Empire Falls by Richard Russo

empire falls pic

Empire Falls
by
Richard Russo

Rating:

Empire Falls is a great novel with many layers and characters and that’s just the kind of story I like to read. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002 and HBO made it into a miniseries in 2005 (check it out here). I read it much later than most people, but I think the story and characters survive the time.

Its first layer is about Empire Falls, Maine, a town that is struggling to survive and is controlled by Francine Whiting, of the once-strong Whiting Industries. This backdrop introduces you to those who have chosen to stay and they make up many of Russo’s subsequent interconnecting layers. We learn about Miles Roby, his failed marriage to Janine and his own parents’ unhappy marriage. We meet Janine’s fiancé, Walt Comeau, and try to understand the new life she is about to begin. And later on we see how Miles struggles to understand his mother Grace and the choices she made as a young woman.

But this story is also about Miles and Janine’s high school daughter Tick, her friends Zack Minty, Candace and especially John Voss and these intense teenage relationships and conflicts. Russo has skillfully introduced this sleeper plot and we see how it slowly moves the story to its climax. I also like how Russo includes many other side characters, such as Jimmy Minty, Otto Meyer, Miles’ brother David, Charlene and Father Mark and develops them so we know that their lives are just as complicated, and are key parts of the story.

In addition to an excellent plot that is carefully constructed and both serious and humorous, this story is about the control of money and people, survival and the search for happiness. And on top of that, many of Russo’s characters struggle to understand the meaning of life and religion as they face both painful memories and discoveries.

There are many seemingly small pieces of conversations that, upon a second look, show how much thought went into writing Empire Falls. For example, Russo shows just how complicated father-son relationships are as he parallels Miles and Max with Jimmy Minty and his father. Both Miles and Jimmy hang onto their fathers, despite their flaws. Jimmy says, “He did slap my mom around a little…But I miss him anyway. You only get one father, is the way I look at it.” Later Miles tries to explain to David why he keeps giving their own father a second chance: “He’s pretty good at getting to me. I guess I don’t want to be sold short when I’m old.”

I think my favorite scene is when Jimmy Minty and Miles argue at the football game. Russo shows so well just how someone who is as unsophisticated as Jimmy still has excellent insight into people. Jimmy says, “You’re not the only one people like, okay? And I’ll tell you something else. What people around here like best about me? They like it that they’re more like me than they are like you. They look at me and they see the town they grew up in…You know what they see when they look at you? That they ain’t good enough. They look at you and see everything they ever done wrong in their lives.”

I also think Miles’ relationship with Cindy Whiting is very interesting and was glad to see how Cindy’s character developed from someone pathetic and needy into someone strong and independent. She’s also an example of a character we think is less significant, but who comes up with something important to say. She tells Miles, “It’s like you decided a long time ago that someone like me is incapable of joy…It doesn’t occur to you that I might be happy.”

The Whiting family dynamics and history are also very interesting and amusing and Russo has a different style of describing these people, using irony and a cold kind of humor. I liked this part just as much, particularly the story of Francine’s gazebo.

Empire Falls has a tidy and satisfying ending, with just enough open story lines to make me hopeful about the characters and their futures.

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What’s That Book? Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

whats-that-book

TitleFrankenstein

Author:  Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

Genre: Fantasy Fiction, Gothic Fiction

Rating:  ****

What’s it about?  The story of young scientist Victor Frankenstein and a risky experiment to create life. The result? A grotesque monster that escapes and must deal with a world in which he has no place.

How did you hear about it?  Although I knew about Frankenstein, I did not know the whole story. I decided to read it when my son read it for his summer reading.

Closing comments:  Early into Frankenstein, I might have given it 3 stars because of its old-fashioned language and letter-writing format. I found this part of Shelley’s writing stiff and uninteresting. That all changed once Walton rescued Victor Frankenstein from the icy sea near the North Pole.

Frankenstein’s story is great on a couple levels. First, the thriller element still has its appeal. I was fascinated that Victor created life and I wondered at the consequences. I was sympathetic to the monster’s plight, being alone in the world, considered grotesque by all those who saw him. I wanted Felix, Agatha and their father to accept him. I wanted him to have a companion. And I was shocked at his murderous way of dealing with loneliness.

The overlying themes of love, friendship, loneliness and loss enrich this story and the question of whether Frankenstein has the right to create life made me think about the larger responsibilities of man to his fellow man.

