No Matter Where We Go, Henrik Norbrandt

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

I have so little time to spare today that I’m going to share a poem instead of a review. I read it for the first time in college out of The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry for a class I hated. That book, however, has stayed with me through eight moves, and this poem has inspired stories, art, and poetry of my own almost every year since I first read it. Reading it, for me, is like visiting an old friend who still lives in the house where he grew up – all familiar smells, and that broken-in chair, and memories clinging to the edges of absolutely everything.

No Matter Where We Go
No matter where we go, we always arrive too late
to experience what we left to find.
And in whatever cities we stay
it is the houses where it is too late to return
the gardens where it’s too late to spend a moonlit night
and the women whom it’s too late to love
that disturb us with their intangible presence.
And whatever streets we think we know
take us past the gardens we are searching for
whose heavy fragrance spreads throughout the neighbourhood.
And whatever houses we return to
we arrive too late at night to be recognized.
And in whatever rivers we look for our reflections
we see ourselves only when we have turned our backs.

(translated from the Danish by the poet and Alexander Taylor)

The Secret-Keeper, Kate Coombs, illustrations by Heather M Solomon

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

I’ll be honest – on the Monday after Thanksgiving, you’re lucky to be getting a review. This is the one holiday I refuse to travel across the country for, instead spending it with my husband and some close friends in our own home watching marathons of Buffy and Angel and buying Christmas presents online, and I never have time to read. The only exercise we get for four days is playing DDR on the mats in our living room, and we subsist on milkshakes made out of pie or holiday cookies, so you can imagine that my brain basically reverts to that of a manic, sugar-high twelve-year-old boy’s. I completely lose my ability to concentrate for about a week afterward too, which is unfortunate because the last week of November is always deadline heavy for me. I basically have to tie myself to a chair in a room with no internet to get anything done. It’s not a pretty detox process, and it doesn’t leave a lot of extra energy for books. In fact, it leaves none.

So, again, lucky. Lucky that as I was procrastinating cleaning the guest bedroom, I got sidetracked by my collection of children’s books. Of that collection, about half are from my childhood (the ones I’ve managed to beg, borrow or steal from my parents’ sentimental grasp) and the other half are gifts (or gifts to myself) of new, wonderful stories that I’ve shared with students (whose sticky jam hands are never allowed near them). One of my favorites in the second category is a beautiful book with painted illustrations called The Secret-Keeper. I’ve read it dozens of times, and I’ve given it as a gift to the few other people I know who love children’s books as much as I do.

It’s such a simple, yet unusual story. I could tell you the whole thing in maybe three sentences, but I don’t want to because I believe the best thing about great children’s books is getting to read them for the first time and discovering how the author and/or illustrator can make magic in just a handful of pages. It’s a unique gift. I’ve tried my hand at it a few times and I am not overstating the case when I say I am terribly unsuited for the task. People seem to think that just because these books are short, anyone can write a good one. That is a misguided notion. I have read a huge number of children’s books – from the wordless, to the rhyming, to the intended for an older audience than they appear – and many of them are tedious, obnoxious, banal…I fear for you parents and teachers out there, because inevitably a child within your keeping will come across a really awful book, and it will become instantly beloved. You will have to read it ad nauseam, and you will understand exactly what I am saying.

This is why great children’s books are that much more special. When I was teaching my very youngest students, I read Big Red Barn and Jamberry  four or five times a day, and I still enjoyed them every time (impossible to believe, but true). There were…others that I did not care as much for, and the children asked for them just as often (until I hid them and pretended I had no idea where they had gone because I’m a grown up and could do that). They were too young for a book like The Secret-Keeper, but when I worked with the pre-K class, I would bring it in, along with other favorites, and I would have them look through the books and create their own stories based on the illustrations. We would talk about what they saw happening, and sometimes they would ask to hear the story as written, but it didn’t matter whether they wanted to hear the original story or not, because what I loved most was watching them develop their own passion for story-telling.

One of the greatest things about children’s books and short stories is that they allow room for us to tell a story of our own, or to at least believe we could if we wanted to. I don’t often get that urge when I read a novel – it’s daunting to imagine creating a whole world with plots and subplots and a cohesive narrative – but when I read something short, it sets off a reaction in my brain that says, “Hey! 300 words? You could do that!” It’s an exciting feeling. It’s an opening for people who have an inkling they might want to be writers but are afraid to start. Will a first picture book or a 10,000 word story be great? Maybe. Probably not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing (and, well, everything), it takes practice. But you don’t have to let anyone read it, if you don’t want to. And if you do want to, well, just imagine that child who loves a story even when her parents can’t see any redeeming value to it, and know that you have an audience out there, somewhere.

