Short Stories can rock. Honest.

I used to hate short stories. Well, “hate” is a strong word. But I really, really disliked them.

Short stories, at least to someone who loves Really Big Books, can feel like a gyp. Just when the tale is taking off and gaining momentum and you’re invested in the characters – bam, it’s over. You feel like you’ve been a victim of “bait and switch.”  False advertising. Premature elucidation.

The few short stories I had read weren’t even very good. So for a long while, I steered clear.

Then my oldest brother (those boys crop up here often, don’t they?) went to Canada on vacation, and brought me back a short story collection written by the person who would become my Favorite Living Writer (more on her in a future post, I promise.) My mind was forever changed. Well-executed short stories ROCK. Continue reading


The Astronaut

Classification: memoir, non-fiction

Brother #1 came to visit last night. We were talking about books (he’d brought me yesterday’s New York Times Book Review) when he stopped and said, “Oh! I didn’t even know that Frank McCourt was dead. Did you know that?”

“What?” I said. “No, he’s not.”

“Yes, he is! It’s true.” My brother whipped out his iPhone and pulled up McCourt’s wiki page. “Look, right there.”

I pretended to disbelieve the information for another minute. How on earth did I miss that news? Then again, McCourt died in July of 2009, when I was still nursing my second baby. There isn’t a whole lot I remember from that time period.

After Angela’s Ashes (McCourt’s memoir) was published in 1996, even after all the hype and praise, even after the awards, I resisted reading the book for a long time. The main reason? When I picked it up at the store and flipped through it, I noticed that McCourt didn’t use quotation marks around the dialogue in the book.

Well, that’s ridiculous and confusing, I thought, and I set the book down and wandered away.

Eventually, sometime in the early 2000’s, I caved in and bought the book. Once I started reading it I couldn’t stop (and those missing quotation marks were no trouble at all.) When I finished the last page, I looked up and said to myself:

Stunning, stunning, stunning.

That is the most stunning book I’ve ever read.

That’s what I subsequently told anyone who would listen, and it may still be true, all these years later. If you haven’t read Angela’s Ashes, oh, you should.

Frank McCourt grew up in Ireland in the 1930’s, and his childhood defines the term “abject poverty.” His Father was a drunk who periodically abandoned the family; McCourt’s mother, Angela, was left to provide food and shelter for her four surviving children (three others died in infancy.) McCourt lived in places where the floors were covered in water throughout the cold winters, places where there was one outdoor toilet that was shared by the entire neighborhood and was never cleaned by anyone. He ate whatever food his mother could beg for – sometimes there was no food, and the children went hungry. He attended school wearing shoes that were patched together with rubber from bicycle tires, and was taught by Catholic masters who beat their small pupils whenever they felt like it.

The distinctive magic of McCourt’s writing is that it doesn’t contain a trace of self-pity, even when he’s describing the most awful events. His story should be too heartbreaking to read, but it isn’t, because McCourt infuses it with just enough gentle humor and hope.

Angela’s Ashes was so extraordinary, it earned McCourt a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and spent more than two years on international bestseller lists. McCourt went on to write two more bestselling memoirs, ‘Tis and Teacher Man.

Weeks ago, my brother sent me a quote from the TV show Mad Men, and before he even explained the context, I adored the words. “She was born in a barn and she died on the 37th floor of a skyscraper. She’s an astronaut.”

Frank McCourt grew up chasing rats from his crumbling home, battling typhoid and chronic conjunctivitis, and literally licking food grease off of newspaper pages when he got too hungry. He died as one of the most famous, feted, successful writers in the world.

Frank McCourt was an astronaut.

Writing that rocks – The Sparrow

Classification: Fiction

In December of 1998, my husband and I, who were living in Atlanta at the time, flew back to the west coast to attend a family wedding. One evening, my oldest and dearest friend from high school chauffeured me into downtown Portland. We’d been running errands – perhaps we’d been shopping, perhaps we’d had dinner; I don’t really remember – and on our way back to the car we saw a bookstore and decided to pop in.

