Short story review from The Best American Short Stories 2006: “The Casual Car Pool” by Katherine Bell

“The Casual Car Pool”
by Katherine Bell
from The Best American Short Stories 2006

Rating: 4 out of 5.

When a parachute jumper snags his chute on the ropes of the Bay Bridge that leads to San Francisco, readers get a look inside the lives of three strangers in a car pool. The driver, Ian, has picked up his passengers in Oakland and they are stalled just near the end of the Yerba Buena tunnel. A woman named Hannah sits in the front seat and Julia, fifteen, sits in the back. In the beginning, they follow ridesharing’s unspoken rules. No conversation except maybe the traffic and weather.

Ian, Hannah and Julia may not say much, but their actions and their thoughts tell their back stories. Ian is married, but just that morning backed out of their driveway and thought, “If I wanted to, I could leave today and never go back.” Hannah holds in her lap a thick manilla envelope with sperm donor candidates. Annoyed that morning at her lover, Kate, she grabbed it before showing it to her. Julia has skipped school and is headed to meet a Mormon runaway named Isaac, where they will panhandle for money that she will hand over to him at the end of the day.

Meanwhile the jumper hangs and realized that “somehow, by jumping, he had stopped the morning.”

I’ve always liked how short stories reveal just a segment of people’s lives. Here, I like the details the author decided to include. By including only a few details, Bell shows how her characters act in that moment and with only a hint of what will happen after the story ends. Bell’s story touches on relationships and parenthood, privilege and need and the impact strangers can have on your thoughts.

About the Author (taken from the back of this 2006 edition and from Ploughshares):

“Katherine Bell grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and New Jersey. “The Casual Car Pool” was her second story published in Ploughshares. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently works as online managing editor at Cook’s Illustrated, teaches writing at Harvard Extension School and Lesley University, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She is also working on her first novel and a book about quilting.

I highly recommend these collections of Best American Short Stories. I’ve never been disappointed by the stories I’ve read.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Book Review: The Early Stories of Truman Capote

The Early Stories of Truman Capote
Foreword by Hilton Als

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I enjoyed reading this excellent collection of fourteen stories by Truman Capote. Written when he was in his teens and early twenties, these stories show Capote’s impressive ability to create scenes and original characters and evoke compassion at the earliest stage of his writing.

The collection was published in 2015 after a discovery in the archives of the New York Public Library. An equally excellent Foreward by Hilton Als of The New Yorker points out how Capote was already experimenting with different styles and methods. Some of the stories depict the Deep South where Capote was born, and others take place in New York, where he also lived as a boy. In them, he addresses many everyday issues, including family, relationships, small-town dynamics and the more sophisticated urban life in New York. And in his wide range of characters, both young and old, he portrays the more complex elements of poverty, race and fate, as well as selfish and vindictive human behavior. In his Foreward, Al writes about a universal yearning in these stories and I see that clearly.

I haven’t read everything Truman Capote wrote (see my links at the bottom of this post), but I have read the big ones (In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and a couple other short stories. I have always been struck by his descriptive style, which has the unique ability to lift me out of the actual world and right into a lyrical yet raw place. I think this skill is already coming through in these early stories.

There’s a great quote by David Ebershoff of Random House in the book’s Afterward. If you’ve ever watched one of Capote’s talk show appearances (here, here and here) or read about and seen images of his Black and White Ball in 1966 (read about that here), you might have an idea of what Capote was like. But if you put aside his gossipy side, discount his drunken appearances, and you really listen to him when he talks about the writing craft, you’ll see that he was indeed deeply serious about writing. I think this collection gives you a good picture of that intensity before he was sidetracked. Ebershoff writes:

“These early stories offer a counterpoint to that final image: a young writer laboring over his typewriter to maximize his gifts. A Truman Capote not slurring on a television talk show but driven to nail the right word on the page.”

I highly recommend this book. It’s a quick read, but the stories stay with you and give you a good look at an emerging writer who became a legend.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s
In Cold Blood
“La Côte Basque”
“House of Flowers”

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Short Story Review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Written in Stone” by Catherine Brady

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

I found myself immediately immersed in this story about an Iranian husband and his American wife, who separate after twenty years of marriage and try to navigate their new relationship. The narrator, a surgical nurse at a hospital in San Francisco, has told Hassan to leave because she cannot bear the thought of his betrayal. He’s moved in with a younger woman, an aspiring opera singer.

Hassan works as a liaison for a nonprofit that connects government, scientists and business and his overly gregarious nature has gotten him in trouble. He’s not being inappropriate, he tells his wife, he’s simply misunderstood. His behavior has gotten him into trouble before. Early in their marriage, they’d moved to Iran and lived with his family, during the fall of the Shah’s regime and the Ayatollah’s takeover. He’d talked too much, told too many jokes, and was picked up for questioning. They’d had to leave the country illegally.

