To Review or Not to Review?

I don't think this is the best approach to book reviewing.
I don’t think this is the best approach to book reviewing.

Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae. — Kurt Vonnegut

There’s been a lot of controversy recently about negative book reviews.  The New York Times Book Review tackled this topic a couple of weeks ago, with opposing viewpoints presented by Francine Prose and Zoe Heller. Prose asks, “Why would a sensible writer ask people not to buy a book? If the novel, as we also hear, is moribund or dead, why drive another nail into its sad little coffin?” Heller counters with the argument that authors “write for other people. They write to have an effect, to elicit a reaction . . .  they are not kindergarteners bringing home their first potato prints for the admiration of their parents, but grown-ups who have chosen to present their work in the public arena.”

So, if a critic has a negative reaction to a book, should that reviewer decline to publish the review? This is what Prose advocates: “I began returning books I didn’t like to editors. I thought, life is short, I’d rather spend my time urging people to read things I love.” I sympathize with her point of view. As a bookseller and book blogger, I’d prefer not to spend time telling people about books I found pretentious, or boring, or poorly written. (But if anyone asks me, I’m happy to oblige! I have to maintain credibility.) However, I’m not a professional book critic. I look to critics such as Prose and Heller to provide me with guidance. When I read a book review, I want to see evidence that the reviewer is a critical thinker.  If I wanted to see “5 stars!!! Best book ever!” I could look at Goodreads.

Fewer and fewer newspapers and magazines publish book reviews; in fact, many major newspapers have eliminated their book sections. The Chicago Tribune reinvented their book section in 2012, calling it “Printers Row” and making it available only as a supplementary print or digital subscription. It’s described as “the Chicago Tribune’s literary journal, fiction, and membership program”. I appreciate that the Tribune is making an effort to keep literary criticism alive in a major newspaper. In fact, Printers Row doesn’t seem to have any problem publishing negative reviews. I just wish they’d agree with me more often on which books to review negatively! We are definitely not on the same page, so to speak.

I was captivated by the main character's voice in this inventive novel.
I was captivated by the main character’s voice in this inventive novel.

A case in point is the recent review of The Sun and Other Stars, by Brigid Pasulka (a Chicagoan), written by Troy Jollimore, a poet, philosophy professor, and book critic. Jollimore claims that the novel shows a “preference for sentimentality over real emotion”.  Calling a literary novel “sentimental” is fairly harsh. But how does a critical reader determine if a novel is sentimental? Jollimore tries to back up his claim with examples from the novel; for instance, he states that the tragic events in the novel are “plot devices” that are “exploited” to move the story forward. Hmmm . . . sounds a little bit like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart defining pornography by saying “I know it when I see it”. Aren’t all tragic events in fiction plot devices to a certain extent?

My response to the novel could not have been more different. I found the novel genuinely moving and the characters well-developed and believable. The Sun and Other Stars takes place in a small village on the Italian Riviera. Etto, the protagonist, is the 22-year-old son of the village butcher. His twin brother, a “calcio” (“soccer”, in American parlance) star,  has recently died in a motorcycle crash and his grief-stricken mother committed suicide not long afterwards. Etto and his father exist in their own separate orbits, unable to connect with each other. When Yuri, a famous Ukrainian calcio player, comes to San Benedetto for the summer, everything changes for Etto and his father — especially after Etto meets Yuri’s beautiful sister.

The book, which is in many ways a love letter to all things Italian, takes its title from the final lines of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

But already my desire and my will
were being turned like a wheel, all at one speed,
by the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.

Just as Dante survives the horrors of hell and comes to know God’s love, so does Etto survive despair and grief and come to know love again. Calcio, which had separated him from his father and his fellow villagers, brings them together. Yes, the story has all the makings of a romantic comedy, but it never becomes hackneyed or predictable. Brigid Pasulka gives Etto a completely original and endearing voice, filled with melancholy and black humor.

