Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe

I have an urge the few times that Kim and I step away from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books in order to review something contemporary to have both of us review whatever book it is separately. We have similar views on many things, but quite different on others. Regardless, we each come to our own conclusions in our own ways and it fascinates each of us to see how the other goes to work on something we’ve both picked up. It’s almost as much fun to compare as it is to read the book itself. That’s why when I heard Kim was going to check out Rain Check by Levi Andrew Noe I thought I’d take a week to do the same myself.

Now, there are a number of different kinds of pieces in Rain Check, so I could talk about a lot of different things. They’re all flash fiction stories, but a great deal of variety can be formed with very few words. For example, there are both travel pieces, like this section from “Southeast Asia Blues”:

He took the 50-pound bag off his back. For the hundredth time Jack thought about the last time, somewhere in the undreamable future, when he would take that bag off for good. How his shoulders would weep with joy. He hated the hurt, how the hurt made him complain, how the complaints made him regret, and how the regret drove him to homesick laments. Traveling, at least his kind of wandering way, was a weary business. Jack had to give the aches and pains their place in this adventure. It was only fair.

and there are also stories in our backyards about young boys unintentionally causing damage playing with fire, like this bit from “Prometheus”:

He sprayed his arm again, with much more hairspray this time. He lit it and watched the flames dance up his arm.

“This must be how they do it in the movies!”

He danced around, trying to wave the fire out. He only managed to fan the flames. Then a look of true feat entered his eyes. He rolled on the ground, beat his arm on the grass. Eventually he put the flame out, but his skin was red and he was clutching his arm in pain. Tears welled up.

Robbie stepped toward Leo, but as he moved closer he saw the grass in front of him ignite. It was slow at first, he thought he could put it out by stomping on it. But more smoke poured out from hidden depths in the brown grass. Then flames licked at Robbie’s pant legs. He jumped back.

“Run!” Robbie yelled to Leo.

The thing that strikes me the most throughout all the different kinds of stories is how Noe handles the flash form. In all the pieces I used to come across reading submissions for Grey Sparrow Journal before they went pure poetry, I was always looking for flash that could bring forth a narrative emotional singularity. In flash, as I see it, you have room for one “note.” That may not seem like the same note throughout a flash piece due to reveal, surprise, and other structural aspects, but it’s all still the “sounding” and “resonation” of only one “bell.” Either each word, each image, each everything ties completely together into a unified whole to sound that one note and resonate and you get wonderful glory (barring fugue-like experiments where juxtaposition and contrast of these things is the whole point, but isn’t that really just separate parts of the same note anyway?), or the piece falls utterly apart and it doesn’t work at all. What Noe has here in Rain Check is a complete grasp of this, and an unfailing ability to bring it all together for the single note, whichever one it is at that time, each and every time.

This is some good stuff. Definitely don’t take a rain check on Rain Check. You won’t want to risk missing out.

My brain isn’t working & Book Series

So. For those of you that check back here weekly, you may have noticed something last week. There was no blog. What happened is Dave and I texted back and forth about it. We discussed what I was going to write about. And my brain checked it off my to do list. I honestly thought I had written a blog. Until Dave messaged me on Monday asking about it. Or maybe Tuesday. So, my apologies.

Then my brain -almost- did it again for this week. But, I remembered now!

I am still making my way through Don Quixote. So, I decided to take a few minutes to talk about a few series of books I like. Just in case any of you are in love with series and knowing you like a certain set of characters enough to read multiple books with them. And since winter is fast approaching, you might want something long that you can read on all the cold nights coming our way.