Now, at Hassan’s insistence or maybe feelings of guilt or longing, he returns to their apartment once a week so they can have dinner together. Lately he tells her about his problems between him and the young singer. Some are because of the age difference, but one of the biggest problems for her is his drinking. The girlfriend doesn’t understand him, he complains to his wife. It’s a new dynamic between the narrator and Hassan, in which they analyze this new relationship. The reader sees them move back towards each other, through the routine of preparing meals together and talking companionably.

I enjoyed this story very much because of the contrast and similarities between Hassan’s marriage and their experiences in Iran. The author provides strong images of freedom, family loyalty, lush gardens with climbing roses, Persian cooking and dangerous political unrest. Hassan’s history and their marriage left me uncertain about their future together because I couldn’t quite decide if they would try or what concessions she would make, or even if they were concessions. I felt that they understood each other very well, but I wondered if that would be good for their marriage. I read this story twice and felt it even more the second time.

I highly recommend “Written in Stone” which the author wrote soon after 9/11.

Catherine Brady is an American short story writer. Her most recent collection, The Mechanics of Falling & Other Stories, was published in 2009. Her second short story collection, Curled in the Bed of Love, was the co-winner of the 2002 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and a finalist for the 2003 Binghamton John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Brady’s first collection of short stories, The End of the Class War, was a finalist for the 2000 Western States Book Award in Fiction. Her stories have been included in Best American Short Stories 2004 and numerous anthologies and journals.

Brady received an MA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Hollins College and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. She was elected to the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in 2005 and served as Vice-President (2006) and President (2007). She teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Short Story Review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “Intervention” by Jill McCorkle

Welcome to a new feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“Intervention” by Jill McCorkle from Ploughshares

In his excellent story about marriage and adult children, Marilyn and Sid, now retired, have settled into an alarming routine. Every evening, Marilyn watches Sid drink too much. And she’s let it slip to their daughter that she’s concerned. Sally is a take-charge daughter and quickly sets up an intervention, led by her social worker husband. Sally’s brother books a flight and they prepare to confront Sid.

Marilyn is sorry she ever mentioned it, but there is no stopping her children, who mean well, but cannot understand the complex dynamics between Marilyn and Sid. “You have to deal with Dad’s problem,” Sally tells Marilyn. Marilyn is also insulted that their marriage is under scrutiny. Whose business is it?

When the day arrives, despite their children’s careful planning, only Marilyn understands Sid’s reaction. Readers may look back and determine that’s the only thing that could have happened.

What’s great about this story is how the author explores the touchy topic of children taking charge of their parents’ lives. I enjoyed thinking about these dynamics and the opposing points of view. In addition, McCorkle shows the powerful influence of private understandings between husband and wife, which is both invisible to their children and not meant for them to know.

Jill McCorkle is an American author of eight novels and four collections of short stories. Her most recent novel, Hieroglyphics, was published in 2020. She is currently a faculty member of the Bennington College Writing Seminars and is affiliated with the MFA program at North Carolina State University.

I am never disappointed by the stories in this collection. I’m looking forward to working my way through it all.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

New Review of Encounters: Relationships in Conflict by Fred H Rohn

Hello, today I’m sharing this recent review of my father’s book of short fiction, Encounters: Relationships in Conflict. Thank you to Sam Standard for this wonderful review, posted on Amazon!

Encounters: Relationships in Conflict is a rare, lovely collection of short stories, written by a man with a true grasp on the subtleties and quirky…

Click below to continue reading:

New Review of Encounters: Relationships in Conflict —

Short Story Review from: The Best American Short Stories 2004 – “The Walk with Elizanne” by John Updike

Welcome to a new feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from The 2004 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore.

“The Walk with Elizanne” by John Updike from The New Yorker

In this poignant story about getting older, looking back and making sense of lost moments, David Kern returns with his second wife to Oligner, Pennsylvania for his fiftieth high school reunion. His first stop is the hospital where their class organizer, Mamie Kauffman, is dying of cancer. At the reunion, David meets an old girlfriend, Elizanne, and she triggers long-buried memories of a first kiss on a walk home from a date and the charged moments of adolescence.

David considers his small-town upbringing, of knowing his classmates from Kindergarten through high school, and then leaving to start a life somewhere else. As he recalls the heat of this early teenage encounter, he’s jarred by Elizanne’s coarse comment, “It got me started, I must tell you, on a lot of, whatever. Kissing, let’s say.”

For days after the reunion, David thinks of his walk with Elizanne, and wonders what he might ask her now. But he won’t call her and he knows the importance of this memory will fade. “The questions he was burning to ask would receive banal answers. It was an adolescent flirtation that had come to nothing.”