The first knock of the morning plinks against the window, the start of the procession of nonne on their way to mass. Nonne, nonne, nonne, and more nonne. This is what sociologists call the aging of Europe, and Liguria’s demographics are the most top-heavy of them all, crammed with nonne, nobody stupid or naive enough to bring more babies into this world. They clutch each other’s arms, crossing the front windows so slowly, you can see the gossip gathering in clouds over their heads . . . the nonne take to the streets every morning without fail.  After all, they’re in training. They must have strong backs to prop up the 80 percent of us who have stopped hedging our bets with God.

Besides being the only man in San Benedetto who isn’t obsessed with calcio, Etto is set apart in another way: he is half American. Calcio brought his parents together; they met at a soccer match and fell in love despite a language barrier. But art is what bonded mother and son:

Mamma used to be as passionate about art as Papa is about calcio. It was the reason she came to Europe in the first place, because she said she was tired of learning art history from slides, and tired of being in California, where there was nothing older than she was. . . She could make any museum interesting, even when I was a kid. She would take me around to each sculpture or painting as if she was introducing me to old friends.

Etto decides to paint a replica of the Sistine Chapel in his old high school, replacing the Biblical figures with San Benedetto villagers. He says, “You are probably shaking your head, thinking, what kind of deficiente thinks he will be able to paint a copy of the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of a classroom? What kind of arrogant stronzo?” This final tribute to his mother enables him to start coming to terms with the grief and anger he feels over her death.

Readers will notice that Italian words are sprinkled throughout the novel without italics — or explanation. At first, I found this slightly distracting — and then, as I learned their meanings, I found it brilliant. Etto is bilingual, and most likely thinks in both Italian and English. Pasulka’s use of language in this way enriches his voice and makes him seem even more real.

Obviously, the Printers Row reviewer didn’t share my enthusiasm for The Sun and Other Stars. Besides missing the genuine emotion that was so evident to me, he missed the beauty of the language and the originality of the story. I thought Pasulka masterfully combined love, tragedy, art, and sports to create a wonderfully inventive novel.

To read the full article about the pros and cons of negative book reviews, click Do We Really Need Negative Book Reviews?


Come to Lydia’s Party — And Meet Margaret Hawkins

9780670015764HLast week, Chicago author Margaret Hawkins made the trek north to Lake Forest and delighted a group of 35 avid readers with a discussion of her new novel, Lydia’s Party.

Lydia has a secret she needs to share with her closest friends when they gather for their annual “Bleak Midwinter Bash” at her Chicago home. Readers will quickly discover the secret, but that’s not the point. This quietly moving novel is about the power and significance of women’s friendships, and the regrets that we all face when we realize we’re approaching – or past – the halfway point of life. Lydia is an art teacher at a “godforsaken suburban community college” and a failed artist. She’s divorced, childless, and living with her elderly dog, Maxine. Her group of friends all met as employees at the college; none of them – with one exception – has achieved career success. Lydia’s Party raises interesting questions: How should we define success? How do our fears hold us back? What role does competition play into women’s friendships?  What regrets will we have when we look back at our lives? These questions will inspire spirited discussions among book groups.

Our event took place at Jolly Good Fellows, a bakery across from our store that makes delicious muffins, scones, and pastries — perfect for a cold winter morning. The audience had many questions for Margaret, about her writing process, the road to publication, the characters in the novel, and more. I had a list of my own questions, but we ran out of time. So Margaret graciously agreed to answer my questions in writing.

Before becoming a novelist, you were an art critic. You also wrote a memoir. What led you to switch to fiction writing?

I’d written stories before but hadn’t done anything with them.  Then I got the first sentence for Cats and Dogs in my head and had to write it down.  After that I just kept going.  That’s while I was still writing my art column, but I’d been feeling constricted by that form for some time, having to critique a show or shows every week for years, and I really wanted to break loose and use language differently.  Frankly, I wanted to tell my own stories, not just comment on other people’s art.

