Books Across the Miles

My mom, my brother, and I have been in a book club for a few years now. We live miles apart, but we still meet whenever we can to share our love of books.

My brother lives in Michigan and my mom lives about an hour away so we share our thoughts on each book through email. We take turns suggesting the next read. The only rule is that it should be a book that none of us have read yet. Because of this book club, I’ve read some pretty strange stories that I probably never would have read under normal conditions. To give you an idea of the strangeness, here are a few recent ones:

Mort: A Novel of Discworld by Terry Pratchett

The Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Blackbird House by Alice Hoffman

Breakthrough by Michael Grumley

Anansi Brothers by Neil Gaiman

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church

My brother loves science fiction and he’s introduced us to some great ones from that genre, but we might throw in a classic or historical fiction every once in a while.

We try to follow the same guidelines as a Goodreads book club by talking about each book as we’re reading it. To make sure there are no spoilers, the book title and the last chapter read are added to the email’s subject line. If the others haven’t gotten to that chapter yet, they don’t have to read that message until they do.

A bonus is that my mom and brother are funny. Here’s an example of a comment on one of the books we read:

“I struggled with it a bit at first. I think it was due to the excessive use of commas, with random thoughts interjected, which can make you wonder what the hell that sentence was about, like a stack of pancakes with butter dribbling down the side, or the way a stranger looks at you.”

With our electronic book club, we can meet and laugh at each other at any time. Then when we get to see each other in real life, we’ll talk some more about the books we’ve read together.

Happy World Book Day! The first person to figure out which book (from the list above) the quote is describing wins a copy of Ocean Echoes.

Are you in an electronic book club? Do you have any suggestions for our next book club read?

Snowbound Reading through the Decades

snowWhen the snow is up past your knees and you can’t open the door, then all you can do is stay in and read. That’s why I love the snow.

I’ve been wandering through the decades with a chronological short story collection and I’m stuck in the 1950s for now. The collection begins with a story published in 1915 and goes up to the end of the century. I’ve seen farming communities replaced by city life. Writing styles have become more rushed. Now I’m stuck in suburbia surrounded by themes of society’s expectations and restrictions. I’m looking forward to the 60s.

My favorite story from the 1930-50 era is “Resurrection of a Life” by William Saroyan, published in 1935. The character remembers being a newspaper boy in 1917, roaming the streets, shouting disastrous headlines. It beautifully shows what that might do to a young boy. Not only does he see the coldness of the city, but he repeats and sells stories of war.

“There he is suddenly in the street, running, and it is 1917, shouting the most recent crimes of man, extra, extra, ten thousand huns killed, himself alive, inhaling, exhaling, ten thousand, ten thousand, all the ugly buildings solid, all the streets solid, the city unmoved by the crime, ten thousand, windows opening, doors opening, and the people of the city smiling about it, good, good, ten thousand, ten thousand of them killed. Johnny, get your gun, and another trainload of boys in uniforms, going away, torn from home, from the roots of life, their tragic smiling, and the broken hearts, all things in the world broken.”

DSC01831_2We see and feel the city, the people bustling by, and the boy there in the middle of it all. While others think of war as abstract, he breaks it down to individuals. He sees their faces caught up in something large and monstrous. Toward the end, he still manages to find beauty in it all:

“And all that I know is that we are somehow alive, all of us, in the light, making shadows, the sun overhead, space all around us, inhaling, exhaling, the face and form of man everywhere, pleasure and pain, sanity and madness, over and over again, war and no war, and peace and no peace, the earth solid and unaware of us, unaware of our cities, our dreams, unaware of this love I have for life.”

Sometimes I take a break to read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. It’s a great one so far.

Are you snowbound or enjoying the sunshine? What have you been reading lately?

A Century of Voices

bookI started the new year off with voices from the last century. I know, I’m weird.

The voices are contained within this volume of short stories. They’re in chronological order starting with the year 1915 so reading through them is like reading through history. Not the kind of history you read in textbooks, but the kind that’s filled with people’s thoughts and feelings. There have been stories about immigration and racial issues, farming communities and mobsters. Poverty. Cruelty. Injustice. And yes, hope.

Famous voices can be found through the pages, including the familiar ones of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and William Faulkner. But I’ve enjoyed hearing the others, the ones I hadn’t heard until now.

One of my favorites so far, “A Jury of Her Peers” by Susan Glaspell, was published in 1917. It shows how often women were dismissed, even though they were always there farming, cooking, and cleaning. That attitude comes through as the normal way of things with passages like this:

“Oh well,” said Mrs. Hale’s husband, with good-natured superiority, “women are used to worrying over trifles.”

The two women moved a little closer together. Neither of them spoke.

“And yet,” said he, with the gallantry of a young politician, “for all their worries, what would we do without the ladies?”

The women did not speak, did not unbend.

Reading through this volume has reminded me why I love short stories. They give the reader so much in only a few words. The best short stories could easily be novels. They’re packed full of emotion. In these times with so little time (really the way it’s always been), it’s surprising that more people don’t read short stories.

It’ll be interesting to see how writing styles have changed over the last century. I’ll keep reading through time and will let you know how it goes in future posts.

What do you think of short stories? Do you have a favorite short story writer?

History as Inspiration

History is more easily overlooked than crazy dogs or nature, but stories from long ago can also be a source of inspiration. It’s the everyday history that inspires and it’s all around us. Whether you’re writing historical fiction or an adventure novel, it’s always fun to sprinkle bits of the past through the pages.

Martha's Vineyard houses

GosnoldSometimes finding these stories is as easy as walking up to a plaque or statue, even if it might make you look like a tourist. I found this plaque practically covered in vines. It mentions Bartholomew Gosnold, who led the first recorded European expedition to Cape Cod before the Pilgrims. It brings to mind what this area would have looked like at that time, what life would have been like, the challenges people faced.

Gosnold's landing area today

historic Cape Cod houseWidow’s walks or cupolas make me think of the days when women waited for years for a ship to appear on the horizon. Although we romanticize that kind of thing today, would it be all that romantic if you were really living it? Somehow, I don’t think so.

windmillShipbuilders, farmers, and fishermen once worked this land. Some may have spent their lives building ships bound for the Orient, hearing only tales and legends from the adventurers who came back.

stone building for whalingStone walls always make me think of borders that are now long gone and the people who placed each heavy stone, building and shaping their land and future.

Just imagine: ice was once cut and harvested from local ponds for refrigeration. Windmills were needed to grind grain into flour. A stone building that’s now a research center was used as a holding area for whales that were caught and hauled in from the ocean. And we think we work hard these days.

I like to imagine these people who came before us. Their stories are everywhere.

stone wall

Have you found inspiration in local or everyday history? Do you think history has a place in all kinds of fiction or just historical fiction?