Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas Gifts

Let me just say that I LOVE getting and giving books for Christmas and for years, because I owned a bookstore, I never got any. (I mean, other than the hundreds I bought myself!) I no longer own a bookstore but still I get very few books, probably because I read so much no one dares get me anything.

Although last year for my birthday my husband bought me My Last Supper by Melanie Dunea. It's a great coffee table book if you love food as much as I do (which comes in a very close second to books, so books about food are always an excellent thing in my mind). It's a really beautiful, if not slightly morbid, collection of chef's and other foodies' imagined last meal, complete with recipes.

I love giving books. It may be a little late for this but you can always scurry out to your local bookstore and see if they have these titles:

For kids and tweens: The boxed set (if you can find it) of The Chronicles of Narnia. I still remember getting it for Christmas from my mother's cousin--I must have been about seven. I remember burrowing under my covers and reading the whole set start to finish, and then reading it again. Maybe this isn't the hottest new thing kids are into, but if you've got a kid who loves fantasy-type books and they haven't read it, I'd bet it would be well-received.

For my mom: I like a well-written mystery, one that is character-driven and not too gory. I like Julia Spencer-Fleming's series which start with In the Bleak Midwinter.

For my husband: Who likes true-crime stuff, I like Howie Carr's The Brother's Bulger. About Whitey and his gang, it's a great read.

For anyone who likes to cook: My favorite, most-used cookbook is The Joy of Cooking. You can't go wrong with a classic.

Speaking of which, I would give a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird or Middlemarch to just about anyone.

And if you know someone who writes, or wants to write, my favorite is by far Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird.

I'm sure I'm forgetting many of my favorites to give and get. I'd love to hear your suggestions!

Of course, a gift certificate to your local bookstore is always good, too!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Reading like crazy

Between vacation (many hours on a plane) and required reading for my MFA, I have been reading like crazy. Devouring books. Ignoring all else, including housework, which I often use as a distraction from writing. But, truth be told, I enjoy reading more than I enjoy writing (until I get to that really golden writing spot where things start to come together) so all this reading isn't really suffering for me--and it's been good stuff:

I finished The Best American Short Stories 2011 (I was surprised by how many I had read elsewhere but I loved every single one of them all over again) and plunged into Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach. McEwan is the master of the single day (Saturday) and of tiny, intricate details that make up a moment, and a life. These characters, newlywed and flushed with anticipation, stumble, and flounder, and because of the era in which they live and their particular social class, they can't seem to gain their footing. I'm fairly emotional when I read, but at the end of this book I was sobbing into my cocktail napkin. I'm sure the guy to my right thought I was some kind of nut job.

Then, onto "required" reading which I put in quotation marks because while it was assigned, it's so far been highly enjoyable. First up, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude. How have I not read this before? It's like a long Grimm's fairy tale, sweeping and dark, full of mysterious characters and circumstances of Biblical proportions, with time folding and unfolding. It's a story that should be hard to follow but because Marquez is a master, it's nothing but delight.

And then on to Anne Tyler's Breathing Lessons which is an older one of her books and also one I hadn't read (although maybe I did, I can't say for sure). It captures perfectly what Tyler does best--the minuscule hurts and forgiveness of a marriage, the fumbling through life. The main character of Maggie was maybe a little too sweet, a little too bumbling and meddlesome, but Tyler still manages to keep her human, with motives that are understandable, even if her actions are not. My favorites by Tyler are Back When We Were Grownups (I also think it's a fantastic title) and Ladder of Years. I'd suggest reading those over Breathing Lessons but it will be interesting to find out why this one was selected for the workshop.

It's getting on to be winter now, and there's nothing I love more than curling up with good reading. I'd love to hear what you're reading!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Best American Short Stories 2011

So, I bought this and promised myself I wouldn't start it until we were on the plane. We are not on the plane and I'm halfway through...

My favorite story so far is Caitlin Horrock's The Sleep. In some ways it reminds be of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery although it isn't creepy like that. It just has the same feel--this decrepit small town, this one idea, everyone sort of falling into it. And the characters--for a story in which the major action is sleeping, the characters are really identifiable. When the story started, I thought, oh, sleep, what a wonderful idea. But then, there are all these layers, and subtexts, and people's motivation for sleeping and staying awake--it's all so beautifully crafted. The story could have veered off into a fairy tale but Horrock keeps it grounded with the characters, which is something I struggle with and deeply admire in other writers.

I'm going to order her collection This is Not Your City.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gone Girl

For the first time in a very long time, a book gave me nightmares. Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl is so creepy, so well-plotted, so full of unlikeable characters (my favorite kind) that it literally kept me awake at night, wondering what they were going to do next. 39-year-old rich girl Amy goes missing on the day of her five-year anniversary and husband Nick Dunne is the prime suspect. Told in alternating points of view from Amy (via her diary) and Nick, Flynn very carefully crafts a story in which the reader truly can't decide which character is worse. I can't say much more about this book without giving a lot away, which would ruin it. Don't read this book if you're looking for a hero or a happy ending. Read it if you want a mystery that doesn't rely on cheep tricks but unfolds as we discover more and more about these deeply-flawed characters.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

A month!