In some ways, my friend and I were an odd couple. She was physically tiny, and was the most gregarious person I’d ever met – I towered almost a foot over her, and was painfully shy. But we had important things in common: we both played the piano, and sang; we loved to laugh; we were devoted to church; we both loved to read. She and I had often spent entire vacation days side by side on chaise lounges, soaking up the sun and silently working our way through stacks of books and magazines.

By the time we reached the store that winter evening, it had been dark for hours, and it was raining. I remember our wet shoes squeaking on the wood floor as we walked over to the “new releases” table and started browsing. After shaking out my umbrella, I jammed it under my arm, leaving one hand free to flip through books. My friend looked at a couple of titles and then glanced up.

“Oh!” she said. “I just read this great book, called The Sparrow – have you read it?”

I shook my head. “Nope. Never heard of it.”

“Oh, you’ve got to read it. I’m going to find it for you.” She disappeared. I kept wandering around the tables near the front. I was getting hot in my heavy wool coat, but taking it off would have meant having one more thing to stuff under my arm. I kept it on. A minute or two later my friend was back, holding a paperback book, which she thrust at me. “Here. This is so good.”

The Sparrow was written by Mary Doria Russell. The cover was prettily illustrated with what looked like an old painting. Across the top was printed a blurb from The New York Times Book Review that said, “A startling, engrossing, and moral work of fiction.” The New York Times is almost always a sure bet. They employ the best reviewers in the business.

“What’s it about?” I asked, turning it over to look at the back cover.

“Well, it’s about a priest, and he goes, well, he goes up to…” She broke off, then started again. “Well, it’s science fiction, but…”

I interrupted, shaking my head. “I don’t read science fiction.”

“But, no, I know, but just listen, it’s…”

I tried to hand the book back to her. “No, I don’t read science fiction. I don’t. I’m not interested.”

She wouldn’t take the book, so I laid it on the table. We then embarked upon a bit of stubborn back-and-forthing: she’d shove the book at me and insist, using her most charming whine (and if you don’t think a whine can be charming, then you never heard her do it); I’d cheerfully shove it back and started walking the other way.

I should explain. My friend and I, as two hard-headed girls who’d spent a lot of time together, often amused ourselves with this sort of fake-arguing. But in truth, I never had read science fiction, not since I’d enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle’s famous books as a child. I had no real quarrel with the genre; I simply had no adult interest in it.

My friend finally snatched the book up from where I’d laid it on the table. “Fine,” she said. “I’m buying it for you, then. You will love it.” And with that, she marched off to the cashier.

Since I really did trust my friend’s taste, I was now curious; and of course, I would never refuse a free book. She returned and handed over her purchase. I started reading it that night…and couldn’t put it down. I read it in snatches between wedding activities; I read it on the plane ride home.

Mary Doria Russell’s writing is so good, it’s almost shocking. It is nearly impossible to believe that before writing this novel, Russell had only published scientific articles and technical manuals. Russell, you see, holds a PhD in Biological Anthropology. She was a highly-trained scientist, and she brings that level of discipline and detail to her writing. But she also writes with the lyricism of a poet. By the time I read The Sparrow, it had already won a slew of awards.

I don’t want to give away the plot, because it’s a doozy, and part of the great pleasure of reading this book is in the I-can’t-imagine-what’s-coming-next-and-can’t-stop-turning-the-pages sensation. I will say this: the “hero” is a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, and the book begins after he has returned, alone, from a mission that he and a group of colleagues made to a newly discovered planet. He is disfigured and emotionally shattered. The rest of the book explains what went so terribly wrong, as it alternates between a “present-day” interrogation of the priest by the Jesuit order, and the actual narrative of the mission.

