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I was paging through an arts & entertainment magazine when I came across a mention that Amy Adams was set to star in the movie adaptation of a book called Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. It’s a murder-mystery-thriller, with some family drama mixed in. Coverage of the movie-to-be is all over the place – could be a good one. Reading about the movie made me curious about the book. My library had a copy on the shelf, so I grabbed it. Once I started reading, it was really hard to put down. It’s a story about people – a poor family who is struggling to keep a farm. They’re loving but flawed. It’s a reminder that no matter who we are, no matter how good we try to be, we’re human and we make mistakes, we are petty and insecure and jealous creatures.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn

But that’s also part of what makes us so sympathetic, so relate-able to each other, so cherishable. Maybe it’s easier to love a person who’s flawed because we all are. Don’t we really just want to love ourselves? Maybe the compassion we can show for each other stems from the compassion we hope others will show us.

Or something like that.

The book throws in some murder and mayhem on top of the family drama – it’s horrific, but not gratuitous. I’m not usually a crime-murder-thriller reader – but once in a while, you just need a good creep-out. This definitely did it.

The story follows, Libby Day, whose mother and two sisters were murdered when she was young. She escaped, but hasn’t really gone anywhere beyond that day. Twenty-five years later, and she can’t get her life together to, well, save her life.

A murder-mystery hobbyist group finds her, wanting to hire her to talk about her experiences – she had testified that it was her brother who committed the murders, sending him to jail for life. Since then, everyone who has examined the case is convinced he didn’t do it. Libby agrees to talk to the group, needing the money they’ve promised, and her whole world starts to tilt – she ends up running for her life a second time.

The book is a quick read, it pulls you along for a bit of a wild ride – getting more so as it progresses to the end. It wraps up kind of unbelievably, but not enough to ruin the story.

This was a nice little break in between stories of Paris – before this book, I read The Paris Wife… and coming up is Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. Sometimes you just gotta mix it up… C’est la vie.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winner. It’s also the book I chose to give out on World Book Night, which is today/tonight, April 23.

World Book Night is something I only found out about a couple of months ago, and I signed up to be a Giver. I picked a book title, and was sent 20 special copies of it. These titles are to be handed out today to people who are light or non-readers. We’re supposed to choose a book we loved, so that we can hand it to someone and say: Here, read this, I loved it and hope you do too.

And so, today, tonight, I’ll go out and give these copies away to whoever will take one (I also gave some copies to coworkers to help hand out, too).

In order to be able to talk this book up, I started to re-read it. I knew I liked it but I couldn’t remember exactly why.

I do now, though. As the New York Times put it, it’s “a young-adult melodrama draped over a multigenerational immigrant family chronicle that dabbles in tropical magic realism, punk-rock feminism, hip-hop machismo, post-postmodern pyrotechnics and enough polymorphous multiculturalism to fill up an Introduction to Cultural Studies syllabus.”

I agree with that. The story itself is cool, but the writing is, too. Mr. Diaz writes like you’d imagine an energetic storyteller would talk – for one chapter. Then he switches voices, telling the story from another character’s point-of-view. He sprinkles in Dominican slang words throughout the text, and you don’t always know exactly what the word means, but you still get it.

I was looking up a couple of the words, just to get an exact meaning, and found this site, which provides definitions and annotations on things said/written in the book. I like some of the things on here – the annotations cover comic book character descriptions, in case you’re not familiar with Galactus, as well as historical figures and events, and translations. It’s a handy resource to have as you read the book, should you want to really get into the nitty gritty. And it’s worth it – there’s a lot there. But I say, save that for the second reading. Get through it once and enjoy the words, the story, the language.

There’s something to enjoying the feeling of a foreign word, even if you don’t know exactly what it means, maybe because you don’t know exactly what it means. Much of the joy of reading a book is that you can imagine whatever you can – for the characters, how they sound, what they look like, what they mean. Having words that you don’t know the meaning of here and there doesn’t mean you won’t get the idea, and they allow you to focus more on the idea of the sentence, to put a little bit of your own meaning into it. That allows you to make the book yours.

I think that’s the definition of good literature – on one level, the story is good, told well, and characters are fully-developed. You know these people. On another level, it leaves enough OUT of the story, some part of it, that you can put yourself into it, you-at-this-moment fill the holes, create the final story in your head. And it’s those works of writing that you can revisit in 5, 10, 25 years, and the story will still be good, but for some reason, it’ll be different. Because you  are different. What more can you ask for from anything? Be it a story, a parent, a lover – a good one allows you to grow, grows with you, still remains true to itself.

After reading a book about Teddy Roosevelt, I wanted to learn more about early American politics – my civic knowledge is sorely lacking. A book crossed my path that looked really good – Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. It was written by Walter Isaacson, the same guy who wrote the recently published Steve Jobs biography. Benjamin Franklin is a BIG, intimidating book, but I thought I’d give it a shot and am sooo glad I did! I have a new-found admiration for the complex person that Benjamin Franklin was.