I can't believe it's been a month since I've posted. I've been reading, but mostly books about writing. I finished Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer as well as John Dufresne's The Lie That Tells a Truth. I would recommend both for beginning or more advanced writers. Although Dufrensne offered more practical exercises and specific tips on the story, I liked the voice in Prose's a little better, maybe just for where I'm at with my own writing right now. I would call both essential for the writer's bookshelf.

In between all that, I've been reading a lot of short stories and the best one I've read recently is from the Five Chapters website: This is really good. And creepy.

Speaking of creepy, how is it possible I'd never read Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery?" I know, shame on me. It was referenced all over the place in both writing books so I figured I'd better get to it. I read it yesterday and I'd say the hype is much deserved. (if you can call it hype after it's been out for years and years...maybe just hype to me because I hadn't read it?) Anyway, it's really worth the read if you, like me, are one of the only people on earth who haven't already done so.

I suppose I would be remiss to not mention my own story, Butterflies, selected to be excerpted on-air for NPR's three-minute fiction and featured on their website:

Right now, I'm about halfway through Chris Cleave's Gold. I'm a little disappointed. So far, it doesn't have the emotional resonance as Little Bee. But then, I know a lot of people who didn't like Little Bee because they felt it went too far...but I guess I'm partial to books that go too far.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Swimming with Strangers

People always ask me how I hear about certain books, how I "know what to read." (which I think means, "how I don't waste time on things I don't like"). Well, I don't, necessarily. I still come across novels and story collections, some very highly recommended, that I just can't get through. And there was a time I would have finished them anyway, even if I didn't like a thing about the story. But, now I see the world as full of books, which means there are so many things to read, so little time. I do the obvious things when choosing books: an author I've loved in the past, a suggestion from my local bookseller or librarian, a recommendation from a friend (although this last is the trickiest because I'm a terrible liar and, when asked, I will tell you what I thought of the book you so loved). But I also read author's websites, and two that are particularly good with recommendations are Ann Hood and Monica Wood. On Ann's blog, you'll have to read each post to see what she'd reading (which is good reading, anyway) but on Monica's she has a whole section and you can just go right there.

Speaking of which, I just finished Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum's Swimming with Strangers  and I thought it was fabulous. I'm a big fan of family discord and these stories are done with rapt attention to details, and endings that are hopeful even in the smallest ways. Each of these stories is beautifully, cleanly written with characters you will not soon forget.

Someone asked me the other day what I was reading and when I mentioned this collection, she said "Oh, I don't like short stories." An opening which I used to explain that when done right, as Lunstrum does, stories are perfect little windows into the human condition. And, although I love novels, too, stories are, by their very nature, an economy of words. Nothing is wasted.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Peace Like a River, and trying to learn how to write

For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid reader and, as often follows, I have wanted to be a writer. And I am a the sense that I sit down and write nearly every day and I've had some small successes (which I celebrate like I've just won the Pullitzer). Everyone says that to become a writer, you should read--widely and voraciously. And this is excellent advice. But for me, I find myself terribly wrapped up in the story, no longer able to pay attention to how the thing got done. I just love books so much! When I was in the midst of hating my short story collection but not knowing what the heck to do with it, someone gave me the very sound advice to take apart a short story I've read before (this is key to the not-getting-wrapped-up bit). Look at descriptions, scene, how plot moves along, etc, etc. I have always been a good student, and I like a project, so I did this exercise with four or five stories and found it immensly helpful. So, I decided to try it with the novel. Why not? I chose Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River" because I loved it once. And, oh, I loved it again. I had to force myself to pay attention to the structure, the voice, the pace...I took notes, made an outline, wrote summaries as needed. And still I felt myself pulled into this story of family, miracles, the old-fashioned feel of a great adventure--it's a great book and I highly recommend it...even if you aren't trying to learn how to write from it!

Spell check isn't working tonight and I'm not near a dictionary...I hope this isn't too terrible...

Monday, August 13, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

To say that I am reluctant to recommend Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin is a vast understatement. Don't get me wrong, I loved this book. But, it is not for the faint of heart and I think it takes a certain kind of reader, someone not afraid to plumb the depths of not-kind humanity.

I don't think I've ever read anything so profoundly disturbing for its "honesty"--a truth told by a narrator who is not, despite what she has been through, likable. Or even necessarily forgivable. The novel is told through a series of letters written by a mother to her husband after their son has killed several of his classmates. Throughout, she tries to make sense of where she went wrong but yet, at the same time, her voice sizzles with anger. I had a hard time feeling sorry for Eva, which made the story all the more compelling for me. Too rich, too sure of herself, too focused on her work--she is prickly in a way that makes her heartbreakingly human.  