As for the memoir, I wrote that while I was writing How to Survive a Natural Disaster.  That was something I felt I had to do, a story that needed to be told about untreated mental illness and how help can be found even later in life. (My sister was 63 years old when she started getting better, while I was writing the book.) I was awed by the help that came my way just for the asking, after decades of secrecy and shame and fear. I figured lots of other people were in the same situation and I wanted share the good news – that healing, some at least, is always possible.

IMG_0178Lydia’s Party is told from the point of view of female characters. Can you imagine yourself writing from the point of view of a male character?

Absolutely.  I’d love to write a whole book in a male voice.  I don’t know if I could, effectively, but I’d like to try.  I did write Craig in first person in How to Survive a Natural Disaster.  Enjoyed it immensely and I feel like he taught me a few things about tolerating other points of view.  Men and women are different, of course, but not that different.

Maxine, the dog, is important to Lydia’s Party. You might say she is a character. Dogs are significant in all three of your novels. Can you comment on that?

Dogs are significant in my life.  Plus I think they are fascinating personalities who make life richer and sweeter. Their pure devotion makes a good contrast to some of the less attractive human qualities.

Lydia, like Roxanne in How to Survive a Natural Disaster, sees herself as a failed artist. Do you think a person who conceives of himself or herself as an artist, yet never attains “success” can find fulfillment? Or will that person always feel dissatisfied and frustrated?

I don’t think worldly success is necessarily a measure of quality in an artist or that it is the only way to attain fulfillment as an artist.  I think a real artist is an artist no matter what the world says.  Making good art is satisfying in its own right. Of course, it’s great if people notice and even better if they pay you, but success is a different thing than actually making art.  Some very good artists never become “successful.” Some of them make peace with that, but it’s hard in our society.  It has partly to do with money.  If you’re comfortable and can make your art without worrying about how to make a living, life is easier than if you have to choose between the two.

What books/authors have helped you develop into the writer you are today?

One true answer: everything I’ve ever read.  Also, as a young person, fourteen, fifteen, I loved Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov.  It’s the one book I reread. Writing doesn’t get better than that.  Also, I attended a Baptist church with my friend Deb and her family for seven years and we read the Bible.  That made a big impact, too, not just the content but the style. Beautiful language always entrances me.

This is your third novel. What have you learned about fiction writing along the way? What didn’t you know when you wrote your first novel that you know now?

I didn’t know anyone would want to read my books. It really took me by surprise. I felt free to write anything in Cats and Dogs, break a lot of rules I assumed existed because I didn’t think anyone would read it. In terms of technique though, I haven’t learned much.  I just start and trudge into the mess, drive in the dark the whole way.  I’m not much of a planner.

What books have you read recently that you particularly enjoyed and would recommend?

In no particular order:  My Education by Susan Choi, a fascinating portrait of obsessive love and how it changes over time.  (Which, come to think of it, is how you could describe Lolita.Arcadia by Lauren Groff, about a boy growing up in a commune. I’m reading Foxfire now by Joyce Carol Oates, about a girl gang.  Wow. Isn’t she great?  She does not shy away from rough stuff.  In photographs she looks like this fragile little bird and then she writes this muscular, violent prose – I love that.  This list is just off the top of my head.  Oh, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson – loved that.  Also, The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud.  I’m binging on fiction these days.   My cousin Kate Kasten’s book about a farm family in Iowa, Better Days.  Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending.

You’ve published four books in five years — that’s quite an accomplishment. What’s next? How many creative projects do you work on at a time?

I have two books in the works now, at very different stages.  I never know though if my projects will see the light of day.  I feel like someone planting a garden.  I hope it will all grow and flower but if something dies there’s more where that came from.  Remember, I got a late start, so I have a lot of material stored up!

As a writing teacher, what is the most important advice you give aspiring writers? Are there common misconceptions about writing that you notice among your students?

My most important advice to students:  Write every day!  And read!  (Sometimes life intervenes and you can’t write everyday but I don’t say that. You should at least try, or feel guilty when you don’t!)