 

For more about Kate Coombs, go here. Heather M Solomon doesn’t have a site, but a search will point you toward more lovely illustrations she’s created.

Happy Thanksgiving!

No review today, folks. To those of you in the US, I hope you have a great holiday weekend. To those of you outside the United States, please, for the love of all that is good, enjoy the non-Thanksgiving food you get to eat today. Seriously. This holiday has the worst meal. It’s all brown. Also, you should probably appreciate that I am most likely the only American you’ll ever know who hates stuffing, turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, gravy, pie…It’s awful. I plan to survive on cornbread and wine, while dreaming of all the foods I would rather gorge on today…

Oh, and if you’re bored and need a holiday-themed book to occupy the time between courses, my all-time favorite is Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving. Even though I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my parents in six or seven years, I still feel a little happier knowing that at both my house and theirs, this little piece of my childhood is being read again.

Be warned: if you share this book with the wrong child, you may be stuck reading it aloud for the rest of your life, long after its charm has worn off. And it’s surprisingly long. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

Sense Memory, Sherman Alexie

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

I was probably seventeen the first time I saw the movie Smoke Signals. I didn’t know then that it was based on a short story called “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” from Sherman Alexie’s book, Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. I just felt strangely touched by the story. Even though the circumstances were far removed from my own, I felt a connection to both the characters and the story. I also felt uncomfortable talking about that connection because even then I was aware that there was a fine line to tread when it came to showing interest in cultures that have been assimilated or destroyed by what are essentially western European values. I can’t remember whether or not the idea of cultural exoticism specifically came to mind, but I do know that I was concerned that sharing this affinity I suddenly felt for a culture I barely understood would seem disingenuous at best and pretentious at worst.

When I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a few years ago, those feelings returned in a rush. I was reading a book about a life very different from mine, but I had an understanding with Junior nevertheless. He was tougher and more resilient, and he had to work infinitely harder for everything he wanted and got; I knew without a doubt that this kid’s baptism by fire had made him a fundamentally better person than me. I was able to stop short of fetishizing his brutal life because it wasn’t that he was a stronger person that fueled the connection. It was actually his weaknesses – the way he saw pain and handled grief. His heart felt things in a way that my heart did. He became one of those fictional friends we all find from time to time; we don’t plan to look to them after we’ve finished their stories, but they stay on our heels nonetheless.

Since then, I’ve started following Alexie on twitter, read quite a few of his short stories, and come to the conclusion that as a writer, he must just exist on resonant emotional bandwidth. I don’t know how else to explain it. It’s more than being a gifted writer, although he is that. The characters he writes might be strangers to me, but they are strangers who feel and see things in a way that is uncannily familiar.

Every so often, he posts a link to free short stories that have been put online at The Stranger. I always read them and then bookmark my favorites; “Sense Memory” was one that has stuck with me for the last few months. It’s a tiny story, really, almost more of a poem, and I just love it. He has a blunt style – straightforward to the point of reminding me of essays written by pre-teen boys – that is, of course, if those boys had the finesse for emotional devastation that he possesses (which, in my experience as a pre-teen girl, they rarely did).

 

If you’ve read back in the archives, you may have seen a response I wrote to Alexie’s reaction to an article concerning censorship for young readers. He is as eloquent when he is speaking to this issue as he is when he’s writing fiction, and it would be difficult for me to give any but the highest recommendation to an author who is willing to speak out about  the rights of children and young adults to read freely and passionately. It’s fortunate for my reputation, then, that he also happens to be excellent at what he does.

 

To learn more about Sherman Alexie and his work, head over here.

Dave and Liz and Chicago Save the World: A Short Story, John Scalzi

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

I’ve had this story bookmarked for about two months now, in preparation for that week in NaNoWriMo when I want to stab myself in the eye for ever thinking this novel-writing thing was a good idea. I knew this time would come because it always does. Sometimes it’s as early as the second weekend of November, but I’ve had the icy terror of reality (reality being that this novel is terrible, makes no sense and should be dismantled one letter at a time while I cry in a corner) hit me as late as Thanksgiving. This year, I thought I’d celebrate my father’s birthday with my own personal writer’s breakdown.