Not an easy read, this is the first book in a very long time that has literally given me nightmares. And I don't even have children! So, you've been warned. But let me say also that this is a book that takes a haunting look at the small things we do, the lies we tell ourselves, the ways in which we get by. I will not soon forget it.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

When We Were the Kennedys

I just about devoured Monica Wood's memoir When We Were the Kennedys. It is so good. And, as I've said before, I'm not really a memoir-reader. As most people know, I'm a huge Monica Wood fan. When I had my bookstore, she was the first author I ever invited to read and sign. We never had very big turnouts in my little store in Oxford, Maine, but she was always gracious, and generous, and kind. And it is those attributes that shine through her work but not in a sappy, overly-sentimental way. Wood says what needs to be said but she always finds the light in people and it makes reading her novels, her stories, and now her memoir, an utterly luminescent experience.

I won't spend too much time on the memoir itself because it has already received much much-deserved attention. Suffice to say it's a sweetly-told story of a year that changed everything for a family, a town, a nation. It is a story of love and devotion, failures and triumphs. It's just wonderful even if you have no idea where Mexico, Maine might be (maybe especially if you have no idea).

While you're at it, I would suggest reading some of Wood's other books. My favorite, and a book I hand sold over and over, is still My Only Story. This is the story of hairstylist Ruth and a man named John whom she feels destined to save from his terrible loss. It is the story of mistakes big and small, and forgiveness, and really letting go. All of it written in Wood's uniquely breathtaking prose. I should say here that Monica Wood makes me feel like plagiarizing--her words are so beautifully strung together I often have the urge to just grab a pen and copy everything down--not so much to pass it off as my own, but to savor it, to look at it, to figure out how she did that with just ordinary words we all use.

A very close second is Ernie's Arc, a collection of closely linked stories. But Secret Language and Any Bitter Thing are wonderful, too (most people I've talked to rate the latter as their favorite so far). And, if you write, you should have The Pocket Muse and The Pocket Muse II as well as Description. 

If your reading repertoire has not included anything by Monica Wood, you should change that. You won't be sorry.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Karin Slaughter

I love a well-crafted thriller and for that, I'm a big fan of Karin Slaughter. I just finished reading Criminal (which, if you ask me is a terrible title) and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Although, as I've said before, I generally prefer the lighter version of murder/mystery, stories where the gruesome details are left primarily to the imagination. And this book, one in a series, seemed much more graphic than Slaughter's other books. So much so that I actually skipped over some of the details. I used to read Patricia Cornwell but I stopped because I felt like she just kept upping the ante, going darker and more detailed, when what I wanted was more of the characters, not more unspeakable horror. I hope that isn't where Karin Slaughter is going, because I feel like she's an incredibly talented mystery writer and I, personally, feel that a good mystery is hard to find.

What I particularly loved about Criminall is that Slaughter, in parts, takes us back to Atlanta in 1975. For both women and blacks, being on the police force at that time was an act of will. I'm not naive like I didn't know things weren't always peachy (get it?) in the South in the 70's, but really, sometimes I forget the road that has been paved by strong women before me. I've been lucky, I know. I grew up white, middle class, in suburbia, with two parents who are still married to one another. It's hardly ever crossed my mind that I can't do something, especially because I'm a woman. It made me kind of breathless to think that such a short time ago, women had to endure humiliation and ridicule to be in jobs they felt were a calling. It was good to be reminded that I need to be more grateful.

The book is not written like a history lesson, in case I made it sound that way. It's a fast-paced, character-driven story that I hardly put down. If you haven't read Karin Slaughter before, I would recommend starting with the first in the series, Blindsighted.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Story Telling

I read something in a home/decorating type magazine the other day that made me furious. It was an article about outdoor rooms and it said something about the flat screen TV that allows the family to spend time together outside. Are you kidding me? Because families don't already spend ample time gathered around watching TV? It being outside makes it somehow better? This isn't the first time I've ever heard of an outdoor TV, but the way it was phrased, the assumption it made--that families spend quality time parked in front of a TV, AND that there isn't anything else to do outdoors--oh, I was just so mad.

I remember the campfires we used to have when I was a kid. My dad, not the most talkative or imaginative guy, used to tell spooky stories. There was one about a wolf, and I don't remember all the details, but I remember being terrified to make my way back into the house--usually pleading with him to walk me in so I could pee. 

And I remember floating around the lake in an inner tube, sitting on the porch, walking through the woods--in silence. I used to make up stories in my head, long epics about who knows what, but I'd spend hours by myself, in my head (this perhaps explains my somewhat difficult time with reality to this day).