First, my absolute favorite series is Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. This has been my favorite series for years and years. Long before Starz created a series of it. The premise of it is that in 1945, Claire Randall is on holiday in Scotland with her husband Frank, after years of being separated by the war. They are reconnecting. There is a small standing stone circle. It’s right near Beltaine. She falls through the stones and ends up in 1743. She’s forced to marry Jamie Fraser there for her protection. And so begins the conflict of loving two men in two very different times.¬†The books go through the Scottish Uprising of 1745, to the 1960s, to the American Revolution. There are multiple books and Gabaldon researches her stories well. She writes humorous scenes interspersed with scenes of touching simplicity that will make you tear up, to dramatic battle scenes. Her characters become real to you and walk beside you. After book 3, there is a series that goes along the side with one of the characters, more like mysteries. She treats all subject matter with an openness and sensitivity that’s gorgeous. These are more than romance, more than historical fiction. They just…are.

Second, I will just put in a blurb about Game of Thrones here. Almost all of you will have had some exposure to it by now. But, I also recommend the books. But, maybe wait a few more months then you might be able to finish about the time Martin finishes the next one.

Third, another fantasy series, for those of you that are a bit more hardcore into fantasy, is the Gardens of the Moon series by Stephen Erikson. These are amazing books, but be prepared to have to read them back to back. There are so many intricate story lines between all books that I find them more complicated than Game of Thrones. But, if you love fantasy and still haven’t read these, pick them up.

Fourth, Kelley Armstrong has a series of books that start with Bitten, which is now a show that you can find on Netflix. I have read quite a few paranormal series and thoroughly enjoyed this one. It starts out with the only female werewolf in the whole world as the main character for the first two books, then starts to switch narrators. The center of the story is a young witch named Savannah, but Briggs doesn’t show that until the 2nd and into the 3rd book. Then the whole series has a nice beginning, middle, and end.

Fifth, my absolute favorite paranormal book series though is The Hollows series by Kim Harrison. The basis is, a witch, a living vampire and a pixy are running a detective agency. And yes, it’s as fun as it sounds with that. But there’s also real depth and soul to these books as well. Again, there is a nice arc to the books and while I wasn’t overly excited by the last book of the series, it was still a decent conclusion.

I’ll end here, just to give myself a few more for a couple of years down the road to recommend more. If you have any you’d like to add, or want to comment on any after you read, please feel free to drop us a line ūüėÄ

Tune in on Thursday! (It’s Dave’s turn, so you can rely on it being Thursday).

Have a great rest of your weekend!





Not Quite So Stories by…..


Today, I am talking about Dave’s new book, just out. The title is “Not Quite So Stories”. This is Dave’s third book to be released. You can see me talk about the previous two, here and here. I loved Bones Buried in Dirt and The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes, as you can see in those blog posts I linked to.

Like I texted Dave on Thursday, while I did love both of those books, I LOVE Not Quite So Stories. I think it is one of the best contemporary short story collections I’ve read in a very long time.

Here are my reasons for loving these stories. Loving with a capital L of course:

  1. These stories often are about “normal” life (a¬†housewife displaying some classic OCD symptoms getting through her highly regimented day) with something “surreal” mixed into it (the prisons in the area are overpopulated so by lottery, certain citizens have been chosen to board prisoners in their homes for a month) and the result of the blending (a square is drawn with a grease pencil on an immaculate kitchen floor and a prisoner is deposited into the square to stand there while the woman goes about her day). The stories are both important for the characters in them (who is this housewife? How does she cope with changes in her day?) and for the blend of surreal (how does she deal with a prisoner left without guard in her kitchen?). Dave has stitched together stories where you can’t even tell where the surreal has been attached into the ordinary. Dave makes it easy to climb right into the tapestry of the story that he’s woven. There is no reason to suspend any disbelief. You have none while reading one of these stories.
  2. Who wouldn’t love a story about a hotel in Europe that had to figure out a way in today’s world to set themselves apart, so did so by creating a rate in which they intentionally disrupt and disturb their patrons? You just have to read it. Anyone that has travelled to Europe, or anyone that has really just traveled anywhere that involved staying in a smaller hotel or b&b will recognize and get a kick out of the story.
  3. These stories cover my requirement for a good story. But they also leave you thinking about a certain convention or more (more as in cultural standard/law, not as in the adjective) in a way you previously didn’t. Like a spouse battle over toilet paper and the correct way to place it on the holder. Or a person picking out a plot and paying for its maintenance past their death.
  4. These stories are tight. You can tell the amount of work that went into polishing them. The care and love that went into these stories shines through.
  5. For me, some short story collections are best read cover to cover. Others are best parceling out bit by bit. Dave has hit my happy medium in which either method works great for reading them. This is why I was late in posting because I started to read and realized I wanted to experience them both ways, reading a few in a turn, then just one, then a few, then just one. These would be great for any reader you know that doesn’t have a lot of time in their day to read but wants to have something good for when they do get a few free minutes. But it’d also be good for that reader you know that devours everything that comes their way.

