SUDDEN FICTION: A BOOK REVIEW

March 10, 2015 in Book Reviews

How long does a story have to be to sink into your soul? To have characters that you love or hate or root for or hope they get what they deserve? To have a plot that compels you to keep reading because you have to know what happens? Traditionally, it’s the novel that accomplishes all these things, but short stories, with their narrowed perspective to a single event or character, can be just as powerful.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one of the most stunning short stories I’ve ever read. (Scroll past the acknowledgements to get to the story.) An entire war, an entire lifetime of a soldier’s hopes and dreams and desires and fears is distilled into a series of lists of the things each soldier carries in his backpack and pockets.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson and The Long Walk by Stephen King are both Hunger Games-esque tales of the horrific “games” societies inflict on themselves in the name of superstition or control.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is a haunting portrait of a woman’s descent into madness, The Color Master by Aimee Bender is filled with beautiful and sensual descriptions of color and fabric, and Karen Russell drops you into another world in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, an amazing achievement in creativity and imagination.

What do all of these short stories have in common? They won’t let me go. I read and re-read them just as I do my favorite novels. Despite the fact that they are short stories, the emotional depth of the characters and the plot are arguably as rich as those in a novel. They’re smaller, yes, but no less powerful.

The question is, how short can a story go without losing the power to move us?

The shortest short story, possibly attributed to Ernest Hemingway, is this:

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Six words, but it’s impossible not to feel the heartache that this simple ad must have caused someone.

How about Joyce Carol Oates’ Lethal? (Warning: Adult Content!) It’s only a paragraph long, but I defy you to read it and not come away without feeling like you’ve just been punched in the gut. Or Currents by Hannah Bottomy Voskuil, which is not much longer, told in reverse chronological order, and blows you away with the last line.

This is where Sudden Fiction: American Short-Short Stories, edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas, comes in. Short-short stories, also known as sudden fiction, are stories that are limited in their number of words, but still must adhere to all the qualities that make a short story or a novel good.

This collection of short-short stories consists of stories no more than five pages long and they vary widely in subject and form. My favorite in the collection, Sunday in the Park by Bel Kaufman, is straightforward in form, but it delves into the dynamics between a husband and a wife so completely that when the wife has her final say on the situation, I actually said, out loud, “Oooo, that’s good.” All this in three-and-a-half pages!

A Questionnaire for Rudolph Gordon by Jack Matthews is told entirely in the answers of a questionnaire, but we never see what the questions are. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Hit Man is formatted like a biography, with headers like Early Years, First Date, and Peas: “The Hit Man does not like peas. They are too difficult to balance on the fork.”

The stories in this collection range from serious to funny, from traditional to experimental, and from heartbreaking to “What the heck did I just read?” The greats are well represented: there are stories here written by John Updike, Langston Hughes, Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, and Ray Bradbury. The Afterword has an interesting selection of arguments among writers as to what defines sudden fiction and what it should ultimately be called (sudden fiction? short-shorts? blasters?).

The best part is that these stories are short: even on your busiest day, you can squeeze in reading an entire story filled with plot and characterization that will either pull on your heartstrings or make you laugh out loud in the span of about five minutes. And if you find that you don’t like a short-short, then you’ve only wasted five minutes of your time on it.

Let me know what you think of the short-short genre!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A SHOCKING DISCOVERY

March 3, 2015 in Adventures in Parenting

The other day my kids and I were sitting at our kitchen table eating lunch. I had made myself a serving of my new favorite vegetable, brussels sprouts, and asked my kids if they’d like to try one.

“No,” my middle son said in a tone of voice that meant “I can’t believe you asked that question. You already know what the answer is going to be.”

“No,” my youngest son said and pinched his nose shut to keep the offending smell out. Five minutes later, he wandered over, plucked a brussels sprout out of my bowl and popped it into his mouth on his way out of the kitchen.

“No,” my oldest son said, “I read your blog.”