My friends and I made our Barbies elaborate outdoor houses. We hosted outdoor "restaurants" for our parents where we served appetizers consisting of jarred pickles and sliced tomatoes sprinkled with salt and pepper. We sprawled on towels, read books and magazines, listened to music, talked about what we wanted to do with our lives. At night, we danced under the stars, lit sparklers, and told stories around those campfires.   

Don't get me wrong--I'm not anti-TV. I have shows I watch faithfully (especially things that make people cook strange ingredients). And, as a kid, I remember watching Three's Company with my mom at the breakfast bar while she cooked dinner and I did homework. But I never watched much, and I wonder if I had, what would have become of my imagination?

For Lent this year I gave up all alone-time TV, meaning I couldn't have it on as just mindless background noise. Maybe not the world's hugest sacrifice, but I really did it as an experiment to see how much my head was getting cluttered. The answer turned out to be: a lot. I found the silence kind of nice, and when I didn't want silence, I turned on the radio for music or NPR. It made me feel less frantic. These days, I have the TV on more often, but I'm more mindful of it.

It's good to let the silence in, to let the stories grow.

Monday, July 16, 2012


It's not often I start a book and don't finish it, but recently I started John Irving's In One Person and gave up on it. I love John Irving. But this new novel...I just couldn't get past that there are things I don't need to know, especially in great detail. I don't think I'm prudish--I read and appreciated Russell Banks' The Lost Memory of Skin--but I feel like Irving didn't give me enough of the characters to stay with the gory details.

I needed something light but not fluffy after that, so I picked up Paul Doiron's Trespasser. I don't know how Doiron manages to edit Downeast magazine and write really good, character-driven novels but he does. I thoroughly enjoyed his first novel, The Poacher's Son, and I am sometimes skeptical of second novels, but Trespasser is just as good, if not better. A mystery set in Maine and featuring Mike Bowditch, this is not an overly-plotted (at least, it doesn't come across that way)story with a perfect hero. Bowditch is flawed, and the story takes its time. And, most importantly for me, the ending is satisfyingly surprising but not completely out of the blue. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012


After seeing Richard Ford at the Portland Public Library last week, I couldn't wait to settle down with Canada. Besides, I've been on a short-story kick, not that there's anything wrong with that, but I was eager to emerse myself in a novel. Then I came down with an awful cold on Thursday, which I see as the Universe's way of telling me to sit down and read a book. So I did.

Canada is a first-person account of fifteen-year-old Dell Parson's, starting with the robbery his parents commit, and delving into the events which occur as a direct or indirect result of that. It's told by Dell, fifty years after teh evets occur, which is an interesting choice, and gives the novel a quietness versus the racous immediacy it might have had otherwise. Still, even though you know things turn out okay for young Dell (he's alive and literate, after all), as a reader, you want to know how it all came to be. This is no small task, but Richard Ford is a master, even though, as someone at the reading in Portland said to me afterward, he seems like he could be anyone's friend, the kind of guy you'd like to get a beer with.

Canada, like The Art of Fielding, has the feel of an old-fashioned novel. And, done well, there's nothing like an old-fashioned novel. Like a plain donut, some things are what they are because they're good. Canada is done better than most. 

I'm still sick, and my couch is calling me. Next, John Irving's new novel. In some ways, I'm grateful for this cold. (I'd be staining my deck otherwise)

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

God Bless America

I didn't pick Steve Almond's God Bless America because we're nearing the 4th of July (although that is something I would do, if I were more organized). Rather, I saw it recommended somewhere by another author I like, and I've read some of his stories here and there.

I loved this collection. I read it in about three days, and that was with forcing myself to slow down and savor it. I just kept wanting to turn the pages, to be surprised and intrigued by his lovely, misguided characters. And oh, they are so misguided. Honest and human and funny and sad....these are the kind of stories that remind me of people I know, doing stupid things, but trying, really trying. These are the kind of stories I strive to write.

Speaking of much-loved authors, today I had the privilege of seeing Richard Ford read from his new novel Canada. Although I arrived at the Portland Public Library dripping with sweat and with huge-frizzed hair, I sat, sipped my (ridiculously) hot coffee, and listened to this master, this absolute pro, read and answer questions. I loved Ford's Independence Day--but I love his stories even more. Maybe because I mostly write stories and the way he shapes his narrative just takes my breath away. It was interesting to hear him talk about the control he maintains over his work, and how he sometimes wonders if the work suffers because he doesn't let it get away from him. I sometimes wonder the same. And even though I came back to find a parking ticket on my car (I paid the stupid meter..but I didn't read the instructions and I didn't leave the little receipt on my dashboard...blasted technology....), I will never forget what he said: If you aren't doing this because it's important, why are you doing it? You only get one life.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Angel Esmeralda

