A Short Story Collection: From the Heart

It is always a special experience to read something written by a friend. It is even more special to follow the fledgling ideas from Facebook chat and email conversations as they spread their wings and soar across the pages of an honest-to-goodness book. In From the Heart, I was, once again, blown away by the way Jamie approaches heavy, serious, and even dark material with an honesty and humor that makes his characters irresistible. It makes me wonder if all authors put this much of themselves into their stories. Jamie’s gentle way of making you think just a little bit differently, to question a little bit more, to experience the weight of every moment shine through in his collection of short stories.

Two of my favorite stories are contained in this collection, Glasses and Hearts. Reading them again, I found they still raised questions for me, still made me think about them long after I was finished reading. I think I am drawn to these two stories because they focus on what it means to be vulnerable and how we truly connect with others. In this wide, messy world it is so easy to lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and these stories bring that reality back to the forefront of my mind.

Somehow I always seemed to have my back to the sun anyway.

When I re-read Glasses, I found myself wondering: What if we could see each person we encounter, not as flesh and blood, but as the people they truly are? What if our connections and experiences make a lasting mark on us and someone else could see that mark? And what if we’ve carefully kept ourselves from connections and experiences in order to preserve ourselves, only to discover that isn’t really preservation at all? I discovered the answers to these questions right alongside “Jonas” as he experienced the magic of the glasses and watched the colors come to him.

A little bit of grief, a little solitude, and a dash of could-have-been.

A single drop slid down the side of the glass and fell to the counter; like a lone tear, or a leap of faith.

It had been so long since my first reading of Hearts, that I didn’t remember how it can catch you off-guard. It’s one of those stories whose meaning doesn’t dawn until a few pages in and suddenly your mouth is hanging open and you really have to focus on breathing. Imagine if we walked through this world with our hearts, literally, on our sleeves. What if everyone we met knew what we felt about ourselves, our lives, even about them? And what if we couldn’t recognize the significance of our words without the help of a friendly barkeep who knew how to mix us just the right drink, while fighting off demons of his own?

If you want a quick but meaningful read, a collection of lovely and intentional stories, I highly recommend getting yourself a copy of From the Heart. You won’t regret it!

 

 

 

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Book Review: The Far Corners

the-far-corners

I have always rather enjoyed stories that feature talking animals, I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I grew up reading CS Lewis and Brian Jacques and the moral dilemmas, fears, and triumphs of Mr. Tumnus, Reepicheep, Bella of Brockhall, and Martin the Warrior aligned so closely to my own. Though I may not have been out tramping through the woods looking for foes to defeat or sheltering little lost humans, I did struggle with understanding my place in a world much bigger than me. I wanted to be brave enough to stand up for the things I knew were right, and these talking animals showed me that integrity and bravery were their own rewards. Reading these books up in my bunk bed late at night, or out on the front steps in the summer sun, are some of my favorite reading memories!

Imagine my delight when I picked up The Far Corners, by my friend Elaine Gartner and discovered that her plucky, young protagonist is a ginger-furred talking squirrel! I felt an immediate connection with Willoughby Elmsford (as a fellow redhead this was to be expected) and was hooked on this story from the moment he heard the words that would forever change Elderbrook Forest:

I want to know when the night becomes the day.

With this simple sentence, Gartner sets the stage for an adventure that will redefine not only Willoughby’s friends and his woods, but ultimately the entire world as he knows it. Drawing heavily on myth and legend, the story features quests, gifts bestowed by benevolent spirits, an old wise sage as guide, and the understanding that the natural world is very much a part of us, of our destiny. I found this book magically captivating with the perfect blend of old and new. The conversation of our relationship with nature so often follows the same path but here, we come to understand its importance in an entirely new way.

Mother Earth gave our forest its natural magnificence and splendor, but Father Sky gave people their curious minds and expressive hands and hearts. A great union between what nature could offer and what man could fashion flourished.

 I would highly recommend getting yourself a copy of this book as it was made to read aloud. The chapters are nice and short, perfectly manageable for bedtime. The animal characters are captured perfectly – just their names and description of their clothes or voices had me matching them up right away! And the empowerment of the feminine (an important element for me)  is also quite clear throughout the book, with the legend being passed from female to female and a neat tip of the hat to Virginia Woolf (see chapter 3). I found the story so wonderful that I read the entire thing in one sitting and I’m sure you’ll do the same!