At the heart of the book is the spiritual struggle of Father Sandoz. Before he went on the mission, his faith was so strong that his superiors were thinking of canonizing him. When he returned, battered and alone, his faith was as damaged as his hands (about which I will say no more.) The title of the book refers to a biblical passage. Here, three fellow priests talk together, immediately after hearing Sandoz’s story.

“So God just leaves?” John asked, angry where Emilio had been desolate. “Abandons creation? You’re on your own, apes. Good luck!”
“No. He watches. He rejoices. He weeps. He observes the moral drama of human life and gives meaning to it by caring passionately about us, and remembering.”
“Matthew ten, verse twenty-nine,” Vincenzo Giuliani said quietly. “’Not one sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.’”
“But the sparrow still falls,” Felipe said.

After publication, some critics argued that the book should not have been classified as science fiction, largely because the plot does not focus on futuristic technology – the technology in the book is beside the point. The book revolves around the characters, and their relationships and spiritual journeys. It is full of intelligent philosophical arguments, beautifully framed. It is fantastically smart. (As, I have come to learn, the best science fiction is.)

Russell wrote a sequel to this book, titled Children of God. Since then, she has only published two other books, one of which was nominated for a Pulitzer. Her fourth book was published while I was busy having my second baby – I am reading it now. To me, her subsequent books have not quite reached the quality of The Sparrow; but she is still good enough to make me automatically read whatever she writes.

Postscript. My great friend passed away unexpectedly last year. Every time I finish a good book I think of her, and wish I had the chance to call and tell her about it. We shared a love of literature, and a long history, and it is fitting that this wonderful book, which holds a top spot among my personal favorites, was her gift to me. I treasure it, and her.

Writing that rocks – The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Classification: Fiction

Is there anything better than being delightfully surprised by a book that you weren’t expecting to like?

I had never heard of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society when I picked up a paperback copy of the novel last spring, from the display table at my favorite used bookstore. The title nearly put me off – it sounds so silly, worse than The Friday Night Knitting Club (which I had also recently read, and about which I will not be posting.) Also, the book has two authors – Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – which is often a red flag for clunkiness.

I read the “critical acclaim” blurbs on the covers and the first few pages, and they were very good. What clinched it, for me, was a front cover blurb by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she said “Treat yourself to this book, please…” I had recently read Eat, Pray, Love by Gilbert, and since her own writing is superb, I figured she knew what she was talking about. After dithering for only a few minutes, I bought the book.

The entire story is told in the form of letters written from various characters to other characters. There are no editorial explanations, other than a notation at the top of each letter, stating whom the letter was from, and to. This tactic could easily have become gimmicky, or worse, it could have made the narrative sound choppy or confusing. None of these things happened, thanks to the beauty and strength of the writing.

The book, published in 2008, is set in 1946 – but it sounds timeless, not dated.
(It is also one of the very few “squeaky-clean” novels I will be recommending. Approved for all audiences.) It is, at heart, a love story, filled with witty people I wish I knew – by the end of the book, they don’t seem fictional.

Nutshell: the main character, Juliet, a writer who lives in England, becomes pen pals with a man who belongs to a reading group on the small island of Guernsey. He first writes to her because he has acquired a book that once belonged to her (her name and address are penciled inside) – it is a collection of essays by an author they both admire. Juliet, who is searching for a topic for her next book, begins corresponding with him and with several members of his reading group. Eventually, she visits the island for an extended period of time.

The book is light-hearted and fun – sort of like a literary beach-read. What I cannot get over, is how much technical skill the authors displayed. Imagine how tricky it would be to develop all sorts of diverse characters without using the editorializing of either a first-person or third-person narrator. When you create an entire story using fictional letters, you have to describe people and actions with extreme subtlety. The moment you start abusing the system, by trying to cram in extra description that you just really need the reader to know, it will blare out like a foghorn. There’s a reason more writers don’t try to use this format – it’s dang hard.

