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Posts Tagged ‘short stories’

I read a couple of good books and listened to a third last week as part of the book bingo challenges I’m doing at the library where I work and my local public library. But, The Computer Scientist has planted the idea in my head that maybe it would be good for me to deliberately not finish either book bingo. I haven’t decided for sure, but I’m reading whatever I want this week whether it fits a bingo card or not.

I read a graphic novel from the offspring formerly known as Teen the Younger, Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley, who wrote the Scott Pilgrim series. It’s the story of Katie, a young woman who is a chef with a successful restaurant, about to open a new one. Things are not going well with the renovation (something I, in the midst of a kitchen remodel that hit a much more minor snag this week, can identify with), or with the rest of her life. A strange encounter in the night leaves her with mushrooms and a note that tells her she can write down a mistake, eat a mushroom, go to sleep, and wake up with a new life.

Like any good fairy tale there’s are a couple of “witch” figures — house spirits, in this case. The heroine has to make several mistakes with the magic and things have to get much worse before they get better. It is a very enjoyable read, with interesting and vivid art, that moves along quickly.

The other book I read, The Purple Swamp Hen is a short story collection by Penelope Lively, whose How It All Began I loved, as well as Dancing Fish and Ammonites.  I love short fiction and this collection did not disappoint. The title story is one of my favorites; it’s told from the point of view of the unusual bird depicted in a Pompeii fresco, who tells about the decadent and mostly unkind humans in villa before the Vesuvius eruption. Which is not as weird as it sounds. I enjoyed the whole book really, but another standout was “The Bridge,” which deals with a long married couple living separate lives mainly because they have parallel memories of a tragedy, which allows one to move on and the other to remain stuck with holding that memory at bay. Lively is a genius at depicting human nature in all its faulty glory in a few brief pages.

I listened to the audiobook version of  One Man Guy by Michael Barakiva. It’s the story of Alex Khederian, an Armenian American teen whose strict parents are both a source of pride and frustration. Alex has to go to summer school even though he passed all his classes, because his mom and dad want him to be in honors classes like his older brother. There, Alex gets to know Ethan, one of the charismatic older students from the rowdy crowd at school known as the drop outs. Alex admits they’re not much in the way of troublemakers given that he lives in a fairly affluent school district in New Jersey. But Ethan drags Alex on a forbidden adventure in the City and in no time they are inseparable and Alex is taking chances he never dreamed of.  It takes Alex’s best friend, Becky, to help him see how he really feels about Ethan. As in any good romantic comedy, a mishap causes a minor disaster — Alex’s parents ground him, possibly ending his relationship. Will love prevail? Will the Khederians trust Alex again? Will he make honors? A funny, sweet, but not overly treacly, love story that attempts (fairly successfully) to deal with multiple cultures: suburban New Jersey high school, gay New York, and Armenian American. I was hungry after listening as Barakiva includes mouth- watering details about the Khederians’ favorite meals.

I’ve moved on to a book I heard about on The Readers earlier in the summer, that I don’t think actually fits any book bingo squares. I can resist the urge to fill every square. Really.

 

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Ok, Wildwood: a Journey Through Trees I mostly read before vacation, but finished on Saturday. Roger Deakin, who died before this book was published, was a fascinating man. He renovated his Elizabethan farmhouse, which was more or less a ruin when he bought it, and was well known for his nature writing. What I most enjoyed about Wildwood is his delight in his subjects, whether the rooks in a nearby wood, the people who love the natural world as he does, artists, trees, hedges — he was apparently insatiably curious about the planet and the people on it and I learned all kinds of interesting things as I read, from how cricket bats are made to where apple trees originated. I found this book while shelf-reading (a project in libraries, in our case undertaken every summer, whereby staff compare a list of books that should be on the shelf to the actual books on the shelf, to check that they are where they should be). It was a serendipitous find of the highest order. I’d like to read Deakin’s other work, if only for the language. Here’s a bit from a chapter on a trip to the Pyrenees:

“We collect sweet, fresh chestnuts, easing them from their hedgehog husks. Following a steep-sided holloway veined with the exposed roots of beech, holly, hazel, chestnut, maple, ash, and oak, we drink from the woodland springs. As noon approaches, crickets begin singing hesitantly, and young lizards venture on to the sunny track.”

