sunday Salon

Here we are, at the first Sunday Salon of 2015. As trite as it sounds, it really is hard to believe another year has passed.

Reading-wise, this was a pretty good year for me. I finished 2014 having met my Goodreads challenge goal of 75 books read – although to do so I was literally reading right up until the clock struck midnight. I was in the midst of Blue Horses by Mary Oliver when I heard the chants of “Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven ….” on TV. (I may have gone a little into 2015 with this one. No big deal, right? I mean, we’re only talking books here, not a matter of life and death.)

Before telling you about Favorite Books Read in 2014, some statistics.

Number of Books Read = 75
Number of Pages Read = 9,620
Number of Magazines/Literary Journals Read = 15
Number of Audiobooks Listened To = 22 (I am pretty sure this is a personal record)
How Many Days of Listening That Equals = 9.6
Average Number of Days It Took Me to Finish a Book = 4.6
Number of Books I Started but Could Not Finish and Abandoned = 11
My Average Rating of a Book = 3.5
Authors Who Were New to Me = 39
Authors Who I’d Read Previously = 36
Female Authors Read = 48
Male Authors Read = 27

I very rarely choose a Best Book of the Year.  (Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever done so in my six years of blogging). However, I decided to do so this year because the book was so incredibly well-written and so moving. My choice is at the conclusion of this post. Now, without further ado, here are my favorites in Fiction, Poetry, Memoir, Nonfiction, Short Stories, Essays, and Historical Fiction.

Fiction
I read 19 books in this category and as usual, this was my most popular genre of choice. If I had to choose my Best Fiction Book Read in 2014, it would be History of the Rain by Niall Williams, which was nominated for The Man Booker Prize.

History of the Rain

As very, very close runners up (and in alphabetical order), I also loved:

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian
Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Perfect

Perfect, by Rachel Joyce

Station Eleven

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Transatlantic

Transatlantic, by Colum McCann

The Bell Jar

The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

Poetry
This was the year I re-discovered poetry, having read 16 volumes of it.  It was perfect for reading at lunch or right before falling asleep. I’m grateful to the co-worker who introduced me to the work of Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing) and I enjoyed reading Pittsburgh poet Rachel Mennies (The Glad Hand of God Points Backward) and I believe Mary Oliver’s Blue Horses is one of her best volumes in recent years.  However, one book stands out for me and that’s Gabriel: A Poem by Edward Hirsch, which is why it is my Best Poetry Book Read in 2014.

Gabriel

Memoirs
Very close behind poetry was the memoir genre, always one of my favorites. I read 15 memoirs this year, so this was another difficult category to choose just one selection.  All of these listed here were outstanding in their own right and I loved them all for very different reasons. My choice for Best Memoir Read in 2014 was Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan.

Glitter and Glue

 

Others well worth mentioning:

Hope for a Sea Change

 Hope for a Sea Change, by Elizabeth Aquino

In the Body of the World

 In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler

Nest. Flight. Sky.

Nest. Flight. Sky. On love and loss, one wing at a time, by Beth Kephart

Nonfiction
I read 12 nonfiction books and enjoyed the majority of what I read, but the one that stands out to me as being the Best Nonfiction Book Read in 2014 is Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, by Beth Kephart.

Handling the Truth

Runners-up included Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink, which I listened to on audio …

Five Days at Memorial

… and Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth About Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers, by David Perlmutter, MD.

Grain Brain

Short Story Collections
I’m surprised that I only read 3 short story collections last year. (Must remedy that in 2015!) I loved Jess Walter’s novels The Financial Lives of the Poets and Beautiful Ruins, and his short story collection We Live in Water is equally brilliant. It gets my vote for Best Short Story Collection Read in 2014. 

We Live in Water

Runner-up is Maile Meloy’s Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It.

Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It

I also want to make mention of two new-to-me short story writers who I discovered from reading “One Story.” Two of the best short stories I read last year were “Cool City” by Chuck Augello (8/25/2014, Issue #195) and “Fear Itself” by Katie Coyle (5/20/2014, Issue #192). I love this publication and writers like Chuck and Katie are two of the reasons why.

Historical Fiction 
With only 3 historical fiction books read last year, I’m hoping to increase that number in 2015 because I’m finding that I really enjoy this genre.  My pick for Best Historical Fiction Read in 2014 was Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen.

Mrs. Poe

I also really liked Drood by Dan Simmons, which I listened to on audio. (It was one of my favorite audio books of the year.)

Drood

Essays
I really liked each of the 3 essay collections I read this year, which included Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, by Anne Lamott; and Once I Was Cool, by Megan Stielstra. However, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett gets my vote for Best Essay Collection Read in 2014.

