The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, Melissa Bank

I love that there exist books I must read in a day. It’s as freeing a feeling as diving into the ocean. I come up from a book like that sputtering, looking around at everything I’ve forgotten I need to do. The dishes are not just not done – they’re not even in the sink. They’re not even in the kitchen. The laundry hasn’t had a chance to get wrinkled in the dryer because it’s stinking up our closet. My email, which I prefer to keep as close to inbox zero as possible, suddenly balloons. I resort to scribbling down notes from phone calls or numbers for the doctor’s office on the white board on the fridge because otherwise it will be as though those conversations never happened. The book is all that matters.

I read at least a book a week, and sometimes more, so I feel comfortable saying that I read a lot. I read at the gym and when I’m waiting to pick up my husband from work. I stay up too late lying in odd angles to angle the light from his kindle onto my pages, and when I wake up sandy-eyed the next morning, I shake the cobwebs away by reading over breakfast. I’ve always been like this, obsessed, filling the empty spaces with words and stories and my own happy endings.

I do this regardless of the fact that some of those books aren’t the greatest. Not all books are created equal. But we know that, don’t we? We’re readers. If you stick with me here every week, if you’re willing to read about reading, you know this. You know that there are infinite books in the world, and some of them will make your blood sing, and some of them you’ll read every ten years like clockwork, and some you’ll donate without getting past the first chapter.

This is part of the reason why I don’t use a metric system here to talk about the books I read – four stars could mean so many things – I can’t quite wrap my brain about that kind of categorization. It’s not wrong, it’s just not me. I’m the kind of person who pets the spines on books when I have to leave them on the shelves in bookstores. I whisper to them. Don’t worry. Soon, the perfect person will be by, and they will find you and love you as you’re meant to be loved. I am overly sentimental.

When I found The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing last January, I staying with my parents. I’d come out with a couple of friends from high school. They were buried somewhere in Music History, and I was dragging a finger over all the overly stuffy fiction titles that end up in second-hand bookstores. I didn’t need a new book, so of course, I was already holding four of them, and this became the last. Girls was where I drew the line and demanded we buy and sit and have our bottle of wine (because the best bookstores serve wine and have couches where you can sprawl out with your compatriots, clutching your books and laughing over the fact that one of you owns a house now, and one is expecting a baby, and all are incandescently happy that while everything changes, this can still exist). So we did, and it snowed that night, which was perfect, and then I packed up and flew home, and it found a place beside all the orphan books I can’t bear to whisper goodbye to.

And it languished there. Many books do. I’m a raven that way, picking up more shiny titles than I have time to read. Until I do. And often, the paper and glue books I buy, the ones I grab without the benefit of Amazon’s carefully collated selection – often, they are the very best. I fell hard into this book, and the whole time, it reminded me of when I first read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It was eight years ago, but I still remember it stitching itself into my soul like it was yesterday. It’s a funny feeling, and not entirely comfortable. Books like Girls tickle and prick at the edge between what’s right and what’s true. They remind you of the things you’ve done wrong, and the things you’ve left undone, but also of the fact that everyone does things wrong, and leaves things undone sometimes. Instead of loathing that imperfection, this book embraces the frailty that exists in all of us.

Satan’s Short, Heide Goody and Iain Grant

Well, the wait is finally over, and I can say I came in second place in Ten to One! Thank you so much to everyone who supported me and sent votes my way on Facebook. I’m very happy I no longer have to beg votes from family, friends, and strangers, but that won’t keep me from pimping the book itself when it comes out in the fall! It’s a fun read, and I’m really proud of what we’ve put together…which doesn’t mean it doesn’t still need plenty of editing, but that’s okay. I actually enjoy the editing process. I mean, who doesn’t prefer to start with raw material rather than an empty page?!

At any rate, I needed a palate cleanser after last week, and I was finding it difficult to get into anything long. My mother was visiting from New Hampshire, my husband was sick, and my brain was still half in grieving mode from Young Widower. The rest of me was trying very hard not to think about that final round of voting for Ten to One. It turns out, not thinking about something requires nearly as much energy as thinking about it does! Funny how that works, isn’t it?

It seemed fortuitous, somehow, that in the midst of all that not thinking and not working (because between my mum’s visit and playing nurse, there was zero actual work happening), Goody and Grant’s collection of shorts about Clovenhoof was released on Amazon. It was a year ago, in March, that I sent off my audition packet to Grant, and only slightly less than a year ago that I decided I wanted to read his work before I got really excited about the possibility of being invited to join the project.

I read Clovenhoof in a Starbucks in London, and it killed me. I didn’t think its follow-up, Pigeonwings, could possibly hold a candle to it, and then I loved it just as much. Goody and Grant are just dynamite writers, and now that the contest element of Ten to One is over, I can rave about them without worrying about whether it’s a conflict of interest! Instead, I can just be thrilled that they decided to write a few more stories in this universe and then only charge me a dollar for the pleasure of reading them.

Honestly. It’s March – the one month a year that has neither the benefit of a three-day weekend to break up the monotony of the work week, nor the redeeming quality of long lazy summer days (unless you live in the southern hemisphere, in which case, August is your March, so save this series until you need it). This is the perfect time to curl up with unrelentingly funny books. They may not change the dreary weather or help you kick that inevitable St Patrick’s Day hangover (even if you don’t drink, I have to imagine corned beef and cabbage takes time to recover from), but they will bring much-needed light to this slow month. And hey! Since I’ve already read them all, I’m open to suggestions in the comments for other novels that might perk March up for me. Sure, I have a huge stack of books I should be reading, but none of them really screams “escape.” I’d be grateful to hear about your favorite winter break reads…

Salsa Nocturna Stories, Daniel José Older

I have gotten to the point where I can no longer say I’m iffy about short stories. I’ve always loved them, but novels take up so much more space in my brain that I forget how great they can be every. single. time.