I really liked the title of Don DeLillo's The Angel Esmeralda. I went to high school with a very exotic-looking girl named Esmeralda (at least, I think I did...sometimes I make things up and then I get confused) and the name makes me think of bold, jump-off-the-roof risk-taking. So, maybe I was a little disappointed because of my high expectations. I didn't not like these stories, but I didn't love most of them. No one jumped off a roof (although someone was thrown). They were a little too quiet, which is funny for me to say because, as a writer, that's the criticism usually bestowed on me. But, maybe I can see the point better in work that is not mine Some of DeLillo's stories just felt too far away from the characters, too circumspect. Maybe I'm a victim of the modern sensibility of virtually attacking a reader's senses--not that I prefer those stories, either. I like more of a balance--a character you can get to know but with some of his mysteries left undiscovered, a story where you can fill in some of the blanks, and you feel compelled to do so. DeLillo's stories brought me in, but, for the most part, I found it easy to leave the characters behind when I was done. That said, there were a couple of stories in this collection that will stay with me--the title story being one (it reminded me of Dave Guterson's Our Lady of the Forest, which I loved and have, many times, tried to re-write) and the last story The Starveling which is an appropriately distant voice for the hauntingly lonely and movie-obsessed protagonist.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walk the Blue Fields

Sometimes, and I believe this is in part due to my overly-high expectations, I'm disappointed when I read the second book by an author I have loved. (Also, I tend to read things out of order, reader a later work after a newer work). So it was with a bit of trepidation that I picked up Claire Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields. I am thrilled to report that I was not disappointed in the least (except that the collection is a slim 168 pages and I just wanted more). Unlike Antarctica, all of these stories are set in Ireland and all of them have that misty, foggy, damp, fairy-tale feeling I associate with Ireland. Maybe that's just me--I've never been. The stories are deeply evocative, brightly emotional, and complete in a way that is satisfying but doesn't feel over-worked. I'm so glad I discovered Keegan and I'm keeping my eyes open for more by her.

A trip to the library is on the agenda for today or tomorrow. Maybe I'll pick up one of the classics I've missed, or maybe I'll re-read something beloved.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Short stories, and Kafka

I've been reading a lot of short stories these past few weeks--the new Ploughshares (with a  fantastic essay by Maine author Sarah Braunstein) as well as the new Glimmer Train. I love short stories because the time commitment is often small but the emotional payoff is usually really big. And, what really gets me is that often I read a story and I don't like it--sometimes I even hate it--but then, the characters hang around in my head, or the ending--that perplexing, convoluted ending!--keeps coming back to me. And the more I puzzle it out, the more I start to like it and even, in some cases, to emulate it in my own writing. Which raises the question--do we have to like a story for it to be good? Isn't the job of writing to raise questions, challenge ideas, make the reader (and maybe the writer) a little uncomfortable? In truth, I think sometimes my intial dislike is really discomfort and I have to give myself time and space to think about the why and maybe turn it around a little.

Speaking of things not liked on first glance, this afternoon on the way home I heard a story on NPR about Kafka. The story was about his papers, and who "owns" them, and what should be done with them. But it made me think about reading The Trial for AP English. Not only reading it, but my friend and I had to team teach it. The first time I picked up that slim little volume, I thought easy. And then. So, not so easy. But that book changed everything for me. What do you mean you don't have to give a character a full name? Obscurity? Disorder? The feeling of the book being put together out of orderI remember sitting at my dining room table and crying as I was trying to piece the thing out. But then, once I had it, once I understood it, it was like I'd found something no one else knew about. And I knew that was how I wanted to write (I'm still working on exactly how to do that). And then, when I learned Kafka had wanted all his papers burned upon his death, I felt a spark of something else--maybe, as writers, we don't even have to know we're good.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012


Oh, boy. I do love it when someone (my dear Librarian friend Kathleen) puts a book in my hands and says "I think you'll love this." Even better when I do. Antarctica is a collection of stories by Irish author Claire Keegan. It isn't new, but I'd never heard of Keegan before. I'm so glad I have now!

These stories are not for the faint of heart. When suggested by Kathleen, she likened it to Kissing in Manhattan, a very dark and strange collection of stories which I loved, but I've found few other people who feel the same. In Antarctica, I especially loved the first and title story but there are other gems in this collection that kept me awake at night, made me scribble ideas on pieces of paper while I drove (I know, but I was careful and I'm afraid I'll forget!), and made me gasp. Some of the stories made me pause, and turn things over in my mind, and consider if I liked them or not---but then, is it necessary to like a story for it to be good? If the characters stay with you (and stay they will), isn't that a sign of a really good story? Even more wondrous for me was that some of the stories were not new (although the argument can me made that there are no new stories). For example, the beautiful sister with the long hair coming home, ungrateful and unwelcomed by her less attractive, harder-working sister--I won't spoil the end, but I saw it coming a mile away. And I feel like I shouldn't like a story that doesn't surprise me...but, then, Keegan writes in a way that is uniquely captivating and that ugly sister has really lingered in my head.