Most common misconception: Writing is fun.

As a Chicagoan, do you have any favorite places to go — parks, museums, restaurants?

I love Ravinia. The Art Institute, of course. Millennium Park. My dog park. Superdawg.The lake shore, from Hyde Park all the way north to the tip of Door County, though I guess that’s not Chicago anymore.

How do you like to spend your free time when you’re not writing (or reading)?

 I like to be in nature and I do love hanging out with my dog though he’s a maniac now. Having a dog is a way to be in nature even if it’s just taking walks. I look forward to his mellow middle age, if I make it that far.  I may not survive his robust youth.

Thank you, Margaret, for visiting Lake Forest and for taking the time to answer these questions!

Tips for Choosing Book Club Books

There’s plenty to discuss in The Deepest Secret.

“What’s our next book?” — the dreaded question facing every book club. Here are some suggestions to help increase your chances of choosing a book that will inspire a fun and enlightening discussion:

  1. Decide if you’re a democracy or a dictatorship. Will your group vote on the books, or will each member be given the chance to make an executive decision on your monthly selection?
  2. Don’t worry about whether everyone will like the book. Some of the best book club discussions happen when not everyone likes the book. And sometimes a member who came into the meeting with a negative opinion of the book goes home with a new appreciation for it.
  3. And don’t worry about liking fictional characters. You’re not befriending them, you’re discussing why they behave as they do.
  4. Don’t be afraid of nonfiction. I think nonfiction books often provide the best material for discussion.
  5. cover-2Unless you’re a very literary group, choose books that focus on interesting issues. Your book club meeting most likely isn’t going to resemble a college English seminar. You’ll  probably have more fun talking about the ethical problems presented in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks than the imagery in The Age of Innocence.
  6. Pick a book that is the right length for the amount of time your group has to read it. Don’t choose The Luminaries if your group is meeting in three weeks.
  7. Don’t choose The Luminaries (or anything of similar density) if your group is the type that discusses the book for 15 minutes and then moves on to more important things — like where you should meet next month.
  8. 9780547554839_hresBeware of books that one of your members describes as “uplifting” or “feel-good”. There won’t be much to talk about.
  9. Take advantage of all the resources that are available online and in your community. There are countless websites devoted to book clubs, including lists of suggested books. Your local library and bookstore will be happy to make recommendations for you, and to let you know what other groups are reading.
  10. Ask your friends (especially out-of-town friends) what their book clubs have read and how successful their choices were. Post “Any great book club books you can recommend?” as your Facebook status.
  11. Consider organizing a book exchange.  Have everyone bring a book he or she has recently read and trade books. At the next meeting, briefly review all the books and if one stands out, choose it for an in-depth discussion.
  12. Leave some flexibility in your schedule; don’t choose books for the whole year.
  13.  If your group is having a hard time finishing books — or agreeing on book choices — read a short story or an essay. You could even spend the year reading The Best American Short Stories 2013 or The Best American Essays 2013.
  14. Think about choosing books that have won major prizes (National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Man Booker) or have received good reviews in publications you trust.

cover-1I always look to Publishers Weekly for book recommendations; if a book gets a starred review in PW, I pay attention. Carla Buckley’s The Deepest Secret got a starred review, which doesn’t surprise me; the reviewer called it “superb”, and I agree! I read the book last fall, because I was going to meet Carla at a dinner hosted by Random House to introduce authors and editors to Chicago-area booksellers. The Deepest Secret is the story of Eve Lattimore, a parent who makes a terrible error in judgment — and then compounds that mistake by keeping it secret, in an effort to protect her chronically ill son. Much more than a page-turner, The Deepest Secret is a morally complex exploration of parental love. It’s a rare and wonderful treat to read a suspenseful novel that is also character-driven. Book clubs will argue about the choices that Eve, her family, and friends make; there are no easy answers.

