Short stories, female authors, prizewinners and New England

Labor Day Weekend!  The last hurrah of summer and the heralding of Ugg boots and the pumpkin spice latte.  The picture is a white tulip because I am in denial that summer is closing up.

My son also starts kindy this week.  His behavior in school might be a little touch and go, but I am not the professional here and I must trust the cat herders better known as kindergarten teachers to help him be successful.

I am not sad about this milestone.  I never thought I would make it through his infancy.  He has been loved and wanted since before he even existed and is a kind and empathic child, but I have so much else to fill my time than simply caring for someone small.  Paradoxically (and altogether normally) I try to snatch up the chances I have to be close to him while he still wants me.

But today the post is about short story collections by women authors.  Female masters of the craft.  Not only masters, but they are all about people living in New England, synchronistically enough.  Three books of short stories by women with the same setting.

It started with the BookRiot Read Harder 2017 Challenge I am not doing (haha) with

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The Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri (A book of short stories written by a female author)

I have long felt incomplete as a reader without this treasure trove under my belt and now that I have read it, I was correct in that surmise.  The first story absolutely blew me away and I found out later that it was of course published in The New Yorker.  Like, of course it was.

This one also got the Pulitzer in 2000, which pleases me due to its’ heavy theme on immigration and assimilation.  I read BookRiot’s post on tackling the Pulitzers and how they are mostly white men with white men problems. I never wanted to tackle the list in its’ entirety but I have wanted to do 2000-today and this book made me glad I made that choice. (Although there are sadly some abandoned books hiding out in even that snippet of the list).  It is adept and beautiful and presents complex but also every day  issues without being heavy handed or maudlin.  For example, in the title story, a man who drives taxis for tourists gets attention that he thinks is special and personal from a pretty and trapped wife, only to find, after he has created a love affair in his mind, that she has misunderstood him and wants him to help her understand her own devastation. It generates empathy and understanding for the experiences of those new to being here.  It’s an essential piece to being well read.

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Blackbird House, Alice Hoffman

I randomly selected this book as a lighter break to The Underground Railroad.  I didn’t do badly with getting through that one in a timely manner but it’s difficult constantly caring about a protagonist in whose safety you can never be assured.  Sometimes when I am driving between clinics I need lighter fare and I thought this was it.

Turns out this really wasn’t lighter, even though it was shorter.  The stories center around a house that was built in early New England by a fisherman whose intention it was to start farming out of love for his wife and who drowned, with his sons, at sea.  The mothers complex grief seems to color the stories of all the future inhabitants.  And there is lots and lots of future grief to be had by that house as it moves forward in time, with a white blackbird as a swooping harbinger. It is a place that started as manifested dream and others try to make it manifest as their own separate dreams along the way. Usually when the stories are their most soul crushing it ends and another one begins to crush your soul in a new way.  So I had a solid week of reading that pressed on my optimism about life.

And so with these two under my belt I decided to go for three, and another Pulitzer winner whose audio was already in my Audible:

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Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout

Now, I feel that Strout is often highly praised and I feel like I have heard more praise for My Name is Lucy Barton but I was also more aware of it when it was released. I will want to see how I feel about Lucy in comparison to this one.  Olive is a series of interwoven but independent short stories in themselves with Olive as the thread, even when she is an ancillary, rather than the point of view character. Some are further removed through her husband.  Maybe because this is the freshest read and I was considering this post throughout the foray of reading it, but this one to me was largely about white people grappling with grief and disappointment.  I got bored of some of the problems, although I feel that Olive’s sadness and bafflement over why her son would move away to have his family and his life away from her that continues despite his explanation is something that many parents of adult children can relate to.  A side of her that is hinted at in the first story is further expostulated on later, and it takes her awhile, but thankfully she eventually gets some insight and tries to do better.  I was more frustrated with the book before this point, which happened in the last 30-40 minutes of the audiobook. I was finishing it on a short errand drive and I felt vindicated when she finally pulled her head from her rear. Clearly she remains likable though, evidenced by how much I wanted her to do better.  Essentially, though, this is a book for white people grief and disappointment.