Even if I wasn’t already interested in his subject (and I am a little bit tree mad since reading The Hidden Life of Trees), I’d read that all day.

On our vacation to Maine last week — the first weeklong trip the Computer Scientist and I took alone in nearly three decades — I packed only a few books. One I’d been wanting to read for some time: The Peabody Sisters: Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism by Megan Marshall. I reviewed her book about Margaret Fuller back when I was still writing a column, but this book came to me via my neighbor, who loved it. You may recall I wrote here about her family inviting me to choose books from her collection after she died — this was one of those titles. I’d been waiting for a good time to read it. I figured a week in Maine was a good time to take on a meaty history book and it was. I really thoroughly enjoyed it, both because the Peabody sisters are fascinating women and because I love learning about the history of New England in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Marshall spent twenty years working on this book, explaining in her introduction that she had to learn to read the sisters’ handwriting and that of their family and friends in order to complete her research. I really respect the effort that went into the book, and the fascinating details of the may interwoven lives the Peabody sisters touched. If you don’t know much about them, the eldest, Elizabeth, coined the term “transcendentalism” before any of the men who later made it famous, and was an incredibly gifted thinker and writer. Her legacy to aAmerica, among other things, is kindergarten. Mary, the middle sister, was a teacher and writer who helped Elizabeth with her work and later, helped her husband, Horace Mann, with his. The youngest, Sophia, was an artist and also married Nathaniel Hawthorne. Marshall brings them and the people they knew to life, illuminating the social, cultural, and religious environment that shaped them and the day to day lives they led. I thoroughly enjoyed The Peabody Sisters and would like to wander around Boston and Salem visiting the places where these fascinating women lived and worked. I’d also like to read biographies of some of the rest of their circle, starting with Horace Mann.

When I was just about finished with The Peabody Sisters we visited Elements, a used bookstore, coffee house and bar in Biddeford (much like Book & Bar in Portsmouth. I was fairly restrained in my purchasing, but I did buy Gramercy Park: an American Bloomsbury by Carole Klein. It seemed to be similar in spirit to Marshall’s book; rather than covering one family’s impact on a period, it covers one neighborhood’s impact on several periods. Klein begins with Samuel Ruggles, who wished to preserve some open space as Manhattan expanded north, and began planning to create the neighborhood with its exclusive park in the center in 1831. By the 1840’s homes were being built around the park. Straight through the 1930s, when Klein’s book ends, a parade of interesting New Yorkers lived in Ruggles’ lovely neighborhood, and many more visited. I enjoyed reading about the many writers and artists but also about people I knew less about, like architect Stanford White and inventor and Cooper Union founder Peter Cooper, critic, novelist, artist Carl Van Vechten (who was a close friend of Gertrude Stein, James Weldon, Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald). Again the book made me want to walk the neighborhood — I’ve been to the Strand several times and never realized how close I was to Gramercy Park. Klein wrote several other books that I am interested in tracking down.

My final vacation read was a collection of William Trevor’s short stories, After Rain, that I found on the free cart at work (librarian benefits: we see donations before anyone else does). I’d never read the much acclaimed Trevor but as longtime bookconscious readers know, I enjoy short fiction. This book was a little sadder than I am in the mood for lately — world, local and family events offer enough difficult emotions for the time being. But I persevered because Trevor really is a master at this form. “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and the title story were my two favorites. The former opens simply: “Violet married the piano tuner when he was a young man. Belle married him when he was old.” The story goes on to tell of the two marriages, “He had given himself to two women; he hadn’t withdrawn himself from the first, he didn’t from the second.” It’s a lovely story.

“After Rain” is set in in a little “pensione” in a small town in Italy where a woman named Harriet visited for years with her parents, and has fled when a relationship ended. In a rain storm, Harriet takes shelter in the “Church of Santa Fabiola” and looks at an Annunciation, “by an unknown artist, perhaps of the school of Filippo Lippi, no one is certain.” When Harriet walks back to her hotel, she is still thinking of the painting: “While she stands alone among the dripping vines she cannot make a connection that she knows is there. There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.” Beautiful. And true — I’ve felt that way, where the connection I was trying to make was just beyond me.

