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.