The poignant back-story of the book is explained in an Afterward. The main author, Mary Ann Shaffer, fell ill and died just before the book was published, so she never got to see the wide acclaim it received. This was her first book. Her niece, Annie Barrows, did the final rewrites on the book, when Mary Ann was too sick to finish. Whatever work the niece did, it fits in seamlessly.

I honestly can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t like this book. I’m sure they exist, I just can’t come up with any, off the top of my head. The story, and the people in it, are simply that charming.

The death of Mary Ann Shaffer is our loss; I would have very much liked to read other work by her. Instead, we are left with this nearly perfect little novel. I guess that’s not a bad legacy to have.

Writing that rocks – Life of Pi

Classification: Fiction

I will concede right off the bat that Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, will not appeal to everyone. But I’ve got to tell you – dude can write.

The book was a best seller when it was published, and won a bunch of awards and other critical praise, but I resisted reading it for years. I got the impression, from the cover illustration, that the book involved a guy and a tiger that sat in a boat and talked to each other. I have nearly zero tolerance for “magic realism,” as it is called in literature – a dislike that probably revokes my literary credentials. (I once eagerly bought and read the fanatically acclaimed One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I hated it.)

Anyway, my oldest brother and I were at Powell’s, an independent bookstore that takes up an entire city block and goes on for days. (Every time I go in there, I’m tempted to tie a bell and a rope around my ankle, in case I need to be hauled out like an Old Testament priest.) We were in the main lobby, hanging out by the bargain table, which is my section of choice these post-income days. My brother saw Life of Pi on the table and said that I should get it.

“I don’t do talking tigers,” I said. I pointedly turned to a different book.

“I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” he protested.

I scowled and sighed, then picked up Life of Pi and flipped through it. I started reading passages aloud to my brother. Within minutes, we were bent double over the table, chortling madly while the other customers gave us a wide berth. The plot isn’t a comedy; the writing is just that marvelously clever. Who was I to resist? I bought the book.

Life of Pi
is separated into three sections. (The author divides it up differently than I do. I’ll give you my version.) The first part sets up the main character (Pi’s) childhood in India. It is part narrative, part philosophical conversation. The story tracks Pi as he learns about animals from his zookeeper father, and it follows his childish attempt to embrace three very different religions at once. The author’s descriptions of zoo animal habits and treatment are fascinating. The appealing qualities of Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are all presented with equal clarity and tenderness. There are many wonderful passages in this section. At one point, Pi muses:

I’ll be honest about it. It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we…But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.

The second section is the book’s tour de force – and it is sensational. Pi’s father closes down the zoo and decides to take his family and all the animals to North America. Their ship goes down in the Pacific Ocean. Pi makes it onto a lifeboat; the only other survivors are a small group of animals, which includes a large tiger. The tiger quickly kills the other animals, and Pi survives on the lifeboat, with the tiger, for 227 days. This sounds really bizarre, I know – but Martel’s writing is so elegant and rich in detail that you would swear that all of this had actually happened to him. It’s simply riveting. By the end of this part, I felt I knew precisely what it would be like to be set adrift on a small boat with a large tiger for a long period of time.

And then, in the third part, the story takes a swan dive into a sea of surrealism, and loses me completely. Pi takes refuge on an algae island that has trees that come alive and consume creatures at night. There are – oh, I don’t even know what there are. This section is mercifully short. I’m quite sure it is supposed to symbolize something, but I’m either not smart enough or not weird enough to figure it out.

At the end, there are five chapters of wrap-up that turn the story on its head. There is a major twist that may or may not be real. My oldest brother, who is a good deal more sophisticated than I am, enjoyed the ending very much, when he borrowed the book. So there you go.

Wait – is this a recommendation, or not? Well…yes. Although the story itself is more than a little peculiar, and it gets macabre, the prose is so lovely that even the most dreadful parts are not disgusting. The book is a treat for writers, because Martel’s writing is exceptional. As for non-writers – if you don’t mind some strangeness, Life of Pi tells a terribly interesting story.

Just watch out for those ridiculous magical trees.