Olive Kitteridge did not dazzle me as much as other Pulitzers (not as much as Interpreter did, certainly) and yet I did not think it was the total baffling waste of space as A Visit From the Goon Squad,  or abandoned as Gilead.  It was middling.  I don’t know what the selection committee felt was so remarkable about it.

Different people from different places intersecting in New England with women writing about it. These books were all very different, as only a good writer can write about the same place and make it new throughout time and personal histories.

The next post is up for debate in my mind, but stay tuned.



Read Down 2017: Middle Grade Novels Part II

I begged for Spring and now it is not enough.  It is warm, but not warm enough.

Blog posts are lagging because I am really in crunch time with half marathon training. Two long runs coming, today and next week, but nips into the distances during the week are starting the glorious taper.  I have been learning about my physical limits through all this and  I still do not know where they are. I am learning the importance of stretching and yoga to keep myself from getting hurt when I am pounding pavement and occasionally wondering how close I am to death when I push it too hard.

I survived academia and the daily grind of a supervisor and a healer, trying to keep the reactive emails to my boss to a minimum.  For his sake. But I don’t know how far I can run, or how fast, and I am finding out.  Hopefully my limit isn’t 12 miles because I have a 13 mile race on Mother’s Day weekend to conquer.

I read another round of middle grade novels this time, 8 and up, although one of them I listened to is absolutely not 8 and up.  It is all part of the read down and the exploration of the genre as an adult.  Kids books make me a better mom, but that is a topic for a later post.

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The Headless Cupid, Zilpha Keatley Snyder

This book looks like it is going to be magical and sets the tone for it:  a rambling house, a newly blended family, a grieving and precocious eleven year old protagonist.  But really, it is about the very real grief and transition of becoming a new family when old ones fall apart.  The other protagonist, Amanda, who comes to live with them, has clearly been taken care of with a permissive parenting style:  anything goes, not high on limits or supervision, and her distracted mother (as you can’t have a middle grade novel with too attentive and involvement) walks on eggshells to try and ease her transition.  This novel feels very real to me in its depiction of a grieving and transitioning family and its effect on older children who bear the brunt of it.  Yes, there is a mystery and a touch of magic and whimsy right up at the end and this is a series so I am wondering if the last bit sprinkled at the end is extended into further stories.  I would recommend this to a kid who needs to read about other kids overcoming similar challenges.


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The Night Gardener, Jonathan Auxier

This one is more straight up magic and whimsy.  Grieving kids, sure, but there is something much more lurking and sinister that is a very real danger.  Significantly more dark than The Headless Cupid.  More overt grief. Kids surviving on the edge of their wits.  And a scary tree that plays on human desperation to survive.  Everyone is hanging on by their fingernails, and the adults are too wrapped up in their own concerns to break free, so of course the snappy fourteen year old girl turned caregiver has to come in and wrench the family free from the tree’s clutches and give them back to themselves.  Interesting read, I wish I had read this when I was a member of the intended audience to have a feel for how this comes across to a child and their limited viewpoint of the world.  How a kid would process all that.  I very much want to read with my son when it is time for chapter books and I will be interested to see what he takes in of it.

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M is for Magic, Neil Gaiman

How this is classified as a children’s book, 8 and up no less, is a mystery to me.  The title would suggest a children’s book, and Neil has written for children, but this collection of his shorter works from different times in his career has too many adult themes that kids would not really understand.  There is one that talks about sex and infidelity, but even the others, like the story of Galahad trying to get the Holy Grail off a woman who got it in a junk shop by offering other legendary items like the Sorcerer’s Stone as a trade would not make sense to a child in the larger context.  His last story that later became The Graveyard Book, which I own but have not read, and that felt more middle grade-y to me than the others.  And I think I found it to be the most interesting and may have moved The Graveyard Book up on the queue.  That one I bought specifically to share with my son someday.  He’s not a huge reader at this point but he and I might find some mutual book loves if I work at it.  Neil is Neil, a true artist, full of whimsy, legends and magic, and I will probably always love him, but this is not for kids.