Wait a second. Whhaaattt? “You read my blog?” I asked calmly, but inside I was frantically rifling through the topics I had recently written about. Had any of them been inappropriate topics for a soon-to-be-fifteen-year-old boy? Did I use naughty language? Did I—gasp—write about him? “Which one?”

“The one about brussels sprouts and Jimmy Fallon.” The one where I said brussels sprouts tasted like bitter dirt. Great. Now he’ll never try one.

“Did you read the part about  Annie Lennox or The Killing?”

“I didn’t read that far.”

“Do you read all my blogs?”

“No…just some.”

Huh. My son occasionally reads portions of my blog. That is…shocking, actually.  It’s also kind of sweet, especially when you consider that I write about brussels sprouts and TV shows called The Killing and not about tips for getting a higher score in the League of Legends video game.

With all my concerns about my kids surfing the internet and watching questionably appropriate Youtube videos behind their closed bedroom doors, it’s nice to know that my son occasionally meanders my way, where the content is consistently G or PG-13 and he’ll be introduced to some great titles should he ever need an idea for a book to read.

But there’s something else: my son is growing up. He’s at an age where we can share things we haven’t been able to until now. We can see movies that are geared to an older audience,  a nice change of pace from movies like The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. Pretty soon he’ll be driving, and I’ll be the one in the passenger seat, controlling the radio station and managing his texts like he does for me when I drive. Reading my blog is only the beginning of the things we can share as he begins the transition from adolescent to adult, and I’m looking forward to every single one.

 

A FEAST FOR THE EYES: ART WALK

February 27, 2015 in Random Thoughts

Our elementary school’s Art Walk displays art work from every student in our school, from kindergarten to 5th grade. Take a look at the beautiful art created by our talented kids!

JUST FOR FUN

February 19, 2015 in Chocolate! (and other less exalted food experiences), Reflections on Pop Culture

Spring is just around the corner, but if you are still surrounded by winter in the Northeast or hiding away from the drizzle falling from the sky in the Northwest, it can seem like spring is never going to arrive. In the event that you need a little pick-me-up to help you ride out the days until sunshine and tulips spring forth, here are some ideas!

Jimmy Fallon

I love Jimmy Fallon, but can never stay awake long enough to catch his show when it airs. Instead, I watch the Youtube videos of his most popular spots. They’re short, so you can squeeze in a viewing even when your time is limited. Some of my favorites are the Ragtime Gals (a barbershop quartet that turns into a quintet when special guests join in), the Saved by the Bell skit, the Will Ferrell and Chad Smith Drum Off, and any one of his Lip Sync Battles. You can’t go wrong, but to start you off, try this little gem of actual phone texts from moms that had me laughing so hard I wound up in tears: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpS4rOwr02s

 

Brussels Sprouts

I hated Brussels sprouts growing up. I thought they tasted like bitter dirt, and so I have avoided them all my life. Recently they worked their way onto my plate at a restaurant and because I had recently been on a chocolate binge, I opted to try the noxious green vegetable for health reasons. The Brussels sprouts were chopped in half, seasoned, and cooked in a skillet, so they were crunchy instead of the steamed, mushy mess I remember from my childhood, and they tasted nothing like bitter dirt. Dare I say it: I like Brussels sprouts! Even better, my local Safeway has pre-packaged, pre-seasoned Brussels sprouts ready to toss in a skillet and serve.