Fortunately, this story is what I’ve kept behind the “Break Glass in Case of Emergency” sign. I didn’t read it when Scalzi posted it in September; instead I squirreled it away for safekeeping because I have discovered that he is one writer who can make me laugh in the face of giant plot holes. There is something about his style and his storytelling – my roommates in college would have called it, oh so delicately, “balls to the wall” – that makes me feel just that much more invincible wielding this pen as a sword. He seems like the sort of person who wouldn’t be afraid to kick down the door of a terrible story, and that is exactly the kind of attitude I need right now.

I love Redshirts. I love Scalzi’s blog. I especially love that this little story is free, and that you can all read it right now, if you so choose. But mostly I love that he is the kind of writer who inspires me to take no prisoners in my own war against novel-writing. Because I love these silly, lovesick, snarky characters I’ve created who never quite get around to fighting for justice because they’re too busy pining for each other (even when I hate them because theyjustneedtogetoverthemselvesandsaysomethingalready).

I may lose control of this ship, crash and burn before I reach the 30th, but then again, there may be a damn good story waiting to be written from the life boat where I watch it all go under. I’ll let you know in fifteen days…

In the meantime, go read Whatever. Scalzi’s always got something to say about something.

Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

 

Invisible Cities is not exactly a collection of short stories, but it reads very differently than a traditional novel. I read it for the first time during my semester abroad; I was taking a class about travel writing, and it was one of the books assigned. I loved it. I used it as the basis for a paper I wrote for the class in which I created my own cities. In the book, each “chapter” has a name such as Thin Cities or Cities and Signs, and although I can no longer find the paper itself, I remember that my cities were called Cities and Love. I was nineteen then, and obsessed with travel and love and poetry. This book was food for my soul.

Holding it now, I can still remember where I was the first time I read it cover to cover. My college’s semester abroad program was a bit unusual; the school sent eighty students to a castle in the Netherlands for a term, where four days a week, we would be taught by English-speaking Europeans or American ex-pats; the other three days, we had rail passes that allowed us to travel wherever we liked or could afford to go. I arranged my class schedule so that I had classes only three days a week, leaving one day when all my friends were busy and I could do my reading and writing. I needed that time because during that semester, I loved my classes. I never felt like I was doing busy work, but instead, felt as though my professors were offering me a look into a world I had been imagining existed for years, and I didn’t want to disappoint them or myself by being unworthy of that opportunity. I worked very hard and cared deeply what they thought about my ideas. The evening that I finished this book, I was in my bedroom overlooking the moat. The sun was setting and I could hear people heading out to the pub from where I was sitting with the window open. I felt completely disconnected from the world, and at the same time, completely in love with it.

I’ve read this book now four or five times, and every time I do, I remember what it felt to be young and naive and stupid and excited about the unknown. I recall that glimpse of independence – of that feeling of being in on a secret with the rest of a more sophisticated world. Every time I read it, I feel a little further away from that girl. I’m reminded of all that was good then, and all that is good now, and inevitably I also remember all of the things that aren’t or weren’t good too, and I am forced to embrace the whole world of change again. It’s hard, but some part of me must love it because no matter where I go, I keep this battered copy of Calvino on my shelf.

Instructions: Everything You’ll Need to Know On Your Journey, Neil Gamain, illustrated by Charles Vess

Just a reminder that during November, I’ll be reviewing short stories instead of novels. This adjustment will hopefully allow me to complete both the manuscript due December 1st and 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. 

Once every November, I read Instructions.

This month is the one time of the year when I abandon all reason and try to be a novelist. The rest of the year, I write more practically. I dream smaller. I tell stories I know the endings to. I replace characters of my own with those written by more talented, or at least more persistent hands.

I am less myself from December through October, and I have not yet figured out how to change that. In November, I am frazzled, distracted, overwhelmed. I make mistakes and don’t bother to correct them. I let stories become more important than anything else, waking early and going to bed late just so that I can have a few extra hours in this filled-with-holes world I have created. I feel intensely alive the entire month. It is glorious.

And this journey I undertake for thirty days once a year necessitates that I reread this book. It reminds me to approach the words with a sense of wonder, to allow for adventure, to have stupid amounts of fun. Come the first of December, I will have to accept the flaws, the editing, the ridiculous plot – but for now, I am allowed to write with all the abandon of a child. It is a worthwhile thing.

You should find this book and spent time looking at the pictures, because they are wonderful, but until then, here is Gaiman reading the whole thing to you, because the internet is excellent that way.

For more about Gaiman, head over here.