I enjoyed this story and how Updike contrasts the limitless possibilities of youth with the realities that alter his characters’ paths. Mamie, who had stayed in Olinger, and was always the one with the most class spirit, spins her coming death into something positive, telling David, “That I’ll be all right. That when it comes, I’ll still be there. Here. You know what I’m saying?” Elizanne, who has not returned for reunions until this one, will likely refile her walk with David, giving it little meaning other than a quick reminiscence. All three have no choice but to accept the reality of passing time and narrowing paths.


John Updike (1932-2009) was an award-winning American writer of novels, short stories and poetry. He was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and was known for his stories of middle-class Protestant life in small-town Pennsylvania. In addition to many other awards, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982 and 1991.

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Books to Pen – Book Club Mom’s creative writing blog

Hi Everyone,

I just launched a new blog called Books to Pen, dedicated to my creative writing efforts. I posted my first piece of short fiction which you can find here. I hope you will take a look. Feedback is welcome!

https://bookstopen.wordpress.com


Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

 

A great reading year for fiction and nonfiction – check out these recommended reads!

Image: Pixabay

It’s been a great reading year and the perfect time to share the books I’ve enjoyed. I’m ready to curl up with a good book, are you?


Fiction

Leaving the Beach by Mary Rowen

The story of a young woman and her search for happiness. Set in the working class town of Winthrop, Massachusetts, readers get to know her in alternating time periods—in the 1970s and ‘80s as an awkward teenager and college student, and in the 1990s as a young adult.


Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Highly recommend this terrific story of complicated family dynamics. You’ll want to read it all at once to know how it works out!


Lot: Stories by Bryan Washington

Debut collection of 13 coming-of-age stories, set in Houston, and told mainly by one character. An uncensored look at a struggling population with a hopeful finish. One of Barack Obama’s Top Picks of 2019.


Nonfiction

The Beneficiary – Fortune, Misfortune, and the
Story of my Father by Janny Scott

Interesting biography of Robert Montgomery Scott, written by his daughter Janny Scott. A history, spanning four generations of a wealthy family that settled on what’s called the Main Line outside of Philadelphia.


Honor Girl – A Graphic Memoir by Maggie Thrash

Young Adult graphic memoir about the author’s coming-out experience at a summer camp in the mountains of Kentucky.


How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in
Thirteen Animals
by Sy Montgomery

The more Sy Montgomery studies animals and nature, the more she knows that humans have a lot to learn about the creatures that share our world. In this book, she describes her unique relationships with 13 animals and what they have taught her.


What good books did you read in 2019?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon

Two Fall and Halloweenish short stories – quick reads for the season!

Image: Pixabay

If you’re looking for a couple quick short stories that fit into the Halloween season, here are two excellent choices:

“Gryphon” by Charles Baxter – This fantastic story about an unusual 4th grade teacher takes place in rural Michigan. While not exactly about Halloween, references to fall, mention of the holiday and the passage of time make it worthy of this short list.

“Gryphon” must be a regular on school curricula because it’s the second most viewed post on my blog, especially in the fall, next to “House of Flowers” by Truman Capote. I hope I’m not misleading any high school students with my comments!


“You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore – I found this in The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction. It’s a terrific story about a Halloween party, full of shocking sarcasm and over-the-top conversations. It appeared in the July 3, 1989 issue of The New Yorker.

If you like complicated characters and the alarming twists in short fiction, you will enjoy Moore’s writing style.


Do you like reading short fiction? Can you add any fall or Halloween stories?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!

Audiobook review: Roar by Cecelia Ahern

Roar
by
Cecelia Ahern

Rating:

I’m not sure how to review a book like this. It’s a collection of thirty feminist fables, with titles that all begin with “The Woman Who…” The author addresses many of the challenges women of many ages face, mostly dealing with identity and self-worth. Some of them are coping with not being “seen” or taken seriously, or being treated as possessions. Some are mothers in crisis, who rush around with their young children. Others are young professionals, feeling suppressed by their male colleagues.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was narrated by three women. I would not call this a relaxing experience. The stories are combative and aggressive and I felt as if the message for most had a very “us against them” approach. The exceptions were some I did enjoy, including “The Woman Who Thought Her Mirror Was Broken,” “The Woman Who Forgot Her Name,” and “The Woman Who Walked in Her Husband’s Shoes.” I liked these because there was better resolution and understanding between the men and women in the stories. Although Ahern uses exaggerated metaphors to make her points (women disappearing, unraveling, being eaten up by guilt), these three fables were more relatable.

Many of the stories, at least in the audio version, have such an angry and staccato tone to them that I grew tired of the message, despite its worth. I think this collection, 289 pages in print and an eight-and-a-half-hour listen, would have been better if it was shorter.

Perhaps these stories were just not for me. There seems to be an equal measure of critical and positive talk online. I’m sharing several bloggers’ positive opinions here so you can decide for yourself:

Bookshelf Fantasies
Emma R
aclaireum

Have you read Roar? What did you think?

Thanks for visiting – come back soon!