The painting Trevor refers to is this one:

annuncia

Annunciation
1497
Panel, 176 x 170 cm
Duomo, Volterra, by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli

I wrote not that long ago about attending a talk at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum about another annunciation painting and buying a book abut the exhibit. On Sunday, just before we moved the former Teen the Elder (now nearly 24) out of his house in Boston, we stopped at the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Botticelli exhibit, which included some works by Fillipo Lippi. I’ve always loved when my reading and life intersect.

 

 

 

 

 

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We had two snow days and a late start this week, plus as I mentioned in my last post, I’m really getting into my book bingo card. So I read three books!

I had three squares I wanted to fill. The first was “A book from the Books & Brew book lists.” I chose The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. It’s a debut novel that got a lot of buzz last summer, and I really enjoyed it. It’s the story of four grown siblings in New York, the Plumbs, who’ve all been counting on “the Nest” — an inheritance fund their father, who made his fortune in absorbent materials found in feminine hygiene products, diapers, and meat tray liners, set up to distribute to each of them on the youngest sibling’s 40th birthday. Leo, the eldest, is the family ne’er do well, who made a bundle selling a gossip website and has been in trouble ever since. When the book opens he gets into a drug-addled crash, injuring a nineteen year old catering waitress. His mother taps into the Nest to settle his affairs, and the rest of the book is about how the other siblings await Leo’s reparations — Bea, a writer who has been stuck on a dead-end book for years; Jack, an antique store owner who didn’t tell his husband he took out a second mortgage on their summer place; and Melody, who can’t afford the perfect suburban life she is trying to give her teenaged twins.

As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the sibings’ lives and their families, but Sweeney also works in details about contemporary American life – 9/11, the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, SAT tutoring, gay marriage, the gentrification of Brooklyn . . . . Yes, it’s a book about New York, and that’s both a pleasure and an annoyance, in that it’s fun to vicariously enjoy the city, and it’s aggravating to read about privileged people feeling badly that they can’t keep their summer home or they can’t get away with not filling out financial aid forms or they can’t quite become an “it” novelist while living pretty much free in a dead lover’s apartment and having a job where they’re allowed to work on said novel. A few times I wanted to yell, “Hey, there are real problems in the world.” Still, it seemed possible that was part of the point, and also, it wasn’t enough of a detraction to keep from enjoying the story, which is Austen-like in it’s social commentary and it’s contemporary “novel of manners” sensibility.

Will Leo make good? Will Melody ever figure out what her daughters really want? Will Jack push his patient husband too far? Will Bea notice that her long suffering boss not only admires, but loves her? Just as there’s fun in reading about Jane Austen’s well-to-do characters, I didn’t ever completely lose patience with the Plumbs. My brief quibbles: a few minor characters play relatively important roles but we hardly get to know them. And the final pages skip ahead a year, and at one point even tell us what’s going to happen further in the future, a device I’ve never enjoyed.

The next square I wanted to vanquish was “A book of short stories.” I’d had my eye on Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith for some time, ever since reading that in the time it took her to write and edit the book, 1,000 British libraries closed. Smith wrote the book in part to draw attention to the importance of libraries, and she alternates short stories, all of which deal in some way with words or books, and brief commentaries on libraries by Smith and many of her writer friends. Public Library, Smith says, “. . .  celebrates the ways our lives have been at least enhanced,  and at most enabled and transformed by access to public libraries.” I read it in one sitting, and enjoyed both the fiction and the tributes. It’s one of those books that caused me to look things up and wonder things (How many libraries have closed in the UK? (depends where you look and how you define closed) Why haven’t I ever read anything by Katherine Mansfield? Why haven’t I heard of Olive Fraser?) This was the perfect read on a day when the snow was falling hard and I could sit and muse on the meaning of libraries in my own life. If you like short fiction, the stories are a delight.

Finally, I needed to fill the square “A book about weather or the environment,” so I read The Hidden Life of Trees by forester and conservationist Peter Wohlleben. This is one of those books that compels the reader to lift her head, exclaim, “Wow, listen to this,” and read fascinating tidbits to her family members, whether they want to hear them or not, and whether the only family members in the room at the time are feline or not. (Examples “There is a fungus in Oregon that is 2,400 years old and weighs 660 tons!” and  “There is a spruce in Sweden that is 9,550 years old!!” “There’s a quaking aspen in Utah that has more than 40,000 trunks and is thousands of years old!” “Trees scream!”) I couldn’t get over what I was reading and I will, as many other reviewers have stated, never look at trees the same way. Wohlleben explains the life of trees and their incredible abilities to deter pests and adapt to changes in climate, cooperate with each other and with beneficial partner species, raise their young, communicate, and learn from their environment. As the author says of trees, “I will never stop learning from them, but even what I have learned so far under their leafy canopy exceeds anything I could ever have dreamed of.” I learned so much from this book, not only about trees, but also about the human capacity to understand the world, and hopefully, to preserve it.