This very large, potentially very dry and boring book covered Franklin’s entire life, but did so in a way that was far from dry and boring. Franklin himself was not dry, was not boring – this bio paints him in such a way as to highlight his charm, his curiosity, and his intelligence, without glossing over his less endearing personality quirks.

When I read John Adams by David McCullough (a wonderfully well-written book about our cantankerous but endearingly earnest second president), Franklin’s exploits were touched on, and in this book, the reverse is true. Adams and Franklin had a sort of love-hate relationship, and it’s interesting to read about it from both sides.

Franklin led a full, full life – this book covers all of it. After reading this book, I’ve gotten to know better the man behind the myth. Franklin was full of nuance and depth. It seems that what we need now, in this world, is another Franklin. Someone who has a curious, practical mind, who embodies the American dream, who is a champion of the middle class and who believes in the community supporting each other. He was against “big government” but believed in fair taxes, and felt that wealthy people should give back to their communities – of their own volition, without any government regulation. He was a stickler for clear rules and regulations, but didn’t mind playing a part during a negotiation, bending the truth or leaving details out to benefit the newly forming America. He was shrewd, yet had a charming naiveté.

This book helped me understand more about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and brought Benjamin Franklin to life – it was interesting, and very much a page-turner (which is huge – I almost never finish non-fiction works; they just fade out at the end into ‘blah’. This was a far cry from blah).

It definitely has made me want to read more about the founding fathers, the beginning of our nation, the Civil War, our presidents…. There’s so much to know, and I’m looking forward to finding other well-written books to help learn it.

After finishing The Orchid Thief, I resumed reading Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness (see previous posting about being unable to get to my book.. too cold, too far).

Witihin this Wilderness was recommended to me by my boss–she knew Feenie Ziner, and said I would have liked her. I certainly like the way she writes, what she says… I think we would have gotten along just fine.

This book was also described to me as being similar to John Krakauer’s Into the Wild, another book I really enjoyed.

It is similar, and yet, it’s not.

Into The Wild is a very compelling read because it was pieced together by a journalist and told in a clear-eyed yet sympathetic way. There is an air of mystery around Christopher McCandless, the missing man-child — Why’d he go? How’d he die? For that matter, how’d he live?  Krakauer is exceptional at telling a story around the story – putting up the frame, so that we can picture the whole house.

Feenie Ziner’s story is different, in that the tale is told by the mother of the man-child who removes himself from society. She describes her struggle–at first, to get him home, and finally, to accept him as he is.

In the 70’s, Feenie’s son, Joe Ziner, moved to British Columbia to get away from civilization and to find himself. She was able to visit her ‘missing’ son, and try to form a bond, a connection, a conversation, with him. The story comes from that tension. Will mom ever understand her son? Will he ever understand his mother? In the end, they reach an accord of sorts. It’s a beautiful story, of love in all its forms. Love for the wilderness, love between a mother and son, love for life… however it must be expressed.

Feenie was a children’s book author, had a long career teaching in the English department at UConn, and was most recently, a Branford, CT resident. Her son ended up becoming a book publisher. He did not completely disappear, the way the boy in Into The Wild did.  The story of Within is not that of “how could this person lose himself and completely disappear”. This story is one we are all familiar with–a story of acceptance of who we are, what we want, and what we must do to be happy when we don’t get it.

Within This Wilderness is also an exploration of how we reconcile ourselves to living in a world of consumption when we are, at heart, children of the land. We are all pure, yearning for simple lives. And yet, we struggle against simply ‘making do’. We humans must progress, achieve, build. Where do we draw the line and say, enough? For Joe, he opposed the Vietnam War, opposed American’s ignorance of its horrors and mindlessness, opposed immoral accumulation, opposed partaking of suburban America. His only solution to was to flee, and to set up in a minimalist shack in the wilds of British Columbia. but you can’t escape your emotions, and he had to reconcile those eventually, with himself, his mother, if not his country. As his mother wrote, “in time, everyone who undertakes a great moral journey must confront the fact that the Devil is always the stowaway.”

This book is almost 30 years old, but the emotional struggles are as relevant as ever.  Coming up next:  The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard.

Maybe it’s the falling leaves hitting my head, or maybe it’s the crazy weather we’ve had lately (an earthquake in New England, a hurricane in Connecticut, snow on Halloween, temps in the 50’s-60’s at the end of November), but I’ve been in the mood for books inspired by and embracing the wilderness.

I began with Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness, which was recommended to me by my supervisor, and began reading it, but one night I left it in my car. Not wanting to brave the cold wilderness myself that night, I looked around and noticed among my ‘to-read’ stack of books The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean.