I like middle grade novels too while shuffling through something bigger. Something bigger and worth it, but that my brain sometimes can’t hang onto.  And I am seeing what I can share with my guy when he is just a little older from now.  I might be getting just a smidge tired of picture books.




Putting on Eyres

My boss is lovely. Usually.  And although he may not agree he is not so much of a man that he would balk at the assignation.

We experienced a rift in our almost eight years of employer and subordinate relationship when he listened to an NPR piece on the movie adaptaion of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and while trying to remember what it was called said, “you know, that famous novel by Jane Eyre.”  He furiously tried to backpedal when he saw my face, from which I ordered a swift correction that it was Jane Austen, as Jane Eyre arguably never existed save for the written word.

Even though she was never real she is very real as one of our classic Gothic and bildungsroman (coming of age, not belonging, questioning conventions) heroines.  I regrettably did not read Jane Eyre until graduate school when over the summer I began to fill in the gaps of my classic literature exposure (because being a doctoral student the other ten months of the year clearly was not enough).  And I nearly abandoned it because it was so depressing, which I think I noted in a my previous post about getting into Gothic lit, save for one of my favorite humans on the planet who promised me that dead halfway through it would pick up. She also convinced me to stay in grad school on a particularly dark day in my life when I was ready to pick up my toys and go home.

Any good story is worth retelling, and for this post I explored three Jane Eyre inspired stories.

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Reader, I Married Him, Tracy Chevalier

This is a collection of short stories commissioned by Chevalier with the prompt being the last line of Jane Eyre: Reader, I married him.  And she amasses a good list of names:  Francine Prose, Audrey Niffenegger, Emma Donoghue, and Evie Wyld, just to name a sampling.  (Sadly I never got such an invitation.  She must have had my email address incorrect or something).  Some of these stories had a link to the classic novel more clearly delineated:  Mr. Rochester’s perspective, a modern take on Jane’s relationship with her friend Helen, Grace Poole’s story, Mr. Rochester effectively gaslighting his hapless bride, a wedding of an unlikely pair, some of the stories I struggled to see the connection.  However, despite how far any writer spun from the original idea, these stories are entertaining and wonderfully written.  Unlike a story collection by one author, this offered different themes and characters and tones. I would absolutely recommend it to anyone who claims to be a fan of Jane.

This one came out this spring.  Let’s go back to what I think is the quintessential Jane Eyre other side of the story:

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Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Who doesn’t really want to understand the perspective of Bertha Rochester and how she came to be spirited from her native tropical island to be locked away in the top of a British manor?  Flavorwire actually turned me on to this prequel to Jane Eyre. We learn that she used to be the beautiful Antoinette, and if you must know, Mr. Rochester is as much of a pawn in the dastardly scheme to unload her in marriage before the fatal truth of a predisposition to illness ignited by a trauma manifested as Antoinette is. She’s an unfortunate impediment to Mr. Rochester’s marital availability, but it is not her fault, and the book brings to light the grief she feels over being taken from her beautiful warm home into a cold and barren one, with little company, floating in and out of lucidity.  Surprisingly, Rochester is also made more appealing, made him a little more worthy of Jane’s ministrations and love (not so self sacrificing as Bronte heroines have had occasion to be) and better explains why he finds our plain Jane so appealing as well.  He has already been singed by the mysterious island flame and is content with a steady, intelligent and kind, if a little self righteous at times governess (although one of the stories in Reader I Married Him will have you believe that Rochester’s love for Jane has lost its luster when finally she returns and assumes the burden of his care, just to make the ending more depressing).  I agree this is a beautiful classic.  I read it in the dead of winter amongst other atmospheric books while crafting and it felt good to be taken from my snowy reality for a time.