I started reading the book the day before I was due to meet Carla. I arrived at the dinner nearly 30 minutes early (very unusual for me) and sat in my car reading the book until the appointed time. When I saw people starting to enter the restaurant, I stashed the book in my purse and joined them. I introduced myself to the first person I saw — who turned out to be Carla Buckley! I told her that her new book was truly “unputdownable” and that I hated to tear myself away from it; I’m not sure she believed me until I showed her my book, with a page dog-eared about halfway through. Carla (along with another terrific author, Jenny Milchman) will be coming back to the Chicago area on May 8 — please join us (with or without your book club) for a great discussion. No need to choose the books — they are already chosen for you! Jenny is the author of two suspense novels: Cover of Snow, a psychological thriller about a young wife in upstate New York investigating her husband’s mysterious suicide, and Ruin Falls (due in April)  about a mother desperately searching for her missing children. (Cover of Snow, Jenny’s debut novel, also received a starred review in Publishers Weekly.)


10 Love Stories for Valentine’s Day

Years ago, we had an elderly customer who regularly came into the store asking for a “juicy romance”. (She was Russian, so the “r”  rolled off her tongue in a very charming way.) It was always a challenge to find just the right book for her. She didn’t want formula romance fiction; she wanted a good love story, and she wanted one every week. Another requirement was that the book not be set in Russia. It’s not easy to find a well-written love story. Maybe Valentine’s Day has put you in the mood for a “juicy romance”?  I asked my coworkers for their favorites, old and new, and got some terrific recommendations.

9780143124542HJust about everyone on our staff has read and loved Me Before You by Jojo Moyes. It’s the story of a young woman who is hired as the caregiver to a man who’s become a quadriplegic after a motorcycle accident. Get out the Kleenex when you’re about two-thirds of the way through. Here’s what Liesl Schillinger of the New York Times had to say:

When I finished this novel, I didn’t want to review it; I wanted to reread it. Which might seem perverse if you know that for most of the last hundred pages I was dissolved in tears. Jojo Moyes, the writer who produced this emotional typhoon, knows very well that Me Before You is, as British critical consensus affirms, “a real weepy.” And yet, unlike other novels that have achieved their mood-melting powers through calculated infusions of treacle — Erich Segal’s Love Story comes immediately to mind — Moyes’s story provokes tears that are redemptive, the opposite of gratuitous. Some situations, she forces the reader to recognize, really are worth crying over.

9781594205477HKathy recommends The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, by Ben Sherwood, which is not only a story of a romance between a man and a woman but a story of the undying love between two brothers.

Max couldn’t pick just one favorite; it was a tossup among three recent books: The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro, The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness, and The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I adored The Crane Wife as well, which surprised me, because it’s based on a folk tale and involves magical realism — two things that are usually immediate turnoffs for me. This novel, about a sad and lonely man in London who falls in love with a beautiful and mysterious woman (who may or may not be a human version of the injured crane who landed in his backyard), captivated me.

Leeni has fond memories of Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster, and so do I. An epistolary novel for young readers written in 1912, it contains all the elements of a classic love story — including an orphanage and a mysterious benefactor. I wish I still had my childhood copy — it was probably the first romantic book I ever read.

Molly is smitten with Letters From Skye, by Jessica Brockmole, another novel told in letters. A young poet from the remote Isle of Skye off the coast of Scotland receives a fan letter from an American student, and their correspondence turns into a complicated love affair.

Anna Karenina is Diane’s choice — and it’s hard to argue with that! William Faulkner called Tolstoy’s masterpiece “the best novel ever written”. Recently, the New York Times ran an article called “A Sentimental Education” in which contemporary authors discussed the ways literature has taught them about love. Ann Patchett reflected on the difference between reading Anna Karenina at the age of 21 and at 49:

When I was 21 I read Anna Karenina. I thought Anna and Vronsky were soul mates. They were deeply in love and therefore had to be together. I found Karenin cruel and oppressive for keeping his wife from her destiny. Levin and Kitty and the peasants bored me. I read those parts quickly.