The Orchid Thief was the inspiration for the movie, “Adaptation”,  a strange journey through the wilds of the mind of a screenwriter tasked with adapting the book into a screenplay. I had seen the movie, was unsettled by it, but plowed ahead with the book anyway….

…and was really glad I did. The Orchid Thief was a quick read, but it covered a lot of ground. Orlean talks about orchids and their history, Florida and its history, Native Americans in Florida and their history, as well as a varied cast of characters and their own peculiar histories. Orlean links all these narratives together by following John Laroche around as he tries to show her Florida’s elusive Ghost Orchid.

Being a Florida native, I loved hearing Orlean describe the wild nature of Florida–it’s ability to be nothing and everything, to be changed by humans and yet, not succumb to alteration.

She talks about the changes humans have tried to effect–draining the Everglades, blasting the ground with dynamite just to be able to farm on the land, creating beaches by dumping sand–and notes how nature, when unchecked, quickly begins to reclaim itself, undoing these changes. Florida is malleable, but like water, it seeks out its own equilibrium.

Orlean also goes into the history of the Seminole Indians. This tribe is actually comprised of Indians from different tribes in the northern states–they escaped captivity and slavery and sought refuge in the swampy lands of Florida. Over time, different battles were fought with the US Government, but the Seminole tribe, with their brave leader Chief Osceola,  never gave up, never surrendered, and now have the distinction of calling themselves the “unconquered” tribe.

Orlean also explores the nature of obsession. Her book is much more interesting and coherent than the movie that referenced it. Her writing about people and their obsessions is much more real, sympathetic, and interesting. She covers a whole sub-culture of orchid-crazed people, but is especially intrigued by her main subject, John Laroche. He is serially-obsessed, going from one all-consuming passion to the next, with no mourning time in between. Orlean never truly discovers why is he is this way, but she has a wild ride while reporting on it.

Does everyone have a secret (or not-so-secret) passion? Mine seems to be stories… What’s yours?

Coming next: Feenie Ziner’s Within This Wilderness

Why do people often shy away from short stories? Our attention spans have apparently gotten shorter, and many people looking for summer reading books made their picks based on length–-the shorter the better. So why has there not been a boom in collections of short stories, where we can pick and choose the length of time we want to dedicate to a set of characters?

Perhaps because we like to be friends with our characters. We need to slowly get to know the characters we’ll root for, cry over, laugh with (and at)… We don’t trust fast friends who overshare, and we don’t trust characters whose lives we jump in and out of, seeing them at their best or worst times.

But. Short stories don’t ask to be our friends. They show us glimpses into lives, many times our own. The brief, intense nature of a short story can be overwhelming, and there is often no closure for those feelings. We are left to deal with them on our own.

Because of that, short stories can resonate, creating stronger feelings over time and upon re-reading. They are they are vignettes of a time that tends to be timeless. The more you reflect on that story, the longer and deeper it seems to grow.

I recently read Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy. A friend and I were casting around for a book we could each read and then maybe talk about.. if we felt like it. We had tried to do The Pale King by David Foster Wallace a while back, but couldn’t get very far – DFW’s writing just being too tedious in this one. So I chose Both Ways, mainly because I liked the title. It reminds me of something by Raymond Carver, a great short story writer and creator of characters.

How can you not love a short story with a Beatles' song for a title?

I enjoyed Meloy’s collection of stories, and my friend did, too. He emailed me his thoughts about the book, and I really enjoyed HIS comments-–he agreed to let me share them with you. Thanks, Jonathan McNicol!

I just finished the first story in this book with the title with too many words, and I wanted to say a couple things about it. Things I liked and such.

I learned a word! Chinook. That’s fun, learning a word. According to Wikipedia, in the more Frenchish areas of the ‘interior west’ of the country, it’s pronounced more like ‘shinook.’

I liked when Beth asks Chet his name, and he says what it is, and then she, “nodded, as if that were the right answer.” That’s a nice touch.

There’s a part where they’re in the café, and it’s when Chet’s brought his horse, and the waitress comes out and asks if it’s his horse and if the cook can give it water and stuff. It struck me that in that little conversation, the waitress actually says things, things that go between quotation marks and everything, while Chet doesn’t. He’s just paraphrased that whole time, his words are turned into actions. That’s interesting.

I wonder how often writers do that and I don’t notice it. It’s interesting the way doing that makes the whole thing, the whole story more from Chet’s point of view. It’s like he’s not listening when he’s talking ’cause he knows what he means.

There’s a sentence near the end,

He gave them each another coffee canful of grain, which slid yellow over itself into their buckets.

‘Slid yellow.’ Just from the words, that’s basically meaningless. How does something slide yellowly?

But it’s perfect, and you picture it instantly, and you picture way more than she says there—sunlight and crisp dusty air and wrinkled glass in the windows. There’s this certain kind of detachment there; it’s like those Magic Eye things, the way you have to look past them to see them. That’s the way that is. ‘Slid yellow over itself.’ That’s good.