2016 Reading Challenge

This new year found me in a sort of predicament. After moving to a new home and welcoming a new baby, I felt the urge to write coming on strongly. The only issue was that we weren’t able to get the internet at our new place. We’ve been “netless” since October of last year and it has come with its own challenges and freedoms. Now that we are able to connect again, I have had to determine how to move forward with this space. I have been working through a reading challenge, presented by Modern Mrs. Darcywhich is, I think, as good a place to start as any. If you are looking to read more this year, I highly suggest you take a look at her list. It’s only one book a month which is totally doable for me, especially after adding another little to our brood. Stay tuned over the next few weeks while I play catch-up on my book reviews. Maybe you’ll find one that will tickle your fancy!

2016 Reading Challenge

Book Review: The Writing Life

The Writing Life

First I have to say that this book was confusing to me at the start. I don’t know what I was expecting but this stream-of-consciouness, confessional, journal-entry, mind trip wasn’t it. But the more I read, the more I began to enjoy myself. The stories seem random, the musings of an older mind remembering the past with some kind of nostalgia, but when, suddenly, I am shown the connection between the story and the process of writing, I am speechless. Breathtakingly honest and incredibly real, Annie Dillard has woven a “tale” about how life and writing intertwine around and unravel one another. It’s hard to tell you exactly what this book is about because it is about a life process. And as we writerly types know, a life process is difficult to pin down. I think the best way to entice you to read this remarkable book is to introduce you to some of my favorite moments from the book. Enjoy!

Chapter One. On why we must discard so much of the work we have struggled to write and why our writing must be for us alone:

The path is not the work.

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point.

If he has read his pages too often, those pages will have a necessary quality, the ring of the inevitable, like poetry known by heart; they will perfectly answer their own familiar rhythms.

Is it pertinent, it is courteous, for us to learn what it cost the writer personally?

This writing that you do, that so thrills you, that so rocks and exhilarates you, as if you were dancing next to the band, is barely audible to anyone else.

The line of words fingers your own heart. It invades arteries, and enters the heart on a flood of breath; it presses the moving rims of thick valves; it palpitates the dark muscle like a worm encysted – some field of feeling, some song forgotten, a scene in a dark bedroom, a corner of the woodlot, a terrible dining room, that exalting sidewalk; these fragments are heavy with meaning. The line of words peels them back, dissects them out. Will the bared tissue burn? Do you want to expose these scenes to the light? You may locate them and leave them, or poke the spot hard till the sore bleeds on your finger, and write with that blood. If the sore spot is not fatal, if it does not grow and block something, you can use its power for many years, until the heart reabsorbs it.

Chapter Two. On where is best to set up shop for the arduous task of writing:

Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark.

Chapter Three. On how the writerly mind must be trained in order to approach its most dangerous task of writing, for the writing has a mind of its own:

A work in progress quickly becomes feral. You must visit it every day and reassert your mastery over it. If you skip a day, you are, quite rightly, afraid to open the door to its room.

The work is not the vision itself, certainly. It is a golem. You try – you try every time – to reproduce the vision, to let your light so shine before men. But you can only come along with your bushel and hide it.

Chapter Four. You just have to read it. I can’t even begin to explain it.

Chapter Five. On why we must read in order to write:

There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain. It is hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

The writer studies literature, not the world. He lives in the world; he cannot miss it.

The body of literature, with its limits and edges, exists outside some people and inside others.

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough, especially if you love to write. Take your time with it, enter into the experience of writing through the eyes of a master!

Book Review: Tenth of December

Tenth of December

I stumbled upon this book by chance. One of the stories from this collection was featured in a list of 18 Perfect Short Stories and everyone I talked to said they’d only heard good things. I made it a goal to read all the collections on the list and let me say, as far as this book is concerned, I was not disappointed. There wasn’t a story in here that I didn’t love, or that I’ll ever be able to forget. Saunders dives straight into the darkest places of the human heart and brings them to light with grace, wit, and humor. He is, without a doubt, one of the best short story writers I have had the pleasure to read and I can’t wait to get my hands on more of his stuff.

There are stories here about everything, love, loss, anger, war, science, relationships, the things that make us human, but there is one common thread that runs through the middle of all of them; the idea of right and wrong and how it relates to humanity. And while you may be shaking your head and saying, every book/story/song is, at its core, about this idea of right and wrong I would encourage you to take a look at morality through Saunder’s eyes. It’s a look at morality as I’ve never seen it before. He tackles the big questions and turns the answers on their heads. Lies become good, when the untruths we tell ourselves keep us from acting upon the deep darkness inside. When one acts out of love, harm becomes a kind of protection. Death is a weapon we use as a reminder of individuality, of choice, of control, of freedom. How hard, how very hard it is to do the right thing. And why it’s so important that we do.