The only bad thing I will say about this collection is that some of the dialogue, especially for the stories set here in the United States, felt a little forced, a little contrived. Like me trying to do an Irish accent. But maybe I was looking for that, I can't say for sure. All I know is that I'm going to be requesting Keegan's Walk the Blue Fields and keeping my eyes out for anything else by her.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Lieutenant

Even though I only skimmed it for my Saturday book club, I was reminded of how fabulous Kate Grenville's The Lieutenant was (I read it fully a few months ago). Grenville, also the author of the similarly-set The Secret River, is extraordinary at placing us in newly-settled Australia. Slowly, but with the sense of a timely unfolding, no rushing, this story takes the reader into the life of Astronomer Daniel Rooke. Rooke is initially hoping to find Haley's Comet but instead he finds a link to humanity--his own and others'--through language. Grenville does a masterful job of underplaying tension so that it builds and builds. She doesn't over-sentimentalize the brutality of the soldiers, or Rooke's friendships, and Rooke's courage is not of a super-hero variety, nor are the others completely one-dimensional. The book is quiet, and the protagonist is quiet, but if you take the time, you will not be sorry. Everyone in the book club loved it, and I think that's a first.

In addition to the two above-mentioned books, Grenville is also the author of The Idea of Perfection, which I also really enjoyed but which, if you read without knowing the author, you would never suspect it had been written by the same. The Idea of Perfection is filled with quirky characters doing odd-ball things, and really running amok through the story. It's a completely different subject matter, not historical at all, and not really something you'd want to give as a Father's Day gift. My mother hated it. I loved it...but then, I really like strange people doing strange things.

I know some people like an author to stick to one genre--they want a story to be what they expect it to be. But I like to see an author with range. It keeps things interesting, as far as I'm concerned.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

A Prayer for Owen Meany, etc.

How is it that I've never read John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany? I've read other Irving, and loved most of it (I have a thing about lost limbs and Irving seems, at times, to taunt me with this), but I'd somehow missed this heartbreaking and beautiful masterpiece. And I'm only halfway through it!

I've been trolling around the website, which is how I came to discover that A Prayer for Owen Meany was one of the 1001 books I should read before I die, or something like that. There were at least a hundred books on the list that I'd never even heard of, never mind read. (did I mention I used to own a bookstore?) Sometimes I think people are making up titles. That said, there are gaps in my reading I intend to fill. What should be next? War and Peace? Virginia Wolfe? I know, I know. I'm working on it.

This past week I also polished off Deborah Crombie's Where Memories Lie. Sometimes, when you're waiting around in a hospital as I was, you need something easy on the brain, which this was. Plus, unlike a lot of literature I love, these light mysteries don't send my emotions ping-ponging all over the place. It's a solid mystery with developed characters, a sense of place, and an interesting plot. I once read an interview with Joyce Carol Oates, whom I deeply admire, in which she said she never has a wasted moment. Meaning she never watches bad TV, or reads anything fluffy. I do wish I could be that disciplined (I also wish I could resist sweets and bread) but honestly, sometimes I just need to give myself a break. Sometimes I need to watch awful TV, and read for the pure pleasure of the story, and put on the radio and dance around to songs about brushing teeth with a bottle of Jack.

Balance, I say. That's what I'm aiming for!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

Last night I finished Nathan Englander's What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank and I loved, loved, loved it. I'm a huge fan of stories anyway (not that I don't love the novel as well) and these beautifully crafted, deeply moving and somewhat (sometimes more than somewhat) disturbing stories are right up my alley. This would be a great book club selection (if you have an open-minded book club) because there is SO MUCH to talk about. Each story is so perfectly done, so completely of itself, so full of memorable characters and scenes...My favorite, or, the story that will stay with me the longest, is Camp Sundown. The mild setting, the guilelessness of the young main character, the dead-on hysterical way the old folks talk...and, then, we know it's coming, we fear it's coming, we're told it's coming, but still the end is a surprise. Still I'm turning this story over in my head, both for the content (how can Englander get away with writing such a thing?) and for its form.

I loved the collection although I have a feeling there will be people who feel strongly the opposite, and I'd love to hear any and all thoughts!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

When I'm Not Reading...

As many of you know, when I'm not reading, I'm writing. And, because several of you have asked, here's a link to my 2nd place Family Circle Fiction Contest Story: I love this story, which is not something I always say years (or even minutes) after I've written something, so I'm happy it found a home. Before Family Circle, it was submitted and rejected many times (nine, to be exact--I keep track). I say this as a way to encourage those of you who may be discouraged writers (myself, at times, included).