I am directing you now to where you can purchase Not Quite So Stories so that you can go and buy it. Now. You can buy at B&N or Amazon.

Have a great rest of your weekend!!


Kill Us On the Way Home by Gwen Beatty

Kim told me she was going to take a week to look at the new Stephen King book of short stories she was reading (The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, just in case you don’t know), so I thought I should take the next week (this one) to talk about something I’d read recently that I really dug. Gwen Beatty’s new chapbook put out by Passenger Side Books, Kill Us On the Way Home, immediately sprang to mind (and continues the short story theme no less).

I knew I was going to grab this one as soon as I heard it was coming out (and only $5 shipped made it an easy decision to confirm). I’d read a few of Beatty’s pieces before, and certainly wanted to read more. Passenger Side Books also immediately gets a vote of confidence from me. Considering the previous offerings that I’ve read from that micro press (Whatever Don’t Drown Will Always Rise, Murmuration, Infinity’s Jukebox, If There’s Any Truth In a Northbound Train, and Soft), I can trust that I’m going to dig anything new they put out.

That was certainly the case with Kill Us On the Way Home.

Given the nature of the book, I’m not going to quote as heavily as I normally do. Kill Us On the Way Home is a chapbook of six short pieces and quoting heavily would simply give too much away. I can certainly gush about the book though.

Let’s consider “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant.” A young woman meets the pregnant wife of the Mormon ex-boyfriend who had proposed to her not long before. She lies and says she is pregnant too, not telling the wife who she is. Her new boyfriend helps her construct fake pregnancy belly after fake pregnancy belly as she gets closer and closer to the unsuspecting wife.

“It really is wild that we are only two weeks apart from each other,” Lorrie repeated over the next few months. We would laugh over virgin cocktails about the strange parallels between our pregnancies and lives. We would cry to each other about our inattentive partners. She told me everything about Mark. From the way he likes his socks folded, to how he was in bed. She told me everything that I already knew about the man she married. She told me exactly what my life would have been if I had been less like myself.

It’s a strange story, filled with a strange hard to hold for long yearning, and it definitely gets under the skin of the reader. All the stories in Kill Us On the Way Home do. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, though “The Most Important Part About Being Fake-Pregnant” would definitely be high on my list.

Of course, that list might also include “Seven Things About Hot Dogs.” Perhaps also “Knots.” Maybe “Memorial” too. Well, you get the idea.

Beatty writes words on the page in Kill Us On the Way Home like she’s carving faces into giant logs with a chainsaw. The words are spare, the writing sometimes harsh, but the phrases and people are bent and surprising (“Our Mother was dying and my sister Maxine and I were on a game show that wouldn’t quite save her.” from “Sphinx Moth”), and the emotions evoked can be extreme. These stories are strong, and magical. Kill Us On the Way Home is a must read chapbook from a must read press.


Short Stories & Stephen King

As anyone that has read Dave and my blog with any regularity knows, I’m a Stephen King fan. He is kind enough to release a book (most years) right around my birthday. This year it was The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, a collection of short stories. He releases one of these every few years. It was a really great collection of short stories, in my opinion. The stories ranged from Twilight Zone twisty (Premium Harmony) to the downright give you chills along your spine (Bad Little Kid) to one connected to his Tower series (Ur). So, really, any of his writing that is your favorite, you will find something in here to make you happy.

