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.

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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.

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Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
(A Mostly True Memoir)

by
Jenny Lawson

Rating:

If you are looking for a great story about being different and making it anyway, I highly recommend Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson. In some ways, it is a classic success story about perseverance, but mostly, it’s a shout-out to anyone who’s not mainstream. Because Jenny Lawson is the opposite of mainstream.

Through a rambling, often irreverent and always hilarious “where is this story going?” narration, with plenty of colorful vocabulary, Lawson tells you about her childhood, depression, anxiety and illness, her family, early jobs, marriage, motherhood and how she became a blogger and writer.

Yes, Lawson is The Bloggess, here on WordPress, and you can read her latest post here. Nielson recognizes her as one of the Top Most Powerful Mom Bloggers and Forbes ranks her on their Top 100 Websites for Women.

Lawson may likely have had the most unique childhood, ever. She and her younger sister grew up in a rural town in western Texas. Their father ran his taxidermy business out of their house, never hesitating to share his enthusiasm for his unconventional job. Wild animals were frequent visitors, including squirrels, raccoons, chickens, armadillos and pigs, and they were all part of Lawson’s quirky family.

When she was a young girl, Lawson desperately wanted to fit in at school, but she did not. In high school, she suffered from an eating disorder, tried drugs, was into Goth, and had many other anxieties. But she also had a superpower: humor. And it saved her. I laughed out loud throughout her story, not because of her struggles, but because of how she describes them. She doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She holds nothing back. She’s full of human flaws and she gives herself completely to her readers. By the end of the book, I felt like I had made a friend.

Lawson’s chapters reveal a keen understanding of the human condition and a genuine appreciation of her life and family. She writes,

I can finally see that all the terrible parts of my life, the embarrassing parts, the incidents I wanted to pretend never happened, and the things that make me ‘weird’ and ‘different,’ were actually the most important parts of my life. They were the parts that made me me.”

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened was published in 2012 and is Lawson’s first book. Furiously Happy was published in 2015 and her newest book, You Are Here: An Owner’s Manual for Dangerous Minds was published in 2017.

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Friday Fiction – Launch – Chapter 2 Part 1

Today I’m sharing the first half of Chapter 2 of Launch, an unpublished book I wrote a few years ago. Last week we met Cindy Clarke and got a look at her life. She’s in the middle of a launch from stay-at-home mother to the working world.

Meantime, her husband Ted is facing a huge work problem at his high-pressure job at Spring Technologies.


Launch – Chapter 2 – Part 1

Ted Clarke was running late.  You could say it was a habit of Ted’s, being late.  Today he was late leaving work, late getting onto the Expressway, late running an errand.  Why does it even matter?  He’d asked his wife this question countless times.  The times when he’d arrive home and receive a frosty greeting.  Years ago, he guessed it did matter because Cindy was depending on him back then.  In the earlier days he could count on taking charge of five children almost as soon as he walked into the door, so that Cindy could finish making dinner.  Every day, a nine hours a day, full of people wanting a piece of him, sandwiched between a grueling hour-long commute into Philadelphia.  Then arriving home to a gaggle of children, pulling on him, jumping, telling him things, and competing for his attention.  So much floor time back then, giving rides on his back, holding babies, playing dolls and cars.  When he thought of it now, he was proud to say he’d done that, but he wasn’t exactly nostalgic.  Those were hard days, exhausting days, full days of work and what seemed to him a full-time shift as soon as he got home.

Cindy was young back then and she could handle a house full of kids.  That was her job and he’d always resented it a little that she needed him so much.  She seemed to get through the rest of the day without him, why not just an hour more so he could unwind a little and have a nice dinner?

Ted wasn’t exactly sexist.  He was just used to having things be a certain way and when you married and had your wife have her fifth baby just as your oldest was turning ten, it was already certain that your home life was going to be busy and crazy and loud.  So maybe sometimes he was a little late getting home because he knew what was there and what was expected of him.  And what he wanted was for someone to anticipate what he needed as he walked into that door.