Last year I turned 49, and I read the book again. This time, I loved Levin and Kitty. I loved the fact that after she declined his proposal he waited for a long time to mend his hurt feelings and then asked her again. I loved that she had grown up in the interim and now felt grateful for a second chance. Anna and Vronsky bored me. I thought Anna was selfish and shrill. My heart went out to poor Karenin, who tried to be decent.

IMG_0146And my favorites? In order to keep the list to ten, I’ll pick just two wonderful love stories: Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, and The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, by Jan-Philipp Sendker. The two books couldn’t be more different — Birdsong, set in World War I, is dark and tragic, while  The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, set in Burma, is mystical and exotic. But both are about the power of love to connect and heal.

I have to add a “bonus” book to the list – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin, due for publication in April. I picked up a copy at Winter Institute in Seattle and read it cover to cover in one day. It’s about a heartbroken bookseller whose life is transformed by love — and it’s going to be one of my favorite love stories of all time. I can’t wait to tell you about it in April!


The chalkboard in my kitchen.
The chalkboard in my kitchen.

Book Review — The Sense of Touch

Ron ParsonsAs I’ve said before, I think short stories don’t get enough love. So when I was asked to be a blog tour host for The Sense of Touch, a short story collection by debut author Ron Parsons, I jumped at the chance. It didn’t hurt that I had just read a story of his (“Big Blue”) on the Storyville app. This is a subscription app that delivers a short story “from the best story collections published by commercial and independent presses” to your IPhone or IPad once a week. It’s not free (because the founders believe all writers should be paid for their creative work), but it is inexpensive.

Ron Parsons is a partner at a law firm in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He specializes in appellate work and has appeared before the United States Supreme Court. He has published many works in addition to the stories in The Sense of Touch (many of which were originally published in literary journals)  — but they appeared in the South Dakota Law Review, with titles like “Should the Eighth Circuit Recognize Procedural Misjoinder?” and “Cattle on a Thousand Hills: Reflections on the Beef Checkoff Litigation”. Now, I don’t know anything about law journals, but that last title sounds poetic to me; is it common to call legal articles “reflections”?

Parsons studied English as an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota. Several years ago, he came across some of the stories he wrote in college, and says he was inspired to revise the stories and make them “readable”. Like many Midwesterners, Parsons is overly modest. The stories are more than readable; they beautifully capture the physical and emotional landscapes of Minnesota, South Dakota, and Michigan. All of them focus on the yearning for human connection (“the sense of touch”) and the ways in which connections can be forged and broken.

The collection opens with “Hezekiah Number Three”, about Naseem, a brilliant but disturbed Bangladeshi immigrant searching for his father and his place in the world. The events in the story are set in motion by an accusation of sexual misconduct — touch gone wrong. Naseem, trying desperately to fight his solitude and his demons, befriends the story’s narrator, Tom. Naseem convinces Tom to go for a hot air balloon ride, promising they will fly so close to Mount Rushmore that they will “touch George Washington’s nose”.

In the title story, “The Sense of Touch”, the narrator is touched inappropriately by a trusted teacher; later, while volunteering for a campus organization, he is attacked by a developmentally disabled adult. He drifts away from his long-distance girlfriend: “Absence disembodies. If a person isn’t there for you to touch, they are not real.” His creative writing teacher, Vonda, tells the class that touch is the only sense that can be trusted:

“Now touch, touch, she continued. “Touch is right exactly there. You have it. It’s solid; you can grab and hold on. There’s weight. There’s substance. Light don’t matter, air doesn’t change it, nothing gets in the way. Touch is silent. And silence is the only way to contemplate infinite things. You see, touch works. Never trust anything, not until you can touch it. With touch, you know you know.”

The Sense of TouchBut Vonda is the narrator’s “untouchable muse . . . close enough to want to grab, and hold on”.  And the narrator does just that — he tries to hold on.