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Other stuff besides books

When I don't have my nose stuck in a book, I have it stuck in some other reading material. I used to joke that I'd read anything that stands still long enough. And it was only a little bit of a joke. I read other blogs, websites of authors I love (especially Monica Wood and Ann Hood), magazines (Family Circle, Good Housekeeping), Literary magazines (Glimmer Train, The Sun, Ploughshares), online literary magazines (The Literarian, Narrative, Five Chapters), articles about writing, the Maine Sunday Telegram, the Bridgton News, cereal boxes (the backs and the sides)...This week, I have been obsessed with NPR's three minute fiction. Maybe because I submitted a story of my own for the first time (to NPR, I mean, not ever), or maybe just because I feel a little out of sorts this week and short pieces are about all I can handle...but whatever the reason I've been trolling the NPR website ferociously. Some of the stories I really like (Exit and Heavy are my current favs) and some not so much. I also love reading the comments...not just because I'm voyeuristic (which I am) but because I like the way sometimes people say things that make me think of something in a new way. And isn't that what living life with an open mind is all about? Check it out here:

I also just read Caitlin Shetterly's piece in the Times about her dream house with John Taylor from Duran Duran: I have to say, the more I read of Cait's work, the more I'm a fan. Maybe because she and I are about the same age, this piece really brought me back. I was (and still am) a Bon Jovi fan and I had a life-sized poster of Jon Bon Jovi on the outside of my bedroom door, and a life-sized poster of Richie Sambora on the inside of the door. I never dreamt about marrying either of them (I just wanted to date them both and have them bring me flowers and buy me dinner) because I thought I'd be like my mom's cool friend Gretchen and stay single and childless forever and wear awesome colorful skirts and drink wine. And then, Life has a way of taking you places you never thought you'd go--and then making you realize how grateful you are it turned out the way you didn't plan. :) (at least for me that's what happened)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Marriage Plot

Just finished reading The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and I liked it. I liked the characters, for all their striving and humanity and failings, and I like the way Eugenides handled mental illness, and love, and infatuation. And I liked the ending, I think...and while I'd like to say more about it, I can't without giving it away. Those of you who have read the novel, I'd love to know what you think of the ending. Was it a cop out? Or so genuine and character-driven you went all-in for it? I feel a little short-changed, but maybe I just wanted something other than what I got...and maybe that's okay.

At any rate, this novel made me want to read Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides, which, somehow, I've missed.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


I may be the last person on the planet to have read Andre Dubus III's heartbreaking and wonderful Townie, but I'm glad I finally did. I'm not a huge memoir reader, so it was with great trepidation I began, even though some of my favorite readers have recommended it. Memoirs can be so dry, and self-protective, and just plain boring. Not to mention poorly written, sometimes especially when by someone with as much literary clout as Dubus, although you'd think the opposite would be true. At any rate, my fears were quickly done any with. Right from the start Townie is gripping, and honest, and almost book-shutting raw. What a great balance Dubus strikes between telling his story and not making us break out the tissues, and then be mad at him for being sappy or over-sentimental. I suppose that's what makes a master a master.

Also this weekend, I spent a good amount of time listening to NPR as well as the Telling Room's podcast of their latest Slant storytelling series (the podcast is available free on their website). Hearing stories like Jonathen Safron Foer's excerpt on Selected Shorts reminds me of how heart-stoppingly beautiful words can be, and why I persist in this often-daunting craft.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Made for You and Me

I'm not a big memoir reader but I picked up Caitlin Shetterly's Made for You and Me: Going West, Going broke, Finding Home because I was signed up to take a workshop facilitated by her on Saturday. The book didn't arrive at the library through inter-library loan until Saturday, which meant it was too late to read it before the workshop, but I read it anyway, belatedly. I read it in two days, so that tells you something right there! I couldn't put it down and when I finally did put it down, I dream of Cait and her husband and their epic, heartbreaking journey across the country and back.

Reading this book and attending the workshop made me start to think about my own life--something you might assume a writer already does, a lot. But for me, writing is really escapist, and I almost never write anything even near the truth of my life. This made me pause, once I realized it, and it made me wonder if that's what is lacking from my writing. Maybe I don't need to write a memoir (I'm really not ready for that anyway), but I've started jotting things down, trying to unravel some truths inside all the emotional baggage, trying to find the heart of the story. I think I've been afraid to lay blame to certain things that have happened, to cast people I love in a bad light (or myself, if the truth be told). But reading Caitlin's book made me think that maybe there's a way to get it all out there, to be honest and raw and still kind.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Salvage the Bones

By Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones reminds me of something by Zora Neale Hurston in that lyrical, almost poem-like quality of the narrativee. I don't usually go in for books that have even a hint of animal violence but this was so beautifully written I could not put it down, even after some fairly disturbing scenes. Ward is a true talent at revealing the depths of human emotion, and not all of it despair despite the dark circumstances of this novel. Much of the novel's beauty comes from Ward's carefully chosen, perfectly crafted sentences that land like little poems throughout this world of hurt. But even though this is a novel of death, and poverty, and nature's destruction, it is also a story of family, and rising up, and hope.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Madeline is Sleeping/Ms. Hempel Chronicles

A month or so ago, on a road trip to see my step-son graduate from boot camp at Ft. Leonardwood, I took along Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum's Ms. Hempel Chronicles. I was utterly mesmerized by this charming collection of short stories, centered around the title character as she begins her life of teaching, and loving, and newly exploring the world as an adult. (of course, the down side to that is that the rest of what I brought along with me to read on the trip paled mightily in comparison).

