Sunday, November 23, 2014

A reading list for cold winter nights

I realized something odd as I contemplated what I might say here tonight. I don't think I've ever written a book review or even recommended a book, even though a lot of people ask me what I like to read. I think the closest thing to a book recommendation I've written was for the vagina coloring book.

I confess I've never been a particularly big fan of short stories in the past, but I've been teaching short stories and flash fiction to my students this semester, so I found myself drawn to several excellent books of short stories. Since the holidays are upon us, and some of you might have time to read a book or two during your winter vacations or on days you're snowed in, here are a few of my recommendations for new short fiction collections.

First, because the queen of all things fiction belongs at the top of every list, I must recommend Margaret Atwood's latest book, Stone Mattresses. Atwood just turned 75, and she's at the top of her game. If you haven't read her before, I recommend you go on a binge and read all of her books. She's written over 35, including speculative fiction, short stories, poetry, children's stories, and a decent book on writing. She's Canadian, so her punctuation drives me nuts sometimes, and I found a disappointing typo in the first story, but that's nitpicking. I couldn't put this book down, and I even forced my creative writing classes to read sections of it.

I have to share one instance of coincidence that happened while I was reading this book. One of the stories is about a not-so-distant future society in which a militant group decides all old people should die and stop using precious resources. They force all the workers out of a nursing home, leaving the residents to fend for themselves, and then ..... well, you'll just have to read the book. We all know that could never happen though, right? Of course not. And yet, just after I read that horrifying story, I heard a true story on NPR about a custodian and a cook who stayed and took care of residents of an assisted living home in California after the owners abandoned it. Maybe Atwood's future isn't so far-fetched after all. It's a sobering thought for us Baby Boomers.

The second book I want to recommend excited my friend The Professor so much he was posting passages on Facebook. The book, by Wells Tower (is that the coolest name ever?), is titled Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. I checked it out from the library and loved it so much I had to buy a copy. I also insisted on reading my favorite passages to my students, my co-teacher, Elvira, and anybody else who would listen. Here are a couple of passages from the book:

“The bell on the cat's collar roused her. He'd brought her something: a baby pigeon stolen from its nest, mauled and draped on Jacey's pillowcase. The thing was pink, nearly translucent, with magenta cheeks and lavender around the eyes. It looked like a half-cooked eraser with dreams of someday becoming a prostitute." -- "Wild America”
And this one:

"Not long after the affair had run its course, Bob and his wife were driving to town when Vicky looked up and saw the phantom outline of a woman's footprint on the windshield over the glove box. She slipped her sandal off, saw that the print did not match her own, and told Bob that he was no longer welcome in their home.” -- "The Brown Coast"

This book is Wells Tower's first collection of short stories. I'm looking forward to book number two, whatever that may be.

Finally, my third recommendation, also a first for the author, is Karen Russell's collection titled St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. These are some of the most imaginative, magical stories I've read in a long time. The title story is about little girls who were born to werewolf parents and then taken to be raised at a Jesuit school for girls. 

As the other two books on this short list did, Russell's little book of 10 short stories made me feel like a preschooler writing nonsense on the walls with a crayon. Surely we shouldn't both be called writers. Short fiction is not only difficult to write well, it's often difficult to read -- highly literary and often so character-based the story is nonexistent. Not true of any of these books, although Tower's book might come closest to that genre of short fiction. All three of these books  kept me riveted, wanting more.

I'm not going to tell you any more about them though. Just read them. Let me know what you think.

(David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, also has a new book of short stories titled, Problems with People: Stories. I'm only about halfway through it, so I'm reluctant to recommend it. I've enjoyed the stories I've read, and I expect to like the rest of the book. Do they excite me as much as the stories in the 3 books above? Not really, but so far they've been a solid read. If you love short fiction, you might as well check the book out.)

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