But, while reading The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, which I had interrupted my reading of 100 Years of the Best American Short Stories edited by Lorrie Moore for, I started thinking about short stories. And I decided I wanted to write a blog post on short stories for today.

I love short stories. I’ve always loved short stories and on here I have reviewed a few different ones over the last 3 years, including Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, Jeremy Morong‘s collection of stories that just came out recently (look Jeremy! Your name is listed with O’Connor’s and Hemingway’s!), and one on Stephen King’s Top Ten, called The Golden Argosy (out of print, so if you find a copy for cheap, grab it, I’ll pay you back!).

People keep saying “Oh no! The short story is dead! Don’t write a short story!”, but while it might not be the premier form of entertainment anymore (at the turn of the century, when Best American Short Stories debuted, many Americans saw short stories as a perfect entertainment), it most certainly has not died. In mainstream publishing, you will see few collections, but I have run across a few over the years that aren’t from authors that are big name like Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King, and are in fact, first book authors. Now, from small press publishers, your ability to get short stories is much higher. In fact, your chances are quite excellent. If you have Dave on your Facebook, do not hesitate to drop him a line for some great small presses to check out or authors he recommends. If you don’t have his Facebook, feel free to leave a comment. One of us will respond with a list ūüôā

Authors will say that short stories are often harder to write than a novel. In a short story, you don’t have the ability to digress. You have to keep everything streamlined, you have to be able to get it across in a limited amount of time, and you don’t have a lot of room for character development.

As a reader, I find short stories incredibly satisfying. I especially enjoy anthologies of short stories. Anthologies have a lot of different authors in them, so there are a lot of different genres, tones, styles of writing. And you get to sample all of them. If you don’t like one that you’ve started, you can skip it and you haven’t ruined the reading experience (if you try to skip, say Hugo’s section on argot in Les Miserables, you miss a few details you should probably have). But, it’s also fun reading a single author’s collection of short stories, like Jeremy’s that I mentioned above. You can get a feel for the author, and it’s interesting to see the different ways they use the stories to play with structure, with characters and with tone.

I recently ordered Harper’s when my daughter was selling magazines. My main reason? Each issue they publish has a short story in it.

Now, another thing people that have read this blog know, is that Dave has published two novels previously. In March, he has a third book coming out. This isn’t just a statement out of nowhere. It actually fits into the theme of the rest of this post. The book is titled Not Quite So Stories and as the title suggests is actually a collection of short stories. I’m excited for Dave, as he has actually published quite a few short stories in different literary publications over the years, so to see him able to have an actual entire book of them out makes me almost squee happy. (Note I said almost, not quite). You can pre-order his book on Amazon.

100 Years of The Best American Short Stories is a great collection as well. Every year for the last 100 years, an anthology called “The Best American Short Stories” has been published, in which the editors read hundreds of stories from dozens of sources and pick the ones they feel are best. The 100 Years collection is a story from each year. It’s got a lot of authors you’ve heard of, like Hemingway and O’Connor, but a few of them are ones you haven’t really heard of or haven’t heard of at all, like Tillie Olsen (well, some of you might have heard of her, I had not). A lot of different styles and types of stories are represented in this volume. It gives you a chance to try out an author that you’ve maybe heard about before but never picked up a novel of theirs to see if you might want to read more by them, like Phillip Roth.

The next time you’re looking for something new to read, please give a collection of short stories a try. Start with Jeremy’s, especially if you’re an Omaha native, then move on to others. And in March, get Dave’s.

I currently have I’m a Little Teapot stuck in my head. My daughter is in cleaning her room and in between coming out five million times and asking how much longer she needs to be in there keeps singing it. While not quite as annoying as it was to have “Do you want to build a snowman” stuck in my head last year, it’s pretty irritating. Like sand in your bathing suit.

Have a great Thanksgiving!