And now, on to the square “A book whose title begins with ‘W.'”

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I’ve written here before about not finishing books and how hard I find that. This summer I’ve not only let go and left books unfinished, I’ve allowed myself free-range grazing in books — starting and setting them aside and returning to them. Why the change? I think this reading style fits the chaos of my life life right now.

One adult child is about to be a senior in college (yes, longtime readers, that’s the former Teen the Elder) and is working from home doing an unpaid internship, which as you can imagine isn’t very gratifying — there are a lot of requirements and stipulations from an organization that not only isn’t paying him, but also isn’t always doing what they said they would. He’s sticking it out but isn’t thrilled, and mostly hopes it will look good on his resume to have completed the internship. His younger sister (Teen the Younger) is going to be a senior in high school, another tumultuous time in life, and she doesn’t feel any more satisfied with her summer. I’m still reviewing for The Mindful Reader column and occasionally for Kirkus but both of those have not gone as planned this summer either — par for the course in journalism, but still an additional dash of unpredictability.

There’s a medical issue in the family, plus all the usual daily life stresses of work, errands, remembering to mail things, carrying on with keeping up the house and the laundry and all that jazz. We also decided to have some long-hoped for work done to the house, mostly outside, but disruptive nonetheless for around a month now. And Teen the Younger decided to completely redo her room (inspired in part by The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), which has been great, but has resulted in much of her old room moving into the garage and needing to be dealt with. Yes, the Computer Scientist helps, but he’s as caught up as I am in the maelstrom of generally unsettled and unsettling emotions and decisions and stuff out of place because of the work, and a million little things to be taken care of.

So, I’ve started and stopped reading. Repeatedly. I’ve returned more library books unread than I care to recall. At the moment I have two books going, both of which I’ve been reading for weeks: Mindfulness in Action: Making Friends With Yourself through Meditation and Everyday Awareness by Chogyam Trungpa and The Stories of Jane Gardam. Both are excellent. Both can withstand the chaos. Mindfulness in Action was compiled and edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian and is one of over two dozen posthumous works by Chogyam Trungpa. It goes beyond describing how to practice mindfulness meditation and gets into the nitty gritty of what mindfulness is and does. It’s wise and kind and gentle, and very insightful.

If you’ve read bookconscious regularly you know that I love Jane Gardam. I’d read her grocery lists. And I’ve reviewed many short story collections before as well — a good short story, like a good essay or poem, makes me happy. There’s something about compact forms, well crafted, that I find really satisfying. I’m around halfway through this collection and I haven’t read a story yet that I didn’t like. Gardam’s subject, as always, is humanity in all its messy, marvelous glory. Maybe the messiness is what is especially appealing to me, given the way things are around here these days.

Oh, and we have a kitten. Gwen, short for Guinevere. She’s compact and perfectly lovely too, but trying to introduce a kitten to our cat is also not conducive to finishing a book.

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Last week the bookconscious household visited Isle la Motte, Vermont. We rented a cozy cottage on the west side of the island, with copious views of Lake Champlain and its gorgeous sunsets. We walked, biked, ate large breakfasts of fresh local eggs accompanied by many pork products, picked raspberries, visited farm stands, grilled most of our dinners, made s’mores (a first for the Computer Scientist) over a camp fire, kayaked, canoed, looked at the lovely blue moon, sampled local maple creemees, apples, cider donuts, ice ciders, and beers, and relaxed. It was a really perfect end of summer week, and a memorable family vacation.

I took along four books and ended up reading all of those plus three and a half more on my iPad. It was heavenly. Spending long stretches of time lost in a book brought back my childhood summers and the joyful sense of freedom I felt, reading as long and as much as I wanted.