Ted thought about those years as he sat in traffic.  Running late was still a habit, but why?  His kids were hardly going to charge at him now.  Only his younger son and daughter were still at home, teenagers.  The rest of the gaggle was out in the world.  His oldest two, Teddy and Brian were out of college and working.  Jessie was a junior at University of Delaware.  If Katie and Kevin were even home, they were usually up in their rooms, or planted on the couch, deep in their own worlds, managing their lives through their phones.

Cindy didn’t exactly need him to help the way she did years ago, but she still bristled when he came in late.  It was the one thing she could never change about her husband.  And somehow, Ted, after fitting into every other expectation, after adjusting his life to accommodate the needs of these six other people, Ted held onto the one piece of himself that he could still control, whether he knew it or not.

It was almost 7:00 when Ted pulled into his driveway.  Work had been extra grueling that week.  He’d advanced up the ladder at Spring Technologies, but it hadn’t changed the climate of his job.  Always busy, always some kind of problem, always a race to find a solution.  Early that Friday, one of his best programmers had simply walked out the door and presumably quit with no explanation.  It wasn’t until after lunch that people began to question where Anders was, and where the code he’d been working on was.  It was part of a series of code the whole IT team had been working on, as part of a new accounting program for a client, due next week.  Without Anders, by far the most brilliant programmer in the department, they would not reach their deadline.

Ted had spent the greater part of the afternoon trying to locate Anders, and then slowly realizing that they would most likely be on their own in trying to finish the code.  Ted had never been a programmer and had become manager and then Director of IT because of his managing capabilities, not his technical skills.  He was secretly panicking over the problem because he knew he couldn’t personally step in and fix the problem.  It was up to some unknown hero and because of that he felt powerless.  He’d dodged the early calls from the VP of Operations, Steven Colby, but by the end of the day, Colby was at the door to his office.

“Ted, you’ve been hard to track down – where have you been?”

Ted looked up from his desk and quickly assumed his look of control.  He’d been promoted in good part because of his confident and easy air.  People latched onto this look, because it made them feel good.  If Ted has a handle on it, then it’s all good, no need to worry.  This look had served him well, and as he advanced in his career, he started to realize it was his own greatest asset.  But Ted knew that the look could only carry him so far and this business with Anders walking out was a big problem…

Thank you for reading.


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All rights reserved.  All material on this blog is the property of Book Club Mom. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

 

 

A Fortunate Life by Fred H. Rohn

I am very excited to share the cover to a special project I have been working on for the past year.

cover-reveal

A Fortunate Life is written by my father, Fred H. Rohn.


image0-jpgAuthor Fred H. Rohn grew up on Hurden Street in Hillside, New Jersey, a place that played a pivotal role in his upbringing.

From bike rides and street games in Hillside, to marriage and children in the town of Madison, Rohn shares his experiences of growing up during the Depression, attending college, serving in the Navy, embarking on a business career, and marrying his best friend and high school sweetheart.

Offering an important historical perspective on growing up in the twentieth century, this memoir shares what Rohn considers to be the factors of a fortunate life. Interspersed with photographs from past and present, he shows how one small life fits, as a microcosm, into the fabric of family, friends, and an ever-changing world environment.


Get your copy of A Fortunate Life here.


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The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

the-beginners-goodbye
The Beginner’s Goodbye
by
Anne Tyler

Rating:

When Aaron’s wife suddenly dies, there’s no time to resolve the big and small issues in their marriage.  As a thirty-something widower, he can’t bear to go back to their house.  His memory of what would have blown over as a meaningless tiff hangs inside, unresolved.

Dorothy had come at just the right time in his life.  Disabled by a childhood fever, he’d spent a lifetime being managed by his mother and sister, Nandina.  Dorothy’s indifference and matter of fact personality had been just what he needed.  “What’s wrong with your arm?” she had asked when they first met.  When he explained, she said, “Huh” and they moved on and fell in love.  But their marriage was not exactly typical.  Dorothy’s medical career kept her self-focused and inattentive, on the surface.  That’s what Aaron had wanted after all.