What I’ve Been Reading: “He” by Jon Konrath

Kim came up with the idea for us to take a couple weeks to talk about books we’d been reading recently as opposed to our usual lists. She went through a couple, but I’m only going to talk about one: He by Jon Konrath.

Part of this is that I don’t think anywhere near enough people are familiar with Konrath. I’ve read quite a bit: Fistful of Pizza, Summer Rain, The Memory Hunter, Rumored to Exist, Sleep Has No Master, The Earworm Inception, Thunderbird, and Atmospheres. That should tell you quite a bit about what I think of Konrath as a writer, but also should tell you I’m in a good position to evaluate He in context of Konrath’s writing in general. Both parts are involved in why I want to talk about the book, as well as part being the fact that the book intrigued me.

Konrath has done some good realism and some good science fiction, but his work really shines for me when it gets strange. This is the main body of his work, wild and aggressively humorous streams that connect pop culture elements (almost in a jazz-like fashion of semi-formlessness and repeated themes such as NyQuil, Maria Carey, fried foods, collectibles, old computers, Lunchables, and so on) logically and seemingly randomly together while painting absurd yet accurate depictions of the modern American consciousness. Not perhaps quite stream of consciousness in the context of the author’s consciousness or the consciousness of a character, it’s almost more a core sample of the mishmash the collective unconscious has surely become in the face of modern information overload.

Some of Konrath’s works (such as Fistful of Pizza, Sleep Has No Master, The Earworm Inception, and Thunderbird) are full of shorter pieces that do this on a microcosm scale. The most interesting for me though (such Rumored to Exist and Atmospheres) form a full novel arc out of these streams. That’s incredibly difficult to do, but Konrath has managed to pull it off with inventiveness and energy. This can also be a little challenging for people who don’t already get it or who don’t read far enough in for it all to dawn on them.

He is a little different from either of these two areas of Konrath’s bizarre writings. In this one, Konrath is experimenting with bringing more structure to the thread within the million screaming voices. He is a book with an overarching arc, but it is assembled in the form of 100 intertwined micro-fictions. It goes all over the place, keeping true to Konrath’s more strange and mass media brain dump techniques, but it keeps the sections in bite size chunks, individualization within a mass homogenization, deviance wedded with conformity (that might not make any sense, but oh well). It interested me as a reader who likes grappling with Konrath’s more challenging stuff, but it also seems like it’s going to be easier for newer readers to understand what Konrath is really doing.

Let’s take a look:

He smashed the McDonald’s window into spider-webbed pieces with an Avengers commemorative Thor sledgehammer from an AM/PM convenience store, pushing the large pane of laminated safety glass into the restaurant. The hammer pounding attack sounded like the percussion track from a forgotten Kraftwerk album, echoing through the ghetto neighborhood at top volume.

“Bring back the McRib or I will fuck you up!” he screamed, spinning in circles with the eight-pound sledge extended at arm’s length like a demented helicopter rotor blade. “Bring back the McRib! Bring back the McDLT! Keep the hot side hot! You mother fucking secret Muslims can’t keep us down! We will not stand for the unchecked aggression of our cold side getting hot and vice-versa!”

That just gives a taste, but I think it illustrates what I’m saying pretty well. I’d like to give more to demonstrate this all more completely, but I don’t want to give away too much of the book.

It’s weird, it’s strange, it’s funny (guaranteed to offend almost everybody at least once somewhere along the line or double your money back presuming you overpaid by four times for the book to begin with and bought the book before the 1972 cut off date for this offer), and it’s an engaging read. All these He’s, as I read I really think that in drawing them as bizarre and impossible individuals Konrath has managed to capture and convey the macrocosm essence of what it feels like to be living in this country right now.

Those who already know Konrath picked up on this one pretty fast (based on me and the others I’ve seen). If word gets around though, I have to think we’ll have some new people joining us. It’s some good stuff and more people ought to know about it.