Most of what I brought had been in the “to-read” pile for some time: Dave Eggers‘ novel A Hologram for the King (funny and touching but felt to me like an overgrown short story), Margaret Drabble‘s novel based somewhat on her family history, The Peppered Moth (Wow! An amazing multigenerational story that’s also a kind of social history of women; I want to read everything Drabble has ever written!), Elinor Lipman‘s essay collection I Can’t Complain (sealed my previous view that Lipman is not only someone I’d like to know but also someone I’d like to be), and Paul Harding‘s forthcoming novel Enon (both devastatingly brilliant, as I expected it would be, and just plain devastating).

The three e-books were: Aimee Bender‘s The Color Master (short stories, which I checked out of the NH Downloadable Books website while giving a demo to a patron at the library a few hours before we left for Vermont because I remembered that Ann Kingman recommended it on Books on the Nightstand; I liked some pieces, including the title story, but didn’t like others), Virginia Woolf‘s Mrs. Dalloway (I had somehow managed not to read this yet, and I loved it), and Katharine Britton’s Little Island (which I’ll review in September’s Mindful Reader column).

The book I started on vacation and finished yesterday, also an e-book from the library, is Anthony Marra‘s A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaLongtime bookconscious fans know I am generally suspicious of “It” books that the literary industrial complex promotes heavily. I tend to be a contrarian about books I’m told I will love. Besides, with works like Mrs. Dalloway still to read, I’m not interested in every hotshot emerging writer that comes along. But in this case, the hype is justified. Marra is so young; like Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger’s Wife, it’s hard to imagine how with relatively little life experience he managed to tap the emotional range required to conjure his characters, people of various ages living in war torn Chechnya. Which he didn’t even visit until the book was nearly finished. And like Obreht he blew my mind.

Great literature is emotionally evocative and universally relatable — it takes you so richly into the characters’ experience that it doesn’t matter whether it’s set in a place and time and culture you are unfamiliar with. I’m probably never going to live in a war zone, God willing. I knew only a little bit about Chechnya before I read this novel. But I ached to the core for these people, and Marra’s stunningly beautiful writing had me both turning pages and savoring, even the sections full of violence and horror that in lesser hands would have made me skip. It was especially moving to read in light of the conflict in Syria, as I followed the news and tried to imagine what it’s like for ordinary people caught in a civil war.

I’m really fortunate that I get to read so many good books. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is beyond good.

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I enjoyed George Saunders‘ book of essays, The Braindead Megaphone and his earlier story collection, In Persuasion Nation.  The New York Times Magazine has already anointed Tenth of December as the best book of the year. In the article making that bold proclamation, Saunders is also interviewed. It’s a very interesting read that gives you the sense of him as human being as well as insight into his writing process. He sounds like a humble and hardworking guy as well as a genius. Even daunted by a) feeling I can’t add much to what’s been said about Saunders or this book and b) being embarrassed to gush about a writer I admire so much, here goes.

The stories in this collection are mostly set in places that seem very much like ours except something is just different enough to give you a slightly off-balance feeling as you read, while you get your bearings in the strange land of Saunders’ imagination. In “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” poor immigrants come to America to be “SG’s” — they are strung by a microline through their heads and hang on racks as yard decorations. Other than that, the setting is completely familiar. In “Escape from Spiderhead,” young criminals are sent to a center for pharmceutical experiments in lieu of jail. The experiments test emotion-setting drugs that can temper the amount of love people feel.

In “Home,” which is mostly about a returned war veteran whose family is completely changed (mother has a live in boyfriend and is being evicted, sister married a jerk and has a baby, wife left him and remarried), there is one detail that makes us feel as strange as the veteran does: a store selling plastic tags reading “MiiVOXmax and MiiVOXmin.” Neither the reader nor the characters really learn what they’re for. In “Victory Lap” the boy whose parents are very controlling must place a geode in the yard before they come home. We never learn why.

The stories aren’t really about these weird details. “Victory Lap” is about calling upon your true nature in a crisis — even this boy, whose parents have molded his life so firmly, can find a reservoir of strength in an emergency even though it violates many of his parents’ rules. “Home” is about the futility of war, its impact on the ones who go, and the disjointedness that results when those at home are completely disconnected from their emotional wounds. “Escape from Spiderhead” is a commentary on the our culture’s dependence on and trust in pharmaceutical solutions. In the way other normal human emotions and variances in personality have been made into “conditions” to be treated, Saunders writes of love as a treatable disease.