Another modern take:

Jane Steele

Jane Steele, Lindsay Faye

I would consider this a spinoff more than a retelling.  Jane has some awareness that she shares similarities to our Gothic heroine, but unlike the first Jane, she is much more apt to color outside the lines.  Her passions urge her to kill, whereas the original Jane would just pack up and disappear.  She is not a serial killer in the traditional, cold blooded and remorseless and senseless killings arising from a neglectful childhood.  Jane’s childhood was neglectful but not in the way that would turn her into a Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dalmer.  She is searching for redemption for her crimes of passion, not crimes of premeditation and cool calculation.  The love interest, Mr. Thornfield, has his own secrets but is a warmer and more lovable character than the at times icy and enigmatic Mr. Rochester.

I found a new author love of Lindsay Faye.  Her razor sharp and hilarious prose, drew me in and I was outright laughing at some of the things that Jane Steele said and observed in her living on a shoestring world.  Gods of Gotham has made it onto the lengthy wish list because it is old school NYC and I want to see if Faye is just as witty, poignant and appealing as she was in Jane Steele.

Other re-tellings that deserve a read?

Comments/shares/likes are welcome!


5 over 500 and other resolutions

I have spent another week looking over the four reading challenges that I posted about last week and how I am going to carve them up. I can count books for different reasons on different lists to get as many of them checked off by the time 2017 is here.

But then I have two more personal reading goals:

One: At least five books longer than 500 pages each

In 2012, anxiously awaiting the birth of my son during what felt like the longest (non high-risk) pregnancy in the history of the world that did not involve bed rest, I devoured books. I may have read more in graduate school, but since I did not track it, my page record is from 2012 with 22,656.  Last year I came close to matching it with 21,844.  I got within a thousand pages of the prize.

I want this year to match or rival 2012.  And, because I did a lot of short books last year, this year I am challenging myself to read at least five books over 500 pages long in 2016. I tackled a lot of intimidating (to me) and abandoned books last year and I want to keep going.  There will be both books like The Fountainhead, Les Miserables, and Wolf Hall, that can be intimidating, but also books that I am looking forward to more, like  A Winter’s Tale, The Cider House Rules, The Valley of Amazement, and Shirley. I am currently tackling The Luminaries, which I did not realize is a murder mystery, which adds to its coolness.  (Note: I don’t have the hutzpah this year for War and Peace, Ulysses or Atlas Shrugged)

Audiobooks greatly assist in this endeavor because I can cram reading into the margins, especially in the morning when I can’t sit down with a book but my brain is sharpest.

Two: Read a short story a week

My lovely and late high school librarian told me that a short story is like a bubble in time, a moment all in itself.  She told me this back when I actually wrote a few in high school that I did not think were half bad. I know that writing short stories will help my writing game, by adding practice and more publication and feedback opportunities.

I feel in writing short stories it is fundamental to read them.  And I only read one collection last year, Anthony Doerr’s lyrical The Shell Collector. I have two Karen Russells, and Alice Munro, a 20 under 40, Roald Dahl’s short works, and countless anthologies ornamenting my shelves that collect dust and my lamentation that they do not get read.  I even have some on my kindle, which I tend to avoid because I still like my poetry and short story collections in straight up paper.

I got some paper books for Christmas that recall for me the intoxication of a real paper book, of a hardcover with deckle edge paper.

As a final note of this, my blog gets the most views when I choose self published books and share the reviews with the chosen author. I need to get back to that.

And then for writing.

I really have to keep it small here. Last year I wanted to start a blog, and I did, and that has helped me to be accountable and consistent in my writing.

I would really love to do NaNoWriMo, which I would never do without a completed outline, which I don’t know if I will have,  and I still have a full time job and a preschooler to contend with.  So this year may not be the year.  I also love the 52 short stories a year recommendation, but there is not time for that either.

Instead of a productivity resolution, I am starting off my writing year with learning more about characterization and I bought some books from Writer’s Digest to get started.  I am going to work on the draft I already have.  If that gets revamped as much as I would like it to, I will consider my writing goals met for the year.  Maybe some plot bunnies in my head could grow.

So that is it.  I promise that I am reading up to fuel some of my review posts.  I love comments.