Finally, and with much anticipation, I picked up the acclaimed Madeline is Sleeping. Whenever a book like this gets as much praise as it has, I hesitate to criticize it because I feel like maybe it's a reflection on my pedantic tastes. (for example, as much as I wanted to, I didn't understand Tinkers, prize-winner or not).

Madeline is Sleeping is written in vignettes, and I have to admit I was a little put off by that. But then, I've recently read We the Animals and that was short little "chapters" and I liked that. So I began. Strange things happen, right away, and inexplicably. And then more strange things. Very strange people show up and then go. Let me say here that I am a fan of the non-traditional, of mixing the fantastical with reality (I have a short story that has been widely disliked because of a lion in a woman's stomach). But, maybe it was the combination of the non-traditional structure and the fantastical elements that kept this story from being a true hit with me. In the end, I finished it feeling like there were some stunningly beautiful words and scenes and character renditions but for me it lacked the pull of a complete story.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


A few months ago I took a writing workshop with Sarah Braunstein, author of The Sweet Relief of Missing Children. At the time, I hadn't read the book, and because the workshop was only a couple of days away, I satisfied my curiousity by reading her short story "Driven" ( on the Five Chapters website (a website I really enjoy and highly recommend for other stories as well).

I loved the story. The pace, the character development, the end (oh! the end!).

Eventually I got around to reading the novel, too. (The workshop, by the way, was fantastic. Braunstein is a generous and encouraging teacher.) The novel was beautifully written, and there were parts that took my breath away. But then, I didn't feel like the end was enough--it simply left too much unresolved for me. Maybe because I read the story first (which seems to have been taken more or less directly from the novel) and I so loved it, I was hoping for a few more threads to be tied up.

I'm very much looking forward to Braunstein's short story in an upcoming issue of Ploughshares.  

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Art of Fielding

Thanks to a long weekend, I finished reading The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. I loved this book! As ashamed as I am to admit it, when I saw how thick it is, I hesitated. But, my wonderful librarian assured me I'd love it so I picked it up. And I was not disappointed.

This is an incredible feat of writing--a novel that somehow comes across as old-fashioned in voice and the sweep of characters, and yet, there are modern issues tackled. All of it done with humor and grace and such well-rounded, well-thought-out characters you find yourself rooting for them, even if, like me, you have never been a big baseball fan.

This is a baseball book, and it's not. It's so much more than that. It's one of the best books I've read this year, one that will stay with me long after my thin grasp on bunting has faded.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Monica Wood

Monica Wood is one of my all-time favorite writers. I'm not a big non-fiction reader, but I'm eagerly anticipating her new memoir. In the meantime, I read this essay and I was floored. Because I have a very dear friend who has cerebral palsy, I understand the challenges of making someone's disability true and real, without taking away their individuality. There's such a danger in making someone appear like a least, it's the thing I fear most, and the thing I have not been able to grasp in my own essay-writing.

Monica knows just how to do it. Read her essay here:

I'd love to hear what you think!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Those of you who know me know I love, love, love the short story. The Center for Fiction is a great website for many short stories, from people you know and people you've never heard of. And, it's also a great resource for writers.

The above link is for Ann Hood's story "Hum." This is my kind of story. Character-driven, family-oriented, a little dark, with crisp, clear dialogue and images that will stay with you for a very long time. I think it's just about perfect--I'd love to hear what you think of it!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Lost Memory of Skin

Every once in a while I come across a book that is so good, so well-written, and so disturbing I don't know what to say about it. Russell Banks' The Lost Memory of Skin is that book for me these days. About a convicted sex offender, this book is a tough sell. And yet, Banks does what he does best: reveal the underbelly of society in a way that makes a reader root for the most undesirable characters. Maybe I'm drawn to this kind of writing because my characters somehow always meander off into the unlikeable (so I've been told). Or maybe I'm just drawn to really, really good writing. This book made me laugh, and cry, and want to take some kind of social action. It definately made me think more sympathetically about people who are marginalized. And yes, I think this book will be a hard sell. It's not a light read and some of it is disturbingly graphic. But for those of you looking for something honestly good, and provocative, and eye-opening, read this book.