Other stories are set in places not discernibly different than our own. These are just as moving, tragic even. “Puppy,” which juxtaposes two mothers each trying to do their best for their families, might be the most heartbreaking story I’ve ever read. “Sticks,” in just two pages, tells the story of a man desperate to tell his kids there’s more to him than the emotional absence he’s offered, as he decorates a pole in the yard, his “one concession to glee.” The narrator says, “We left home, married, had children of our own, found the seeds of meanness blooming also within us. Dad began dressing the pole with more complexity and less discernible logic.”

Both “Exhortation,” a story in a memo which captures the strange futility of a contemporary workplace filled with rules, rubrics, and benchmarks, and “My Chivalric Disaster,” about a man working at a medieval re-enactment whose dose of KnightLyfe (a drug that makes him speak in Renaissance style) causes him to act chivalrous to disastrous result, address the ways low skill, low pay work, when combined with unthinking or overbearing management, creates a system in which people live in either (or both) physical or psychological poverty, unable to express themselves and sapped of a sense of self.

The title story is beautiful, strange, and sad, a tribute to the imaginative powers of childhood and the redemptive resources of old age, to the pain of being rendered helpless by illness and infirmity and the reckless hope of youth that drives us to overcome helplessness, to believe in our own big hearts. I can’t imagine a story that better balances those experiences.

I love a book that makes me think and also entertains and Saunders’ writing consistently does that. The issues he ranges over are big and current — he is holding a mirror up to contemporary American culture. But he’s doing it in a fun house, showing us how silly we look with just a slight distortion of the smooth glass we normally gaze into. It’s not a hopeless book though, and there are glimpses of humor even in the most tragic stories. The questions Saunders raises would be fun to discuss in a book group.

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As I prepared to write my first post of 2012, I thought I hadn’t read much in December; I was too busy, surely? I returned to Gibson’s Bookstore as a holiday bookseller, continued working as a nocturnal reference librarian, did all the usual holiday prep, enjoyed time with Teen the Elder home from England. Plus, we hosted my brother for a visit, had a couple of dinners with friends, and celebrated the holidays and our anniversary.

Somehow, I read ten books as well. I can chalk that up in part to the lack of reference questions at the end of the term at the college where I work. I got a lot of reading done in between answering questions about printers and flash drives.

One notable thing about my December reading was that of the ten books, half were short story collections, and another was an art book with very short essays. These were the perfect books for a month when my “to-do” lists were always in flux and there seemed to be more to bake, cook, or prepare every day.

I’ve always enjoyed short fiction and essays for the same reason I love short forms of poetry.  It’s very satisfying to read a work that is beautiful and complex but also compact, completing the work of convincing the reader of its merits with fewer words.  I like a nice thick novel, an exhaustive work of nonfiction, or a meaty epic poem. But the shorter forms never fail to impress me more for working so well within their structural limitations.

I confess, another reason I focused on short stories in December was my sheepish realization that there were still a few of last Christmas’s gift books in my “to read” pile. Among those were three of the four books of Ox-Tales. I read and reviewed Earth last January. In December I read Air, Fire, and Water. These collections are original stories or excerpts from longer work- in-progress from well known writers, commissioned to benefit Oxfam’s development work.

In Air, I especially enjoyed “Still Life” by Alexander McCall Smith, about a woman living in a remote home on a loch in the Scottish Highlands and her encounter with one of the vistors who comes to hunt there; “Suddenly Dr. Cox” by DBC Pierre, about a drifter in Trinidad and his remarkable life; and “The Desert Torso” by Kamila Shamsie, about a man smuggling a Buddha statue through the Pakistani desert to India, and how the experience impacts him.

My favorite story in Air is “Goodnight Children Everywhere” by Beryl Bainbridge, about a boy who finds himself drawn to an old radio in his grandmother’s house. As the story proceeds, readers discover the radio is playing a jumble of old and current broadcasts. I loved the mysterious twists in this brief tale, and the dramatic ending.

In Water, I liked David Park‘s “Crossing the River,” a modern Styx story; William Boyd‘s humorous and touching story of a young actress and the crazy film set where she’s working, “Bethany-Next-the-Sea;” Joanna Trollope‘s “The Piano Man,” because I just love her writing; and Michael Morpurgo‘s “Look at Me, I Need a Smile,” which drew me in despite the fact that I didn’t want to like a story about a boy whose soldier dad has died, and who is about to be caught up in another tragedy.