Contributor:  Ginette


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Who’s That Blogger? Jan M. Flynn

whos-that-blogger

Blogmaster:  Jan M. Flynn

Blog name: JanMFlynn.net

Type of blog: writing and life in general (plus horses)

Where in the world?  Napa Valley, California

Blogging since when?  March, 2016

What’s your story? One of my favorite quotes is, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” I love the exchange of ideas possible through blogging, my fave form of social media. And since I’m a writer (historical and speculative fiction as well as middle grade and I loves me some good short stories), naturally I want to connect with readers as well as other writers.

What types of blogs do you follow?  As with my writing, my tastes are eclectic. Of course I follow book blogs, but if someone writes with a clever or fresh or inspiring viewpoint on almost any topic, I’m in. Plus, horses.

Early bird or night owl? A weekend without blogging is like . . . well, I can’t remember since I haven’t had one for over a year.

Coffee or tea? Coffeecoffeecoffeecoffeecoffee. Then wine. Then tea.

Most recent binge watch or other obsession: Do I have to choose just one? Because, “The Last Kingdom” + “Handmaid’s Tale” + “The Son” . . . and now there’s “Glow”!

Check out these recent blog posts by Jan M. Flynn:

Buffalo Gal – Animals and Nature
Horse Sense – Horses and What They’ve Taught Me
No Comparison – Life, the Universe, and Everything


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Books and Stories about Horses

After adding Black Beauty by Anna Sewell to my list, I had fun looking back at all these books and stories about horses!

Book Club Mom

Source: commons.wikimedia.org Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Why do writers use horses or references to horses in their stories?

Throughout history, horses have represented power, grace, beauty, nobility, strength and freedom.  Different cultures attribute a variety of meanings to horses.  In medieval times, horses were a Celtic symbol of battle, victory and the spoils of war.  The Greeks and Romans also considered horses as powerful symbols of war and victory as well as honor, domination and virility.  In Hindu, the horse is associated with the cosmos.  The Chinese culture uses horses to represent love, endurance, devotion and stability.

Native Americans attribute wisdom and freedom to horses, and believe that a partnership with horses must be respected above all else.

Horses are beautiful animals and anyone who’s been up close to them can feel their power and imagine the wisdom behind their large and soulful eyes.  This small collection of literature shows how many different genres…

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Black Beauty by Anna Sewell

Black Beauty
by
Anna Sewell

Rating:

I had never read this well-known children’s book and was very happy to discover a gem of a story about a handsome well-bred horse named Black Beauty, born to a gentle keeper and broken in with expert kindness. When he is sold to Squire Gordon of Old Birtwick Park in England, Beauty’s mother tells him,

I hope you will fall into good hands, but a horse never knows who may buy him, or who may drive him; it is all a chance for us; but still I say, do your best wherever it is, and keep up your good name.

Beauty is lucky at first. His groom and stable boy are equally kind and understand that the best way to treat horses is to treat them well. But his mother was right. A horse’s future is never certain and before long, Beauty is sold to another landowner and things are not quite as nice. With this owner, and others in his future, Beauty maintains a positive attitude and always does his best, even when he must work long hours and suffer from the ignorance of his riders.

Told from Black Beauty’s point of view, Sewell portrays realistic horse characters and shows how they interact with each other and with people, especially their grooms and stable boys. Throughout the story, she shows the right way to care for horses, and points to the many cruel and foolish practices that were common during the mid- to late 1800s. She is particularly critical of the use of check-reins, which forced horses to raise their heads to unnatural angles, all for show. This practice caused great pain, led to back problems and shortened a horse’s life. Inexperienced riders, drunks, lazy grooms and poor diets and stall conditions made horses miserable, but a little kindness, a gentle stroke and an encouraging word could make all the difference.

Sewell works many important lessons into the story, including calling out others who abuse animals, upholding the Golden Rule, standing up for principles and helping others in need. When she wrote Black Beauty, she intended it to be a guide for people who worked with horses, but it became a children’s classic. She shows very clearly how horses and other creatures need to be treated humanely and allows the reader to see into the minds of Beauty and her friends.

Sewell manages to tell a nice children’s story without sugar coating the conditions of the time. I recommend Black Beauty to all readers, young and old.


Image: Wikipedia

Anna Sewell (1820-1878) was an English writer. Her parents were devout Quakers and her mother wrote children’s books. A childhood injury left Anna unable to walk without a crutch and she rode in many horse-drawn carriages to get around, where her love of horses began. As an adult, Sewell suffered from hepatitis and tuberculosis and wrote Black Beauty while confined to bed. It was published in 1877, just one year before her death.


I read Black Beauty as part of my Build a Better World Summer Reading Challenge to read a book that I could finish in a day.

