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Q: What have you been doing this summer?

A:

_____

Yup. Me too.

Someone wrote that on our paper display in the library where we ask “What are you reading these summer nights?”

I’m totally making that into a shirt. … Because it is true – I have been reading like a nerd all summer long, been plowing through books of all kinds.

I recently got back from a trip to South Florida… visited with friends, family, and most satisfyingly, the pool. In the 9 days I was on vacation, I was able to finish three books (and start a fourth). I do read fast, but they were also fairly short. Their length and interest-keeping ability was perfect for some distract-me-from-the-bumps-on-the-plane reading, some back-from-the-pool-and-totally-exhausted reading, and some it’s-vacation-so-I’ll-read-before-breakfast-at-10am reading.

I started After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh on the plane. It’s a collection of nine short stories that take place in the very near future. Each one explores the way we live after some major calamitous event occurs. Some events are more far-fetched than others (my eyes tend to glaze over when I read the word “zombie”), but it’s not the events themselves that are the focus so much – it’s the human reaction to them, how we adapt and continue, that is interesting . McHugh’s characters are undeniably sympathetic and human; they just happen to be in new and strange circumstances and settings. I couldn’t tell you what every story was about off the top of my head, but reviewing the contents of the book brings back memories from each story, feelings that stuck with me.

Once I finished Apocalypse, I picked up Sherman Alexie’s Flight. This story is about a lost and angry teenager called Zits, who is half white, half native American. He’s an orphan who has seen too many foster homes. He meets another foster kid, and they become good friends – the new guy helps Zits escape from a bad foster home, then puts him up in his place, an abandoned space-cum-shelter. He teaches Zits how to shoot guns and how to be angry. One day, Zits finds himself in a bank, ready to shoot into a crowd of people, just because. He’s ready to pull the trigger, cutting down innocent people waiting in line…

He does – and is instantly transported into the past – he wakes up in the body of an FBI agent who is about to do some dirty dealing with native Americans  in the 70’s, something which resulted in a lot of innocent Americans being killed. He wakes up in a few other people’s bodies, across various time periods and experiencing different points of view. By the end of this short novel, he realizes a lot of things about himself and life. The end seems a bit neat and easy, but the writing is sharp and the message heartfelt. Coincidentally, I was reading this book the same week of the Aurora movie theater shootings, throwing the events in the book and in real life into sharper relief. And, the review of this book in the NY Times was written a few years ago, shortly after the shootings in Virginia Tech. It seems eerie, the similarities of time, but probably really just a reflection how much violence takes place all the time.

The last book of the bunch was Girl Land by Caitlin Flanagan. It was a quick read about girls in adolescence. It promised to tell parents how to navigate this treacherous land of female adolescence in this day and age. Each chapter covered a different topic relevant to girlhood: diaries, dating, menstruation, etc. “Covered” is putting it lightly, though; critics have not been impressed:

Jessica Bennet reviewed the book at the Daily Beast; Elizabeth Day weighed in at the Guardian;  and Emma Gilbey Keller gave her two cents at the New York Times.

I thought the book was OK, but in reading the criticisms, I see what they’re getting at. The main thing the book does is to highlight some pivotal moments in female adolescence, and identify some points where parents can pay attention and try not to screw their daughters up too much. Too bad the author only has sons, though – she may have had some real insight if she had had some, well, real insight.

On the way home from my trip, I started Emerald City, a book of short stories by Jennifer Egan. I’ve read everything else of hers and I really like her as an author. Her characters are all flawed, but sympathetic, because really, aren’t we all flawed? It’s how we find our own redemption that matters.  Her tales are a mix of poignant moments and everyday life. Two thumbs up.

Since then, I’ve read:


The Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics.
  An interesting history of the comics that began the comic book craze, it covers the time when comics were first printed in book format and goes up to the mid-fifties, when the Comics Code  was adopted as a way for comics publishers to self-police. Yeah, that happened.

Monster,  by Walter Dean Myers – a teen novel with an accused criminal as the main character. He’s 16 and awaiting trial. The book is written as if he were writing a screenplay about the trial – the kid is really interested in movies & movie-making. As the story unfolds, you can’t help rooting for this young man, who is jailed and in hell. He’s scared, although not necessarily innocent. You wonder where he got lost along the way, and hope to hell your kid isn’t going to end up in the same place.

I read Relic, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. If you like Michael Crichton, you may like this novel. It’s a little thriller, a little biological mystery, a little spooky, too. It’s a pretty fast read, and takes place in the Natural History Museum of NY. Murders happen, chase scenes and conspiracies take place. It’s fun and was the basis for the 1997 movie of the same name.

Made it through both the regular printed novel and the graphic novel (GN)  version of the prequel to Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game called Formic Wars: Burning of the Earth. It’s co-authored by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston, the GN is illustrated by Giancarlo Caracuzzo. I didn’t want to like the GN, so I read the novelized version of the graphic novel first – it was good. Better than I had expected (I Ioved Ender’s Game). So then I gave the GN a shot – and once I thought, Maybe I’ll like this, I actually did.

I recently finished The City & The City by China Miéville. This was really good, better than I expected, rich and gripping, actually. It’s science-ish fiction, slightly metaphysical, but really it’s a look at the boundary lines that separate two city-states in a made-up place in Eastern Europe. The two cities, really two separate countries, went through a split at some point, and the geography was divided in two, the people not allowed to see the other country’s citizens, buildings, cars, etc. Basically, anything that is in country A cannot be seen or touched by those in country B. A girl is murdered, though, and the investigation leads to evidence in both countries, plus a question of conspiracy involving a mythical third country. It’s crazy. But it’s good, and if you like detective novels at all, you’ll love the main character. This book is a detective story, it’s social commentary, it’s light criticism of academia – it’s rich and deep and grabs you from the start.

Finally, I just finished The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum. I really liked the Bourne movies, and plan to see the newest “Legacy” movie that’s out now, but I wanted to get a little refresher and thought I’d give the books a try. I was not disappointed. The movie took out a plot that makes up most of the book – in it, an assassin called Carlos is hunting Jason Bourne in addition to the US government. It’s a fun read, though I get a little lost in the wordy descriptions of the fight scenes. Either way, Matt Damon was good in the book, too.

Phew. That’s it so far. So, yeah… that’s me, I’m just reading.

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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.