F250 by Bud Smith

Kim suggested recently that we take a brief break from the list in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books and talk about some of the other books we’ve been reading recently that we think people should know about. Kim did that last week and discussed a few, and now it’s my turn. The moment she suggested it, I knew I was going to be talking about F250 by Bud Smith.

Right before the kid with the bloody face appears, a glass smashes in the kitchen. Someone shouts. I do nothing. I barely live here. My things are still in the pickup. Seth is trashed. I’m still horribly sober.

This is my first day back. There’s a purple Post-it note lying dusty on Seth’s coffee table. The note is dated months earlier, when I was probably in Idaho or Utah or Arizona or on the moon. It says, simply, “Call Natalie.”

Sure. That’s exactly what I want to do with my life, call Natalie. But here I am, on the back deck, alone, in-between calling her and not calling her‚ÄĒa state of telephone limbo. I should be getting trashed with everyone else at the party at this dilapidated house.

Lee Casey is at a stuck point in his life. He’s back at home after cruising the countryside aimlessly, doing small stonework jobs that do at least make him happy, off the track of those around him who’d started to grow up and go to college. He’s among friends similarly shipwrecked in a house that was supposed to be torn down months ago. It’s cool though, because they’re going to take their band to L.A. They’re going to really get going‚Ķexcept Lee knows they aren’t. He knows it isn’t going to happen, and it doesn’t.

He’s grounded and honest, taking pleasure in the solid things he has, but there aren’t really enough of those. His truck is the best metaphor for his life, a beat up monster he uses for hauling stone and cement with a tremendous amount of force‚Ķbut little to no brakes:

There were a lot of crashes‚ÄĒinto people, places, things, whatever was around. The truck was too heavy, I was weighed down, springs sagged, hills were too steep, roads were too slick‚ÄĒI couldn’t control it.

Too heavy, weighed down, couldn’t be controlled. Not the best idea, but not really one about which there was a whole lot of choice. You could just as accurately say these things about Lee’s life as his truck.

Still, though there is a lot Lee cannot control (a girl who cheats on him, a friend OD’ing, the trajectory of the band, and so on), there are some things that Lee simply does not control. He gets hung up on the big picture and doesn’t always take what control he can. You can’t really blame that; many people’s lives go that way.

When I think of Lee Casey after reading, I’m reminded of that ‘beaten yet blessed’ thing Kerouac supposedly said to describe the beat generation. I don’t know whether Kerouac really said what I think he did, but it fits the main character of F250 so well that I’m going with it. Beaten yet blessed, that’s Lee Casey in a nutshell. He’s had some pretty bad things happen for him, but some pretty good things too. He’s a good guy and doesn’t have a whole lot, but he can appreciate what he has and a certain kind of light seems to shine on him. It’s cool, and it’s delivered in some wonderful prose.

F250 often comes across quiet, though there is plenty of noise, but it moves with the relentless force of that F-250 with bad brakes. To some extent, we’re just fooling ourselves that there is any control…but we still need to take what control we can without sweating the rest. Lee Casey has a lot to say that you need to hear, but it’s not something he can say direct. You got to read the book; then you’ll get it.

In Which Promises Are Broken

I know, I told you here, that I would be talking more about Pablo Neruda today.

But, finding a book of his that -isn’t- his love poetry has proven to be near impossible.¬† I finally had my library look and see if they could get it inter library loan and luckily they can.¬† But that means I will not have it in my hands for at least a few more days.

So, today, we are going to talk about other things I have read recently that I feel are definitely worth checking out.

I counted today (I write down everything I read in a tiny notebook, for curiosity’s sake) and I have read about 65 books this year (more if you count all of the Walking Dead graphic novels separately, which I did not since it felt like cheating.¬† Some of those have been re-reads, some audio books, some fairly fun and easy books to read.¬† Some have been more “literary”.¬† I’m just going to list the ones that I definitely want to recommend on.