Reading Challenge: TV, holidays and shorts

I have been struggling to accept the inevitability of fall this year.

I used to love fall.  The return to school, the exciting school swimming season, the changing leaves, being bundled quickly in darkness at the end of the day, followed with fantastic holidays in rapid succession. Childhood magic at its finest.

This love persisted until I had my son at the end of October 2012. I was stuck at home barely sleeping with a sack of flour as the wonders of fall (which was ignored due to the wonders of a soon to arrive baby, a new house and a nutty maternity leave to arrange) descended into the hard and cold winter months. No longer was I going to be willing to make drives and take a gamble on the weather and baby schedules to see friends and family when I was feeling lonely, and then to boot in the following years, I had a child to entertain indoors.

I continue to barrel through the reading challenge because we only do have a few short months left until time is up and everyone else’s recommended reading for the closing year blooms all over the internet. And it is keeping my mind off the impending isolation of winter.

Three more choices to fit in limited categories:

A book based on or turned into a TV show: I had three contestants for this one. Sex and the City by Carrie Bradshaw, Gossip Girl  by Cecily Von Ziegesar, and:

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Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

This one had better ratings than the other two and was available from my local library as an ebook, so that superficially made it win. (I was disappointed that people rated Sex and the City so low when it was great on the screen. It probably retains its’ spot on my TBR list nonetheless.) I don’t wonder why Pretty Little Liars is so amazingly popular as books and a TV show.  It plays on the common teenage insecurity of people finding out your secrets under a pretty and perfect facade.  And anyone who does not have such a facade would love to believe that people who do harbor similar miseries on their downtime as well. I was caught up in it too, even though I did watch some of the series walking on the treadmill through my uncomplicated but exhausting pregnancy (childbearing is sooo my favorite, can’t you tell?). I blew through this one in a few days and any pop culture knowledge helps me be less dork and more relatable to some of my clients. Still dork though.

A book set during Christmas: In my search for the book to fit this category, I discovered that Christmas is ripe fodder for a cozy mystery.  I love me a cozy mystery, and in fact my favorite cozy mysteries series, Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen, has a Christmas book that I listened to at Christmas and loved. But I wanted something different, so for 2.99 on Kindle I bought

Christmas Slay Ride

Christmas Slay Ride: Most Mysterious and Horrific Christmas Day Murders by Jack Smith

Probably a startlingly gruesome choice, I imagine, but I have a dark side to my reading at times. I thought it was a different interpretation of the category. In a similar vein I am considering In Cold Blood for my book based on a true story or I, Ripper  by Stephen Hunter. This was a quick read of true murder stories, exactly as the title suggests. They could be a good inspiration for fiction as well, with some not so true to life embellishments.

A book of short stories: I have two of Karen Russell’s short story collections, numerous of the best of the year (kindle and paper) and even the best of the century anthologies, 20 under 40, The Best of Roald Dahl, Runaway by Alice Munro and two editions of the O.Henry Awards Prize Stories, and with my birthday money I bought:

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The Shell Collector by Anthony Doerr

Because I love his language in All the Light We Cannot See.  This is the only time I have bought professional narration with a book and have not felt it was right for the book. Don’t worry, Audible, I still love you and you can still take my money, but I gathered a different tone reading rather than listening and I did not like that.  Despite this, this brief collection reminded me that if I want to be serious about short stories, this is the inspiration that I need.  I loved his exotic settings and his juxtaposition of themes and relationships and the language was gorgeous as expected. I am partial to Doerr when he uses nature and natural history and ocean life in his work because those also intrigue me. I put the rest of his works on my Amazon list. Because, you know, that’s what you do.  I might read one of Karen Russell’s short collections, or maybe Sleep Donation, for my someone under 30, (girlfriend is my age and I have been coveting her abilities since before we were 30) if I don’t count Frankenstein for that and count it for a Famous Author’s First Book instead, which I am considering reading Carrie by Stephen King.

These are always good posts to see what others may fit in these categories! Please leave a reply!