Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sudden Flash Youth: 65 Short-Short Stories

Edited by: Christine Perkins-Hazuka, Tom Hazuka and Mark Budman

I really liked this collection.  In college I was introduced to the concept of "short-shorts" and I think they are a fantastic literary form!  For the sake of this collection, submissons were limited to 1000 words, and had "an exclusive focus on childhood and adolescent situations."  So of course I thought it was great.

With 65 stories, I obviously would rate some better than others.  There are a few that deal with dark subjects, but I can only think of two off the top of my head.  And they are short, and you can not finish one and still enjoy the rest of the book.

One of my favorites is "The Quinceanera Text," which of course deals with generational cultural differences and values.  But it is sweet and the young girl realizes the importance of her gift. "Will you teach me some of Juanita's recipes?  She smiled,her black eyes disappearinginto the wrinkles lining her face. "I teach you everything I know."  Love.

Another one I really liked was "The Burden of Agatha" which deals with an all too familiar adolescent emotion of guilt.  It is sad, but so relateable.  "Chalk" has a similiar theme.

"Friday Night" is good.  "Kaddish is a prayer that says how great and exalted God is.  You're supposed to recite it when someone dies, even thought that's probably when you don't believe in God the most....you think: eithert God doesn't care or He can't do anything about it."  I realize that adults are writing these adolescent thoughts, but they are powerful anyway.

"Dodgeball" totally captures what it feels like to think your actions can change what others think of you when really, it's still up to them.  I loved "History," when the girl recalls her teacher telling them, "we believe things are true because we've seen pictures, but then he said, someone had to make those pictures.  Someone had to decide which details were important enough to write down."  Which reminded me of a conversation I had years and years ago with my uncle who is a photojournalist.

Reading all these well-written concise stories really made me want to teach.  The conversations and writing assignments that could spring from them seems endless!  I loved that I could read one or two in the 5 minutes I gave my kids to brush their teeth and use the bathroom. 

They are inspiring and thought-provoking and for the most part very, very good. 
Check it out!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I really liked this book! It has kind of a dreamy feel, and very little dialouge. The narration is told in present tense, "all of my life I have longed to be alone in a place like this.....to be in a place where there was only silence." Trond is 67 and has just moved to a remote cottage in the woods in Norway. He has been successful in life, but is grieving the loss of his wife and sister. The story switches back and forth between present day, and the summer of 1948 when he lived with his dad in another remote cottage. It is kind of like a conversation with your grandpa where he tells you what he's doing now, but then shares poigniant moments from his childhood. "The feeling of pleasure slips into the feeling that time has passed, that it is very long ago, and the sudden feeling of being old." I love the way he says that!
One story I liked was a memory he has of his father. Trond was afraid to cut back some stinging nettles because he thought it would hurt. His dad pulled them up with his bare hands, and then said, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." This becomes kind of a theme. When Trond is physically hurt or exhausted, he remembers those words and pushes on. I think it works on another level too. He is mourning his losses, but he is still in control. He can choose when it will hurt.

I really liked his explanation of how the people in town knew him.  He hasn't lived there long, but he has been friendly and made contacts.  That isn't the same as making friends. "People like it when you tell them things, in suitable portions, in a modest, intimate tone, and they think they know you, but they do not, they know about you, for what they are let in on are facts, not feelings, not what your opinion is about anything at all, not how what has happened to you and how all the decision you have made have turned you into who you are."  And he goes on.

This is a bit of a spoiler, but he doesn't have a lot of years with his dad. In one of the present day chapters, he explains, "I close my eyes every time I have to do something practical apart from the daily chores everyone has, and then I picture how my father would have done it or how he actually did do it while I was watching him, and then I copy that until I fall into the proper rhythm, and the task reveals itself and grows visible, and that's what I have done for long as I can remember..."

There are significant moments and memories, but if you are looking for an action packed story, or even tidy resolutions, this is not your book. I noticed a real contrast between the last book I read, which also switched back to memories of the past, but followed a more traditional story line including conflict, rising action, climax, denoument, etc.  Out Stealing Horses doesn't follow that pattern at all.

There are questions left unanswered and characters you never really understand.  But for me, it totally works as a novel.  I liked how one summer has affected his whole life, or at least how he feels about his life.  As he dreams or remembers different moments and details of that summer, you can see the significance.  I thought about moments or conversations that proceeded to deeply affect the rest of my life.