After Dorothy’s death, Aaron wades through the early paralyzing months of grief and he remembers what he had loved about his wife, as well as a mix of other pointless marital misunderstandings.  And when Dorothy first appears by his side, he can’t make sense of her presence, but it could be his chance to make things right.

Several nice parallel stories make The Beginner’s Goodbye a refreshing read.  The title’s tie-in with Aaron’s experience is one of them.  As an editor of a family-run vanity press, his good-bye experience fits in well with the company’s beginner’s series, guides to help readers through life’s passages.  Tyler’s message seems to suggest a gentle and guided change through difficult times. I like that.  Aaron may be lost in the trenches of unhappiness, but even his predictable and monotonous office life offers new possibilities, if only he will notice.  I like that too.

Aaron’s relationship with Nandina also changes when he moves in with his sister.  Nandina, unmarried, still lives in their childhood home.  Living there, even temporarily while his house is fixed up, makes Aaron vulnerable to her doting ways.  Is it a step forward or backward?  A surprising twist in circumstances shows Aaron that nothing stays the same, and that’s good.

I enjoyed reading The Beginner’s Goodbye because of its refreshing outlook, even in tragic circumstances.  I have read several of Tyler’s books, but nothing recent and thought this was a good way to get back into my Anne Tyler reading mode!

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

olive kitt pic
Olive Kitteridge

by
Elizabeth Strout

Rating:

Olive Kitteridge is Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of thirteen integrated short stories about the people of Crosby, Maine, a seemingly simple town on the New England coast.  The people in Crosby trade news and gossip, but the real stories lie buried deep in the complicated and often painful family relationships that only surface behind their closed doors.

The stories span twenty-five years and focus on the town’s most complicated character, Olive Kitteridge, whose harsh and critical personality is both widely disliked and misunderstood.  Not surprisingly, Olive’s husband, Henry, the town’s pharmacist, and their son, Christopher bear the brunt of her brutal temperament.

Olive speaks her mind.  She apologizes to no one and alienates many.  But something happens over time:  the reader discovers that, while Olive has no patience for simps and ninnies, she cares very much about the emotionally vulnerable, and intervenes at crucial times, using a keen instinct.  If only she could treat Henry and Christopher this way.  Olive’s everyday interactions with her family are so unpleasant they cause deep and lasting damage.  As years pass and lives change, however, Strout offers a better look at Olive’s marriage.  The author shows glimpses of hope, renewed connections and a true understanding of a very complicated woman.

Olive Kitteridge is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  Strout takes a simple Maine town and adds layers and layers of themes, including depression, love, family, marriage, infidelity, growing old and forgiveness.  Her characters show that goodness exists right next to all the flaws and faults of human interaction.  One of my favorite things about Olive is how she works out her frustrations in the garden.  The hearty yet fragile beauty of flowers is everywhere in these stories, an excellent metaphor.  In addition to flowers, Strout includes the subtle yet prominent influence of nature and the sea in her characters’ lives. Sub-themes of religion and politics add further understanding of her characters.

While all of the thirteen stories are terrific, my favorites are “Pharmacy” in which Strout shows Henry’s lovable and caring personality, “Incoming Tide”, a story of critical human connection and “River”, a hopeful look to the future.

Olive Kitteridge is the type of book you can read more than once.  This was my second read and I enjoyed as much as the first, picking up on wonderful details about the characters and town.

This book has made it to my All-Time Top Ten List!

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What’s on your reading wish list?

Image:  gcastd.org
Image: gcastd.org

Although I’m busy with my Summer Reading Challenge, here are a few books on my wish list:


The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

D’Aprix’s debut novel about four adult children’s dysfunctional family and their joint trust fund.


The Swans of Fifth Avenue

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

Benjamin’s new novel about New York’s socialite Swans of the 1950s: Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, and Pamela Churchill.  Everything changes when Truman Capote enters the scene.


The Widow

The Widow by Fiona Barton

Here’s another debut novel:  a story about being the perfect wife to a man accused of a heartless crime.


My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

One of my favorite writers!  Mother and daughter come together after many years as they confront the tension in their imperfect family.


When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi, age thirty-six, was just completing his training as a neurosurgeon when he was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.  In his book he asks, “What makes life worth living in the face of death?”