My favorites in Fire were Geoff Dyer‘s “Playing With, which is a slight but deeply philosophical story about the choices we make and the possibly random outcomes they generate; John LeCarre‘s brilliant political fable, “The King Who Never Spoke;” and Ali Smith‘s marvelous story “Last,” a lovely piece whose protagonist is fascinated with words. More on Smith’s latest novel shortly.

When “Last” opens, we read, the main character’s thoughts are bleak:  “I had reached the end of my tether.” But after a strange experience helping a wheelchair bound woman on an empty train,”I felt myself become substantial.” In between she notes, “and now, background-murmuring through my head again, for the first time in ages, was a welcome sound, the sound of the long thin never-ending-seeming rolling-stock of words, the sound of life and industry, word after word after word coupled to each other by tough iron joists, travelling from the past through the present to the future like rolling stones that gather moss after all.” Sounds to me like the feeling a writer has after a dry spell.

The New Yorker Stories is a much larger collection, 500 pages, and it includes stories Ann Beattie published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006.  While I’d read a few of her pieces in the magazine from time to time, it was interesting to read such a dense collection.  Reading work from different decades on the same themes, a sort of fictional cultural history of America unfolds.

Beattie tinkers with the same subjects over and over but every story is unique. She writes mostly of relationships — marriage and friendship, love and family.  Her characters are often overcoming something — war wounds, divorce, addiction, disappointment, estrangement and loss. Some of the best pieces include a child’s perspective on the strange world of adult interactions.

Beattie manages to make each short piece highly specific and polished, transporting readers with myriad sensory details, descriptions of meals, weather, sounds, rooms. And she weaves in details that place the stories in specific times and locations.  I admire her skill — she’s an amazingly effective writer, and every story is deft and impactful. But the stories themselves are a stark reminder of human flaws.  Read in such quantity they left me feeling somewhat haunted.

Another book full of sensory detail and human flaws that really carried me away was  Comfort and Joy by India Knight. At first glance it’s a light chick-lit kind of book; a quick, fun, seasonal read. But I found it entertaining and sneakily wise. And I was left very much wanting to be friends with the main character, Clara.

Telling the story of three Christmas’s (and flashing back to some childhood ones) at Clara’s, Knight explores what holds family and friends together and why Christmas seems to bring out all the longings people have the rest of the year.  She peppers the story with very funny, very spot-on observations about relationships, friendships,and dealing with life’s ups and downs.

Speaking of funny, I also read the third Gerald Samper book by James Hamilton-Paterson, Rancid Pansies. This one seemed as if it wasn’t going to be so funny when it opened — Gerald is living in England with friends, recovering from the loss of his Italian home in an earthquake. After getting good news about the sale of film rights for his last book, he prepares one of his horrid (and horrifying) gourmet conconctions for a dinner party and ends up inadvertantly poisoning the guests.

Shamed and distressed, he returns to Italy, along the way deciding his next project will be to write the libretto for an opera about Princess Diana. Whose name can be anagrammed into Rancid Pansies. His old neighbor Marta is back (her disappearance in the previous novel, Amazing Disgrace, was due to a gig writing a movie score in Hollywood) and agrees to write the opera’s music. Several other characters from the earlier books appear as the hilarious plot unfolds.

I thought this was the most satisfying plot of the three Samper novels, again a  farce, but with a tighter story line that really moved along.  It may also have been the funniest, although I thought Cooking With Fernet Branca and Amazing Disgrace were also very funny. The scene in which Gerald has a cameo in the opening night of the opera playing Prince Phillip had me laughing out loud.  And wishing the BBC would produce a  mini series if they haven’t already.

The Samper trilogy were from Europa Editions, and was the thirteenth book in my 2011 Europa Challenge.  I was going for fourteen, which was the Ami level.  I reached my goal with another story collection, The Woman With the Bouquet by Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. I liked the first story in the book, “The Dreamer of Ostend,” a love story with a mystery, in which the narrator isn’t sure what’s real and what’s fiction.  And the title piece, which tells the story of a nurse who blossoms into her true self only after a blind patient convinces her she is beautiful.