And while you might be thinking, wow, this sounds like a dark read (it is), let me assure you that there is a beauty there as well. Saunders reminds us of the fact that each of us, down underneath all the surface grime, is a beautiful, albeit flawed, soul. A soul who is loved, a soul who feels, a soul who needs, in a world that would stunt all those things. His characters are transparent and honest and tragic, mirrors of our own failings and misconceptions. We have to hope for better for them because, in a way, we are the same. He tells the story of the truths that exist in all of us and, by giving them names, by bringing them to light, he sets us free from them.

This is a book that will make its mark on you. It will change the way you think, the way you look at the world, and maybe even the way you look at yourself. It’s a book we need to read because it’s about being human, in all its triumphant glory and all its sorrowful insignificance and sometimes, we need a reminder about what it truly means to be human.

Book Review: This Is How You Lose Her

This Is How You Lose Her

I was going to tell you that I didn’t like this book that much. I finished it but I didn’t truly enjoy it. I was going to tell you that it was probably because I don’t know Spanish and Diaz uses a lot, spattering it through the story on almost every page. I love dark, depressing, unresolved stories but this one didn’t do it for me; I wanted Yunior to win at something, anything and the ending left me feeling…unsettled. I was going to tell you that there were moments I loved but overall, I wasn’t that impressed. Except that I can’t stop thinking about this story. It’s been two days and it’s still almost all I can think about. He got me.

I fell in love with Latino lit when I read Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street. The short sentences, bright and colorful, danced in a rhythm I’d never heard, rising and falling like a funny story on a quick tongue. I came to the realization that while other literatures can be picked apart and quoted line by line without missing any of the meaning, when you read a sentence that grips you in Latino lit, it’s because of the way the author set you up. You can’t quote a line to show the meaning, you have to quote a paragraph. Everything is connected deeper, further, tighter. Words, like culture, knit together.

So I don’t know Spanish. I read it anyway. Some of it I could figure out, in context, but overall I was left with this feeling that I only kind of knew what was going on. The story was rolling along and, for all the words I was digesting, I still felt like I was an outsider to something. That’s an unsettling feeling. And it made me think about language and relationships and how you can be participating in life with someone but still not be sure what is happening. I wonder if he wrote it this way intentionally, to show the reader what it’s like to live between two worlds, two languages.

The ambiguity that I love in other stories, the harshness and beauty of reality, the ending that solves nothing, all my favorite things, didn’t satisfy me in this story.  I desperately wanted Yunior to catch a break, to get ahead, even a little. But he just couldn’t. Not even once. This language of hardship, this acceptance of suffering as part of life was hard for me to handle. I expect a rise and fall pattern in life and a life of all fall defies my understanding of reality. I was thrown by the sadness.

This book violated all of my expectations. It made me look at myself and my experiences in a new way. It asked me to try to understand something that I have never and will never experience. It was uncomfortable and unforgettable. I loved this book.

What about you? Have you read it? Did you like it? Is there another book you’ve read that violated your expectations and made its mark on you?

What’s On Your Bookshelf?

This was supposed to be a post where I share with you a glimpse into what I’ve been reading this month. Unfortunately, I haven’t started, much less finished, a single book so far. Isn’t that terrible? Between wrapping up holiday stuff, starting a new part-time job, and being a mom, I’m more than a little behind on the reading. While I’m actually really not happy about that there is good news. My husband and oldest will be traveling for a few days and that means, once the babies are in bed the evening will be mine for reading! I am really looking forward to that.

I have two “writerly” books in the queue: The Writing Life by Annie Dillard and Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, a new translation by Tiina Nuynnally. The first was recommended by a writing blog I follow with specific instructions to read it immediately. Guess I missed the mark on that one, huh? The second is research material for a mosaic short story collection that I am currently working on. That one will be a little easier to read as I can just flip through for inspiration and ideas vs. reading it through from cover to cover.

I also have several books that I have started reading and have been unable to finish. Dirty Shirt: A Boundary Waters Memoir, Cooked, An Abundance of Katherine’s, Cold Tangerines, and The Lovely Bones. The main reason these are still sitting on my shelf is that I can’t seem to read a book in bits and pieces. For example, when I read Gone Girl, I read the entire thing from start to finish while feeding my kids graham crackers to keep them quiet. I didn’t leave the couch for all 432 pages. That’s how I read. I disappear for an entire day because I am, quite literally, in another world. With kids, I can’t read like that anymore and I am not sure how to move forward from here.

How do you read? If you read in bits and pieces, how do you get back into the world of the book? If you read all at once, like me, has anything slowed you down? How did you deal with it? All I know is, I can never stop reading all together so I will have to figure it out eventually.