Out Stealing Horses is poetic, in fact the final chapter begins with a paragraph that is repeated word for word a couple pages later.  Petterson's writing is so pretty, thoughtful and dreamy that I forget it was written in Norwegian.  So I am also impressed with Anne Born who translated it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

By Bread Alone by Sarah-Kate Lynch

This book surprised me with it's substance.  It took me a while to read the first couple of chapters, and I judged it incorrectly.  When I finally dove in, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the story.  I don't like when authors' hold a key plot line over your head for chapter after chapter the way the family tragedy was kept a secret in this book.  But I will say that the way it is revealed felt perfect and realistic.

The home that Esme is living in now is a tower.  Each bedroom is on a different floor, and it is called the "House in the Clouds."  I think this is also symbolic of the different layers of the story.  Esme bakes bread every morning, and it makes her happy.  When the book begins, she has stopped baking it and her family is worried.  Her family is fun and quirky, an almost too good to be true husband, a 4 1/2 year old son, her grandma that raised her, her father-in-law and a dog.  Of course they all add something unique to the book.  The current story is speckled with Esme's flashbacks of the summer she fell in love and learned to bake pain au levian

I'll warn you that the flash-back-bread-making (love-making) scenes are more risque than I like to read.  They are few and brief, so I finished this up, but I don't want to shock anyone.

The descriptions of the bread, however, are mouthwatering, and I am interesting in seeking out other books by Sara-Kate Lynch.  There are also hilarious moments, like getting gum stuck in her hair, a quince bouncing down the stairs, or the blinding of the goat.  I could see thisstory adapted into a successful movie.

I liked the way the book unfolds and ultimately the insight that Esme gains.

I recommend this hesitantly, because of the reason I mentioned above and some conversations she has with an old friend that are a little crude.

Monday, July 9, 2012

This Life is in Your Hands by Melissa Coleman

In 1968 Melissa Coleman's parents purchased property in Maine with the dream to live off the land.  They build their home, they planted and cultivated crops, and raised their children in a simple, value-driven environment.  They were organic and back to the land before it was popular.  Their story is fascinating.  Melissa does a great job of helping the reader catch the vision of what her parents believed in and worked hard to create.

This is a memoir, but it ends when Melissa is 9 or 10, so the first half or so isn't really from her memories.  I mean, obviously there are memories sprinkled in, but she has heavily researched what was going on with her family during that time.  There are excerpts from her mom's diary, quotes from visitors and apprentices, and facts from books and news articles.  She pulls them together very well, but it was a little much for me.  It seemed a little too documentary, for example, "Cold pinched the inside of Papa's nose as the first rays of sun bloomed behind the darkened points of fir and spruce surrounding the snow-covered clearing."  This is when she is one, so I guess she's trying to paint a picture, but for me it was distracting and felt too forced.

Aside from the sometimes dreamy over descriptions, I enjoyed this story.  You want to cheer for Eliot and Sue who are working so hard to live the principles they believe in.  Melissa has fond memories and I believe includes every moment that she clearly remembers from her childhood.  There's a great memory of being at the public library.  Growing up on a remote homestead, you can imagine that she is lonely.  "The books surrounded us like wrapped presents.  It was only by opening them that you could find out if they held anything special...In a good story, the characters were telling a secret that you knew was true because you remembered it from somewhere deep inside."  I love that, and I think it shows what a good writer Melissa Coleman is.

From the beginning of the book you know there is going to be a tragic ending.  It's mentioned on the cover, and even hinted at through out the story.  This kind of bothered me because there is a sense of foreboding and I kept thinking...is it going to happen now...

Ultimately this is a well-told story about a family.  Starting with the parents and their passion and dreams.  I think because their story is unique, it's really interesting to read.  I recommend this book, but I didn't LOVE it.

Friday, July 6, 2012

because of mr. terupt by Rob Buyea

This is a charming story of an inspiring 5th grade teacher.  It is told through 7 narrators, all students in the same class.  While they are sometimes cheesy, and maybe stereotypical, I thought their individual stories and perspectives were great.  I really enjoyed this book!

Because of mr. terupt deals with some grown-up issues like divorce, teen pregnancy, special needs students, guilt and death.  But they are all treated and discussed very age appropriately for the characters and the audience.  I passed this on to both my 13 year old and 11 year old sons and they both thought it was a really good book.  I think male and female readers in their age range will like it. 

It's a quick read that deals with sadness and frustration, but is ultimately uplifting and happy!