It’s not the worse problem to have, of course – a terrible memory means I get to experience that unexpected burst of joy whenever I venture into short story territory. I’m not even picky about genre the way I am with longer books, I suspect because a short story is so much less of a commitment. I can read it in two or five or thirty minutes, and if it wasn’t my favorite, no great loss. I’m not emotionally over-investing, so I have a lot of leeway for experimentation.

Older’s stories fall into the urban fantasy category, and since I wasn’t expecting that when I got the book from my mother, it turned out to be a lovely surprise. While I’m willing to read just about anything under ten pages, the special place in my heart where urban fantasy lives is absolutely infinite. I just devoured this book, with its sweet, interconnected character arcs, each story building on the delicate tales that had come before.

The author manages to capture a New York City that is almost tastable. The overly sweetened coffee with unfiltered cigarettes, cologne masking sweat, rot and the sewer rushes – it all blends together to create a space on the edge of life and death in one of the world’s most vibrant cities. He sweeps the unbelievable in with the want-to-haves, writes friendships as tough as his characters are fragile. Older hovers in the margins of the city, and in doing so, casts his spell over any reader who has been there herself.

He doesn’t shy away from horror, but underneath the creepiness, his gentler heart shines through. He is an optimist, at least on the page, and his characters reflect a kind of friendly hopefulness that seems to run counter to the horrific settings they find themselves in. The balance worked for me though – too much terror and I wouldn’t have made it through the second story, too much light and I would question the true shape of his created world. Swaying in between the extremes, his stories found my happy place and took up residency there.

 

For more about Daniel José Older, head over here.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, David Sedaris

This may sound obvious, but sometimes I reread things simply because I want to feel a certain way. When it comes to Sedaris, my go-to piece is his short story, “Repeat After Me” from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I’m happy to say the story is available for free online both to read and listen to, and I recommend you take ten minutes to check it out if you’ve never come across it before. As a writer, Sedaris is well-known his sense of humor, but I’ve always found his work to be more in the vein of tragi-comedy than anything else, and this story in particular wrecks me every time I read it.

He’s not the person I go to when I want a good laugh; instead, I seek him out when I want to think about what it means to be a writer and a sister and a flawed individual all rolled into one. So much of his work is about his family or his personal life, and it’s painful to witness. Sure, I can laugh at some of it – he’s damn good at what he does – but more often, I sink into melancholy .

All the best comedians are capable of manipulating me that way. The people I find the wittiest are also the sharpest and meanest and stupidest when it comes to the people they love. Those that choose humor as a career are often damaged and in need of a little extra care, and I love that about them. There is something remarkably powerful about a person so vulnerable who is also brave enough to stand up and declare himself a fool. It’s a gift to be able to spin pain into laughter, but it’s even more impressive to do it while retaining more than a shadow of excruciating truth.

I still remember the first time I read this piece, back in 2007. I had borrowed the book from a friend and was flipping around from story to story (which is very unlike me – I’m a linear reader to the last). “Repeat After Me” caught me completely off-guard, and I reread the last page of the story over and over again. That last paragraph buried itself into my heart like a hatchet, and no amount of tugging has ever loosened it from there. I read it at least once a year now just to see if I can look into that moment without flinching. I don’t know what I expect to happen, or if I even really want the feeling to change. I just know that I have to look…

 

For more about David Sedaris, go here.

This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, Sherman Alexie

For the last few weeks, the London weather has drawn me to books about the area – damp, quiet books that I’ve loved, but which say nothing to me off home. Alexie’s words, though, always bring me back to the open skied West. I leave tomorrow for Spain, and then DC, and in less than two weeks, I’ll be home again. As I stand on the brink of this trip, it makes me desperate for the hot, dry climate I’ve come to love, and rereading this story – one I’ve had occasion to go back to many times since I first saw the film Smoke Signals and learned of the author whose work inspired it – grounds me.

I love that I can find it regardless of where I am in the world too. So much of Alexie’s work is available for free online. He often posts flash fiction at The Stranger, but it all it really takes is a quick search and his poetry and stories come up in multiple locations. As much as I rely on the publishing industry to get paid myself and have great respect for the needs of other authors to sell their materials in order to make a living, there is something deliciously appealing about good writing available for free. Libraries, of course, are the best resource for that, but sometimes, when there’s no time to spare, finding a beloved story made freely and easily available can be the perfect cure for a difficult week.

And this has been a difficult week. I’ve already complained enough about the challenges of having a dead computer while traveling, and typing this all on a tiny phone screen only serves to reinforce my intense longing for my (formerly) good, old laptop. Every deadline has been a challenge, every bit of writing, a thumb-numbing slog. I’m ninety percent sure that typing with only two fingers is restricting the output of my brain – picture a brook, dammed by a fallen tree – the tiny trickle that manages to seep through is almost as useless as no water at all. As much as I enjoy reading on my phone is how much I detect typing on it, and my love for the kindle app knows no bounds.

So forgive me my brevity this week, and take the time you might have spent here to check out Alexie’s lovely little stories. It will, I hope, wrap you up in his particular American loneliness – a feeling that tiptoes down the line between sadness and strength.

For more Sherman Alexie, go here
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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.