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Who’s That Indie Author? Anatoly Volynets

whos-that-indie-author

Author name: Anatoly Volynets

Genre:  Philosophical Diary

BookCulture vs. Copyright

Bio:  Volynets is a psychologist, educator, scholar, former programmer, co-founder of the software consulting Total Knowledge (California) and NGO Dialogue of Cultures XXI (Kiev, Ukraine). He is a research fellow at the Ukrainian National Institute of Psychology, and a participant in The School of the Dialogue of Cultures project. Volynets lives in Palo Alto, California.

Favorite thing about being a writer:  While writing you always have an interlocutor able to understand you.

Biggest challenge as an indie author:  Marketing

Favorite books:  All classics, many books on history, on the US history particularly. Out of latter I adore, for example, Ann Hagedorn’s Savage Peace.

Contact Information: cvc.culturedialogue.org

Awards/special recognition:  Nothing special happened to me and my book. There were some modest achievements. Culture vs. Copyright was: 1. Bought by The Queen Mary University of London library; 2. Nominated by Book Awards / Philosophy in 2015; 3. Accepted by Barnes & Noble; 4. Written about at Wikipedia.


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Friday Fiction – “Buddies”


It’s been a while since I’ve posted some fiction. Here’s a little story about summer love!


Buddies

She rode on the back of his bike.  She was shy about putting her arms around his waist, but she did it anyway.  She had a reason now to do so.  Her bare legs dangled, no place to go, on either side of the bike.  She gripped her toes into her flip-flops, those too were dangling.

She could smell the shampoo from his hair, the back of his head was so close to her face.  It was like sneaking a look at him, and even if it was not his face, it was still part of him.  She’d take it.

She wondered what he was thinking, having her riding behind him like that.  They were just buddies, after all.  That is what they officially called each other.  But they often put their arms around each other.  It was safe to do that, she thought, maybe he did too.  They were practicing with one another, as buddies.  Buddies.  It didn’t really fit to call themselves that.  Good friends.  They could use that, but they didn’t.  He’s the one who came up with buddies.

“We’re just buddies, you and I, right?” he asked her one day.

They had been sitting on a log in the parking lot.  It was one of those logs, an old telephone pole they used at the shore to divide the ground into sections for parking on the loose stones that were everywhere.  Stones that were used for driveways, whole front yards and back yards, in fact, and here in the parking lot.

Those stones had been caught in her sandals and she had pulled them off and was shaking them out when he started talking.

“Of course we’re buddies, Benny” she answered.  “The best kind.”

“You know, Kate, people have started to talk about us and all the time we spend together.  They’re starting to think we’re more than just friends.”

The stones were all out of Kate’s sandals, but she shook them some more, for something to do.  Kate was fifteen and she knew almost nothing about boys, besides this one.  Benny was a year younger, still skinny and gangly.  She laughed with him.  She was comfortable with him.

Kate felt a pang inside, a kind of hurt and foolishness she knew she couldn’t show to Benny, of all people.  She wanted him to like her, to be more than her friend, but Kate pretended as she spoke, “Well, Benny.  We are a little more than friends.  I’d say we are very good friends, wouldn’t you?”  There, she gave him an out, even though she didn’t want him to take it.

“We are, Kate, but that’s it.”

It stung her, but she took it.  That’s all she could do.  In the time it took for Benny to say this to her, she thought to herself.  What did she want, anyway?  She didn’t know how to have a boyfriend, she reasoned, so what did it matter if this was all he wanted?

Maybe she wasn’t ready either.  She didn’t think about kissing him.  She just liked being near him, laughing with him.

So as they rode up the street on his bike, she still held onto him from the back, smelling his shampoo and she thought about the day Benny had officially labeled her as his buddy.  Kate wasn’t the conniving type.  She truly thought that if she was nice, good things would come to her.  It didn’t occur to Kate, at the age of fifteen, that, if she wanted something, she should go and do something about it.

She was too embarrassed to show she was hurt.  And she liked Benny too much to push him away.  They had half the summer ahead of them.  They had that, she told herself.  Half a summer left to be near this boy, okay buddy, she corrected herself.  And suddenly she was happy for what she had, someone who made her feel happy and warm when he was near.

And there was Benny, who to anyone who took the time to see, was exactly what Kate had hoped he would be.  But Benny was also shy about girls.  So he did the only thing he could do and that was to be buddies with the girl he liked best, secretly hoping himself that somehow, in some way, the two of them “just friends” would someday cross over and become exactly what Kate had wished for.  And he steered his bike, feeling Kate’s arms around him, feeling her breath on his neck, and he too was happy for what he had.

Thank you for reading.


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