The most recent one I read is Confessions by Kanae Minato.¬† It is a novel originally written in Japanese, for Japan readers.¬† It was a really engaging book, about a teacher whose four year old daughter dies.¬† On her last day of teaching at the school, she informs the class that it wasn’t an accident, that two students murdered her daughter.¬† She then informs them of the revenge she exacted.¬† The novel is about the domino effect of all of that.¬† It explores the idea of revenge and retribution.¬† What the possible outcome can be of knowing a murderer.¬† The minds of the killers.¬† And the teacher’s final revenge.¬† Parts of the book felt slightly awkward, but I think that’s more due to translation.¬† My only random negative thought was that the teacher has a couple of parts where she is talking to someone (not her class, that monologue is written beautifully) and seems to be able to go on for minutes without interruption.¬† If you’re looking for something different to read, check Confessions out.

I also have read quite a few YA novels.¬† The one I loved the most was Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell.¬†Ms. Rowell comes from the Omaha area and her books all reflect that.¬† The geographic area of all of her novels that I have read, center on Omaha and Lincoln.¬† Eleanor and Park is a tale that takes place in the mid 80s, about two very young teenagers (Eleanor and Park).¬† Eleanor comes from a very poor house, with a crap step father.¬† Park comes from a very loving home, but is half Korean (I think Korean, it’s been a few months since I’ve read it).¬† Quite unwillingly at first on Park’s part, they become friends. Then they become more.¬† This book really beautifully showed the powerlessness that kids have.¬† And how that powerlessness can conflict so strongly against their desire to take action, to fix things, to rescue people and things.¬† It also deals with how people can fit in the weirdest places, sometimes without even knowing.¬† There is a sense of melancholy to Eleanor and Park that appealed to me.

I listened to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver as well.¬† This is a YA novel.¬† It’s about a girl who dies in a car accident after a day with her popular friends and the people that they make fun of, and the insensitivity they have.¬† She wakes up on the day of her death.
And relives it.  Making different choices that show how each action sparks another action.  It has a Groundhog Day vibe.  It deals with who you really are underneath it all and what ends up really mattering in the end.

Me Before You by JoJo Moyes.¬† I resisted reading this book for the longest time, as when I had started it in the past it had seemed like just another “chick lit” book set in England and I had exhausted my craving for those years ago.¬† But, then I really sat down and read it.¬† And it’s definitely not your normal book.¬† The ending is both expected and unexpected.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.¬† This memoir is stunning in how much Ms. Walls really brings to life both a childhood lived in extreme poverty, but also a childhood lived with eccentric and most likely mentally ill parents.¬† I know this book was in vogue a few years ago with everyone around raving about it.¬† I just didn’t read it then.


The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry

Well, Kim went off track from our usual list last week in the spirit of the holidays to talk about the Christmas stories of Dickens. I enjoyed that, and decided I should do something similar myself. Given that, what better off track topic could there be (given that Kim already grabbed Dickens) than “Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry.

Now, people give O. Henry a lot of crap for the kind of stories he wrote. Admittedly, he tended to write very simple stories and milked his signature twist ending absolutely to death. Still, he had an amazing amount of influence‚Ķ”Gift of the Magi” in particular. Whether or not you care for O. Henry‚Ķthe likelihood you know the story is very, very high.

Just in case: Jim and Della are two people who are very poor and very much in love. They want to buy each other Christmas presents, but have no money. Jim sells his beloved pocket watch to buy Della the jeweled hair combs she’s desired‚Ķand Della sells her beautiful hair to buy Jim a spectacular watch chain. You can tell what happens, because I’ve said it already. That’s about it.

No matter, as I’ve said, you likely already know the whole story even if you haven’t read it.

After all, I first came across this story in Sunday school. They didn’t have us read it, they didn’t even mention O. Henry, but they summarized it for the lessons it taught just like it was from the bible. Similarly, there was a parody sketch on Saturday Night Live back when Donald Trump was still married to Ivana‚Ķonly in that one Donald sells his yacht to buy Ivana a gold door for her mansion and Ivana sells her mansion to buy a jeweled anchor for his yacht (or something like that). It even influenced a story by Alissa Nutting in Barrelhouse titled “The Gift of the (Da)magi(ng).”