In “The Black Hills”, two old friends, Daniel and Ed,  reunite for a visit after Ed has lost his sight in an accident. His remaining senses, he explains, “are extremely acute. It’s a little something we sightless folks like to call sensory compensation”.  Ed, Daniel, and Daniel’s roommate, a Lakota woman named Dawn, go on a picnic to “Hippie Falls, the best and most secret swimming hole in all of the Black Hills”. In the dreamlike surroundings of the falls, Daniel and Ed begin quietly competing for Dawn’s attention. Daniel’s betrayal of Ed seems particularly cruel since it is destined to end their friendship; as he leaves the next morning, “He wanted to say something, but his words were cold to the touch”.

I’m not sure if it’s technically the best story in the collection, but the one I found most affecting was “As Her Heart is Navigated”. A young woman, Haley, learns that her seemingly gentle boyfriend, Clint, has a violent streak, when he punches a wall in a fit of rage, and that she is capable of healing touch, when she saves the life of an elderly neighbor. Haley feels physically and emotionally trapped by Clint:

He was encroaching upon her, cautiously, like a kind of creeping web — a sweet one, to be sure — a spool of cotton candy threads, unraveling and catching in her hair, attaching to her clothes. And the more she struggles, the more she feels stuck.

Parsons’s writing can be uneven. Some of the dialogue seems stilted, and sometimes he includes unnecessary exposition — for example, in the middle of an evocative description of a waterfall, he says, “It was a perfect spot for sunbathing”. But much of the writing is quite lovely, and the characters (a runaway farm wife, a barber raising his grandson, a twin who’s lost his brother) are well-drawn. He tackles some big themes — loneliness, commitment, friendship, and betrayal — always returning to the “sense of touch”. I look forward to reading more stories (and perhaps a novel?) by Ron Parsons.

To learn more about Ron Parsons, please visit his website or check out his Facebook page.

tlc tour host

5 Reasons to Read Short Stories

Collections of short stories are hard to sell. I can almost predict the response when I offer a book of short stories to a customer:

ME: What can I help you find this afternoon?

CUSTOMER: Well . . . I’m just looking for something good to read. Anything you’ve read lately you would recommend?

coverME: Oh, yes! I really enjoyed Astray by Emma O’Donoghue. She wrote Room.  It’s a collection of short stories, and I thought just about every story was wonderful.

CUSTOMER: Uh-huh . . . I wasn’t really looking for short stories. Anything else?

And booksellers aren’t the only ones who have trouble convincing people to read short stories. Author David Abrams has the same problem, as he notes in the website Book Riot:

I’ve always been a champion of the short story, both as a writer and a reader, and it always stuns me into silence when I have friends–good friends, well-read, intelligent, reasonable friends–who dismiss short stories with a flap of the hand, a pinch of the lips, and a deprecating, “Oh, I don’t do short stories.” It’s said in the same tone of voice a vegetarian would say, “I don’t do meat.” When I come back with, “Why not?” the answers are always vague and insubstantial. I have yet to find anyone who can give me a solid, tangible reason they don’t like short stories. I suspect they’re afraid of short stories, an aversion that began in grade school . . . By their nature, short stories compress language to its densest gem-like state (second only to poetry); novels sprawl and emphasize plot and are generally more accessible to younger readers. I could be wrong, but I think the average 15-year-old would rather read The Catcher in the Rye than “Young Goodman Brown.”

bernice_covWriters themselves have a hard time selling their short stories. Most are grateful if their stories see print in obscure literary magazines. This wasn’t always the case. In the 1920s, F. Scott Fitzgerald was able to support a lavish lifestyle through sales of short stories to popular magazines; the Saturday Evening Post paid him as much as $4,000 for a single story. In 1930, Edith Wharton sold a story to Cosmopolitan for $5,000.  (Imagine how much that would be in today’s dollars!) Writers used the income from short stories to support themselves as they worked on novels. Now, writes critic A.O. Scott in the New York Times, “A young writer who turns up at the office of an editor or literary agent with a volume of stories is all but guaranteed a chilly, pitying welcome. That kind of thing is just not commercial.”