 And the thing that really hit me is the parts about the girlie magazines. The way Chet gets to know them better than he’d ever know a person and how in the new magazines, the girls are strangers.

That whole idea made me think… Ya know how there are things that you think about so much that you forget that you think about them? This is a thing like that for me: One thing that makes me sad about being a grownup is how limitless things are. Like, I can do whatever I want. I have all this stuff.

When you’re little, you just have the few things you have, and you don’t have a ton of choices about what you can do with your day. So, for me anyway, that meant that I got to really know all of my crap. Every square millimeter of the surfaces of things. All the little imperfections. The little raised plastic letters on the bottoms of things that announce the appropriate patent numbers and made-ins and whatever else. The way everything smaller than my hand tasted. The way it felt it my mouth. The way my tongue renders things as so much larger than they feel in my hand or look to my eyes.

I feel almost bad about the stuff I have now. Like I’ll never get to know it well enough. Like I’m doing it a disservice, being a bad friend to it. Like if I’m gonna keep up my end of these relationships, I need to just put my DVD player in my mouth and get it over with.

Jonathan certainly has a way with words, and so do most short story writers… maybe with some encouragement, my friend will turn out some short stories of his own. In the meantime, I’d highly recommend Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, as well as stories by Raymond Carver. I’ve heard Flannery O’ Connor is another great short story writer. And, I’ve started The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway… I’ve read one of his novels, and didn’t fall in love with him as a writer, but I’m giving his short stories a go. So far: one down, and it was pretty good.

Any short story authors, collections, tales you’d recommend? Any good reflections caused by short stories?

ALSO: If you care to join an online book group with me, Jonathan and a few others, we’re happy to have you!  Search Facebook for the Shoreline Book Group and join us! We’re reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express.

There are numerous books about J.D. Salinger and this most recent one by Slawenski is an interesting account of Salinger’s life, focused mainly on his writing years. This book was somewhere in the middle of my ‘to-read’ list, but jumped up to the top after a patron recommended it. The patron is a former teacher of Catcher in the Rye, and said that the chapter about Holden Caulfield described the character just as he taught it. He actually only recommended reading that chapter, but I was intrigued by the entire book, and decided to read the whole thing.

Slawenski is a huge, HUGE Salinger fan. He says as much in the introduction, writing about his website devoted to Salinger. This love and devotion comes across in the book – his admiration is palpable. But it doesn’t detract from the telling of Salinger’s life. He presents Salinger in full light, though tending to ennoble his flaws a bit.

Prior to this, I had no idea who Salinger was, what he was like. I had read all of his books, including the short stories, but had never read anything about the author himself. His life was definitely interesting. He fought in WWII, and was in a unit that took part in some of the bloodiest battles of the war. He became an intelligence officer, interrogating Nazis and their sympathizers. He wrote before, during and after the war, many of his stories exorcising his demons of war. Once back home, Salinger became an early American proponent of yoga and organic gardening. He was married multiple times and had children but was very much an independent spirit, preferring to lose himself in his characters’ lives. According to this biography, Salinger initially chose to separate himself from the world in order to produce his works; he knew he would otherwise be too distracted by his own fame, parties and fanfare. He felt he had a duty to write – to his spirit, his god. To do otherwise would be “phony”, something his most famous character, Holden Caulfield, would have despised.

This biography not only gives you a look at Salinger’s life, but describes the stories he wrote at various times, given some critical analysis in light of his life events. I’d read his books and stories over the years, and enjoyed each one. But after reading the bio of Salinger, I definitely want to go back and reread all of his works. Salinger was a master storyteller, presenting his written world through small details, allowing the reader to complete the picture. He described the trees, so that we could see the forest.

Franny and Zooey is one book I remember loving, but do not recall specifics from. It’s about a large, quirky family in New York. It was published in the 50s, but feels timeless. The story is about the relationships between family members and how they see the world. He also was a great short story writer. He wrote “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”, originally published in the New Yorker and anthologized in Nine Stories. This is a powerful tale of a war veteran and a chance encounter with a young girl who changes his life by simply reminding him of innocence.

I actually had the opportunity to hear this short story being read aloud in a coffeehouse by a friend of mine. The New Haven Theater Company presents a seasonal series of short story readings by actors called Listen Here – they do a wonderful job choosing and reading the stories. Attendance is free, the stories are priceless. In one of these sessions, Steve Scarpa’s reading of “For Esme” brought the emotions of the story to the forefront – I can say without any trace of sarcasm that ‘I laughed, I cried, it was better than Cats’... If you have the chance to attend a reading, possibly in the fall cycle, I highly suggest it.

So… any stories about Salinger and his works? Where were you when you first read Catcher? Any favorites other than Catcher?