Candy Bar Maker

My son got this as a Christmas present, and it has become one of our family’s favorite things to do in the kitchen. The kit comes with everything you need (except chocolate) to make decorative chocolate candy bars. You may use white, milk, or dark chocolate, or a combination if you like, and any topping you can think of. We are partial to pretzels and caramel bits or crushed candy canes. My kids are fairly generous with the sprinkles and marshmallows too. But here’s the best part: the sizes of the candy bars you can make are small, so there is a built in portion control. These candy bars are half the size of a regular candy bar or less if you use the minis. It is a really fun way to make a dessert that fits your taste buds, and while the clean up is a bit involved, at least you have something to do while you’re waiting the 20 minutes for the candy bar to harden enough to eat. (Available on Amazon)

 

Annie Lennox’s I Put a Spell on You at the Grammys

I did not watch the Grammys this year, but I have watched Annie Lennox’s spectacular performance of I Put a Spell on You with Hozier several times. Oh my goodness, her voice! It’s smooth like wine and perfectly controlled until she unleashes its full power and knocks you onto your feet. If you love music and great performances, this one will definitely brighten up your day. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HZEChv1AaOk

 

The Killing, Season 3

This isn’t fun viewing and it won’t brighten up anything, ever. More likely it will bring you down into a state of darkness and depression that requires a hot shower to rinse off the images of atrocities human beings inflict on each other, and themselves. However, this season is good. Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman are terrific as flawed characters who are also excellent detectives, and Season 3 ratchets up their personal stakes until they are both walking a tightrope. The suspense lies not so much in whodunit, although there is plenty of that, but in whether or not these two characters will spiral out of control or triumph over their own poor choices. These ramifications spill over into Season 4, which I have just started watching. I am not allowed to watch this series too late at night because it is so creepy and disturbing that I don’t sleep well. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this series if you are into flawed characters, detective stories, or excellent storytelling (minus the one important plot twist that was so out of character I couldn’t buy it. Come find me when you’ve finished watching and we’ll talk.). (Streaming on Netflix)

Happy Almost Spring!

THE DILEMMA OF THE STAY-AT-HOME MOM

February 9, 2015 in Adventures in Parenting

 

Someone recently asked me what it is I do all day. As a stay-at-home mom, isn’t that the million dollar question? I know I’ve had my fair share of days where I fall into bed at the end of the day, exhausted, the house a mess, piles of laundry undone or unfolded, and no food in the fridge because I’ve been so busy with my kids that I barely had time to go to the bathroom. You can’t “see” time spent with your kids in the same way you can see a freshly folded pile of laundry or a sparkling kitchen sink. Time spent with your kids is invisible, except for those rare moments when a child brings home a good report card, or remembers to hold the door open for someone, or says “I love you, Mom,” without you saying it first.

However, now that my kids are all in school, I will concede that it is fair to wonder what I do when the kids are out of the house. If you don’t count summer break, winter break, mid-winter break, spring break, holidays, teacher in-service days, half days, sick days, and early release Wednesdays, then I have roughly 23 hours a week to do whatever I want…right? Except my “free time” never seems to exist because I’m busy doing these kinds of things instead:

ME TIME: If you think “me” time involves spending a day at the spa or having lunch with my girlfriends, think again. My “me” time involves things like mammograms and other doctor appointments, haircuts, taking in the car to the mechanic, staying on top of emails, scheduling my kids’ doctors appointments, and updating our family calendars so nothing slips through the cracks.

HOUSE TIME: Cleaning, grocery shopping, laundry, filling the car up with gas, paying the bills, going to the bank, and scheduling household repairs when something falls apart.

ERRAND TIME: Target for school supplies my kids have to have by tomorrow but have forgotten to tell me about it until today, Sports Authority for new socks, athletic cups, mouth guards, and new shoes because they just discovered the entire sole of their existing shoe has flopped off and they have basketball practice tonight.

VOLUNTEER TIME: If you’ve ever volunteered at your child’s school, then you know that volunteering can take on a life of its own. Even the simplest of jobs requires a trip to the store or time spent at the school, or both. If you step into a leadership role, then you’ve committed to asking yourself, multiple times, why you are working this hard and not getting paid…seriously.

SCHOOL TIME: And then there’s a little thing I like to call my Masters program, where every month I’m required to read 2-3 books and write essays on the various crafts the authors are using, write 25 pages of creative work, and read submissions to our program’s online literary journal to see if they’re worthy of being published. Like parenting, my time spent here is largely invisible. I can spend five hours writing and rewriting three pages, only to scrap them the next day and start all over again from a different angle. It takes time you can’t see to nurture the written word.