Have you read any of these?  What’s on your list?

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The Vacationers by Emma Straub

The Vacationers
The Vacationers
by
Emma Straub

Rating:

This entertaining book is a light beach read about the dysfunctional Post family, on a trip from Manhattan to Mallorca, Spain for some forced family vacation fun, a two-week trip to a beautiful island home on top of a mountain.

Franny and Jim Post are in crisis, despite thirty-five years of marriage.  Their daughter, Sylvia is off to college in the fall.  She has a few crucial things to check off her list before the summer is out and her handsome Spanish tutor may be able to help her with that.  Joining the group from Miami are Sylvia’s brother, 28-year-old Bobby and his older-woman girlfriend, Carmen.  Bobby and Carmen have their own problems and they may not be able to keep them under wraps in Mallorca.  Rounding out the group is Franny’s long-time friend Charles and his new husband Lawrence.  Lawrence already feels like an outsider.  Can he tolerate the intense friendship between Charles and Franny?

Everyone has issues, there is plenty of tension and the Wi-Fi in the house stinks.  Franny, despite being furious with Jim, tries to keep it together by organizing day trips and cooking elaborate meals.

As the days wear on, some relationships improve, but others worsen and one or two implode.  On a trip to the beach, it looks as if the vacation will end in disaster.  Can anything be salvaged?

I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining story.  It is perfect for the summer and I was in just the right mood to read something fun.  While the characters are simply drawn and the plot is predictable, Straub adds her own style to the dialogue and her characters’ points of view.  I was surprised to see it got very mixed reviews on Amazon, but I’m sticking with my four bookmarks!

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The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
by
Paula Hawkins

Rating:

There’s a certain irresistible urge to invent details about the lives of the strangers we see. Sometimes it’s just a way to pass the time, but for Rachel Watson, it becomes an obsession that puts her in the middle of both a personal crisis and a crime investigation. Rachel is Hawkins’ “girl on the train,” who, during her commutes to London and back, notices Scott and Megan Hipwell, an attractive couple she believes is gloriously happy. Rachel gives them imaginary names and assigns them glamorous and exciting lives, filling a void in her own life. When Megan goes missing, Rachel is sure she can help, if she can only dig through her alcohol-clouded memories of the night Megan disappeared.

I enjoyed this psychological thriller, which reminds me of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, “Rear Window” and introduces the idea that a stranger may know more about a crime than the people involved. The story is narrated by three characters, Rachel, Megan and Anna Watson, new wife to Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom. The story’s momentum is based on details that are withheld by each narrator, much like a “getting-to-know-you” phase in real relationships. It isn’t until the finish when the reader can look back and realize that, yes, this one was a jerk all along, or that one was suffering much more than it showed, this one actually showed some good qualities and that one did a good thing. A second read shows details, references and foreshadowing that may go unnoticed the first time around.

Readers have criticized this withholding of details, saying it’s a contrived method to keep the story going, but I think it is very similar to the beginnings of real relationships. No one spills it all in the beginning. The big reveals often come much later.

Hawkins’ female characters, although not overly developed, represent the challenges that young women face: careers, marriage and children. On the surface, these are universal choices, but for many, individual back stories and loss make it impossible to move forward. Rachel is so desperate for human contact she thrusts herself into a crisis. Megan is haunted by her own demons and behaves recklessly. And Anna has the dream life, but her possessive and territorial behavior may wreck what she has.

The male characters in the story are as much a puzzle, muddled with both good and bad parts to them, causing the reader to question all of their motives. Added to the mix is a mysterious man with the ginger hair and blue eyes, someone Rachel only has a dim memory of meeting.

As new facts emerge, the reader gets a clearer view of who’s who and who did what, which, at this point, moves the story to its final and tense confrontation and a satisfying finish.

I disagree with other criticisms that the book’s finish was predictable. I don’t like to look too far ahead when I’m reading a book like this because I think it takes away from its enjoyment, which is the whole point, isn’t it?

The Girl on the Train is a suspenseful, fast and entertaining read, with deeper questions about relationships and human contact.

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