For the 2012 Europa Challenge I’m aiming for Cafe Luongo Level, which means reading twelve Europa Editions.  I have my first of the year, Margherita Dolce Vita by Stefano Benni, checked out of the library and am looking forward to getting started.

Speaking of libraries, last January I had the pleasure of visiting the Library of Congress when I attended the ABA Winter Institute. It was a quick visit, but absolutely delightful. Last summer I visited the LOC mobile exhibit when it came to Concord.

For Christmas I received On These Walls: Inscriptions & Quotations in the Library of Congress, by John Colefrom my brother-in-law and sister-in-law and our nieces and nephew. I spent some time on Christmas evening reading it.  If you don’t live near the LOC, this is the armchair tour for you. It’s a beautiful book and brief essays give readers an overview of the library’s history, art, and architecture as well as its awesome mission. Cole is the founding director of the Center for the Book at the LOC.

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to read a book in one sitting, but the last Sunday of the semester was exceptionally slow at the library, and I saw There But for the on the new book shelf. I’d just read a review in The Atlantic so I decided to give it a try. By the end of my five hour shift, I’d read the entire thing, which is a very satisfying way to read.  If I had my druthers, I’d read more novels that way.

Smith presents a funny and also disturbing problem: a man in Greenwich, England who is the guest of a guest at a dinner party excuses himself from the table. He goes into a spare bedroom and never comes out. Months go by, and he is lauded as some kind of prophetic folk hero by crowds who gather outside.

Each part of the book is told by four people from the party who knew the man just a little bit. As it turns out, each knows something that adds to what the reader has already learned so that by the end of the book things are less murky.

My favorite of the four guests is a precocious ten year old girl who is smart but lonely, and more comfortable among adults and inside her own inner world than other children. She manages to slip in and out among the other characters, thereby helping the reader tie things together. But all of the sections are marvelous and I really enjoyed the way Smith wove history, science, philosophy, and social commentary into the novel.

Watching each person involved in the drama react, and also seeing how society responds to the man in the room, I thought about how we all see and remember things from a slightly different angle. It’s an idea I enjoyed playing with as I read, that all the little interactions a person has in the world leave scraps of perception that together make up a kind of mosaic view. In fact, it was a book that led to a lengthy musing afterwards, another sign of an excellent read.

What’s time? How does it pass and how do we mark it? What do we fill it with? How do we impact each other by what we remember and forget? How do we miss, or see, the intersections of our lives with others?  And what can result from even the most minor encounter with another person? Is it possible to be truly alone in this world, or are even people who close themselves off connected somehow with others, whether they want to be or not? These are the things I wondered as I read There But for the and as I drove home that evening.  Heavenly, to have a book for company.

And to share books with the company you most love to keep. Both Teen the Younger and I finished The Invention of Hugo Cabret in December, intending to go see Hugo, which we haven’t done yet. I liked it very much, mostly because of the way Brian Selznik weaves history and magic into the story but also because of the interesting intersection of art and story — it’s not a graphic novel, it’s not a picture book, it’s kind of a category of its own.

As I wrote last month, Teen the Younger liked the art.  Since we both enjoyed it so much, I bought Brian Selznik’s new book, Wonderstruck, which is in our to-read piles.  She also read a new Gakuen Alice manga.

Teen the Elder read Inheritance, the fourth book in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. He enjoyed it very much. He says Paolini finished the story very well, and “dragons kick ass.”  What can I say, he’s an adult now. He has a pile of books to take back to England with him, so perhaps from time to time I’ll mention what he’s reading. Over the first term there he re-read The Hobbit and all three Lord of the Rings books, which are his favorite books ever (so far).

The Computer Scientist got some books for Christmas but December is one of the two busiest months of the year for him, especially the final week of the year when everyone is making charitable donations.  So he has an even taller to-read pile.

What’s up for me? I have a few books out of the library and I plan to peruse my other piles. Last night I told the Computer Scientist we need to move to a remote location without a bookstore or library for a year, so that I could read all the books I’ve been meaning to get to without distraction from new titles or shelf browsing.

Since the week before Christmas, I’ve hardly had time to read anything. I started two books that I didn’t care for, and following the wise counsel of Teen the Younger, abandoned them. Hopefully I’ll settle into something good soon. In 2012 I hope to continue reading the Hooksett Book Club selections as well, so I’m now reading the January title, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. What are you reading?

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