And that is what I, as a stay-at-home mom, do while my kids are in school.

(Disclaimer: Every once in awhile, when the stars align, I spend an entire school day on the couch watching daytime TV, even if I’m not sick. I am a mom 24/7. I do not get nights off, and my weekends shuttling kids back and forth to their games, birthday parties, and other activities are no weekends at all. I have to take my time off when I can.)

 

 

 

2015 NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS (A BIT LATE)

January 26, 2015 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself

 Photo from 

Advanced Healthcare Physical Medicine

Normally I like Januarys. After the trifecta of the fall/winter holidays, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, I enjoy the relative calm of January. It’s a time of rebirth with New Year’s Resolutions and a chance to begin new habits or embark on life changes before spring blooms and we all emerge from our cocoons pale but happy, ready to enjoy the bliss of summer. But for various reasons, my last several Januarys have, well, sucked.

In January (and into February) 2013, I watched my dad die.

In January 2014, I had full mouth gum surgery, leaving me hungry and in pain and stitches for six weeks.

This January 2015, I exercised myself into an acute lumbosacral sprain (aka back injury). Here’s what you cannot do with this type of injury:

a)     Bend over.

b)    Lift things.

c)     Sit/drive without pain.

d)    Stand without pain.

e)     Take the “good” drugs because you still have to drive your kids to soccer/basketball/lacrosse practice.

Here’s what you can do:

a)     Lie down on an ice pack.

b)    Watch daytime TV.

c)     Skip vacuuming, cleaning, laundry, and picking anything up off the floor.

d)    Eat whenever you take your over-the-counter pain meds (which is often) so you don’t get an upset stomach.

e)     Spend lots of time at the doctor’s office and in physical therapy.

The good news is I am doing much better now and have been cleared to ease back into running tomorrow…hooray! I also have the three best sons a mother could ask for. They took over the laundry, helped me with the grocery shopping (I pointed at things and they loaded the items into the cart and the car), and put my socks on for me without rolling their eyes. They worried about me while they were at school (“What will you do if you drop your phone on the floor?”) and showed me how to pick up things with my toes. They literally saved me this month, and I could not be more proud of the men they are turning into or  more grateful for their help.

The bad news is that my house is a disaster area and everything I haven’t been able to get done this month is now looming over my head like a dark cloud, ready to unleash its fury of deadlines that I’ve postponed.

While in years past I have struggled to come up with New Year’s Resolutions that I think are meaningful enough to sustain me throughout the year, this year’s resolutions came easily, albeit late:

a)     Be happy. Always find the joy regardless of my circumstances; don’t wait for it to find me.

b)    Be healthy. In exercise and in eating (no more finding comfort in a bag of Hershey’s kisses, no matter how good they taste!).

c)     Be dedicated. Whatever I choose to do (achieve, persevere, heal), give it my all.

Wishing you all a Happy, Healthy, & Dedicated 2015 and A Fabulous February!

 

 

 

IT’S STILL CHRISTMAS AT MY HOUSE!

January 6, 2015 in Adventures in Re-Discovering Myself, Making Life A Little Easier

 Love this “tree” from UC Davis!

It is an odd thing to leave your home the day after Christmas. After a marvelous Christmas Day, I spent December 26 packing my suitcase with books, schedules, and writing samples I had critiqued in preparation for my red-eye flight to my Winter Residency, ten days off the coast of Mystic, CT. Time was limited: between packing, laundry, and chowing down on Christmas cookies, the only Christmas cleanup I could manage was taking down the tree.

My ten-day residency was suspended in time. We were holed up on a tiny island where our days revolved around workshops, seminars, readings, and meals. We had no TV, thus no contact with the outside world, and no protection from the biting wind coming in from the sea looking for skin to slice through. It was almost as if we were living in a snow globe, an isolated world with periodic snow flurries.