Good, bad, or otherwise, this story has had significant influence. It’s pervasive in our culture. Say what you want about O. Henry, but you have to give him that. Sure, the story is a little saccharine‚Ķbut it’s Christmas through and through, at least for me:

The magi, as you know, were wise men–wonderfully wise men–who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Dead Animals by CS DeWildt

Today we’re going to do something a little bit different here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books. We mentioned in our initial posting that we might deviate from our normal format from time to time, i.e. not just reviewing a book from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books. One thing we said we might do is occasionally look at a book that isn’t from The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

That’s exactly what we’re doing today. We decided to take a brief break from our usual format and talk about Dead Animals by CS DeWildt (Martian Lit August 2013; $9.99 paperback, $4.99 Kindle).

I was already interested in Martian Lit before hearing about this book, myself having had a story recently published in their journal and having gotten a peek at their upcoming release of Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands by Nathaniel Tower. I was even more interested when I heard they were releasing work by CS DeWildt. Anyone who is familiar with his novella Candy and Cigarettes won’t have to wonder why.

Anyway, I finally got a chance to read Dead Animals and I dug it enough that I thought we’d take a day on here to talk about it. We good with that? Oh, that’s right‚Ķyou can’t answer until after I post. Guess we’ll just have to go for it and see.

The aspect I love best about the short pieces in Dead Animals is the contrast between the brutal portions of the world DeWildt gives life to and the delicately beautiful point of significance revealed in a character. The brutality is grittily stated, but the point of significance isn’t belabored. It could almost escape you, but lets you hold on for just long enough to marvel at it. The effect is really well done.

Let’s take a look at a bit from “That Boy Got Dynamite in His Hands” by way of example:

“You want to die, Shit Eater?” Bryan said. He looked at me as if to access my complicacy, to wrangle me further in with some personal insult, but I closed my eyes and he dismissed me, putting his attention back on Harold. He lifted the hoe to his shoulder. “I’m killing frogs. I’ll kill a couple big faggy ones too.” And we saw the pile, or I saw it. I felt that Harold had known all along what Bryan was doing. I stared at the pile of green death for a long time, there must have been at least thirty frogs, mutilated, spilling their guts and drying out in the last of the summer sun. The flies were buzzing, lighting upon the bounty and flying off again when their tiny hairs were touched by threat of a stray breeze.

After Harold acts, tossing a lit M-80 to mutilate the frog-killing psychopath Bryan, the character’s return to Harold’s home. The narrator mistakes the following, thinking it’s about what Harold did to Bryan, not connecting this to Harold’s highly depressed father who they left back at the house:

As we hit the edge of the yard, Harold’s mom hit the front door, crossed the yard and ran down the drive to meet us, crying for Harold. Her car remained where it had been and I knew she should have been at work. The distance between Harold’s mom and me seemed to be unbridgeable, like some timeless, spaceless void where beings saw each other, moved toward one another, but were never quite able to reach. It was a hell and I saw the hand again, the last finger falling away and I knew it was what I deserved. As she took Harold into her arms I saw the ambulance, partially hidden by the curve in the blacktop and the purple dogwood that had just begun dropping its leaved. Did they bring Bryan here? Evidence of what we’d done in case we tried to deny it?

I think you can see what I mean: the disgusting slaughter of the frogs and the reader’s aching knowledge of what the narrator doesn’t realize. Many of these stories manage to pull off this effect, this contrast between the horror that is the world and the (sometimes heartbreaking) beauty that somehow manages to exist within it.

Stepping beyond this aspect, though, the stories of Dead Animals contain solid writing. Tangibly evoked settings, fully developed human characters in well-chosen brief moments, there is little not to like. There is a lot that can be disturbing in these stories, but if you check out Dead Animals I don’t think you’ll be able to argue that you weren’t moved. It certainly does that.