I’ve been reading that the short story is experiencing a resurgence. It’s true that Alice Munro, arguably the best short story writer of our time, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2013, and that George Saunders was a 2013 National Book Award finalist for his short story collection, The Tenth of December.  And digital publishing may be revitalizing the short story; in an article in the New York Times entitled “Good Fits for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories”, Leslie Kaufman writes, “The Internet may be disrupting much of the book industry, but for short-story writers it has been a good thing.” She quotes Amber Dermont, a novelist who has recently published a short story collection: “The single-serving quality of a short narrative is the perfect art form for the digital age . . . Stories are models of concision, can be read in one sitting, and are infinitely downloadable and easily consumed on screens.”

A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.
A typical text conversation of mine. Not a shining example of how digital technology enhances writing skills.

In the same article, Cal Morgan, an editor at HarperCollins, says that digital communication has had a positive influence on younger writers:

The generation of writers out of college in the last few years has been raised to engage with words like no generation before. Our generation was raised on passive media like television and telephones; this generation has been engaged in writing to each other in text messages on a 24-hour basis. I think it has made them bolder and tighter.

Hmmm, I’m not sure if texting makes anyone’s writing “bolder and tighter”, and I really don’t think the new generation of writers has “been raised to engage with words like no generation before” — but I appreciate the attempt at putting a positive spin on round-the-clock texting.

Here’s my sales pitch for short stories:

  1. They’re . . .  short. When you’re between books, or don’t have the time to immerse yourself in your current book, it’s very satisfying to read a thoughtful, well-written story. You feel like you’ve accomplished something. And there are many stories you can read in 10 or 15 minutes . . . stories that you will be thinking about for much, much longer than that.
  2. They’re usually very well-written.  Writers who are able to publish collections of short stories are generally well-established literary writers. It takes a tremendous amount of skill to write a good short story. Even if you scratch your head trying to figure out what the story was really about, you will appreciate the writing.
  3. They’re perfect for book clubs. No one can show up to your book club without having read the selection — anyone can find the time to read a short story or two. How about a meeting where you compare two short stories? A discussion based on a story might actually last longer than a discussion of The Goldfinch — especially if only two members of your group have finished it and the rest don’t want the ending ruined.
  4. They are wonderful to listen to or to read aloud. I really enjoy the NPR Selected Shorts podcasts. I find it hard to listen to audiobooks; I keep losing track of the plot. But short stories are ideal for car trips or walks.
  5. They lend themselves to rereading. I’m much more likely to reread a short story than a novel. I’m often amazed by how much more I appreciate a story when I read it again. I’m sure I’d feel the same way if I reread I novel, but I rarely do that; there’s always another book waiting.

I recommend starting with a short story anthology so you can read what an editor considers the best stories by top short story writers. I love the Best American Short Stories series, which comes out in paperback every fall. Each year, there’s a different editor, who’s a well-respected author; the 2013 volume is edited by Elizabeth Strout. The O. Henry Prize Stories series is also wonderful. I can almost guarantee that if you pick up any book in either of these series, you will find at least one story that speaks to you.

cover-1Here’s a list of 10 favorite short story collections, new and old:

  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander
  • Different Seasons (4 novellas) by Stephen King
  • Bark by Lorrie Moore (due 2/25/14)
  • Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
  • Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger
  • Selected Stories by William Trevor
  • Collected Stories and Other Writings by John Cheever
  • Unaccustomed Earth and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Next on my list? The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham.

Further reading on short stories:

A Brief History of the Short Story in America (Critical Mass, blog of the National Book Critics Circle of America)

Sorry, the Short Story Boom is Bogus (Salon)

Brevity’s Pull: In Praise of the Short Story (New York Times)

Good Fit for Today’s Little Screens: Short Stories (New York Times)

20 for 2012: Short Story Collections (Book Riot)