When we were released back into the real world, I flew home to a house glowing brightly with Christmas lights, a fireplace lined with stockings, and Santa and snowmen decorations covering every mantle and window sill. There are still Christmas cookies in the freezer (for better or worse), and our living room is dotted with presents that have yet to be put away and stray scraps of wrapping paper that did not quite make it into the trash bag. There is a Christmas card on the counter I have yet to mail and a pile of wrapped Christmas presents I need to box up and send. (Naomi, your gift is going to be late!)

On the plane ride home, I made detailed lists of all the things I needed to do, including taking down the Christmas decorations. But now that I’m here, I am not feeling a big rush to shut the door on Christmas 2014. My Christmas season was cut short, so being surrounded by the holidays for a little longer seems fitting, and not only because it cuts down significantly on my workload.

Wishing you all an extra dose of the holiday spirit! (And maybe someday soon I’ll get to those New Year’s Resolutions.)

DECEMBER: RUNNING THE GAUNTLET

December 23, 2014 in Adventures in Parenting

I love Christmas! It’s my favorite holiday, which means I can get a bit carried away with baking Christmas cookies, decorating the house and the tree, and finding the perfect stocking stuffers. This year, though, on top of my Christmas preparations, I also had to juggle my reading/writing assignments for my Masters program. It wasn’t long before I realized that December was kicking my ass. Something had to give, and since it couldn’t be my homework, I was going to have to (gasp) scale back Christmas. It did not go well.

ME: Everyone pick your favorite Christmas cookie, and that’s what I’ll make.

OLDEST SON: That’s only four kinds.

ME: Yes.

OLDEST SON: Don’t we usually have seven or eight different kinds?

ME: Um, yes.

FINAL VERDICT: I made seven different kinds of cookies, but before you think I caved in to my son, this was entirely my idea. I love baking (and eating) cookies, and since I had just purchased a new Christmas cookie magazine…

ME: What do you guys think about getting a fake tree this year?

MIDDLE SON: Yes! Real trees are too much work.

OLDEST SON: That will ruin everything.

YOUNGEST SON: I’ll go with whatever the gang wants.

FINAL VERDICT: We got a real tree. Again, this was my idea. I didn’t like the fake trees: they were the wrong shape. So we got a giant real tree complete with a pine fresh smell. It took us half a day to trim the branches, cut down the trunk, carry it in, get it upright, tie it to the wall so it wouldn’t fall down (which has happened), and vacuum up the pine needles. My middle son was right: real trees are a lot of work.

ME: I am not putting all these ornaments on the tree by myself. You guys have to help.

OLDEST SON: I’ll do it.

ME: Great!

OLDEST SON: Do I have to put them all on?

ME: No!

OLDEST SON: Do you care which—

ME: No! Whatever you do will be perfect!

 

My 12 Days of Christmas looked like this:

12 glasses of wine

11 stores I went to that did not have the gift/size/color I was looking for

10 workshop samples critiqued

9 required books read

8 ½  foot real, beautifully decorated Christmas tree

7 kinds of cookies

6-ty minutes watching Jimmy Fallon Late Night YouTube videos instead of getting my work done (awesome!)

5 hour energy shots

4 hours spent at the movies (The Hobbit and Night at The Museum: rounding out 2 trilogies in one month)

3 hours spent dealing with !@#* Christmas lights with half the strand out

2 gifts that won’t arrive in time for Christmas

1 sick kid

With Christmas only a few days away, the end is in sight! It was a tough month, but I am now reaping the benefits of all my hard work. Now comes the fun part: enjoying quality time with my family. Wishing you and yours a very Merry and Magical Holiday Season!