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

One of the highlights of my 2014 was having the chance to meet several wonderful authors, including Colum McCann, David McCullough, and Ann Patchett. When I met Ann, I told her that I was interested in reading The Magician’s Assistant because I was writing a novel set in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

“Oh, no, no, no. Forget The Magician’s Assistant,” she said, dismissing her own book with a wave of her hand and reaching for a Post-It note. “You need to read Borrowed Time by Paul Monette.”

And so, over the Fourth of July weekend, I did. And I could not put it down. I knew, the moment I finished it, that it would either be the best book I read all year or a strong contender. As I wrote in my review of Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, there isn’t a single page where Paul Monette doesn’t leave a piece of his heart while taking part of his reader’s.

For that and many other reasons, I give you Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette as my Best Book Read in 2014. 

Borrowed Time

This year-end wrap up gives me a chance to say thank you to all who read this blog. I’m so grateful to each and every one of you. As is the case for most bloggers, doing what we do (in my case, sharing my thoughts on the books I’m reading) is something we do for fun, not to get rich. That’s certainly the case here. I’m not planning any changes here for 2015 and I’m not going anywhere.

Here’s to more great books and more great conversations in the New Year!

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savvy verse and wit reviews “extractions”

 

Sunset with streaks - Delaware

A much-too-late bedtime combined with sad news on the home front (as well as in the headlines) made for a jumble of rough dreams last night. I woke up drenched, yet not wanting to extricate myself from the too heavy blankets.

That’s how I greeted an incredibly pleasant and – dare I say – much-needed surprise this morning, when I saw that Serena of Savvy Verse & Wit took the time to review “Extractions,” my e-short story currently available on Amazon

First, you should know (you do know this, right?) that Serena’s is the creme de la creme of poetry and verse blogs. Her reviews are thoughtful, on point, and exceptionally well-done. For her to take the time to review a seven page short story … well, let’s just say that shows how appreciative Serena is about what she reads and what a generous friend she is to many.

You can read Serena’s review of “Extractions” here and check out more of her blog at the same time.

 

Warmest thanks to you, Serena.

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A Halloween treat in the form of Extractions, my short story, free this weekend on Amazon

Extractions Amazon

“Now, her vision wobbly because of the migraine, Kari grabbed her glasses and her Android on the nightstand. She pressed the ubiquitous blue and white icon. Not even six in the morning and there were twelve new notifications. She held her breath. Would Seth really respond that quickly? That wasn’t like him – he was always mysterious, unpredictable, keeping her guessing. Then again, what did she really know what he was like now after 22 years?

But in this small state where everybody knows everyone, Kari didn’t even know herself anymore. That much was obvious.” ~ “Extractions” ~ Melissa M. Firman

I thought you could use a Halloween treat on this fall weekend.

Which is why I’ve made my short story “Extractions” a FREE download on Amazon. Saturday 10/25 and Sunday 10/26 only.

Hope you enjoy!

 

 

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The Book Review I Can’t and Won’t Write

Can't and Won't

Can’t and Won’t: Stories by Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

2014
289 pages

I can’t write a typical review of this collection of short stories.

You probably won’t believe me when I say that most of the stories are only a few sentences or paragraphs long.

I appreciate the quirkiness and experimental form, language, and voice that Lydia Davis brought to these stories (especially when this review took me as long to write as some with hundreds more words) but in the end I can’t say that I loved these stories.

Still, I won’t let my first Lydia Davis book be my last.

 

 

 

 

 

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Armchair BEA 2014: Playing Catch Up (Or, Wait, What Happened to Wednesday?)

ArmchairBEA 2014

If there’s one thing I hate about Armchair BEA, it’s this:

This week goes by too damn fast.

I mean, I’m still thinking about what I was going to write for Wednesday’s post and then I got caught up in my regularly scheduled life. That’s entirely my fault, I know. I could have done a better job of planning ahead and all that stuff, but my kids wound up needing my laptop for homework Wednesday and Thursday nights.

(I know! During Armchair BEA! This week of ALL WEEKS! It’s the last goddamn week of school … aren’t we done with that crap yet?  I know I certainly am.)

Anyway. So that brings us to Friday, a talk-about-whatever-you-want-to-talk-about topic day. Since I missed Wednesday and was looking forward to talking about short stories, I’ll talk about that today.

I love short stories. LOVE. THEM. I know there’s a love-’em-or-hate-’em mentality about short stories in the blogosphere, and it seems (at least to me) that those of us who are passionate about the short story are in the minority.

I always mention Flannery O’Connor, Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, and Lorrie Moore when I talk about masters of the short story form, and indeed, they are often mentioned by bibliophiles like me.  There are several others who deserve a nod, including:

Lauren Groff (Delicate Edible Birds)
Tracy Winn (Mrs. Somebody Somebody)
Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)
Lydia Peele (Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing)
Natalie Serber (Shout Her Lovely Name)

… and probably dozens more who I am forgetting.

