Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Book Review: New Stories from the South

Every year for my birthday, I can count on Dr. H. buying me the year’s best collection of stories from the South. I love short stories. I used to be a voracious reader of short stories, and now I seem to only read them once each year. I have no reasons why. I think that it may be because when I read short stories, I yearn to write them. And I right now I just don’t have the time.

Someday I’ll be in that place again. But for now, I look forward to this yearly collection. Only this year: not so much. I have to say this set of stories, edited by JJ Packer, was — for me— the worst collection since Annie Proulx edited the Best American Short Stories back in 1997.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy any of the stories. A few were excellent. Most just left me feeling, um, dirty. Slimy. As if I were sliding against a brick wall in a filthy alley. A few I even totally skipped because I could not connect at all. I have reached the stage where I can say, “I’m skipping this one” without feeling like I might be missing out on something wonderful, or cheating.

Not my favorite. This collection seems to be a tribute to the dirty side of the South that is rapidly becoming too well known. I see faces of meth addicts in the newspaper at least a couple of times each week around here, and that reality is enough for me. I like the sipping-sweet-tea South much better. Yes, it’s called denial. And right now, I can live with that.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Reviews: Buster Midnight’s Café and The Persian Pickle Club

After reading Prayers for Sale last month, I was determined to read through the rest of Sandra Dallas’ novels. I’ve already read most but her earliest, so I was left with these two and just a couple more.

I enjoyed both novels for what they were: sweet stories with good endings. I read Buster Midnight’s Café first and liked it better. Because I am just an ordinary person, I always have a hard time with novels that include a hometown girl/boy who goes to Hollywood and becomes famous. But I didn’t care too much in this story of three friends and a secret they share. Set in Montana before and after World War 2, the story is narrated by the very likeable Effa Commander. Again, I have issues with weird names, but that’s my own problem. I liked this book.

I was not as crazy about The Persian Pickle Club, although I don’t regret reading it. My main complaint is that there are just way too many characters to keep straight. I just can’t focus on a dozen quilters with similar-sounding names. Or again, the odd names: this narrator is named Queenie Bean. I crave simplicity. Still, the story was good. These two books are perfect for in-between reading.

As a writer, though, Sandra Dallas obviously has continued to grow. Her later novels are tremendously better than these first ones. She has developed depth and complexity, as well as a sense of seriousness, in her latest novels, particularly Tallgrass and Prayers for Sale. Tallgrass (my review here) remains my favorite Sandra Dallas book, and I continue to look forward to her next one.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review: A Girl from Yamhill

Miss Smith pulled out a paper that I recognized as mine and began to read aloud. My mouth was dry and my stomach felt twisted. When she finished, she paused. My heart pounded. Then Miss Smith said, "When Beverly grows up, she should write children's books."

I can't even imagine how many times I've read one of the "Ramona" books to my kids. And every single time I read one of the books, I laugh. Henry Huggins, Ribsy, Ramona and the Quimby family feel like old friends.

I think it's Beverly Cleary's matter-of-fact, honest voice that I adore so much, and in her memoir, A Girl from Yamhill, her voice is even clearer. Cleary details her life growing up on an Oregon farm and later moving near Klickitat Street in Portland. She had a rather isolated, lonely childhood in many respects, especially in a home where love and encouragement was given reluctantly and infrequently. But early on, her teachers recognized that she had a gift for writing and actively encouraged her.

I absolutely loved this narrative of Cleary's life up through high school. She was just an average girl with a gift of writing and a determination to make things happen, in spite of economic hardships. I don't often read memoirs of writers, and I have no idea why. The few that I have read, I have enjoyed immensely—and I come away feeling inspired. I can hardly wait to get my hands on her second memoir, My Own Two Feet.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Back in the Groove

I'm back in my reading groove, which makes me so very happy. The Count of Monte Cristo was amazing, but a month devoted to one book totally threw me off my own self-imposed reading schedule, which is all in my head.

Since I finished with The Count, I've been flying through a bunch of books. I have added a new reading period this past week. My daughter turned 12 recently and now believes she should be allowed to stay up until 10 p.m., so we've been sitting on my bed, each reading our own novels, for about 30 minutes each evening. Her desire for this time together has taken me away from what used to be an hour or so spent mindlessly on Facebook. Social networking or time with my little girl and a book? Not a hard choice.

So in the past few weeks I've read:
Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas (review here)
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (review here)
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende (review here)
Buster Midnight's Cafe by Sandra Dallas
Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Girl from Yamhill by Beverly Cleary

I'm currently halfway through New Stories from the South, 2008. Dr. H. bought this for me back in February, but I haven't been in the mood for short stories until now. Now I have all kinds of short story ideas running through my head, and I have a strong compulsion to write. I feel my eyes glazing over when people are talking to me because I am crafting lines. I shouldn't read short stories unless I have time to write…

Next up, I'll be catching up on book reviews.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Book Review: The House of the Spirits

I've long been a fan of Isabel Allende, but somehow I missed her very first novel, The House of the Spirits. I went back and read it partly because I'd always meant to and partly because a few people suggested it as a novel to teach to my high school World Lit students. While I loved the novel, I can't imagine teaching it to high schoolers. There are just way too many brothel visits, for starters.

The House of the Spirits chronicles a period in Chilean history (although it's called an "unnamed country") through the life of the complex Trueba family. This is a family full of dynamic characters: Clara, the precocious, clairvoyant, telekenetic little sister who becomes the wife of Esteban after her older sister, Esteban's fiance, dies; Esteban himself, devoted to Clara but cold-hearted and cruel to everyone else, including all the peasants who work his plantation; Esteban's children, legitimate and otherwise; and a cast of other richly developed characters.

I'm not always a fan of magical realism, but I had little trouble accepting (or sometimes ignoring) the scenes that focus on Clara, her spiritualist friends, and the spirit world. Although I always gravitate toward realism, the crazy, accepted magic just becomes part of the chaos of the Trueba family and of the country's political upheaval.

This is the kind of novel you live in while you're reading it--the kind that you can't wait to get to each evening. I definitely recommend reading Portrait in Sepia and Daughter of Fortune as well as The House of the Spirits.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Book Review: The Good Earth

It's been a long, long time since I read this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Pearl S. Buck. I believe we read this in about 8th grade, possibly 9th, and I have vivid memories of the feelings the novel evoked: of a handful of earth, of poverty, and sadness. I read several Pearl S. Buck novels after this one, and I'd like to go back and read them again as an adult.

This is the story of one farmer, Wang Lung, and his family. As a young and very poor farmer, Wang Lung marries the slave O-lan from the rich house, and the two of them work the land until they are prosperous, hiding money in the walls of their hut and buying more land as they can. O-lan bears him several children, including many sons, and as long as she is working beside him, he prospers in all ways.

As Wang Lung becomes more prosperous, his personal life falls apart. He begins treating O-lan with contempt and takes a second wife, who is like a spoiled pet to him. His children grow up to be spoiled, unpleasant adults, and his second wife requires too much attention and material goods. And outside of his own small life, China itself is going through a time of political upheaval that touches Wang Lung in only the most distant ways.

I love Buck's voice; it is simple yet poetic. Her characters absolutely brim with life. Even weeks after reading this book, I can easily conjure up pictures of Wang Lung, O-lan, and the rest of the cast of characters. Rarely do I find images as nearly tangible as those painted by Buck in this novel.

This is one classic re-read that was well worth the the time—and that stands the test of time.