 

THIS IS HOW YOU LOSE HER: A BOOK REVIEW

December 5, 2014 in Book Reviews

If you’re looking for something different, Junot Diaz’s short story collection This Is How You Lose Her is it. Prepare to entire a different culture through the eyes of Yunior from the Dominican Republic. Poverty, violence, terrible treatment of women, sex, and racism in terms of the myriad of different skin colors and nationalities and their statuses are all exposed against the backdrop of an unrelenting search for love.

I’m warning you now: there are a lot of naughty words and thoughts in this book, and in the beginning, Yunior is not exactly likeable. In the first story The Sun, The Moon, The Stars, Yunior tells us straight up:

I’m not a bad guy. I know how that sounds—defensive, unscrupulous—but it’s true. I’m like everybody else: weak, full of mistakes, but basically good. Magdalena disagrees though. She considers me a typical Dominican man: a sucio, an asshole.”

By the end of the story, after hearing about how Yunior cheated on her and the disrespect with which he spoke about her, I tended to agree with Magdalena. But keep reading, because in the next story Nilda we see a bit of Yunior’s childhood, which sets the scene for his big brother Rafa’s fate played out in The Pura Principle. Considering the unlikability of Rafa, it is surprisingly poignant, especially in terms of how these events shaped the Yunior we first met. The next story, Invierno is a heartbreaking account of the tyranny Yunior’s father held over both his sons and his wife, preventing them from leaving their apartment for “no reason other than that’s what he wanted.” Yunior, the asshole we first met, is becomes multilayered as we learn more about him until the final story, and the best in my opinion, The Cheater’s Guide To Love, which just about breaks your heart.

The stories are not in chronological order, and one story, Otravida, Otravez does not feature Yunior. Yet they all share the vivid, unapologetic, wonderful voice of Diaz who draws us into the Dominican culture and doesn’t let go. Come dip your feet into Yunior’s world, where it is sometimes harsh, sometimes disturbing, sometimes heartbreaking, and always compelling.

(The only thing missing from this book is a glossary. I would have loved to know what some of the slang terms he used meant, particularly when it came to classifying women according to their nationality.)

 

 

OLIVE KITTERIDGE: A BOOK REVIEW

December 1, 2014 in Book Reviews

The Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout is a collection of 13 short stories about Olive Kitteridge, either directly or indirectly. Olive is a rich, prickly character. A retired schoolteacher with a husband and a son, she is tough, controlling, critical, and proud, but she is also loyal, kind, and capable of being hurt. We first learn about her through the eyes of her husband Henry in Pharmacy, where we see her rigidity and coldness, but that view of Olive is immediately offset by the following story Incoming Tide, where Olive’s kindness is absorbed by her former student, returning to his hometown to kill himself.

So the novel continues, exploring the happenings in the small town of Crosby, Maine where tragedies and hurts of all shapes and sizes afflict its inhabitants. Each time the prism is turned to a new set of characters, we see a new perspective of Olive, until by the end, whether you like Olive or not, it is impossible not to feel for her, particularly in the heart-wrenching Security, where all her faults in raising her son come back to haunt her during a visit with him and his new family.

I loved Olive Kitteridge. Every story is full of complex characters involved in challenging situations, both big and small. Starving finds Harmon and Daisy, a couple having an affair, embroiled in trying to rescue an anorexic girl. A Different Road follows Olive and Henry through a horrible event in a hospital restroom, and Tulips has Olive visiting the mother of a killer in order to fill the loneliness of her days. Strout’s writing is mesmerizing. She knows exactly how much to reveal and when to reveal it, so that each story is rich with both what is said and what is left up to the reader to discern. It is a slow pageturner, in that I wanted to rush ahead to see what happened, but I also wanted to slow down and savor the quality of Strout’s writing. This is one of those novels that I was sorry to see come to an end.

Luckily for me, it doesn’t have to because Olive Kitteridge is now a miniseries on HBO starring the incomparable Frances McDormand from Fargo. I am looking forward to spending more time with these unforgettable characters, especially Olive herself, who I have grown to love.