 

 

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The Sunday Salon: Colum McCann, my two-exclamation point boyfriend (and who i happen to be hanging out with monday night)

The Sunday Salon

 

“So, you’re definitely out tomorrow night at that thing with that book boyfriend of yours?” said my husband.

That thing with that book boyfriend of yours. This is communication at its finest when you’ve been married for nearly 21 years.

“Oh, my God, absolutely,” I answered, understanding exactly what The Husband was referring to. “I mean, I bought the tickets almost a YEAR ago, for God sakes.”

Husband looks at the fridge calendar for confirmation.

“Oh, jeez, look at this,” he says, sounding uncannily like Archie Bunker. “This guy who I’ve never even heard of gets two exclamation points on the calendar,” he says, pointing to my handwritten Melissa @ Pgh Arts and Lectures – 7:30 pm -COLUM MCCANN!! 

“Well, of course he does. It’s Colum McCann.”

“Who I’ve still never heard of until he showed up on my fridge with two exclamation points.”

“He’s amazing. Just the most incredible writer ….”

“If you say so.”

Oh, I do. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know I absolutely do. And, lest you be concerned, my marriage is perfectly fine. The Husband (probably not unlike most spouses of book bloggers) just happens to find his wife’s passion for certain books and her behavior regarding the authors who write them to be …well, in some cases, somewhat perplexing at times.

That’s understandable. Even moreso when you live in a city such as Pittsburgh,  one that, from my perspective, is so much more literary than I ever imagined before moving here nearly three years ago. It’s a town that offers opportunities like the one I have tomorrow night, when my literary boyfriend Colum McCann comes to town as part of Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, as part of its Literary Evenings, Monday Night Lecture Series.

Needless to say, I’m trying to contain myself in so I don’t go all crazy batshit fangirl book blogger over the guy.

(But between you and me? I’m really, really super excited. As if you couldn’t tell.)

When I bought these tickets – which really was almost a year ago, because I was afraid that Colum McCann would be such a draw that this would be sold out, which I heard last week that it was, but now just a few tickets seem to be available, but OK, whatever – my big goal was to read all of Mr. McCann’s books. Every one.

I’ve made it through three, all of which I adored: Let the Great World Spin (see my review here), Songdogs (which I’ll review tomorrow because I’ve been saving it for a special occasion and a night with Colum McCann is indeed A Special Occasion) and – two weeks ago while I was on bedrest – TransAtlantic (which I haven’t reviewed yet).

I will confess that my boy Colum has a literary flaw: I couldn’t finish Zoli. I don’t know whether it was me reading it at the wrong time or what, but I couldn’t get into that story. Since it’s Colum McCann, I will give it another try. Dancer is checked out from the library and due back on Saturday, so that could be doable. We’ll see.
* * * 
BarkMy impending evening with Colum McCann is, of course, the major bookish news this weekend. Besides that, I’m currently reading Bark, Lorrie Moore’s newest short story collection – and so far, I tend to agree with those reviewers who aren’t overly impressed. I’ve only read “Debarking,” about a newly divorced man dating a woman with some unusual quirks, particularly regarding her 16 year old son, and “The Juniper Tree,” which describes a dream-like visitation between two colleagues after one has passed away from cancer.

As for my audio book, I had been listening to Orlando by Virginia Woolf but decided that this one is much more suited for print than audio. At least, for me it is. It was my first week back to work post gall-bladder surgery and I needed something lighter than Woolf for my commute.

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake

So, instead I switched to Anna Quindlen’s Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, which is definitely lighter listening and entertaining enough – and read by the author.

There is a sense of feeling like I’ve heard all this before, though. There seems to have been a spate of authors of a certain age and at a certain stage of their lives writing about how they were the daughters of the feminists, how they were told they could do anything, how raising kids and working and having it all wasn’t as fulfilling as everyone said it would be, and how nobody wanted to admit this and that everyone thought it was just them who felt that way. Finally, there comes a time – maybe sparked by a milestone birthday or a life crisis – when you just accept your life as it is, find your own path, and say the hell with all that.

It doesn’t feel like Quindlen is saying anything groundbreaking or new here. I think my generation (I turn 45 next month) has learned from the Anna Quindlens (thank you, Anna) and the Nora Ephrons (thank you, Nora) and are figuring these things out for ourselves sooner, if we haven’t already. Maybe that’s why this isn’t resonating with me. Maybe I’m somehow out of sync with this one. Wouldn’t be the first time.

How’s your weekend been? What are you most anticipating in your world?

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